Art is Hard: Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant $40 million over budget, production “a living hell”


Earlier this week the trailer for The Revenant was released, the highly anticipated new film from Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Set for a Christmas release, the film is a brutal tale of wilderness survival. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have shot the film entirely on-location in the wild, doing everything in sequence with long takes that involve ornate blocking, and using only natural light.

Ambition has its price. According to a feature in The Hollywood Reporter, The Revenant is now $40 million over budget, the ending has yet to be shot, and some crew members have called the production “a living hell.” The long takes have been a major issue–a battle sequence that initially involved 60 extras ballooned to 200 extras and had to be re-blocked–but the weather hasn’t been cooperative either. Sometimes the crew was working in 40-below-zero temperatures, while other times it was so warm that the snow had melted. (The shoot is relocating from Canada to Argentina to finish the movie.)

It’s been a troubled production overall, with major tension between Iñárritu and producer Jim Skotchdopole. Skotchdopole was supposedly banned from set due to poor planning and this tension, rumors that Iñárritu denies. (He’s been “redeployed” to a trailer off set.)

Iñárritu stands by his film as production continues, stressing the importance of the approach and the reason it’s worthwhile. The director told The Hollywood Reporter:

If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit… When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, ‘Wow.’

Overwhelming and Collective Harmony

There might be something to it.

Many troubled film productions wind up being these remarkable works of art. Take Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (chronicled in the doc Hearts of Darkness), Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (chronicled in the doc The Burden of Dreams and the book Conquest of the Useless), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and, most recently, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Problems with weather, financing, and ambition led to major hassles in each of these films, and yet somehow they were completed in the face of adversity. It makes the movies seem more passionate and more urgent, like the filmmakers are pouring the last of their creative reserves into the film. It’s as if making the movie is a matter of life and death.

Then again, troubled productions can also lead to bad ends. The other night I finally caught Lost Soul, which covers the insanely difficult production of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. The film was initially going to be the idiosyncratic vision of low-budget horror auteur Richard Stanley (Hardware). A combination of wretched weather, the egos of Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, personal tragedies, and Stanley’s inexperience with a major Hollywood production led to the film’s decline. The dream turned into fiasco. I’m also reminded of Persistence of Vision, which covers Richard Williams’ heartbreaking, decades-long attempt to make The Thief and the Cobbler.

That’s the burden of dreams, particularly when dreaming big. But what we often want out of art is something we haven’t seen before, and to experience the beauty of impossible dreams.

Fitzcarraldo may have the best image of this struggle to create when the universe seems to be conspiring against you: a man trying to drag a 320-ton steamship over a mountain. It’s all so quixotic and Sisyphean. Why attempt something impossible even though there may be no remuneration or recognition for the endeavor?

Like Werner Herzog said: “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that.”

Maybe it is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.

[via The Playlist, THR]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.