Arguably the best cinematographer working in Hollywood today, Emmanuel Lubezki isn’t someone who is afraid of failure. He’s worked with some of the industry’s most ambitious filmmakers, specifically Terrence Malick, with whom Lubezki has made four movies; Alfonso Cuarón, for whom Lubezki shot “Children of Men” and “Gravity”; and recent Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárittu. Yet failure is something the Mexico City native experienced plenty of times during the making of his latest collaboration with Iñárittu, “The Revenant,” opening in limited release this Friday, Christmas Day, on the heels of Lubezki’s back-to-back Academy Awards for Cuarón’s “Gravity” (2013) and Iñárittu’s “Birdman” (2014).
“The Revenant” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, an early 19th century fur trapper who seeks revenge on the man who left him for dead (played by Tom Hardy) after a vicious bear attack. While Lubezki admits the film proved to be a challenging one for him, his name is very much in the dialogue for end-of-the-year accolades, including a possible eighth Academy Award nomination. If Lubezki, 51, ends up with another win, he will be the first cinematographer in film history to earn three Oscars in a row.
We recently spoke with Lubezki about what he feels shooting “The Revenant” digitally and in natural light did for the film’s composition, what his relationship is like with other heavy-hitters in his field, and whether or not he feels shooting on film is an art form that might have some staying power despite more and more filmmakers moving on to use digital cameras.
What were some of the conversations you had with Alejandro before you started shooting “The Revenant?” Was using natural light always in the initial plans?
Shooting in nature and with natural light was definitely in the initial plans, but we didn’t know what we were getting into. It’s impossible to really predict that. We knew we wanted to do the movie in real locations and do them in the winter. We knew it was going to be incredibly rough. We wanted that spirit to trickle into the movie. You can never predict how the weather will behave. In terms of using natural light, we wanted the audience to truly feel immersed in this world. We wanted to take them through this journey. We wanted the style of the movie to be completely determined by the conditions [outdoors] when we shot it. We wanted to make a movie that had that visceral quality.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is incredibly intense. Did that put pressure on you since it’s probably hard to recreate his scenes if, say, you want to shoot from another angle or if Alejandro wants another take?
Many times we could do multiple takes and many times we couldn’t. Sometimes [DiCaprio] would be in a frozen river and when he gets out of the river you can see the icicles floating in the river. The water was below 32 degrees. You cannot reproduce that on a stage or on a green screen. You also can’t ask Leo for more than one take. It’s incredibly brutal. It’s very painstaking because you want to capture the moment and you don’t want to ruin anything. But at the same time, you know that if you achieve [the shot] it will have a power that is unimaginable.
One of the scenes everyone is talking about, of course, is the bear attack. What were you and Alejandro’s ideas about that particular scene? There’s definitely a feeling of helplessness that happens in those few minutes.
That scene was very hard. It took many months of thinking and rehearsing and experimenting. When you see a canvas that is completely white, you have to start drawing and figuring out what the emotions are that you want to express and what you want the audience to feel. It took a long time. During the process we found a on the Internet that shows a man who falls inside a bear [enclosure] at the zoo and gets attacked. The fact that the scene is being caught in real time on a cell phone expresses something you can’t express otherwise. You can express the horror and randomness of the attack and the behavior of the bear that is so foreign to us.
For the rest of my interview with Emmanuel Lubezki, click HERE.