Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki can’t help but chuckle at the thought of a bear having its way with Leonardo DiCaprio.
“Oh, it’s so sad,” the Oscar-winning cinematographer wryly chided on a bright afternoon in Beverly Hills, thinking back to exaggerated reports of DiCaprio’s tangle with a mama grizzly in the brutal, beautiful 19th century survivalist saga The Revenant.
“It’s funny for a second, but then it’s so sad that somebody published that and then we read it. It was incredibly depressing even though it was very funny,” he laughed, sunlight streaming into his cozy suite. “I hope SNL makes a skit about it.”
The Revenant marks a new milestone for Chivo, as he is affectionately called by colleagues and fans and strangers, whose acclaimed career spans a hit parade of lensing achievements: Like Water For Chocolate, A Little Princess, Meet Joe Black, Ali, The New World, Tree of Life, Burn After Reading. He’s made six films with fellow Mexico City native Alfonso Cuarón including Children of Men and Gravity, the 3D space drama that won him his first Academy Award in 2014.
He followed the Gravity win by nabbing another Oscar the very next year for Birdman, shooting the Michael Keaton comedy in one seamless, seemingly continuous long scene. This year he’s a frontrunner to take home his third statue for his stunning work on The Revenant, the tale of real life frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a hunter guiding American fur trappers through a harsh winter in hostile territory whose thirst for vengeance propels him out of death’s clutches and on the trail of those who wronged him.
When native Ree warriors attack a trappers’ camp early in The Revenant, Lubezki captures the unfolding chaos and terror in the first of the film’s “seamless” long-take sequences. Scouting ahead as the survivors flee for the safety of their fortified base, Glass fatefully crosses paths with the aforementioned bear. The mauling that ensues in yet another grisly and spectacular sequence triggers a series of tragedies and transgressions that sends Glass on an odyssey of retribution and spiritual rebirth across the American West.
The making of The Revenant has its own dramatic backstory. When Lubezki and Iñárritu first laid out their vision for the brutal tale of a 19th century trapper left for dead and facing impossible odds in the unforgiving climes of the wintry West, they agreed on three cinematic rules: Shoot in chronological order; use only natural light found on location in the stunning, snow-covered vistas and rivers of Canada and Argentina; and further push the “seamless” style of shooting and seemingly impossible shots they’d just used to very different effect on Birdman.
“For each movie that I do, I like to find a specific language to tell the specific story,” he told me. “We knew that we wanted the movie to be incredibly immersive. That was a very important thing. We wanted the movie to feel visceral. We wanted the movie to feel naturalistic.”
But finding the perfect locations to represent the untouched American wilds of the 1820s proved extremely challenging. Five years of scouting trips later, the crew was forced to push north to Canada. “It was the longest scouting of my life,” said Lubezki. “We drove more than ten thousand miles. We really wanted to shoot part of the movie in the United States because it happened in the United States, but we couldn’t find any locations because the rivers are severely dammed.”
Once those locations were found, however, Chivo could get to work. And although using only available light during daytime and firelight at night might seem to limit shooting days, he says it actually made the process easier. They shot each day at dusk—a time Iñárritu describes as “the time when God speaks.”
“The days were short, period, with or without artificial light,” said Lubezki. “In fact: natural light gives you much more time to shoot because you can shoot more time and way faster, and you can improvise.”
Not that any filmmaker out there should attempt to follow the Revenant model. “I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to sell it as a cool thing,” Lubezki laughed. “It works for some movies. The formula for this movie only works for this film and I don’t think it should be used for another film necessarily.”
Shooting under such restrictions also necessitated extensive rehearsal and blocking sessions, which is when Lubezki and Iñárritu found the “language” of the film and the fluctuating relationship between their pristine, noble wilderness and its human trespassers. “Very soon we realized we wanted to use very wide lenses to incorporate the environment into every shot, to create the relationship between the environment and subject,” said Lubezki, who filmed using the Arri Alexa 65 digital large format camera utilizing a combination of telescoping cranes, Steadicam and hand-held shots.
“I realized there was not even a reason to test artificial light because there was no room or space for me to light,” he said. “That it was more important to have this expanse and this freedom of movement and so on than lighting. I think the audience doesn’t know a movie’s lit, but they feel it. Because you’ve walked in a forest many times, or in a park, so you know how it looks. When you start lighting, subconsciously you know there is something that is absolutely wrong. So very early on we discarded the idea of artificial light.”
“That doesn’t mean that I didn’t work!” he added, flashing a warm grin. “A lot of people think, Oh, it was natural light so they just went there with their cameras and started shooting. It’s almost the other way, where when you shoot natural light you have to know the environment and locations very well because you still want the light to be a part of the story. You still want light to be able to transmit emotion and to mean something. So you have to go to the locations and explore them. You have to know where the sun is at a certain time, to figure out how you’re going to block the scene with respect to the natural light. I went many times! It’s very hard!”
In one of the most logistically challenging shoots of any film in recent years, it was a wordless sequence between DiCaprio and his hairiest co-star that proved most difficult to pull off.
Yes, the infamous bear scene.
“The bear took a long time. It took months of prepping, just conceptualizing: How are we doing it? What are we trying to say? What is the geographic situation?” Lubezki explained.
“It was very helpful when [production designer] Jack Fisk found a magnificent location—it was hard to find a forest that looked like a primordial forest that still had trunks that were massive and trees that were so magnificent,” he continued. After studying the forest clearing and its topography, the crew replicated it in a warehouse where stunt coordinators began choreographing the action of the attack, which wasn’t written out in the script. Then, said Chivo, “We started to figure out the dance between the camera, the bear, and Leo.”
For inspiration into the cadence and drama of how The Revenant’s most violent “dance” would unspool, Iñárritu, Lubezki, and Co. studied the real thing: Footage of a man who had been attacked by a bear at a zoo.
“It was horrible and fascinating in the sense that it was brutal and very random and tragic,” he described. “The inner world, the consciousness of the bear—the behavior of the bear—was hard to read. I think if you’re not an expert on bears it would look very strange. Just the tempo of the attack is… jumpy. He goes and attacks and it’s very hard and fast and then he slows down, walks and breathes and smells… then comes back and grabs a leg and shakes it!”
“All this without cuts was very terrifying,” said Lubezki. “It put that poor guy that had fallen into the bear’s pit in the zoo in a very precarious, horrible position of fear and horror. It’s a tragedy because it’s all an accident. And that’s what happens to Glass.”
The beauty of the bear attack is in why it happens, Lubezski says. He described the metaphorical meaning represented in the purely visual, visceral life and death moment. “That’s the bear’s nature,” he said, appreciating Leo’s CG-born ursid antagonist. “You understand that it’s a mother that is protecting the cubs, which in a very beautiful way is an echo of Glass’s story, and how Glass would have done that for his son.”
How exactly he and Iñárritu pulled off the grisly, fast-paced mauling, Lubeski won’t reveal.
“We are magicians! If I tell you, it will ruin it completely. But I will tell you that once you find all these secrets, you can do it with a certain amount of simplicity.”
Chivo fans who follow the DP on social media got a treat last year when his Instagram feed blew up, thanks to a shout out in the New York Times by fellow cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. There, Lubezki has amassed over 166,000 followers who voraciously devour his gorgeous images of otherworldly landscapes and penetrating portraits. It’s attention Lubezki never anticipated when he signed up for Instagram to keep an eye on his daughters’ social media posts.
“I opened an account, honestly, to monitor them a little bit, which I’m ashamed of—to monitor them and to understand what it is about,” he laughed. “Very soon in the first few days I was amazed by what I was watching—from incredible National Geographic material to images from remote corners of the globe. It was so exciting! I thought, maybe I should publish one photo a week, just as a workshop, to create my own little gallery.”
Lubezki always wanted to be a photographer, he says. He gravitates toward faces that feel “honest,” and always shoots with whichever camera he has handy, from his smartphone to his Nikon to a “little Leica” in his collection. “They say the best camera is the one you have close to you,” he smiled.
Flip through his IG feed and you’ll find a stunning array of behind-the-scenes images taken during the making of The Revenant, faces of performers in period gear and make-up, caught in moments of repose on chilly, snow-covered sets. Lubezki marvels at the wondrous sights he saw just driving to set each day before dawn, when his driver would rouse him to catch glimpses of the morning sun breaking.
“I could never go back to sleep because we were watching the most magnificent sunrise with fog, absolutely incredible things that would make you laugh because you’d think, ‘Why are we not shooting this?!’” he said. “Most of the time you miss the most beautiful things. It’s also a lesson in humility: Some of the most beautiful things just happen, and they are ephemeral.”
Some of The Revenant’s most exquisite images materialize in Glass’s dreams as his fevered consciousness hovers between life and death and surrealistic images flash through his mind heavy with meaning: His son; the woman he loved; the ruins of a church.
What does Chivo dream about, I wondered?
“You know, I have a very healthy dream life,” he replied. “I dream a lot, many, many, many nights a week. When I’m shooting it’s even more—I don’t know if it has to do with stress or with creation.”
“The worst dream I’ve had lately is one in which I’m trying to light an actress. I put a light in front of her face, and the light travels like that toward her face,” he said, pressing his palms together and moving them towards me, “but then it splits and it NEVER touches her face.”
“I spend hours and hours trying to solve that puzzle,” he said, grinning. “And when I wake up in the morning I’m exhausted.”