Leo: Coming in from the cold

With the shoot for his upcoming film The Revenant being described as a “living hell”, will a step out of his comfort zone finally earn Leonardo DiCaprio that elusive Oscar?

Peter Iantorno December 31, 2015

Leonardo DiCaprio only takes easy parts. Or at least that is the accusation levelled at him by his critics, who say that his leading roles in films such as The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street are just too playboy, too jovial, and too fun to put him in serious contention for that as-yet elusive Oscar win.

But DiCaprio fans will tell you that it’s not all been 1920s soirees and throwing money around on mega-yachts for the 41-year-old actor. He went through military training in the wilds of South Africa to prepare for his role as mercenary Danny Archer in Blood Diamond (2006), and spent some time in a mental asylum before starring in 2010 psychological thriller Shutter Island.

But it’s DiCaprio’s latest part, the lead in his new film The Revenant,where the actor can finally put to bed any doubt that he is anything less than committed to his craft.

Set deep in the freezing Canadian wilderness, the film centres on the travails of 1820s fur trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who is robbed and left for dead by his fellow travellers after suffering a vicious bear attack. However, after waking up under a pile of dirt and snow, Glass recovers from his injuries and sets out on a lonely, perilous journey back to civilisation where he plans to enact his revenge on those who abandoned him, especially a fellow frontiersman named John Fitzgerald, played by British actor Tom Hardy.

Fame, fortune, talent and good looks have given DiCaprio a charmed existence, usually accompanied by a supermodel girlfriend and luxurious living. But the extreme conditions on the set of The Revenant stretched the actor to his limits.

Directed by Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu – the man behind 2014 smash hit and winner of four Academy Awards, BirdmanThe Revenant has been described by cast a crew members as a “living hell”, due to temperatures on location in Canada that dropped as low as -25C. The production also had to move to Argentina to find the necessary snow.

The atmosphere on set wasn’t helped by the insistence of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who worked with Iñárritu on Birdman) on using only natural light. This artistic decision meant that the shoot suffered extensive, finger-numbing delays for cast and crew.

"I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," said DiCaprio about his experience shooting the movie, which comes out in January. "Whether it's going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set, I certainly don't eat raw bison liver on a regular basis.”

The Revenant’s director Iñárritu is renowned for being a perfectionist and was bullish about conditions on his set. “I have nothing to hide,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “There were problems, but none of them made me ashamed. Everybody was frozen, the equipment was breaking; to get the camera from one place to another was a nightmare.”

Perhaps the most shocking story from the set has been that of one sequence in which an actor was required to be dragged naked along the ground. Iñárritu says he asked the actor if he was okay several times and every time he claims the actor agreed to continue.

Iñárritu insists that hardships must be endured to create great cinema. “It's about incredible precision,” said the man behind well-received movies such as Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful and Amores Perros. “It's not easy. You have to be sculpting, sculpting, sculpting until you have it."

Movie stars in DiCaprio’s salary bracket are used to sets filled with luxury winnebagos, personal assistants fetching fresh juices and a masseuse, but tales of filming conditions on The Revenant have drawn comparison to another notoriously troubled movie shoot.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic Apocalypse Now has gone down in Hollywood folklore as perhaps the most difficult shoot of all time. The hellish 14-week spell in the Philippines was severely affected by typhoons, Martin Sheen’s drug-induced heart attack, an ongoing feud between Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper, a mutineering crew, and wild parties. The pandemonium reached such levels that Sheen admitted to friends, "I don't know if I'm going to live through this."

Almost 40 years later and a new breed of Hollywood talent on The Revenant has shown that it’s prepared to push the boundaries and break the shackles of CGI and health and safety to get its hands dirty on a movie set. And it’s Iñárritu’s sense of precision, of sheer bloody-minded perfectionism in the face of extreme conditions, that may well ultimately help Oscar nearly-man Leo break his Academy hoodoo and claim that most precious of prizes.

The Revenant is in UAE cinemas on January 7.