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Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubekzi On Shooting “The Revenant”

By: Marjorie Galas

When many great cinematographers enter a room, an enthusiastic crowd showers them with the respect and admiration they deserve.  When Emmanuel Lubezki – or Chivo, as he’s frequently called – enters a room, his slender frame and curly locks pulled tightly into his trademark pony tail, he’s immediately engulfed by a deluge of fans.  I felt an unusual thrill upon learning I’d be speaking one-on-one with this heralded master, fresh off his eigth Oscar nomination for “The Revenant” and two consecutive Oscar wins for 2014’s “Gravity” and 2015’s “Birdman” (his first collaboration with “The Revenant” director Alejandro G. Inarritu.)  Caught in the very average act of eating lunch, Chivo humbly apologized, enjoying his last few bites while I shared my reaction to the film.

“It was really so curious – I felt increasingly cold as the movie continued. In fact, I felt like I was on the journey myself.  By the end I wanted a warm blanket and a nice, big steak.”

I babbled on, feeling immediately embarrassed about my strange adoration and awkward praise.  To my surprise, Chivo was thrilled to learn about my physical response.  He purposely aimed not only to represent the virgin landscape of Hugh Glass’ 1820s ordeal, but also to evoke a physical and emotional response to the environment.  “Why is it when you see a movie shot in the desert you don’t feel hot?” mused Lubezki. After briefly discussing how film can completely transport a person directly into the journey, we dove into our ten minute interview.  What follows is an abridged transcript of our conversation.

MG: I was lucky because I saw the movie with one of your camera operators who helped on the scene when Glass submerges himself in the water.  He was telling me about the challenge the conditions presented on set.    What were the ways you kept your crew safe, comfortable and focused on working despite the conditions they were also involved in?

EL:  That was one of the most important things, and the most important for Alejandro too, that everybody would be safe.  When you are shooting in nature and these conditions, even trying to be very safe, you are going to have people slipping in the ice or falling in the frozen river, like myself, but there is always somebody that is going to help you and give you a hand to pull you out.  So you feel free to be able to do your work, and you don’t have to be thinking about it.  You don’t want to waste any energy in things that are external to making the movie.  You want to always be thinking about what the scene is about, how the camera should move, what the tempo is, what’s the feeling you want to express in the moment.  So you don’t want to be thinking about being cold, or being hungry or …

MG: … being uncomfortable.

EL: Yes, being uncomfortable. Yes, that’s right.

MG:  I wanted to ask you about actually going on the scouting and looking for the locations..

EL: Mmhmm..that was very important.

MG: It seems so organic within the scope of the film, but I’m sure you paid a lot of attention particularly with the fact that you were using natural light and balancing the amount of trees and angles of light.  It seems like that would be a tough location scout.

EL: You are absolutely right.  The location scouting was very, very extensive.  I think we drove more than 10,000 miles, something like that.  Then we walked for months together with Alejandro and (production designer) Jack Fisk and (several location managers). And that (time spent scouting) was very important not only to find the locations where we wanted to work, but to be able to get into Alejandro’s mind and see what he was feeling; what the atmospheres he was trying to create and the moods were.

MG: Oh yes, sure.

EL: I’ve been asked a lot about how we shot with natural light.  It doesn’t mean we just arrived and shot and didn’t care about what the light was doing.  It was very important in the location scout to determine the position and orientation of the locations to understand what the sun was doing, to understand what the colors were at different times of the day and the sounds and the feeling of each location.  When we found a location, we would go back many times and explore the location in many different hours of the day and took a lot of photos to understand the feeling, the emotion you could get from each time of the day.  We always had a backup because you didn’t know what nature was going to do.  Our locations would disappear because water would rise above the river and would flood it, or the roads would be closed and we were not able to arrive to it.  So we had to have certain backups and also understand them very well.    Many times we went to locations, after walking six hours with backpacks and stuff, and it just looked like you were in Echo Park.  We had to keep going.   And also, a lot of people have asked, “What did Jack Fisk do because he didn’t build much,” and that cannot be farther from the truth.    Because he was there looking for locations that had to be very specific not only to the journey of Glass, but that also had to express the inner world of Glass somehow, you know?   All the locations had to have important textures, important colors, important moods and atmospheres that were reflective of what’s happening in Glass’ journey.  That was one of the essential parts of the process of making the movie.

MG:   I can just imagine what it was like coming up with your shot list too, specifically thinking about the amount of time that was taken to get to these locations then to figure out “we’ll do this on this day” and “we’ll get this this evening”….

EL: Or it would happen also that we would be on a location and at a certain time of the day the location just didn’t work.    It didn’t look threatening, or it didn’t look sad, or it didn’t look joyous – whatever Alejandro was looking for in a very specific mood.  I know I am repeating myself, but it all depended on the orientation of the location, and of the time, and of the weather and everything.

MG: I wanted to be certain to ask you about the process of choreographing the shoots. From the beginning, when the Indians ambush the trappers; just the amount of movement that is happening in that fight sequence and the way you’ve captured it is overwhelming.  What was it like plotting out all these intricate moves throughout the movie?

EL: There were, I would say, two important methodologies we used to make the movie.  One was the use of extensive rehearsals happened in the real locations.  These rehearsals Alejandro used as story boards.  He brings all these elements to the blank canvas; he starts pouring them in and splattering them and making the drawing of what the scene is going to be.  Here he is able to experiment and to try to find the tempo and how the people should move and the distance of the extras to the camera.  This allows me to try to find which tools are going to be best to tell the story.  For example we knew we wanted to make a very immersive movie, but it wasn’t really until we started rehearsing that we found that we needed certain equipment and certain lenses and that maybe it was better to have more continued shots and less cuts and so on.  That language comes from all that rehearsing.

And then we have the other methodology that is to completely improvise a scene.  Many days, after finishing the day’s work if there was still light we would attempt a little unrehearsed scene. You can only do that with an actor like Leo that is so brilliant.  He was almost possessed by Glass. He was .. (Chivo laughs)… he was so Glass you could just say “We like this landscape, we like the place, what can we do here?”  Leo would do something without us really knowing what he was going to do.  The scene where he is eating snow with the Native American warrior – that came out of a day of doing improvisation and it is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie; so human and emotionally satisfying.  But in general Alejandro wanted to rehearse as much as possible, to control as much as possible.

MG:  There are two scenes in particular that I wanted to ask you about. Now, I’m not a cinematographer nor am I a camera man (Chivo laughs) so I don’t know exactly how they were captured.  But there is a scene, early on, with Fitzgerald and Bridger by the fire.  The camera is really focused on the sides of their faces and the light is falling on their eyes.  It was so interesting to me the way the eyes popped in the scene.  I was curious how you orchestrated something like that.

EL:  Yes.  We knew it is going to happen around the fireplace so we were specific with the way we create the fireplace to get their orientation and the proximity to the fire to create that effect.  It is interesting that you noticed that because Alejandro was very precise in how he wanted to portray Bridger’s face in the side light, and have his eyes very present.  You can see all these emotions on him as the camera moves towards his close up.  There was a very interesting problem that I had that day that had never happened to me before.  We were shooting in the middle of the shoot and I see a very weird light starting to invade the set.  And you have to understand we are in the middle of nowhere, there is no urban light contamination, nothing…

MG: Right.

EL:  I don’t know what it is, it is bright and it is disturbing and it is making the scene look flat.  And I’m turning around and everybody has their lights off and I don’t know what it is.  It is behind the mountain and the full moon is starting to come out. Here I realize it was the moon.

MG:  Oh wow!

EL: The camera is so light sensitive that it was capturing the light of the moon!  And the light of the moon was destroying the mood of the shot.  So we had to bring a large wall of canvas to block the moonlight.  I’ve never had that problem because on film you didn’t have that issue.  Film is not that light sensitive.  The film would never capture that light.  But this camera was able to.  And sometimes you can see, in those scenes around the fireplaces, you can see the stars, and you can see the moon.  You know, the silver bluish color of the moon in the background?  That is quite wonderful.

MG:  Huh, that is so interesting.   So you guys did have to bring a full kit to be prepared for…

EL: Well, we didn’t have to bring any lights but not only an amazing key grip but is one of the only collaborators in the movie, and we did have canvas and stuff..

MG: To protect…

EL: Yes, to protect sometimes from the wind and things like that.

MG: Here’s the other scene I want to ask about.

EL: Oh yes, please.

MG:  It features Glass after he finds his dead son.  It is a lingering shot on his face and he is breathing, and to me it is interesting because you see the vapor of his breath but it doesn’t fog up the lens until the very end of the scene…

EL:  Yes.  When he finds his dead son, it is a very moving scene, and he crawls and he puts his face in the chest of the son.  And the camera is starting to approach him.  And as I was shooting that scene, it was so moving that I wanted to get closer and closer, and I saw this little tiny tear that was stuck on the bridge of his nose that started to well up.  I wanted to see if I could capture that, as it was growing.  So I started pushing more and more inside what we call minimum focus.  I’m connected to my crew with these headsets, and my focus puller is starting to make sounds: “uh, ah, oh ugh uh..” and I know that means that I’m about to get screwed.  (We both laugh.)  I go as close as I can when I hear him say “Stop!  Stop!  Stop!” meaning, if I go closer everything is going to be out of focus.  So I stop,  Then Leo starts to breath and breath, and I see his breath coming out, and it is something that I really have never experienced before because the lens is so wide, I am only probably an inch and a half from his nose.  I can see his tears, his sweat, all the emotion of this moment that is starting to get to me as I’m shooting.  The breath starts to surround the lens, and it becomes apparent that he is going to fog the lense.  So I push a liiiiiiiiiittle more..(we both laugh)…and suddenly he lets go of his breath, and the breath fogs the entire lens.  And ahhhh…it was amazing!  It was such a lucky moment.  That it is something you cannot prepare, because it has to do with the weather, the temperature, the humidity factor, the fact that the lens is cold so his breath gets a bit liquid when it touches it.  And then we were able to use a beautiful shot we did on the helicopter to make a beautiful transition that goes from there to the clouds and the mountains the sun coming out of the mountains. The breathing happens again another moment where after a dream we come back to Leo and he is very close.  He opens his eye and is just breathing.  And the lens is fogging but only on the edges, so you are able to focus on his eye, and it was very beautiful.  LUCKY.  We got lucky. (We both laugh.)

MG: Were you working with crew members that you’ve worked with before primarily?

EL:  A few of them, like Ray Garcia the key grip.  He is so incredibly talented and a great craftsman but he also is an amazing collaborator.   This doesn’t happen often, but I would do an operator’s shot and we’d go to a monitor to see it.  And just before we arrive to the monitor, I would see his face and he would (makes faces, giggling), and I would know if the shot had worked or not.  He is just a great person to make the movie with.  And of course John Connor the focus puller.  Without him we wouldn’t have been able to do this film because all the elements are in flux, the camera is moving, the characters are moving and the focus is changing constantly.  I don’t know how he does it.  Without crew like that, Alejandro would have never been able to use this language to tell this story. That is the truth.  He owes it to these guys.

MG:  Oh, yes!  I also wanted to ask you about the dream sequences, or when Glass is remembering his wife and the words of his wife.  What were your discussions with Alejandro in regards to formatting those sequences and creating a different visual style?

EL:  Alejandro wanted the dream scenes to still be based on the reality of the movie.  What made them kind of different, the texture and the color is that we shot them in California.  The quality of the light was different and they were done in a different season.  And by respecting that they have a slight different feeling.  And of course, the dreams that are almost like flashbacks are more narrative and descriptive of things that happened to him.  The ones that are more poetic or lyric, and not abstract but have a different level of realism in them, camera wise and lighting wise they were treated as any other scene in the movie.  But what you are seeing just exists in a different level of reality.

MG:  Hmm, yes.  I’ll squeeze in one more because my time is up.  Now that you have completed the movie and seen it, as a cinematographer, what did you learn from this experience …

EL:  Oh my gosh…

MG:…that you would take to the next shoot.

EL:  Oh, I’m sorry, every day you learn something.  What I can tell you is, I could not have shot “The Revenant” without all the experiences that have come before it.  Because I didn’t have the knowledge, I didn’t have the experience, I didn’t have the …you know, you can be more daring.  It is only possible because I’ve done all this other work and I have worked with Alejandro before so there was a very strong frame of reference that allowed me to communicate with him, and to be able to help.  It is just…um…we were lucky that we did it now.