An acclaimed cinematographer’s quest to find the perfect location for a survival drama’s roiling river sequence led him to a far-flung corner of Montana, and a familiar setting that serves as the backdrop for one of the film’s most epic scenes.
“The Revenant” is the upcoming Alejandro González Iñárritu film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays American frontiersman Hugh Glass in the 1800s. It was shot by Academy Award-winning Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki, who won back-to-back Best Cinematography Oscars for “Gravity” and “Birdman.”
The majority of the film was shot last winter in Alberta, Canada, but as the notoriously complicated and lengthy project dragged on into spring and summer, Lubezki still needed the right location for a dramatic scene in which DiCaprio is flushed down a turbulent river after being brutally attacked by a bear and left for dead by his team.
After scouting locations across North America, Lubezki settled on Kootenai Falls near Libby, and film crews converged on the dramatic, terraced riverscape and waterfall for a 10-day shoot in July, according to the Montana Film Office.
DiCaprio’s Glass endures a harsh winter in the pursuit of vengeance and redemption, and the frigid scene at Kootenai Falls sets the stage for the drama that unfolds.
Deny Staggs, film commissioner for the Montana Film Office, said the scene was shot using a technically complex camera array suspended by cable from a helicopter, and employed a pair of stuntmen wearing bearskin coats over wetsuits and a team of kayakers on safety patrol. DiCaprio and the other actors crucial to the scene performed their parts in colossal water tanks back in Hollywood, and Lubezki used green screen technology to stitch the shots together.
The award-winning director of photography overlaid footage shot in Argentina in the winter with the Kootenai Falls scene so that the Montana riverbanks appear blanketed in snow and ice.
Kootenai Falls, the largest undammed falls in Montana, served as the setting for the 1994 film “River Wild” starring Meryl Streep, but it has been years since another major motion picture was shot there.
“They were looking for a water location that was dramatic and had character and could be fitting for this really incredible stunt, this action scene that this character has to go through to escape peril during an epic section of the movie,” Staggs said. “They searched all over North America and the location manager came back and said ‘we just want you to know that we looked at every water feature like this in North America and this is the most amazing place we’ve found.’ So they were really dead set on being there.”
Pam Peppenger, executive director of the Libby Chamber of Commerce, said the decision to shoot the film in Northwest Montana was a welcome boon to Libby, where the crews stayed at the Sandman Motel and ate at its restaurants.
“It was very exciting. Libby is ready for it. We are ready for a change,” she said. “It’s big Hollywood and it’s little Libby but they love hanging out here because it’s so beautiful and the people are so amazing.”
Sandman Motel owner Shane Hill said the crews lodged with him and other Libby hoteliers, and dined and shopped in the community.
“It was definitely a boost to the community because they had to go out and eat. It was a benefit,” Hill said. “It’s a beautiful part of the country up here. There is just endless beauty.”
The film has already generated immense Oscar buzz, and Lubezki will almost certainly be in the running for a rare hat trick of “Best Cinematography” awards if the eye-popping trailers are any indication of his work on the project.
The entire film was shot outdoors using only natural light, meaning that the lion’s share of the wilderness drama was constrained to a narrow window of “magic time” – when the outdoor light is at its best.
Staggs said he recently watched the trailer for “The Revenant” on the big screen, and was blown away by the river sequence.
“I think it’s going to be one of the most spectacular scenes in the movie,” Staggs said.
“The Revenant” opens in select theaters on Christmas and nationwide Jan. 8.