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« 174 Days Until Oscar Nominations... Here Comes Festival Season! | Main | The Look of Silence »

Early "Revenant" Chatter: Or, how Grantland kickstarted Oscar Season way early

David Upton on an unexpectedly early Oscar campaign kickoff - Editor

It’s only July, but this stuff starts earlier every year: barrels are loaded and sights are set on Oscar season. No one has started earlier than the team behind The Revenant. The recent buzzy Grantland piece on the film harks back to a kind of promotion that is somewhat out-of-fashion: long form, detailed reporting that really digs into what the movie might be. By sheer existence, the piece becomes part of the hype machine, now rolling towards the end of the year when The Revenant sees a release on 25th December.

This is prestige movie promotion at its most precise; why else, you might wonder, would anyone want to see a film that sounds so utterly depressing on Christmas Day

The success of the film, both in terms of awards season and box-office, will likely rely on critical endorsement. After all, as Chris Connelly’s article puts it, this is “a long-in-gestation project that teams the Academy Awards’ reigning Best Director with the world’s most sought-after actor.” 

The way the article frames the film is as a dangerous, difficult production that could just as easily end in folly as in gilded success; Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, not without his own help, is portrayed as a maverick auteur akin to Welles, Hitchcock, Cameron – men whose passionate drive to make something huge and/or different can frustrate those working with them. He’s painted as an outlier, a man apart from the cogs of Hollywood’s machines. “I was in a period of my life [where] I wanted to live a year in nature,” he says of the time he acquired the script.

And consider these hyperbolic words from Leonardo DiCaprio:

It’s really a unique film, and I don’t think it’s something people have ever seen before. [Iñárritu] pulls off some pretty astounding techniques. If you can have the audience submerge into a completely different reality, you’re accomplishing something pretty profound.”

Kim Masters’ article for The Hollywood Reporter on the same film, deals with something Connelly doesn’t engage with, the buzzing rumours of a “troubled production”. Iñárritu’s direct quotes here don’t exactly portray a director without an ego. “…as a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra." Masters’ insiders place blame at the door of producer Jim Skotchdopole, reportedly banned from the set, for not combatting Iñárritu’s more outlandish follies. “You've got to let the director know: 'We can't do that. We have no money or time in the schedule.’” Iñárritu acknowledges his own problematic perfectionism: “It's about incredible precision. … It's not easy. You have to be sculpting, sculpting, sculpting until you have it.”

Both narratively and conceptually, The Revenant is about returning to a purity that the world has left behind. Iñárritu’s disdain for special effects – which crew believe would have eased the difficulties – recalls the vitriol Lindsay Duncan had for cinema in Birdman. “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit.”

No pain no gain, then (?), realism being essential. For Iñárritu, this authenticity is about removing the familiar cushion of modern life and understanding the true harshness of the world we’ve been building over. “There was something very positive about shooting in those conditions, to understand what those guys [from the 1820s] went through. […] Actors were not in sets with green screens and laughing. They were miserable! And they really feel the fucking cold in their ass! They were not acting at all!” You can see in this morbid humour the man who really wouldn’t find anything offensive at all in his friend Sean Penn’s contentious Oscar joke.

The Grantland piece is as interested in DiCaprio as it is Iñárritu. He is, after all, one of our few bonafide movie stars, and one chasing that elusive even more mythic 13½ inch golden man. Both actor and journalist are vocal about how unusual this part is for DiCaprio.

It was a different type of challenge for me, because I’ve played a lot of very vocal characters. It’s something that I really wanted to investigate — playing a character that says almost nothing. How do you relay an emotional journey and get in tune with this man’s angst … without words?”

Iñárritu is as effusive about Leo as the actor was about his director.

He’s not just an incredible actor, maybe the best I’ve ever worked with… the way he conveyed what’s going on inside — by his eyes, his physicality, the body language — I think he did an amazing job.”

And Connelly isn’t shy about what his piece is starting a conversation around.

For DiCaprio, now 40, The Revenant marks a new scale of sorts; it’s a performance that could make him part of the Oscar conversation once more.”

Both pieces end with quotes – Grantland’s from DiCaprio, THR’s from Iñárritu – that refer not to the film’s quality, but to its audaciousness.

"When you see the film, you will see the scale of it," promises Iñárritu. "And you will say, 'Wow.' " 

“A lot of this stuff that you’re going to see in this movie is going to be incredibly memorable. That I can say for sure.” 

And it is these statements that leave The Revenant as something of a double-edged sword for us. The trailer is an arresting experience that showcases the typically breathtaking cinematography of Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, and combines the vital immediacy of Children of Men with the poetic natural fluency of The New World. As Connelly describes of the preview of the film he was privvy to: 

What follows is bravura filmmaking of the Chivo/AGI school, plunging audiences into the scene’s mayhem, fear, panic, and rage with the sort of rhythm and swoop and drive that is both viscerally thrilling and keeps viewers aware of what they’re seeing at all times, as the routed trappers flee for their boat.”

This emphasis on immense grandeur makes you wonder if this is all there is in The Revenant, even in Lubezki’s cinematography. Has Iñárritu’s ego blinded him to making a film that people will actually want to see?

Iñárritu's nostalgic chatter about a past he can never have known is emblematic of the mournful myths of masculinity that a film like this seems explicitly designed to engage with. It's true that I write this from a site that favours ‘actressexuality’, so perhaps we're always going to be biased against this type of story, but when the only female character mentioned is a mother implicitly sidelined for a father-son story (a father-son story that Iñárritu invented to fill out Glass’ tale) The Revenant does not emerge from these early pieces as a film that even wants to engage with a vast cross section of moviegoers.

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Reader Comments (25)'re biased.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commentertonytr

Suddenly I'm very afraid of this film.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Plus, the editing on the movie is going to be DICEY. It was scheduled to be filming for five months and went over-schedule by a couple months. If he is that kind of perfectionist, I'm guessing it's probable he'll push it back to the next proper release block. Which is 9-12 months. Also, note to critics: ARE YOU REALLY MORE SICK OF SUPERHEROES THAN OF GREY AS A PRIMARY COLOUR PALATE!? I know I was more sick of the latter by 30 minutes into Man of Steel.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

As Volvagia points out, this movie is probably going to miss the fall festival circuit. And IIRC, no movie has won Best Picture/Director without first premiering at a festival since Million Dollar Baby (isn't that what Sasha Stone always says?).

Anyway, the Indiewire Anne Thompson/Eric Kohn podcast this morning on this film was very negative.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

The last 5 BP winners, I believe were released within Sept-Nov. (I have my own theory that the last-minute surprises are usually still caught amid the first wave of backlash when Oscar voting rolls around). Surprised that Oscar marketers haven't re-oriented their strategy yet--wnless they're still going for nominations over actual wins? At this point, last-minute December/January releases indicate a lack of confidence to me rather than more.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Will say it again, this film will give the slamdunk Oscar to Leo!

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercarl

I hope Leo wins the Oscar for this because I'm tired of people complaining he doesn't have one.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Ryan -- right? it'll almost be one of those ENOUGH oscars, like Renee Z's after 1095 days of campaigning for one.

July 24, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Suzanne -- how would they have seen it already? or were they just bitching about its prerelease machine?

Caroline -- correct. I've often shared the Sept-Nov power right here. I have no idea why distributors haven't caught on but they adamantly refuse to budge from the 'throw everything at December tactic. In the end I think this is for two reasons.

1. December is still a great time to win nominations (especially if you don't actually deserve them but have the appearance of deserving them that will vanish if any body looks at the movie for too long)

2. it's a good time to make money

3. The Academy voters can be lazy and since they don't seem to be watching many movies *until* campaigning begins, perhaps the studios think "why expand the effort so early?" I don't want to think ill of Academy voters ever (i need them to take it all seriously ;) -- but i've had enough conversations of my own with them to realize that many of them really only do start watching movies "to consider" when the screeners start piling up in their homes. If they spend time in actual movie theaters before then I think we would see different nomination habits. (but this is also not totally their fault as the studios have trained them to just sit back and wait until everything is available to them all at once.)

July 24, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel - that podcast was entitled "Why We're Excited to see The Revenant," and it's anything but negative. It's just mostly talk about how difficult the shooting has been. It's just going to be very tiring if that's the only thing people talk about pre- and post-premiere.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

That Grantland piece is so poorly written. Like high school newspaper bad.

On topic, interesting to see AGI and company trying to get out so far in front of the obviously bad press they see coming down the pike. Also interesting that AGI is basically using the, "I'm a maverick genius!" excuse. He should ask MIchael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin how directing massively overbudget ego trip movies after winning an Oscar worked out for them.

That said, I have a real soft spot for massively overbudget auteurist ego trip movies, so I'm really looking forward to The Revenant.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Ryan, I guess I have a different take on it than you, but then again, I hadn't read either of the pieces cited here before I listened to it. I was startled that they referred to the film as a potential Heaven's Gate. Thompson brought out a few things that aren't reported in these pieces (e.g., apparently Inarritu demanded that props like silverware must be from the time period portrayed in the film). She hasn't had him on her long list of Director predictions all year and I've wondered if this is because it would be so unusual for him to repeat, but after listening to her I wondered if it's because she's been aware of the filming difficulties and believes they will hurt his chances.

People should listen to the podcast if they are interested in the film.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

i always take these doomsday predictions of director's follies with a grain of salt. I mean people do NOT remember this but TITANIC had so much "it's going to destroy James Cameron. it cost too much. it will never recoup. it's overbudget. it's going to flop" press before it premiered and then it was like instantly the most popular movie ever.

not saying that will happen here of course but sometimes oversized ambition pays off.

July 24, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I could not even finish the trailer for The Revenant, I was so bored. And this day and age, I'm automatically biased against any film that doesn't have any women in it. This one, and Hateful Eight (one lady? seriously?), will have to be seriously amazing when I'll have stuff like Suffragette and Carol.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKiki

"... the world’s most sought-after actor.”

Tom Hardy?

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Kiki, I couldn't finish it either. After about sixty seconds....I got the idea.

On paper (an Inarritu western with Leo), this is NOT something I'm looking forward to, but I'm interested in Inarritu's description of the scope of the project.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJake D

This summary posting has made me somewhat excited for the movie, but I initially fell on the side of those who were bored by the trailer. It all just seemed so haughty and overblown. I don't care how realistic or beautiful it is, I'm not going to be happy if the film is just a 2+ hour, all-out melee.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Evan: A 2+ hour all out melee with grey as it's primary colour. If that's what this is, it's just Man of Steel all over again, just with a classier coat of paint.

July 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I'm an Indonesian, and I shamefully haven't seen this movie and its predecessor.
Even worse, most of Indonesia citizens nowadays tend to look the other way and completely forget this horrible massacre.

July 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFadhil

LOL that comment is supposed to be on the post about The Look of Silence.

July 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFadhil

Yes, on Christmas week I'll go see a movie with a cast of men, in the mountains, in the snow.

That movie will be The Hateful Eight, with actors in it I actually like, Demian Bichir, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Channing Tatum.

The hubris laden Grantland article makes me even more resistant to seeing The Revenant.

July 25, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Gun to my head to choose a film opening on Christmas Day to see with The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Concussion, Daddy's Home, Joy, and the Point Break remake all on the table?

I'd go see Snowden.

July 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

The thing about James Cameron movies is that they have great women's parts in them. That's one of the reasons nay-sayers said his films would fail: too much emphasis on women.

With all the chatter about women this year taking a step forward both behind the camera and in front of it, Grantland carefully sets us back on track, explaining that serious movies are about man stuff.

Rich middle aged Hollywood man-boys nobly suffering, now that's art. Please add a Native American as a lucky totem. Then everyone is back in their proper place. Men, glorified; women, invisible; Native Americans, diminished.

July 25, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

That's a good point, adri. Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Lindsey Brigman, Helen Tasker, Rose Dawson: all unconventional but pretty awesome screen heroines. (And Cameron was married to Gale Anne Hurd, Kathryn Bigelow, and Linda Hamilton, three female producer, director and actress powerhouses, so powerful women do seem to excite him.)

July 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

This looks like it was filmed beyond The wall. Any moment the wildlings and the crows and the white walkers will start a battle.

July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

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