Watch The Revenant — based in part on Michael Punke’s book of the same name following the exploits of fur trapper Hugh Glass in 1823 Montana and South Dakota who survives a brutal grizzly attack to avenge the death of his son — and there’s no second-guessing the authenticity of its filming. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu pulled out all the stops to make the nature scenes as realistic as possible, from only shooting in natural light to filming in temperatures dipping to minus 20 degrees. The result: a film that’s won three Golden Globe Awards and has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, with a potential Oscar forthcoming for lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio (which would be his first, creating even more hype).
This authenticity also carried itself over to the movie’s many river scenes, where DiCaprio again played his role of Glass flawlessly, down to his swims escaping Indians in lip-blueing waters.
Since rivers are such an important part of the film, we caught up with Cody Harris, director of Montana’s Whitewater Rescue Institute (WRI), for his take on helping Hollywood capture footage of the water action, a lot of which took place on Montana’s Kootenai River:
That’s a lot of work for a few river scenes…how long were you filming with them?
We worked with them at one location on the Kootenai for about a week. I think in total the amount of time our shots take up in the movie is about 10 seconds.
What all did you have to do?
From ferrying equipment and personnel on jet boats to rafting below the falls with 400 pounds. of camera equipment attached to the boat, it was pretty exciting. The main cast wasn’t there; we worked with stunt doubles. They were excellent swimmers, but most of their experience came from the ocean environment. We provided transport via jet boat for close to 100 actors, crew and equipment. The jet boats were also used to film a sequence of a stunt double swimming a Class II.
Tell us about Glass’s (DiCaprio’s) swim over the waterfall.
We rowed the Class IV-V whitewater section in a 14-foot raft below the actual waterfall on the Kootenai. This was the highlight of the job. They were having issues with the helicopter footage for the falls; they wanted a swimmer’s perspective (head cam style) of the rapids, but the fly-overs with a dangling camera weren’t cutting it. So they asked if I felt comfortable rowing.
Were you familiar with that stretch of river?
The water was low, around 4,000 cfs, and I had only kayaked that section before. I did a quick scout run in my kayak and decided that the upper rapids were reasonable. But the last rapid was a bit more than I was willing to do in a raft with a $250,000 camera on board. I said that given the timing (they wanted to shoot natural light at 7 pm) we could get one run in and then would have to hump the boat out of the canyon. They laughed and said, ‘We have a helicopter, there’ll be no humping.’ So the riggers set to work on the boat and I re-scouted my lines.
What was it like dealing with all that camera equipment?
There was a large 200-pound camera hanging off the front of the boat and numerous cables and wires weaving their way throughout. My first thoughts were of the numerous entrapment hazards on the boat and the extra swing weight extending out off the front. We didn’t get a chance to test the rig out before the heli shuttled it to our start point below the falls. We pulled out and had a good, but exhausting run. Then we jumped into the heli with the raft and shuttled back up for a second run.
Any safety concerns?
It was a tough section of water. If we flipped, our plan was to attempt to re-flip but bail at the swinging bridge and let the gear do the last rapid solo. We had four safety kayakers with us. The helicopter pilot said that he’d swing his cable down and we could clip it on the boat and then he’d drag it to shore. I thought this sounded absurdly dangerous.
How’d the run go?
On our last run, we flipped at the last big move. As we were about to abandon ship, the pilot did as he said and swung his line to us. He couldn’t have been more than 100 feet upstream of the swinging bridge at this point. I thought, ‘This is what he said to do,’ so I clipped the line to the only available option: a sun-bleached, 20-year-old NRS strap that we used as a chicken line. I thought he was just going to drag the boat to shore, but as I jumped and swam to shore before the rapid, I looked back and saw our boat with the camera 200 feet in the air. I waited for the inevitable lawn darting, but it never came. By the time we hiked out of the canyon, the boat was already de-rigged and trailered.