January 8, 2016
To keep the cast warm during the many wintry scenes in “The Revenant,” Costume Designer Jacqueline West had to learn how to survive in the wild in two different time periods—the 1800s and the present.
Today, cast and crew can layer in technical fabrics and goose down, but trappers in the 19th century relied on wool blankets and animal skins. Shooting in below-freezing temperatures in snow, water and wind tested the limits of the cast, which included Leonardo DiCaprio as legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass, and fellow fur trappers played by Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson.
Based on a historical account of an 1820s fur trading expedition in the Great Plains, the story shows how the men endured bloody attacks by warriors and animals alike. Near the forks of the Grand River in South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear, which mauled him so fiercely, he was expected to die within hours. In the film, two trappers elected to stay with him to give him a proper burial, shrouded with the hide of the grizzly which Glass had helped kill.
Of the many costumes West created in realistic detail, the hide was the simplest, but perhaps the most commanding.
“It was already tanned. All I had to do was make a slit in it so he could crawl into it and carry it,” she said. As Glass, DiCaprio drags the skin across snow and ice and through rivers.
“He wears the same grizzly skin through the entire movie. And when it got wet, only someone with Leo’s stature could have toted it around,” West said. “He’s about 6’ 2” and very broad shouldered.”
The grizzly pelt also is symbolic. Wearing the hide of the animal that nearly killed him helps him assume a kind of animalistic strength. It also provides vital protection against the elements.
“The Revenant” is a story of survival—and surprise. The term “revenant” refers to a person who has returned after a long absence, or more particularly, from the dead. That Glass survived the grizzly attack and crawled with a broken leg for months has made him legendary.
West brought an unusual level of familiarity with the story to her job on the film by director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
“I have a ranch in South Dakota, maybe 100 miles from where the bear attack took place,” said West, who has long immersed in the history of the state and the fur trappers of the 1800s. “It was an incredible film for me to get the chance to do.”
Driving to her ranch from California, West often passes historical monuments devoted to Glass.
“You see mile markers noting the crawl of Hugh Glass from the north to the south. He crawled for 150 days with the Black Hills of South Dakota on his right as a marker. He crawled practically the length of the state,” she said.
West procured a grizzly hide from the Canadian parks service, which has strict controls on the use of hides.
“Nothing was killed for the movie. They were pelts that had already been taken. In Canada, the hunting is very regulated. We attained [furs] through a fur trading company that deals directly with the parks department through a lottery,” West said.
Though the hide was heavy and cumbersome, it worked: “It really did keep him warm.”