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Leonardo DiCaprio films Alberta's wilderness for The Revenant

Alejandro G Iñárritu’s acclaimed true life survival drama The Revenant is set in the 1820s and filmed largely on location in Alberta, western Canada, with Leonardo DiCaprio (pictured) as the main star of the feature. 

The film tells the story of fur trapper Hugh Glass who was attacked by a bear before being robbed and left for dead by his companions during an expedition through the Midwest. 

Robin Mounsey was supervising location manager on the production and helped select parts of Alberta’s wilderness that matched the filmmaker’s vision. 

Mounsey and producers of The Revenant scouted parts of the northern US in the early stages of pre-production, but ultimately the landscape wasn’t right for their version of the story.

“North Dakota is prairieland – it didn’t have physical texture suitable for the world of ‘pre-contact’ that we were looking for, or for what the audience would expect from a wilderness landscape,” Mounsey explains.

“We actually spent a lot of time scouting Alberta but when the studio got involved they were pushing for us to film entirely in British Columbia to get the tax breaks. We shifted the scout there but I knew those landscapes weren’t right for the story Iñárritu was trying to tell.” 

The production team eventually convinced the studio to back an Alberta shoot. Most of the locations were found within a few hours’ drive of Calgary.

“My job is to find the best locations for the project and then figure out how to make them work on a practical level,” Mounsey says.

“For The Revenant, the director wanted locations that were off the beaten track, but at the same time having ground access was vital, even if that involved pushing in (building) roads in some places.”

A further challenge was that particularly scenic locations quickly became parkland, which then brought complex filming restrictions designed to protect the landscape. Heavy equipment would sometimes have to be kept off the ground, meaning winch systems had to be improvised. This kind of activity was tricky to plan for when the production team was getting spontaneously inspired by the locations on the day.

Mounsey himself has decades of experience of filming in the snow. Over the years he’s worked on productions including The Bourne Legacy, Man of Steel and two different versions of Antarctic-set horror story The Thing, including the classic Kurt Russell version released in 1982.

He also worked on Quentin Tarantino’s western The Hateful Eight with a specific responsibility to consult on snow safety. The film in fact struggled with a lack of snow at the start of its Colorado shoot, but then once snowfall did arrive Mounsey helped ‘groom’ what there was (pictured below) so that it was suitable for the horses and carriage in the first part of the movie.

“We had large horses and a heavy carriage, so the snow had to be prepared to allow them all to move effectively,” Mounsey recalls.       

The Revenant is not the first large scale production to use the area. Two series of the critically-acclaimed TV drama Fargo have been produced in Calgary – perhaps the province’s highest-profile production in recent years.

Calgary’s first purpose-built film studio is scheduled to open this spring after 18 months of development, which will help boost Alberta’s broader appeal. The province already offers a production grant covering up to 30% of regional expenditures up to CA$5m. The Revenant can be considered a welcome profile boost for Alberta.

For more on filming in Alberta see our production guide.

The Revenant images: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

Hateful Eight snow grooming image: Robin Mounsey