As part of this week’s cover story on “The Revenant,” Sean Penn — who worked with director Alejandro G. Inarritu on “21 Grams” — shared his thoughts on the $135 million epic, and why it’s success is important to the future of a movie business that thrives on sequels and comic book tentpoles. Penn was Inarritu’s first choice to portray bad-guy John Fitzgerald (now played by Tom Hardy) in the ambitious project about 19th century explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who survives a brutal bear attack.
Sean Penn: I watched the “The Revenant” with Alejandro and four others. I had the great benefit of being able to see it before anything was in the ether, in terms of critics or other trendsetters. I thought it was a masterpiece. I don’t think I’ve had an experience in a movie theater as a kind of stepping cinema forward like that since I saw “Apocalypse Now.” To see what happens when bold producers support a bold director who is such an artist on that level with great actors like that — I was compelled throughout.
I know it was a couple years ago that Alejandro and I first spoke about it. I remember thinking at the time what a brutal job it was going to be, particularly for the person playing Glass. It was just another thing that I was marveling at watching the movie: what Leonardo DiCaprio put himself through. By the time it was going, I was otherwise engaged. I don’t think the movie has lost anything for it. Tom Hardy is extraordinary.
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There’s a conversation I’ve heard repeated, when people used to ask David Lean why he took so long to make a movie and he said, “I want to shoot the script.” The script is rendered, as a great director’s vision might see it. It takes an incredible amount of force of personality in creating confidence in financiers. It takes an extraordinary clarity of vision to make sure you’ve actually got it and do it with poetry. I think that’s what filmmaking ought to be. We’ve gotten so used to copying filmmaking rather than doing it.
I put Alejandro with the master painters. There’s been a lot of technical steps forward and people who have done extraordinary work. But I’ve never seen something that’s basic premise is naturalism — realism in terms of its visuals — that has quite this poetry with the use of newer technologies.
“The Revenant” isn’t a franchise film. It is what I grew up loving about cinema. Am I worried about the business? I don’t even understand where the business is. I can’t tell you where it’s headed. I understand most people are looking for content for television. It’s hard to say what will happen, and whether the brilliance of the film will be rewarded relative to its costs. I’d like to think we’re a culture that values its art enough to recognize we need this.