[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hile the talking point of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Golden Globes-winning The Revenant is the sheer brutality of the winter shoot in the Rockies, one outsider quietly observed how the zealous director executed the scenes. He’s Tom Shoval, a young filmmaker who was given, according to Iñárritu, unprecedented access to witness all of his “embarrassing dirty laundry” ever since the Oscar-winner hand-picked the Israeli to be his protege under Rolex’s Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative. The biennial programme pairs established names with emerging talents to nurture growth of the arts.

“Tom arrived with this thin jacket. All the crew were going, ‘Who is this guy? Is he from Siberia or what?’ Tom, there is no bad weather, there is only bad clothes, very bad clothes.”
Alejandro Iñárritu, on the unsuitable garb of his protege, who comes from Israel

Shoval was the only outsider allowed on set, and witnessed first-hand the intensity of Iñárritu’s directing.

As Iñárritu tells it, when the result of the collaboration was unveiled in Mexico City last December, the experience has enriched him as much, if not even more, than his pupil. He explains his selection of Shoval out of the three filmmakers presented to him: “When I saw Tom’s first film, I saw the work of a human being. He empathised with the mysterious ways of human behaviour, without tricks, explosions, exploitative feelings or cliches, with a lot of compassion. I felt a spiritual communion. I saw a lot of things I adored and admired, some of the things I don’t have. I like the films that I cannot do.”

JUST IN: Iñárritu and Revenant’s male lead Leonardo DiCaprio snags Best Director and Best Actor at the Golden Globe Awards, and the Oscars, respectively.)

Drawn to the programme because he believed that intercultural understanding was the key in alleviating global conflict, and by the desire to counter the Hollywood trend of making profit-driven movies, Iñárritu nevertheless admits he doesn’t have the patience or the skills to mentor anyone.

“Every conflict comes from a lack of understanding. There’s no way you can love someone you don’t understand. I was speaking to Tom. All those conflicts in Palestine come from political decisions. I don’t want to hear you, I want to exterminate you first. In that sense, film is a bridge, culture is a bridge.”
– Alejandro Iñárritu

“When the organisers told me how to proceed, I was terrified,” he says. “Terrified because I have never taught anything in my life. I don’t even know how to teach my kids manners.” He was painfully aware that he didn’t have a film-making formula to impart, nor did he want to understand how he explores ideas. “My process is not interesting to me. The moment I understand it, I will kill myself,” he says. “It’s a mystery where it comes from.”


Video courtesy of The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

What Iñárritu did have to offer his protege in the spring of 2014 was a front row seat in his pre-production work for Revenant, a film that he co-wrote and co-produced starring Leo DiCaprio as a frontiersman seeking vengeance after he was left for dead after being mauled by a bear. The price of entry was Iñárritu’s ego. “I opened my doors, which I had never done before because making a film is a humbling experience,” he says. “There are so many decisions, problems and challenges. It’s a miserable process. Every artist struggles with his tools and materials but to make a film can be very chaotic. You have to surrender your pride to your needs, to come back together and make things work. I said, ‘It will be very embarrassing to show my dirty laundry to somebody but if this is the deal, then okay.'”

It helped that the Birdman director had established a rapport with the young filmmaker by this time. Shoval had made a short about two lovers reconciling through a radio programme. Iñárritu says: “When I met Tom after watching his work, it was clear that the human being behind that film was exactly as I had imagined. It’s funny that always in my life, the film represents the director, no matter what. Your prints are there, your personality, there are a hundred decisions in every frame – the faces that you choose, the wardrobe, the scale of the production design, lighting, pacing, location, every single thing in a way represents your taste, your personality, who you are, what you’re looking for.”

Both protege and mentor walked away with lessons.

“When I met Tom, it was clear he is compassionate, wise, humble. He’s not blinded by his need to conquer the world. He is a teacher of cinema in Israel, he’s a cinephile, he is curious. It was scary to have him on the set. Once he came, he became an important, serene energy that everybody loved. I ended up being the protege of him.”

When you know the tricks, you don’t enjoy the film so much. Much like a magician. That’s the trade-off in filmmaking, which is a shame, but through Tom’s eyes, as a lover of films sharing his passion, with his fresh-eyed approach, I was reminded of what I used to be like, to be surprised by things and not be so bitter. It’s the only way to get young again.”
Alejandro Iñárritu, on how mentoring has changed him

In Shoval, Iñárritu found an ally and sounding board. He describes a memorable moment during the shoot: “We were having lunch in my trailer – it was a cold day and we were having soup – to talk about things or he was listening to my complaints. When you are creating a film, you’re surrounded by 300 people but you are very lonely. You can be at the monitor with 50 of the crew, but you’re the only person who can tell what’s wrong. That’s the fate of a director. That’s your job. In the end, you’re the one who makes the decision. To share it with Tom was very nice. I was very thankful.”

Self-doubt, in his mind, is not crippling but a condition that leads to discovery. “I think it’s the only way to create. I am always shocked and jealous of creators who are so certain of their job that they know they are doing something great. They talk about it as art, very meaningful and important for humanity. This vanity I am super scared of. Politicians have to be certain – or they pretend to be. We live in a society now where social media has become a phenomenon where an opinion becomes an epithet. On Twitter, people say in 140 characters, ‘I am the truth.’

“I never trusted this kind of certainty because it doesn’t exist. It’s not because we don’t know what we are doing but everything has to be questioned in order to find meaning. Everything is changing all the time. To be be lost, to find something is a condition. Uncertainty is the richest process you can have. If you already know, why would you keep looking?”


Addressing this quest for truth, Shoval says: “Alejandro is crazy in a very creative way. What he said about not accepting certainty, seeing it as an illusion, trying to find a better truth, or the most basic truth, is something that only mad people can look for. You look, find something and continue to search. It’s not just crazy, it’s noble.” He adds: “Alejandro wanted everything to be as real as we can get it. We did it with a lot of persistence, stubbornness, and imagination.”

By now the Internet is rife with the suffering that the Revenant cast and crew endured on the set for art and higher truth. Iñárritu’s insistence on shooting only in natural light, with minimal CGI, limited filming to two hours on some days and exposed the cast and crew to the bitter elements in the wintry Rockies. Actor DiCaprio says the film is one of the toughest he has ever done. He tells Yahoo Movies: “Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. (I was) enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” Iñárritu had set out to elicit real, raw emotions from his actors and indeed, if Internet buzz proves correct, DiCaprio may finally win an Oscar for his portrayal of a vengeance seeker.

Shoval, who had appeared on set with a thin jacket, unaccustomed to the severity of the weather, was also thrown into the deep end. “We were in overalls crossing a river. I was doing really dangerous things!”

He observes: “I was very inspired to see Alejandro in so many ways. He knows that there is life outside of the frame. If you want, your frame could be very powerful, very deep. You need to take care of all the aspects, even those that are not being shot, or being shot faraway that’s in the background. One of the amazing things is that Alejandro talks to the extras, makes sure they know what they are doing. Nothing like, ‘You go from here to here’, but by telling them their story. You don’t see it in the frame but you feel the intensity. You feel like you’re inside of this world.


Explaining his approach to mentorship, Iñárritu says: “I want to give Tom the chance to see all the processes. To see how plans really work or fail or are catastrophes. Tom, most likely, learned how not to do things. But, even if things fail, you learn how not to be. That’s a great lesson in the end.”

Photos and video courtesy of Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.