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The Revenant’s Oscar-Nominated Hair Stylist Talks Frozen Locks

The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic wilderness film currently being treated to a deluge of well-deserved Oscar buzz, has formed a reputation for its long and harrowing production that now nearly precedes the film itself. Filmed in below freezing temperatures in natural light and by the tenets of Inarritu’s now-trademark long shot structure, the shoot required constant attention and a crack team of extraordinary crew members to keep it running smoothly.

Faced with the challenge of having to transform Hollywood regulars like Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Hardy into convincing lifelong frontiersmen was Robert Pandini, hair stylist for films as diverse as Jennifer’s Body and The Chronicles of Riddick. Despite his 25 years in the industry, little could prepare him for the intricate demands of The Revenant, which required countless hours of work and unmediated focus. It finally looks as though the work has paid off, with Pandini receiving a Best Makeup and Hairstyling nod alongside makeup artists Sian Grigg and Duncan Jarman at this year’s Oscars. Prior to Sunday’s ceremony, we we sat down with the nominee to discuss the challenges of the occasionally tortuous shoot, the film’s meticulous visual storytelling and the time that Tom Hardy nearly froze on set.

Well, first of all, congratulations on the nomination, that’s so exciting.

Yeah, thank you so much, that’s just, it’s terrific. It’s great for everybody, big movie, lots of people doing it, so I’m very proud to be a part of it.

Can you talk to be about how you got involved in the project and if you were prepared for how rugged it was going to be?

Um, well, I’ll start with the second question, yeah, I knew what it was going to be. I was definitely prepared to do it, but I had no idea it was going to be that intense or that manner of filming, to be quite frank. But back in July of 2014, I got a call from a makeup artist here in Vancouver who was working on the film and asked me if I’d be interested. And I went in and met with him and met Alejandro a few times, kept designing looks and different things and eventually got going.

Had you met Iñárritu before and were you excited to work with him?

Absolutely, I’d been a fan of his work beforehand. We definitely knew it was going to different. Birdman hadn’t really hit at that point in time, so we still didn’t really know what he was capable of as far as that level, but we actually brought that film into Calgary and had it screened just so that we could understand what his vision would be. I think once we saw that film, we walked out of that theater with a whole different attitude towards what we were going to do.

In the realm of Birdman, it uses the same philosophy of long shots. Does that make your job harder or easier? What kind of wrench does that throw into your day to day?

Well, it’s definitely something we’re not used to, no one’s ever seen that before. It was something different and a great challenge. Wide shots to close ups, long, moving shots, 360 shots, it was very difficult. We had to have everyone 100% before we even got to that set. They had to be ready to be on closeup. Alejandro and Chivo [cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki] could just be on the set and decide to shoot someone—we didn’t really know who was going to get that treatment. We had to be ready all the time, so it definitely raised the bar about how we all had to work.

You briefly touched on it, but can you tell me how you developed the look for each of these characters?

First of all, let me just state that Leo had his own hair stylist. But I designed everybody else in conjunction with the look of the film. With the Native Americans, I did a bunch of historical research on different tribes in the area, what we were trying to go for. We had hundreds of different photographs and Alejandro wanted something different. He said that we were making a different kind of film, it didn’t have to be perfectly, historically correct, but I needed something that would work. So we tried to develop something very organic and very raw, put ourselves in their heads, what it would be like being out there for weeks, months, years. I mean, they weren’t filthy people, obviously they washed, but to just to come up with layers of hair to make it look as real as possible without having it look like they had come out of a hair and makeup trailer, to keep that weathered, raw, rough look.

From Emmanuel Lubezki's Instagram

From Emmanuel Lubezki's Instagram

From Emmanuel Lubezki's Instagram

The trappers, there’s the lead trappers and a number of backgrounds, and Alejandro wanted a backstory for every last one of them, why their hair would look the way that it was, so I kind of did some research to see if their outfits caused hair loss, malnourished, burns on their head from muzzle blasts, all these different things that give the character their individuality. So I would start out with an actor in my chair and we would talk about it, talk about the character. For example, I can think of Will Poulter and I said, “Show me how you would shoot a gun,” and he did and I said, “Okay, I’m going to take a piece of hair on the right side of your head, by your ear, we’re going to add some makeup, some scarring as if you’ve had a burn.” From a musket blast gone bad.

Will Poulter portrays legendary mountain man Jim Bridger in the REVENANT. Photo by Kimberly French. Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Wow.

I explained the backstory to Alejandro and he said, “Okay, give me a backstory for everyone.” He said to me, “You know Robert, we may never see any of these details, but they’re always going to be there and they need to know that they’re there and the character needs to know they’re there.” So that was a unique experience to take it to that level. In this instance, it was over-the-top to have that freedom within Alejandro’s parameters. So that was cool.

Was it ever hard to keep the hair looking weathered out in the weather itself?

The danger that we run into sometimes is making sure that we don’t put too much product in their hair and then it doesn’t move, it becomes a helmet. So I started doing tests to see what the look would look like in different elements: in freezing cold, rain, wind, dirt, all these different things came into play. Couple months down the road of mixing things, different products and everything, it sort of happened. And then we get to Tom Hardy, his character. We had been talking for months about his character. And to sort of help Tom along, and again, his backstory, what was going through his mind when you were getting scalped? And then we applied the wig over top of that. I had about eight or ten wigs made just for Tom Hardy, the scalping scene we did, the wig went into a lot of different pieces.

Things were sort of always unpredictable on set. Was there a day or chunk of time that you had to think on your toes and switch stuff around?

I was involved in every shot, throughout the entire filming process, that was very important. We tried as best as we could to prepare for this film. You’re out there and you never know what’s going to happen. It can go from a nice sunny day to dropping two feet of snow on us in no time, to clearing up again. We had to try things like freezing the hair over periods of time to see how it would react. I’m lucky, I’m from Canada, so I’m used to the cold and I sort of understand it and know how it works, but this was a different film. The Revenant, you were ready and guns ablazing when you were out there, for sure.

What was the tone on set?

I think we all tried to be really serious in our jobs, not serious while we were there, we wanted to have a good time working. Was there pressure and stress? Sure, but I think that's the case on every set. This one just had a specific set of challenges. Personally, I loved it. I couldn’t wait to get to work every day. And some days you’re on four hours of sleep, and you just want to get right back out there, in the subzero temperatures, wind blowing five ways and just go for it. I had a great time. Every single day, I can remember every last shot. There were definitely people who didn’t love the elements, I can’t speak for them, but once you understood what was happening and we realized we were doing something amazing, I think we all just kind of went for it. Another day on The Revenant, let’s get our boots on, get out there, and get ready for whatever they’re going to throw at us. Brilliant director. Someone I never ever questioned.

I’m sure all of that work has paid off.

I agree, I think arguably it’s one of the best pieces of cinematic footage I’ve ever seen and I think this is a film that is going to be studied for years just to see what it took to make this film because it’s absolutely different.

One last question before I let you go, do you have any crazy The Revenant anecdotes you can share?

Well, a couple things. The whole crew, it was kind of like going to war, we all had our gear, we all did the best to help each other out. But those actors, they went through a lot. They put up with a lot of stuff with us to be able to get them in their looks, no question. I remember one day, it was the coldest day I think we had out there, it was minus 37 degrees, on one little set where Tom and Will Poulter were. It was so darn cold that one day, and at one point I came over to Tom and I said, “I think we have a ten minute break coming up if you want to come to the tent and warm up,” and he said “No, man, I’m fine right here.” I looked at him and I said, “I think you’re frozen to the ground.” [laughs] And he’s like, “It’s going to be harder for me to get up and go over there, just keep me warm.” I’ll never forget that day, it was the toughest day out there. It was a real pivotal scene for Tom, but I have to say, I admire all of those guys. One last thing I’ll say, I remember reading something the other day that assumed hair and makeup didn’t have to do anything because the conditions were doing all the work for us, it was actually the total opposite. To be able to give them that look without freezing them or harming them in any way, that was a really tough challenge. And I have to admire all the hair and makeup people. One of the best crews I’ve ever seen put together.

All that work is so clear, I think. Thank you so much for speaking to me.

Of course, hopefully we do well at the Oscars, but I’m in a category with some amazing people, three entirely different films, and I look forward to the 28th to see how that works out.

Well, we wish you the best of luck.

Thank you!

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