How The Revenant Got its Bear Attack Scene Right

Meticulous research, computer-generated effects, and a skilled stunt team were behind one of the most memorable animal encounters in cinema’s history.
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Meticulous research, computer-generated effects, and a skilled stunt team were behind one of the most memorable animal encounters in cinema’s history.
bear attack

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is attacked by a bear in The Revenant. (Photo by courtesy 20th Century Fox)

There is no shortage of violent scenes in The Revenant. The wilderness epic, which is up for a dozen Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards, sets one man’s quest for revenge against a backdrop of bloodshed between trappers and Native Americans. But it was the bear attack that stood out.

In a pivotal sequence, the film’s hero — fur trapper Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio — is mauled by a grizzly bear. He survives, but his companions soon leave him for dead in the middle of the frigid American west to fend for himself.

Among Hollywood depictions of attacking bruins, The Revenant’s is quite realistic. Backpacker talked with one of the movie’s stunt performers, a consultant to the film and two of North America’s premier bear experts about what the movie gets right.

Doing their research

Glenn Ennis of Vancouver, one of the performers who played the bear, told Backpacker the team prepared by studying videos of wild and captive bears, including several attacks.

Ennis recalls one clip of a man being attacked after entering a zoo enclosure. The footage went on for quite some time, with the bear wandering away mid-attack but then coming back and getting vicious again, he says. The bear in The Revenant behaves similarly.

The bear itself was created with computer effects, but it was superimposed over Ennis and his actual movement. He had to call on his acting background to practice ursine walking and “getting into the headspace of a bear,” he says. When they’re not attacking something, “they have a nonchalance to them.”

Earlier on in the film’s production, a group including director Alejandro González Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Richard McBride met for an informal consultation for the film with Scott McMillion, a Montana-based writer and author of Mark of the Grizzly, a 1998 nonfiction book about bear attacks.

That conversation and other research paid off for the filmmakers. McMillon says he was impressed with the computer-generated imagery that made the scene. (One of the movie’s Oscar nominations is for visual effects.)

In addition to McMillion, Iñárritu met with Werner Herzog to talk about his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, the L.A. Times reported.

"The research of how it happened is very important," Iñárritu said in December at an event at the Writers Guild Theater in Los Angeles, according to the paper. "All the Hollywood films show bears as a bad guy or they have human emotions. ... I hate that. And this [bear] is just feeding her cubs. That's it. I wanted to understand how, what happened."

Mother and cubs

In the movie, the attack starts when Glass is walking in the forest and chances upon two bear cubs in front of him. He looks over his shoulder and sees the mother at close range. What happens next, McMillon says, is firmly grounded in reality.

“If you get between a mother and its cubs you’re probably going to take an ass kicking,” he says.

Of fatal grizzly bear attacks, around 80% involve mothers defending cubs, according to Lynn Rogers, a wildlife biologist and founder of the North American Bear Center who has studied bears since 1967 and has walked with grizzlies in Alaska.

The “mother bear is not trying to eat you, she’s just trying to vanquish the danger,” Rogers says.

Although most females with cubs will flee, the shorter the range, the more likely an attack is to happen, says Stephen Herrero, an emeritus professor of environmental science at the University of Calgary who has been studying bears since 1967.

Playing dead

In the movie, the mama bruin doesn’t rear up on her hind legs with her claws in the air. Instead, it headbutts Glass to the ground. “They come in low and fast like a rocket,” McMillion says.

After putting up a short fight, Glass ends up playing dead and the bear moves a short distance away. That’s when he makes another mistake.

“He gets up and goes for a gun; then round two starts,” McMillion says. “If a grizzly bear knocks you down, stay down.”

It’s rare that bears kill people and even rarer that they eat people. Like Glass, most people survive bear attacks. As soon as people play dead, says McMillon, bears tend to stop chewing. Had Glass stayed down, his attacker likely would have moved on.

Even a gunshot from Glass isn’t enough to stop the bear from dishing out a second beating.

“They can withstand terrible wounding and still be in attack mode,” Herrero says.

Myth and reality

In reality, bear attacks are far from common. Each year in Canada and the United States, there are about 20 black bear and 10 grizzly bear attacks, with about three of them being fatal, Herrero says.

One myth McMillon tries to dispel is that grizzly bears are out there hunting people.

In the 1997 wilderness drama The Edge, a bear kills one person in a party lost in Alaska. But then the bear stalks the others. Hogwash, says McMillion, noting The Revenant did not show the bear hunting Glass.

Herrero agrees that the filmmakers did their research. But whether that knowledge, and how they employed it, was enough to win them an Oscar on Sunday remains to be seen.