“When you look at that film and see these guys cold and shivering, they weren’t acting. They really were cold and shivering.”
Mountain man expert Clay Landry was telling American Frontiersman about his work as a historical and wilderness technical adviser on the new movie The Revenant. The “these guys” he’s referencing are the leading actors in the epic new production—Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, Will Poulter as Jim Bridger and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald.
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“We were high in the Alberta mountains along the Bow River and its tributary, the Kananaski, doing scenes in the snow and cold that got below zero at times,” Clay continued. “The entire movie was being shot in natural light, and the best time was in what they called the ‘golden hour,’ the last 30 or 60 minutes before sunset. The temperature was dropping fast then, and the pressure was on to get the scenes right.”
Clay’s job on the picture was to help turn actors into mountain men. According to him, DiCaprio didn’t want to do anything that looked out of place for the time period. “Leo was very focused, very professional,” Clay said. “He gives this role of becoming Hugh Glass everything he’s got—and, believe me, that’s quite a lot. The whole cast was great, and I don’t think you’re going to see anything that looks out of place for the time period.”
Clay’s influence in the film went far beyond details of realism on the set. He coached the nine primary actors in mountain man lifestyles as well as the history and meaning of the fur trade. His goal was to have them feeling like mountain men, not just acting that way.
Clay told us: “Tom Hardy, Will Poulter (Brits) and Domhnall Gleeson (Irish) were eager for discussions on our history. We would start each day of the mountain man ‘boot camp’ with a cup of coffee while I told them mountain man history—why the fur trade was so important in the eventual opening of the American West, the Oregon Trail and all that was to come.”
Clay’s duties included working with all the technicians—set decorators, the cinematographer, the stuntmen, the horse wranglers and, of course, the director, Alejandro González Iñárritu.
“He told me he wanted our actors to look on the screen like they had been handling the flintlock rifles all their lives,” Landry said. “The only way to do that is to get them out there until that gun becomes a part of them. Leo had been through firearms use several times, and took to the sessions with ease. Hardy was interested in military history and had a feel for the whole thing, and Will Poulter had some training. I got them shooting from a table, with the rifles resting on bags. Later, we moved into the woods alongside the Bow River, running from tree to tree, firing blanks, reloading from their shooting pouches, sometimes lying behind logs.”
Life On Set
Clay Landry became a true coach for all this filmmaking activity by way of his 25-year passion for learning everything he could about mountain men. His reputation as a mountain man authority and contributor to the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal resulted in a life-changing phone call.
“In 2014, I got a call from Daniel Cripps of the American Mountain Men group, which I had joined back in 1991. He told me a group of filmmakers was looking for a historical adviser. He suggested I give them a call. I got an interview and the job.” In mid-August of 2014, Clay joined a group of assistant directors on the banks of the Bow and the Kananaski rivers.
“They were blocking out scenes, using stand-ins, deciding on just what they would shoot later on. They asked me to come up with a schedule for running a boot camp on the skills we needed to expose the actors to. The next day I laid out a schedule that covered things like beaver trapping, skinning, all the nuts and bolts. And, of course, the guns, the care and operation of flintlocks, and the tomahawks and knives. All the actors also learned to build fires using only flint and steel. A big chunk of it would have to be spent on horses. Some of the guys had ridden, some had not. We had a whole corral of horses and wranglers to handle them. I had to teach them to ride carrying the flintlocks the way the mountain men did.” Actual shooting began in September of 2014, and Clay was on the set daily until mid-April of 2015.
“Every evening we were given a call sheet that told us what we would be filming the next day,” Landry said. “It had all the props needed, the actors and a summary of the scene to be shot. A typical day, when we were actually shooting, would start at the motel where a fleet of vehicles were used to transport us to the wilderness sets. The set decorator and I would be there very early, combing the site, checking the details. Breakfast and lunch were served on the site, with a snack bar always ready with coffee and snacks. The cast would rehearse all afternoon to be ready for the ‘golden hour, when the sound of ‘Action!’ would go out.”
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One of his specialties, Landry told us, was his background in knowledge on the gear of the mountain men—all the packs and bags, saddles, leggings, shoes and rifle cases. “The director was so detail-focused that in some scenes with people in the background, doing things like beaver-skinning, he wanted them talking mountain-man talk, not talking about their cars or girlfriends even though their voices couldn’t be heard on camera.”
Since about 90 percent of the movie takes place in snow and cold, the production ran into big trouble when Old Man Winter failed to show up in the Alberta mountains. “It was the warmest winter in Alberta history,” Landry said. “Every day we had to move higher and higher into the mountains to find the snow we needed, which makes for some magnificent scenery. Eventually, when it did turn colder, we had to use Sno-Cats for the last half-hour of the trip to the sets. And it was so cold. The cast was feeling the whole experience was like a survival exercise.”
Landry told American Frontiersman, “My research shows there have been as many as 15 different interpretations of the life of Hugh Glass, including many books and the film Man in the Wilderness. This is a completely original story. As the subtitle says, ‘inspired by real events.’”
We were very interested in the firearms used in the film, and Clay told us, “They had the rifles when I got there. They were Kentucky- and Tennessee-type flintlocks. Rifles and military-style smoothbores. Leo’s Hugh Glass rifle was special, a custom-made. It has special significance in the movie and has to stand out. It was modeled in the Pennsylvania Lancaster style Hugh Glass is said to have used. I was very pleased with all the rifles.
“In one of the rifle-shooting segments I enjoyed most, I’m standing out of camera range and handing Tom Hardy blanks-loaded rifles as he fires shots in a deer-hunting scene. He’s a great guy, Tom Hardy, a unique individual. It was a pleasure to work so closely with him.”
We asked Clay if any people or animals were hurt during filming. He said, “No, sir. I worked closely with Doug Coleman out of Park City, Utah, who ran the stunt scenes. He had me teach a little history to his stunt guys. I answered questions and coached them. They wanted to know if whatever they were planning was authentic.
“While nobody got hurt, we had Will Poulter (as Jim Bridger) dumped in the icy Bow River three times during the shooting of one scene. It’s a big fight scene at the camp, where they get pushed back into the river where they had a keel boat and some other boats—bull boats, made of hides, and dugout canoes. You see part of it in the trailer, with Leo carrying a guy and yelling, ‘Get to the boats!’ They’re shooting blackpowder blanks and crossing a little inlet at the edge of the river. Will got dumped three times making that scene.”
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After Clay left the production in Alberta in mid-April, the film’s company went on to further shooting in Montana and then, to make up for the winter scenes they had missed in the Northern Hemisphere, they journeyed to the southernmost tip of Argentina in Tierra del Fuego where winter was in full force again.
As these words are being written, last-minute work in dubbing and music and prep for the December 25th opening is taking place. “I’ve seen bits and pieces,” Clay said, “and the popular trailer that’s out there. Think of seeing 2 hours and 31 minutes of the film’s running time with action like you see in the trailer. It’ll be awesome.”
We asked Clay how he thought the film would compare to Jeremiah Johnson, he told us, “This movie is on another level. Think in terms of Dances with Wolves.” It sounds like The Revenant is aiming as high as the mighty Rocky Mountains where it was born.
The Molding of Clay
How does a student of mountain man history and lifestyles come to be standing on the banks of Alberta’s Bow River instructing actors like Leonardo DiCaprio on how to look and act like real mountain men?
“It was just one of those things,” said Clay Landry, who had recently retired from a 30-year career of ranching and community banking. He lives in Whitehall, Montana, in the Jefferson River Valley, one of three rivers that join to form the Missouri, a location famous in the lives of mountain men.
“It all started when I got to Fort Carson, Colorado, in 1973 as a lieutenant returning from Vietnam. My QM unit was part of the last 50,000 troops leaving ‘Nam. As we liked to say, ‘We turned out the lights in that place.’”
There, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Clay became drawn to the outdoor lifestyle and especially interested in the mountain men. He joined the Colorado Springs Muzzleloaders group. When he left the service as a captain in 1976, he moved to Montana. A 25-year quest for mountain man lore and legend was well under way.
Clay had attended Texas A&M and has both a BS and MS in Animal Science and Agriculture. Today, Clay is a consultant historian for the Museum of the Mountain Men in Pinedale, Wyoming, and works with the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska, on projects. He is also an associate researcher for the Fur Trade Research Center in Tetonia, Idaho. He is a regular contributor to the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal and has been a member of the American Mountain Men group since 1991.
Git Yer Glass Full
While the films The Revenant and Man in the Wilderness focus on the Hugh Glass saga, there are a plethora of books on the Hugh Glass story in print today. There are so many we simply do not have the space or resources to review each title. We will point you toward the books, telling you what we know about them and trusting you will pursue any that interest you.
Like the book version of The Revenant, the novel Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred is fiction suggested by the real-life facts we know about Hugh Glass. I definitely think both books should be on your reading list. I also purchased and like The Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee, and Mountain Man by John Myers Myers. As a bonus, the book has a striking cover painting called “Trapper’s Tree” by the late John Clymer.
Also available, and listed in no particular order, are Hugh Glass by Bruce Bradley; Hugh Glass, Mountain Man by Robert M. McClung; Some Incidents in the Life of Hugh Glass, a Hunter and Trapper on the Missouri River by Phillip St. George Cooke; American Trapper: The Life and Death of American Frontiersman Hugh Glass by Fergus Mason; and Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, A Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation by Jon T. Coleman.
Today, almost 200 years after it happened, you can stand in the exact spot where the grizzly mauled Hugh Glass back in 1823. The location is marked by a monument on a bluff about 10 miles from the town of Lemmon, South Dakota. The unpaved Hugh Glass Road leads there from Highway 73. The manmade Shadehill Reservoir is nearby. According to roadsideamerica.com, which has exact directions to the site, the open grave Bridger had dug for Glass was still visible before water covered and erased it in 1951.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.