Hollywood Helpers: Filming The Revenant’s Whitewater Scenes

Inside Whitewater Rescue International's work on the new blockbuster

The Revenant has been nominated for a dozen Oscars at next month's Academy Awards, including best picture and best cinematography. Paddlers who've seen the film might recognize a few of those cinematic scenes were shot on Montana's Kootenai River. To get the footage, producers teamed up with staff at the Whitewater Rescue Institute (WRI), whose headquarters are nearby at Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork, to help its stunt doubles (sorry, no Leonardo DiCaprio) shoot the river scenes. Staff involved included Paul Heffernan, Sarah Richardson, Tom Mackey, Genny Hoyle and WRI director Cody Harris. We caught up with Harris for his take on helping Hollywood capture footage from the Kootenai, as well as a harrowing helicopter long-line rescue of a flipped raft…

What you won't see in the movie: The raft flip and helicopter rescue below Kootenai Falls.
What you won't see in the movie: The raft flip and helicopter rescue below Kootenai Falls.

C&K: How long was WRI directly involved with filming?
Cody Harris: We only worked with them at one location for a week. Dave Meyers, a kayaker from World Class Kayak Academy, was with them quite a bit on some of their other shoots. I think in total the amount of time our shots take up in the movie is about 10 seconds.

What were some of the highlights?
From ferrying equipment and personnel on jet boats to rafting below the falls with 400 lbs. of camera equipment attached to the boat, it was a pretty exciting week. The main cast wasn't there; we worked with stunt doubles. They were excellent swimmers, but most of their experience came from the ocean environment. We provided transport via jet boat for close to 100 actors, crew and equipment. The jet boats were also used to film a sequence of a stunt double swimming a Class II rapid.

We rowed the Class IV-V whitewater section in a 14-foot raft below the actual waterfall on the Kootenai. This was the highlight of the job. They were having issues with the helicopter footage for the falls; they wanted a swimmer's perspective (head cam style) of the rapids, but the fly-overs with a dangling camera weren't cutting it. So they asked if I felt comfortable rowing.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Kootenai River, Montana. Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Had you run those rapids before?
The water was low, around 4,000 cfs, and I had only kayaked the river before. I did a quick scout run in my kayak and decided that the upper rapids were reasonable. But the last rapid was a bit more than I was willing to do in a raft with a $250,000 camera on board. I said that given the timing (they wanted to shoot natural light at 7 pm) we could get one run in and then would have to hump the boat out of the canyon. They laughed and said, 'We have a helicopter, there will be no humping.'

So the riggers set to work on the boat and I re-scouted my lines. There was a large 200-pound camera hanging off the front of the boat and numerous cables and wires weaving their way throughout. My first thoughts were of the numerous entrapment hazards on the boat and the extra swing weight extending out off the front.

We didn't get a chance to test the rig out before the heli shuttled it to our start point below the falls. We pulled out and had a good, but exhausting run. Then we jumped into the heli with the raft and shuttled back up for a second run.

That sounds pretty intense. Was there a contingency plan if something went wrong?

If we flipped, our plan was to attempt to re-flip but bail at the swinging bridge and let the gear do the last rapid solo. We had four safety kayakers with us. The helicopter pilot said that he'd swing his cable down and we could clip it on the boat and then he'd drag it to shore. I thought this sounded absurdly dangerous.

On our last run, we flipped at the last big move. As we were about to abandon ship, the pilot did as he said and swung his line to us. He couldn't have been more than 100 feet upstream of the swing bridge at this point. I thought, 'This is what he said to do,' so I clipped the line to the only available option: a sun-bleached, 20-year-old NRS strap that we used as a chicken line. I thought he was just going to drag the boat to shore, but as I jumped and swam to shore before the rapid, I looked back and saw our boat with camera was 200 feet in the air. I waited for the inevitable lawn darting, but it never came. By the time we hiked out of the canyon, the boat was de-rigged and trailered.

So, what did you think of the final product?
I haven't seen the movie yet, but I saw some of the shots in the trailer. If you like nature, action and DiCaprio, this movie is for you.

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