Alejandro González Iñárritu's Academy Award-nominated film, The Revenant, is set in Montana and South Dakota. But if you watch closely, you'll see a little bit of Pittsboro, too. When the filmmakers needed authentic antique hand tools to tell the true-life frontier survival story of fur trapper Hugh Glass, they found them—eventually—at Ed Lebetkin's Chatham County tool shop.
"Anything that has survived the past 200 years is either in a museum or gone," says set decorator Hamish Purdy, who has since been co-nominated for a production-design Oscar with Jack Fisk. "Right away, Ed showed me pictures of what was appropriate."
In the early-19th-century era of Glass' journey, photography was in its infancy. The only way to see what life was like in Native American lands and settlers' forts is through paintings and drawings by the artists hired by explorers.
So Purdy started researching old-fashioned tools the old-fashioned way: in books and museums. At first, his main points of reference were A Museum of Early American Tools by Eric Sloane and the paintings of Karl Bodmer and George Catlin. Then he tried the modern approach of an Internet image search. The results showed photos of Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's School, where power tools are (unofficially) outlawed.
Yes, that's the same Roy from the beloved PBS show The Woodwright's Shop, now in its 36th year. On most weekends, passersby strolling along Hillsboro Street in downtown Pittsboro can stop and watch students spinning vises, pushing saws, swinging mallets and chiseling dovetails. During peak times, sawdust seems to fog the windows.
Just a few steps above the school is Ed's Antique Tools, a less dusty space filled with hand tools dating as far back as the mid-1700s. Lebetkin has been a fan of The Woodwright's Shop since the program's beginnings. In the late 1980s he started attending trade shows, estate sales and auctions, collecting tools. By 2007, he was selling them at local meetings of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association.
"I started buying odds and ends," he says. "From talking to people at events, I realized I was pretty good about picking up tool types. The vendors either knew how to sell and didn't know tools, or the other way around."
Lebetkin found he could do both. For years he relied on vendor displays, but a talk with Underhill in 2010 prompted him to open his brick-and-mortar space above The Woodwright's School. Being immersed in the antique-tool market makes recognizing specific features automatic for Lebetkin. Handle designs, saw teeth placement and ax-head styles and materials are clues to a tool's age. Prompt him about any item in the store and he is quick to identify its era and, sometimes, its exact maker.
After discussions with the filmmakers, Lebetkin packaged shipments of tools and sent them to the set in Canada. Since the story in The Revenant takes place in the wilderness and a fort, forestry tools were essential. Lebetkin provided a picaroon for handling logs, a log peavey for hauling them and a cooper's froe for splitting them, as well as draw knives for bark removal and crosscut saws for timber framing.
In the first few minutes of the film, right before the first of many violent scenes, the camera pans over the camp. While trappers mill in and out, workers plane logs and build timber frames with Lebetkin's tools. They keep showing up throughout the film, all the way to Glass' hatchet swinging in the final scene.
Purdy, dedicated to authenticity, always asks himself, "Is it as real as can be?" When a shipment from Pittsboro arrived on location, he didn't simply pass the tools along to extras and actors as mere props. Instead, he made sure they were actually used.
"I had a carpenter working for me to build trunks, chests and other items that were period-correct," Purdy says. "He built all the crates with Ed's tools, and when he was done using the tools they were used on set."
The tools played other important off-camera roles in creating the film's acclaimed sense of authenticity. Flat boats of the era needed constant repairs, and Purdy assembled a toolbox full of items that would have been kept on board. Although the audience doesn't see them, the tools' presence is part of an effort to make sure all details on set were as genuine as possible.
Lebetkin hasn't seen the film yet, but he looks forward to it—and maybe working for others. If filmmakers develop any projects featuring George Washington, he might be able to help out.
"I've got George Washington's ax over here," he says, half-smiling, offering a joke as old as his tools. "The head's been replaced four times, and the handle a few, too."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Awl naturale"