Posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 2016 by Jack Giroux
The Revenant is a genuine epic. As large as the film is in scale, with its vast landscapes and its long journey into a chilly hell, both director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Mark L. Smith wanted to tell a personal, intimate story amongst all the chaos. The two-and-a-half-hour film is about revenge, but to Smith, it’s about far more than that.
The screenwriter has been working on the project for years now, starting all the way back in 2007. It’s easy to see why any writer would be drawn to this story, to have the oppurtunity to tell a story through behavior and images, rather than exposition — which there’s very, very little of in The Revenant.
We spoke with screenwriter Smith about the internalized father-son story. Hit the jump to see what he had to say.
A lot goes unspoken in The Revenant. For you, what’s the internal storyline?
From the moment I started writing it I knew it was almost going to be a silent film. It was going to be very wordless, so the actions, emotions, and what went unexpressed needed to be very powerful. I never thought that revenge on its own was strong enough to pull that off, so it was always, believe or not, a father-son story to me. It’s interesting, because it can get lost in the trees of the violence, action, and all that stuff going on, but for me, the heart of the story, going back to my first draft in 2007, was the father’s love for his son, and how that can drive the human spirit to overcome so much. The revenge was always more of a backdrop, to get us going on that journey. The silence then came from the world and the emotion.
I think I’ve said this before, but whenever I wrote it, the tricky part was just trying to make sure the silent moments were interesting enough. For readers, I wanted people to forget no one was talking. Each movement and all the action had to be important, so that’s where that came from.
With the action and silent exchanges, how detailed were you on the page? Would you describe what all these moments meant to Glass?
It was all written out. As quiet as the script is, I think my draft still came in from 105 to 110 page. I think I wrote 12 drafts before Alejandro and I started working together. You know, the opening river attack was always five to six pages, with all the different parts going on and rushing through the chaos of that moment. The grizzly attack, as well, was probably a few pages long. Probably the only difference between how the attack was written and how it is on screen is: Alejandro extended it some, while I had it you were cutting back to Bridger, Henry, and Fitzgerald and the attack. Alejandro stuck with the attack, which I thought was genius.
Again, because there were no words, there were no cheats, to let the characters necessarily say what they were feeling. I needed to make sure it was very visual, so all the action, visuals, descriptions, and every little moment was all on the page.
In every screenwriting course, they always say “show, don’t tell.” This is kind of the ultimate “show, don’t tell” movie.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it is. It’s funny, because I thought about stuff like that from my earliest times, like, “Oh, this isn’t going to be so hard.” What attracted me was the challenge of doing it, but once I got into it, it was like, “Oh god, what have I done? This is really tough.” Then I fell back on that, pulling back on the dialogue and not over-speaking, and it was taking that to the extreme.
The only character that likes to talk is John Fitzgerald, and I think he shares more in common with Glass than they might think. The whole movie is about surviving, but for what? What exactly are the two men fighting for?
It’s an interesting question. Yeah, it’s true. What Alejandro and I always wanted was to stay in the gray. With whether it’s the trappers or the Native Americans or Glass and Fitzgerald, you can kind of understand, at certain times, their motivation and what they were doing. There’s a lot of things Fitzgerald is arguing for and fighting for that, you know, you can say, “Yeah, he’s making some sense there.”
For us, because Fitzgerald had been scalped and suffered, all of his actions come from fear. Even when he kills Glass’ son, it’s not out of malice — it’s fear. Fitzgerald is thinking, “Shut up. They’re going to hear you.” It’s a panic moment. Even when he runs from the fort, that’s fear. Fear drives him, while Glass’ love for his son drives him — and that’s the main difference to him.