Interview: 'The Revenant' Screenwriter Mark L. Smith Explores Love And Fear

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.

hardy revenant

Fitzgerlad's speech about the squirrel and God is very illuminating. Was that a moment from the book or did you find that along the way?

[Laughs.] That was along the way. I'm giving all credit for that to Alejandro. We would write stuff sometimes and send it back-and-forth to each other, and... Fitzgerald is quoting the Bible and has this religious backstory, but then, "If a man is starving and God is a squirrel, do you eat the squirrel?" What's more important? [Laughs.] It was a very interesting way to go at Fitzgerald with that scene.

Once principal photography began, were you still emailing each other pages?

With how him and Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] shoot, everything is so choreographed that the script was locked-in without any changes, because it's like a ballet for them. Everyone has to know their turn and what to say at the right moment, so there's not a lot of improv or changes going on. He asked me to do a few things, if he found something wasn't working quite right, but those were always very small. If he thought that he needed something, he's confident and good enough to know how to make it work. Once it started shooting, I was the guy who just got to smile and watch.

I spoke to Mr. Iñárritu's co-writers for Birdman, and they mentioned, because of how his camera flows and his use of transitions, they had to really keep his style in mind while writing. Did you do the same?

Him and Chivo would come up with a lot of that. Some of the things were accidents that would lead to scenes. It would get so cold at times and Leo's breath would fog the lens, and then Alejandro and Chivo thought it was beautiful, would keep going, and then transition to clouds or smoke. In the opening, with the river attack, they shot it very Birdman-esque. They found they're little stitch points and would go again, and he realized he wanted a little more scope, so he added cuts and things he originally hadn't attended, to give it a more frantic feel.

The script itself pretty much stayed the same. When Alejandro came aboard in 2011, we had our version finished by 2012. We were going to shoot it with Leo, but then Leo went and did Wolf of Wall Street, so it got pushed back. After Alejandro did Birdman, he figured out that technique he liked, and our script was done by the time he learned some of the tricks.

Discussing those landscape shots, how did you want the environment and its history to reinforce Glass' story?

I always knew I was going to open on a little stream or a river, and the water represented life. I had a little autumn leaf float down — and this has changed a little bit — but, from where I was coming at it, that started us on his journey. I knew it was going to be going through the seasons. It was very clear in the script the world got colder, icier, more frozen and harder. The branches freezing over, the snow, and the ice crunching beneath his booths, I felt it made him more isolated, like Glass was totally alone in this giant world, with these mountains surrounding him. The bigger the landscape and the colder the world could feel, the more solitary he became. That was always crucial to me, in the descriptions and how I wrote the script.

Unless I'm mistaken, I read the timeline was condensed.

Yes, we did condense it some. I did so much research. I liked the novel, but after I read it, I wanted to see what else was out there about Hugh Glass. From the novel itself, I think Alejandro and I used the grizzly attack and Fitzgerald and Bridger leaving him — and that was kind of it. The author, Michael Punke, became a friend, and he was so critical in helping me understand the vibe and the world, but character-wise and story-wise, even from my first drafts, I took it in what I thought was a more cinematic way. Then Alejandro added some elements, thematically and with some character stuff.

revenant landscape

What did you learn about Glass in your research that stuck with you throughout the writing process?

Even before this he was a sailor and an adventurer. He had been through these pretty incredible experiences even prior to this, so there was a real spark of life in him. I knew that he had lived with Pawnee tribes and had a wife, so we built a family idea. He was almost a Paul Bunyan-esque kind of guy. There's always these legends and facts, and you're not always sure what's what, so I just took from what interested me most.

Since his history is a little mysterious, did you feel more comfortable taking creative liberties with his story?

Because of the time it took place and because it was so sketchy... 90% of everyone will say Bridger was there, but you'd find some that would say Bridger wasn't there. You had enough gray to play with, so I was comfortable with taking liberties. If we were dealing with facts I knew were true, I wouldn't have been able to do it. For this one, I did feel there were a lot of blanks to be filled.

What did your initial drafts for The Revenant look like? Were any notable changes made?

In my earlier drafts before Alejandro came on, my father-son stuff was different. My story was that the son had died previous to the journey, that he had been sick while he was young. You open with these scenes of Glass and son, carving a star in a hunting rifle — the stock of a hunting rifle. While they're carving the star, the son is coughing and you know he's dying. The son pricks his finger and blood falls into the star on the rifle, and then you flash forward and we're right where we are with the attack. Glass is still holding the rifle, but it's very worn and you can still see the star on the stock of the rifle.

When Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger leave him, in my earlier drafts, Fitzgerald took the rifle. All Glass wanted to do was hold his rifle, so he's gripping his rifle, because it means so much to him. Glass' journey was less about revenge, more about getting his rifle back — which is almost like his son. It was almost a kidnapping story at that point. I didn't like the revenge thing, so I didn't go that route. Then Alejandro came in and added the son, because he thought it could be really powerful, and the idea because of he's half-Native American the racism angle could come in and you could show the cultures and how they blended together. We both felt revenge was empty — a goal without a reward. It's hard to celebrate, because the character is lost. Revenge is the spark that gets him going, but it's a spiritual journey.

[Spoilers for the ending of The Revenant ahead.]

You mentioned earlier you and Alejandro wanted this film to live in the gray, and the ending certainly does. Glass doesn't kill Fitzgerald himself – but he does kind of kill him by giving him up.

[Laughs.] Yeah, it's kind of a cheat in a way, because it's not like Glass thought he was going to get out of this. Even in my earlier drafts, during the final battle scene, Fitzgerald is in freezing water and drowning, and all that was holding him was the rifle. Glass just took the rifle, so when the rifle was gone, Fitzgerald drowned under the ice. Again, it's not him killing him, but in both cases, he knows he's going to die. It was tough, but it was real important to Alejandro to make sure the audience was on the journey with Glass, to make it feel real. If three people walk into a room, they may all have different perceptions, and Alejandro wanted that for the audience, to feel different ways about certain characters, what Glass got out of this, and what happens at the end. He didn't want to be so clean, so there would be things to discuss at the end.

***

The Revenant is now in limited release and expands January 8th.