Oscar-winning film 'The Revenant' went through several director and actor attachments, but Smith survived them all to tell his tale.
Well before the legendary production tales of chasing snow around the world and the grueling shoot days in the wilderness, screenwriter Mark L. Smith faced his own series of challenges to write the screen adaptation of The Revenant. At the 2016 edition of the Austin Film Festival this past October, I had an in-depth conversation with Smith during our Script-to-Screen panel about the film, which is now available in a condensed format as part of AFF's On Story podcast.
"The true story isn't quite as compelling after a certain point."
In our conversation below, Smith tells the backstory of adapting The Revenant over almost a decade, the importance of writing descriptive action sequences, and his collaboration on the script with writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. To listen, jump to the 22:57 mark of the podcast. If you don't have time to listen now, keep reading for five key insights that Smith shared about his journey to writeThe Revenant.
1. The Revenant could have been directed by Park Chan-wook and starred Samuel L. Jackson as Hugh Glass
Anonymous Content initially approached Smith with Michael Punke's historical novel about Hugh Glass in 2007. They asked Smith if he was interested in the story and would he be willing to pitch his take on the book to studio executives to help Anonymous secure a distribution partner. As Smith considered his pitch about a protagonist that barely speaks throughout the film, he realized that no studio executive would want to move forward to the script stage. Instead, Smith told Anonymous that he would write the original draft on spec because he thought a fully realized script would be a much easier sell.
Smith estimated that he wrote between 10 and 12 drafts before Iñárritu signed on to direct in 2010.
Since that original spec script, The Revenant went through a series of director and star attachments. Early in the process, Park Chan-wook was attached to direct as his first American film, and Samuel L. Jackson came aboard at one point to play Hugh Glass. Both John Hillcoat and Francis Lawrence were attached to direct at certain points, then dropped off, and Christian Bale was set to star as Glass for a while before stepping away. With each attachment, Smith would work on additional drafts to accommodate the new director or star. He estimated that he wrote between 10 and 12 drafts before Iñárritu signed on to direct in 2010. DiCaprio had been circling the project for a long time before finally committing.
With all the pieces for The Revenant finally in place, the financing for The Wolf of Wall Street came together and DiCaprio stepped away. Iñárritu decided to use the unanticipated break to do Birdman, which Smith admits, "kind of worked out for him." During Birdman, the director stayed in communication with Smith about The Revenant, even sending Smith key story ideas that eventually made their way into the final film.
2. Smith balanced historical facts and an historical novel with his own fiction to make the best film possible
From the outset of his writing process, Smith knew he would use the bear attack and the relationship between Hugh Glass and John Fitzgerald to launch the film, all of which was based in historical fact and was included in Punke's novel. From that point forward, Smith felt free to write whatever he thought would make the best film, regardless of historical fact or basis in Punke's novel, because, as he says, "the true story isn't quite as compelling after a certain point."
Over the many years of writing the screenplay, Smith became good friends with the novel's author Punke despite the significant departures the screenplay took from the book's original narrative. As Smith created his own version of the story, he consulted with Punke on several details, particularly around tribal culture, because of the author's expertise to make sure the film was still authentic.
3. The bear attack proves why writing descriptive, specific action is essential
In the script, Smith wrote very specific action beats for the bear attack. Smith's version of the bear attack sequence uses cross-cuts between the attack and the rest of the party running through the woods to find Glass. Smith credits Iñárritu for making a really smart choice not to cut away during the bear attack so the audience can't escape, just like Glass is trapped by this bear. Smith points out that Iñárritu also added the second bear attack in the sequence to heighten the action, but otherwise, the action beats in the film are included in Smith's first draft of the script.
"You want [the reader] to keep turning the page. You can't cheat on the action."
Smith advises writers to be very specific and descriptive with their action, especially with spec scripts, noting, "you want [the reader] to keep turning the page. You can't cheat on the action."
4. There are four stages of collaboration when working with Iñárritu on a script
Smith loved collaborating with Iñárritu on this project, and explained that there are four stages of collaboration when working with the director on the script:
I would write some pages, and he would write some pages. That was stage one. And then stage two was we would swap, and he would read mine and I would read his. And then stage three, we would argue over whose pages were better. And then stage four, Alejandro always won the arguments. But that's the way it should be because if you want to win those arguments, you've got to be a director.
Smith continued, saying that in his view, the writer's job is to work for the director, "giving him [or her] the best version you can of the film he [or she] wants to make."
5. The Revenant is not a revenge story
The full title of the novel upon which the film is based is "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge." But for Smith, the film The Revenant is not a revenge story. Smith noted that Fitzgerald's line at the end of the film telling Glass that he is never getting his son back may be a little "on the nose," but it drives home the point for Glass that revenge is an empty goal. Glass will always have to live with the pain of the loss of his son.
Ironically, Smith's favorite moment of DiCaprio's performance would never have happened if the writer could have stuck to his original vision of the story.
In an early draft of the script, Smith opened the story with Glass carving the wood of his rifle handle along with his young son, who is sick. The boy cuts himself while carving and a drop of his blood stains the wood. The story then jumps ahead to Glass on the frontier with the same rifle after his son's death. After the bear attack, when Fitzgerald leaves Glass for dead and takes his rifle, the story becomes Glass' determination to retrieve the rifle because it is all he has left of the boy. Whether Fitzgerald lives or dies is secondary to Glass retrieving the rifle. Smith explained how the rifle in that early draft represented Glass' humanity through the connection to his deceased son.
When Iñárritu came aboard, the director felt the audience needed a more visceral connection with Glass and his journey, so the fictional Pawnee son, Hawk, was introduced into the story. Ironically, Smith admitted that his favorite moment of DiCaprio's performance—when Glass sees Hawk lying dead for the first time after Glass has dragged himself out of the grave—would never have happened if Smith could have stuck to his original vision of the story. Reflecting upon this moment, Smith acknowledged, "Good things can come out of different paths."