“I think he wanted to toss me off the cliff.” Mark L. Smith on The Revenant and Martyrs
Mark L. Smith discusses long development periods, how he took a special approach to writing The Revenant, and what appeals to him about stories of survivors.
By Christopher McKittrick.
For screenwriter Mark L. Smith, patience has paid off. After not having one of his credited screenplays produced since 2009’s The Hole, two films he wrote have been released recently. The Revenant, one of the most acclaimed drama of 2015, and Martyrs, a remake of the French horror movie that debuted at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
Both The Revenant and Martyrs are screenplays that are several years old. Smith wrote the first draft of The Revenant in 2010, and he wrote the script for Martyrs shortly after writing Vacancy, the 2007 horror movie directed by Nimród Antal. In the case of The Revenant, Smith substantially rewrote the script with Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Alejandro González Iñárritu once Iñárritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio decided to make the film. The Revenant is now nominated for 12 Oscars, including Best Picture.
Both films put their protagonists through the wringers. In The Revenant, DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, a real-life trapper on the American frontier who was nearly killed by a bear attack. When his half-Native American son refuses to abandon him, Glass’ colleague Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) murders Glass’ son and leaves Glass for dead. Close to death, Glass refuses to expire until he can get vengeance on Fitzgerald.
In Martyrs, Lucie and Sarah are two young girls who meet in an orphanage. Lucie is haunted by memories of being physically abused, and when she reaches adulthood she proceeds to hunt down those responsible. However, when Sarah comes after her she learns that Lucie’s abusers are part of a sinister scheme of biblical proportions.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Smith about the long development period for both films, how he took a special approach to writing The Revenant because it was written on spec, and what appeals to him about stories about survivors.
The script for The Revenant went through many drafts over many years and saw a number of lead actors and directors attached. How did it change from draft to draft?
Actually it changed very little, believe it or not. Once Leo came aboard with Alejandro the larger changes happened. Up until that point from 2007 to 2010, the changes were very subtle things. The initial draft was written for Samuel L. Jackson, so the lead character was going to be African American. Obviously that is a different version, and some of the racism played into that.
After that it remained very close to the original. I sponged off some smart things that directors and actors had to say along the way, and I would tweak it based on notes or thoughts that I liked. That influenced some subtle changes.
The screenplay I read was dated August 2010. I was struck by how detailed your descriptions are. In particular, I was really impressed with how detailed the bear attack scene was. Did you go into detail because of the script’s limited dialogue?
Exactly. Knowing that it was almost like a silent film in a lot of ways, I knew that I couldn’t waste any words for the actions and the visuals. I needed it to all jump out for readers because early on I was writing it as a spec.
I had to make sure that the readers were into it, turning the page, following the story, and understanding that they weren’t going to get exposition through dialogue. I didn’t want them to miss people talking, so I got very detailed and I felt everything had to be super visual to pop off the page in order to keep them interested. That was the big challenge.
It wasn’t a thing where I could just write, “And now the bear attacks Hugh Glass and they have this epic fight.” I felt that the movie had to be there so that the reader could have a visceral reaction to the words.
I interviewed Alejandro’s three Birdman co-writers and they referred to him a few times as a “madman.” Based on your time working with him, would you agree with that label?
[Laughs] You’ll hear different versions from different people, but we got along so well. He had this very specific point of view and I would adjust to that.
Maybe he’s a mad genius. “Genius” is a word I rarely use and I don’t really like it that much, but I give people that label when they can see things that no one else can see. He would have some ideas and I would say, “Alejandro, we can’t pull this off. It’s not going to work,” and he would say, “Mark, trust me, we can do this.”
In the end, he was right. That to me is the greatest compliment I can give someone. The same thing happened during production whenever they were struggling with fighting the weather and the elements. He has such a clear vision of exactly what he wanted and then he makes it happen.
Speaking of that struggling, the often-repeated narrative about this movie is how difficult the shoot was. When you were writing a script with material this intense, were you ever concerned that it might have been too difficult to film, which could have prevented it from being produced, or do you just focus on writing the best script you possibly can regardless?
I write the story that I feel is the absolute best version of every scene, and then you let the experts figure out how to pull it off. I was on set one day and talking to some of the stunt guys about a very intricate stunt that they were trying to pull off involving some of the Arikara warriors scaling the cliffs with the river going by. It was huge and took a few days. I leaned over and told the guy, “Yeah, I wrote this thing in like fifteen minutes.” I think he wanted to toss me off the cliff.
Writers can create from the warmth of our desks and the real amazing guys are the ones who have to pull it off. My job is to make sure that the words on the page really grab people, and it’s on the other people to pull it off. With The Revenant everyone was just incredible, and I think it shows. Sometimes it doesn’t come through like that. It’s always a little bit of a crapshoot.
While the main story of The Revenant focuses on Glass, I was engaged by the relationship between the white and Native American characters. There is one Native American character who says to the French, “You all have stolen everything from us.” That parallels Glass’ conflict with Fitzgerald as well. Could you say anything regarding that?
Since my earliest drafts this was always a parent-child story at the base of it. The revenge and the betrayal would kick start it and that would light the journey, but that was the emotion that started it.
With the Native American characters we were trying to show the humanity of both sides and how similar they are even though the cultures were so different. On a battlefield Glass and the Arikara chief would be fighting to the death, but here we see them both in pursuit of their children, in a way. Glass’ journey is built all around the murder of his son and what he’s trying to get back from that and the Akira chief is trying to find his daughter. They are parallel journeys and they are very similar men in a lot of ways, but they’re perceived so differently.
We tried to hit on that and tried to show the struggle that the Native Americans saw with these people pouring over their land and devouring what they lived off of to profit from it. It was a very different point of view.
It’s even shown in the opening setup during the battle. Glass is racing through, trying to save people by getting them into the boat and telling them to leave the pelts, then the camera pans across and there’s Fitzgerald yelling to grab the pelts. Immediately you see the two different perspectives of those characters in that world and what’s important to them. It’s a subtle thing and a lot of people don’t necessarily catch the differences between the two men during that battle, but it’s already planted there.
Another small character moment that demonstrates the common humanity is when Glass and Hikuc are catching snowflakes in the mouths.
That scene was actually Alejandro’s idea. It was a way to have a bonding moment and a little glimpse of what I had in my earlier drafts. There was more lightness in my script and a few more smiles, but those got pulled for different reasons – a lot of them for good reasons.
But Alejandro put that in to replace some of that so you could see two men who were similar. It’s just like two friends who are very different men that are sharing this world together. I love that moment. It was one of those scenes that when Alejandro was talking about it I wondered if we could get away with it, and then whenever I saw it on screen it became one of my favorite sequences.
Moving on to Martyrs, what about the original French version of Martyrs appealed to you?
I wrote the script after I sold Vacancy. What attracted me to it is that I’m not a lover of violence. Even when I wrote Vacancy I was trying to put those characters in a very violent world but not really show the violence.
What I was attracted to with Martyrs was how the relationship between the two girls started at a young age, and what you’re willing to do for your best friend. The characters in that story are what really drew me to it.
We made a big change from the original in the midpoint in order to sustain that relationship. In the midpoint of the original, the main character [Lucie] kills herself. This version became less about watching someone be tortured and more about trying to save a friend.
I tried to stay away from all the violence and keep it off-screen, which was kind of the polar opposite of the original. I know a lot of people love it, but that isn’t what I wanted to do. I think people are probably right when they say it’s “Americanized.” The cultures are different to some extent, but it’s more just my taste. I’m not saying it’s not the right taste, it’s just my taste.
Both Martyrs and The Revenant are stories of survival, as is Vacancy. In fact, the leads of all three films seem to follow the advice of Glass’ wife – “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.” Does anything in particular draw you to survival stories?
It’s funny, I haven’t really thought about that but you’re right. I think there is something about that – the desperation, the will to survive, what we’re able to overcome whether it’s to survive or to protect or avenge someone – that interests me and I’m tapping into that. Now that you mention it, there are a few other things that I’ve written that have that same theme going on! [Laughs]
I have to admit that I’m drawn to films and stories with less technology. I love the idea of Man vs. Nature in The Revenant and the world without the use of cell phones, Siri, GPS, and all the modern things we can use. I like that in Vacancy as well where everything was stripped away. Then you’re really getting into the character. You’re watching people dig deep to use whatever they have within them to survive.
I love The Grey. I just love that film. For me it just comes down to character. You often find great characters in those kinds of stories. The narrative doesn’t rely on outside elements to help. Man on Fire is another favorite of mine where you’re watching a character dig from the depths to go after something that was important and to stay alive. I really do feel that all stems from character.
I wrote Endurance, which DiCaprio is a producer on, and it’s about Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole when his ship became stuck. Again, it’s Shackleton and his crew trying to survive and last every day until they can figure a way out. It allows you to bring out the best in a character. Or the worst in some ways, because I feel it’s important to tap into both angles.
If you enjoyed this article, you can read more about Alejandro G. Iñárritu in our interview with him: Writing Without Irony.
And our interview with Alejandro’s three Birdman co-writers can be found here: Completely One Shot? Don’t Even Try It.