Screenwriters, like actors and directors alike, can sometimes be "typecast," pegged to stay within one genre or to tell one type of story. On paper, writer Mark L. Smith would appear to be strictly a horror writer, having written the scripts for Seance (which he also directed), Vacancy and The Hole, along with an upcoming Martyrs remake, which is set for release on January 22, 2016. When you see The Revenant, opening in limited release Christmas Day before expanding January 8, you'll quickly learn that this writer can do so much more than just horror.
The Revenant (read my full review) went through several different iterations in development before finally hitting the silver screen. The project is based on Michael Punke's novel, which itself is loosely based on the true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a legendary frontiersman who somehow managed to survive a brutal grizzly bear attack, and get revenge on the treacherous fur trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who left him for dead. While the film is getting plenty of praise for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy's performances, and Alejandro González Iñárritu's direction, Mark L. Smith's incredible script will hopefully not be overlooked during awards season.
I recently had the chance to speak with Mark L. Smith over the phone about The Revenant, where he discussed working with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, earlier drafts of his script that depicted Hugh Glass as an African-American, the "bear rape" controversy and how between 30 and 40 pages of his screenplay features no dialogue whatsoever. The writer also sheds some light on upcoming projects such as Collider with director Edgar Wright and producer J.J. Abrams, a project based on the Ghost Recon video game series, and unspecified projects with director Morten Tyldum. Take a look at my conversation with screenwriter Mark L. Smith below.
I was just a huge fan of this movie, so I'm looking forward to picking your brain on this.
Mark L. Smith: That's great. I'm glad to hear it, and happy to try and give whatever answers I can.
I read this had been in development for several years. I believe Akiva Goldsman optioned the novel before it was even published, back in 2001. I also know you made The Black List with this script in 2007, so I'm curious about what time in the process you actually came on.
Mark L. Smith: Yeah, they sent me the book in early 2007, and I wanted to adapt it. I liked the story and the general idea so I wrote it in 2007, and we immediately attached an actor and a director. I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world, because I thought it was going to get made that year. And that was 2007, so I'm not quite as lucky. No, I'm kidding, because it worked out perfectly this way. It went through a lot of different iterations. Chan-wook Park was originally the first director, then it was David Slade, and then John Hillcoat and Francis Lawrence. We had a different cast, everyone from Samuel L. Jackson, at one point, to Christian Bale. It went through a gauntlet of things, where we thought things were going to happen. It just took all the right pieces. For Alejandro González Iñárritu to come on... Leonardo DiCaprio had circled it for a few years, but he was waiting for the right filmmaker, the right director. Then Alejandro came on board in 2010, and it all just fell into place.
You mentioned Sam Jackson. I saw the original synopsis for The Revenant on the 2007 Black List, and it said that Hugh Glass was a black man who was left for dead by these white fur trappers he was working for. I believe that the actual Hugh Glass is actually white, so can you talk about the decision to make Hugh Glass black in your earlier draft?
Mark L. Smith: Yeah, it was a long discussion. It was like, OK, is it a name change thing? Everyone was wanting to go down that route. That was the very, very first draft I wrote. It was funny, because it made The Black List, but it wasn't even really supposed to be seen. I was represented by the same people that represented Sam Jackson, and it was kind of an in-house thing. Then, somehow, that one got out, and it was almost kind of a test version. It would have been a very different film, with Sam Jackson.
There are a few screenwriting sites that post free, legal scripts to download around awards season, and I was looking for yours but I didn't see it on there yet. But I actually dug around and found an old 2010 draft online.
Mark L. Smith: Oh, really?
Yeah, I'm not sure how authentic it is, but it has the opening quote and...
Mark L. Smith: Oh, yeah, that's probably... I think, at times, we gave permission for it to be out there. So I think the 2010 was probably my last draft before Alejandro started working on it together.
What surprised me about that draft is it's 102 pages, and knowing what I know about screenwriting... and then seeing this two and a half hour movie, it doesn't quite add up, as far as the one page equals one minute rule.
Mark L. Smith: No, it doesn't. The page count, the page a minute thing, is all so director-related. Like, Alejandro loves long shots. In the film, just the opening, in the stream and in the woods, there are three minutes there where you're just on the water there. The way that he and Chivo (director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki) shoot, you can kind of throw that page count rule out the window. I think our last draft was... I think every draft I wrote was like 102 or 107. I may have gotten to 110, but I don't think we ever went over 110.
It's interesting because there are a lot of these long dialogue-less stretches in here that kind of reminded me of All is Lost, and there are only three lines in that entire movie. When you were crafting this, even before Alejandro came on board, were you envisioning this as this two and a half hour epic, even though the page count was much lower?
Mark L. Smith: Yeah, I knew it was going to be longer. When I first decided to do it, the producers sent me the book, and they wanted me to go around and pitch it to studios. I knew the pitch would be so tough, because it has so many difficult elements. It's a period piece with exterior wilderness shots, a lead character gets torn to shreds, and, especially, there's 30 or 40 pages with no dialogue. I told them I'd just write it on spec instead. What I did was, knowing I wasn't going to have the crutch of dialogue to tell my story, because a lot of times, you can just see information through words, chit-chat, and I didn't have that. I wrote the action... I made it very clear. I didn't abbreviate everything. I felt everything was laid out as visual as possible, so you could see the story playing out and the readers, I was hoping, would forget that nobody was talking. I did that, knowing that... I think in that one draft, the bear attack was two or three pages, but knowing that, once we start shooting, and the movements and everything, it would be closer to five or six pages.
A vast majority of movies don't shoot in sequence, but I know this movie was, and I believe all of Alejandro's movies are shot in sequence.
Mark L. Smith: Yeah, always, and it works in this one. I agree with him. If I was a filmmaker, I would do the same thing, because I feel the actors know the character, they understand the journey more clearly, more than, if suddenly, the first thing they're shooting is Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the ice. It worked and because the journey was kind of a clear, seasonal thing. I think in my draft, it starts with an autumn leaf floating down the river or something and you know it's the end of fall and you're going into winter. I did that because I wanted to feel like the world was getting colder and harder, and you wanted to feel Glass more alone. The way that we wrote it with that season thing, it worked out perfectly for him to shoot in sequence.
Especially showing Glass' journey, with all of the scars and the exhaustion, it had to have been a lot easier for Leo too.
Mark L. Smith: Oh, yeah, I think so. Then they took like a holiday break for four or five weeks or something, and I think Leo had to go on a little diet, so he would look more like a starving guy, the Tom Hanks - Cast Awaything. He really wanted to look like he's been suffering.
I read that the holiday break was actually a lot longer because of the weather. Was that part of the hindrance of shooting in sequence?
Mark L. Smith: We should have been fine. Everything was good, but Calgary had their warmest, least snow in I think two decades. We just ran out of snow. Whenever those mountains were supposed to be covered in snow, there was just no snow to be found. We were actually trucking in dump truck loads of snow to put around a scene. They just couldn't pull it off anymore. They waited two or three months, and then went to Argentina and shot for 10 days. So, all the Fitzgerald Glass chase stuff that takes place after the fort, that was all done in Argentina.
Can you talk a bit about your work with Alejandro on the script? You both have a writing credit for the screenplay, so can you talk a bit about how that affected the story, and what kinds of things opened up when he started working with you?
Mark L. Smith: We kept everything with the journey and the path and the layout of the scenes. If you look at the 2010 draft, other than trimming some things back, I had an interaction with Glass and a Native American tribe, before he goes off with one of the solitary Indians. But, we kept a lot of the same... it was like if you laid railroad tracks through the wilderness. It was all there, the tracks were all laid. Alejandro brought some very cool... there were some thematic things that he really wanted to explore, including the racism of that time, the clash of the cultures, and more of the mysticism and spirituality than I had in my earlier drafts. He added color to the landscape, around those tracks.
I saw the movie, I believe a day or two after the very first screening, which is where, I think, the whole "bear rape" controversy came from.
Mark L. Smith: Yeah, wasn't that just the most bizarre thing?
That story came out, and I got my invite that day. I saw it two days later, and we only saw these tiny bits and pieces in the trailer, and I'm glad we didn't see any more because it's just an amazing scene. But when I saw it, I thought, "This doesn't make sense. It's a mother bear."
Mark L. Smith: (Laughs) I know. Actually, Alejandro and I were doing Q&A's in New York, and it was right when that story broke. Someone said something and the joke was that was Alejandro rewrote me, because in my scene, it was strictly consensual. It was so bizarre, you just have to laugh about it.
It was strange because it got to a point where the studio actually had to release a statement saying it wasn't bear rape.
Mark L. Smith: Yeah! I'm not a big Twitter follower and all that stuff, but I was curious, and I couldn't believe how it spread. It was just taking off from this random thing. I don't even know who decided to say it.
Aside from the delays and everything, it had to have been a brutal shoot with the weather conditions. I was curious how much time you spent on the set, and if you spent any time doing rewrites while shooting was under way?
Mark L. Smith: No. Well, yes, I was up there, but it was almost as someone just there to watch. I enjoyed the process so much, but the way that Alejandro shoots, everything is so choreographed and so rehearsed, weeks and months in advances, that once he starts shooting, there's not a lot of rewriting. There were a couple of times where he would ask me to change very small things, but very rarely. It's like a dance that he's already put into motion, so there's not much rewriting. If there was anything, a dialogue change, sometimes he would just throw it in there. It was brutal, weather-wise, for the cast and crew. I don't know how they did it, but if I was cold, I went to my trailer and got hot chocolate (Laughs). I don't have nearly the war stories as any of these guys.
What are your biggest takeaways from working with Alejandro? He has such a unique vision, and I also heard he wanted to do this like Birdman, as one sequential shot.
Mark L. Smith: The plan was to do longer things. They shot that original opening attack, it was like that all the way through. We follow that same camera. I saw a version of that which was just amazing. He has these things he calls stitches, which is you pan across a shadow of a tree, and that's our starting point and the stitch goes in and we continue. It feels like one long take. Once he started looking at it, he realized he wanted other elements. He almost felt too restricted that way, so he added more cuts and other things so the world could feel bigger. It's better when you have hallways and a stage, the way Birdman was. Once he was in that world, he wanted to let Chivo do his thing.
Mark L. Smith: Exactly. That's exactly what he was going for.
I see you also wrote a remake of Martyrs, that comes out next month I believe?
Mark L. Smith: That was one of those things I wrote back when I wrote Vacancy, back in 2005 or 2006. Someone just had it and decided to do it. I didn't really know about it. All of the sudden the movie got made. Now I'm doing a few things with Leo, and something else with Tom Hardy) and something else with J.J. Abrams and a couple of things with Morten Tyldum, who directed The Imitation Game. So I'm just trying to branch out a bit. The J.J. Abrams one is Collider, with Edgar Wright and I'm doing Ghost Recon at Warner Bros and I'm supposed to do something with Robert Redford, which I'm hoping comes together, because his plan is to direct. He's just one of my favorites, so we're trying to fit that in to. But, like I said, Morten Tyldum is just my guy. I just like him so much. We've worked together and we just enjoy each other's company, so hopefully both of those will happen soon.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Ghost Recon. The video game movie genre has always been kind of a joke, and now there are these big movies coming out that might change things, like Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell.
Mark L. Smith: Yeah, we're trying to make it serious, not get that video game vibe. We're trying to give it, in some ways, kind of a Lone Survivor kind of vibe.
I was curious if you have any advice for aspiring writers? You've written in a number of different genres, so is there anything you can say about how young writers should approach writing in different genres?
Mark L. Smith: For me, everything starts with character. That's why I think I do different genres, because I don't think it matters. I can take Hugh Glass and stick him in a hotel room in Vacancy, or take the people from Vacancy and put them in the wilderness and figure out a movie. If you start with the big characters and strong characters that people want to get behind, and put them in a cool world, you can do any genre. That's the one thing big films of any genre share, great characters. That's where I always start. I'm kind of self-taught, so I don't have the best technique. I don't outline, so I'm not always the best person to follow, because I spend a lot of time beating my head against the wall because I'm blocked because I wasn't smart enough to outline something before I did it. The thing I learned early on, I wrote a script and I passed it along, I gave it to people and I forgot about it. I'd enter contests, but I wouldn't wait to hear what everybody said before I wrote the next thing. I wrote it, and then I wrote the next one. I'd pass that along to people, and I'd write the next one. You just have to keep writing, and it really is a war of attrition. You just keep going, and you just outlive the bastards. The people that say no early on, you just keep going. I'm very competitive, so part of what pushed me was like, OK, you passed on this. I'll write something else. You've just got to keep going. That is the most crucial element to it all. Just trust yourself, write good characters, tell the story and, after you finish, don't wring your hands waiting to get a response, to see what they're going to say about that one. Always start thinking of your next one and start doing it. The very first workshop I went to was at AFI, years ago, when I decided I wanted to do this. The first thing he said to anyone was, "All you guys who are in here, you think you're going to write a script. None of you will write a script. You'll all want to, and you'll feel like you're going to, but you're not going to do it, because life is going to come in and you'll decide it's too hard. I took that kind of as a challenge, from that point on. It was like, 'Wow, fuck that. I am going to do it.' You just do it. Find your voice and keep going and don't get discouraged. It will work, it really will work out. That's part of the point of continuing to write the next thing, is you don't have time to get down, if the first one didn't work out. Just keep plugging.
That's my time. Thanks so much, Mark. It was so great talking to you.
Mark L. Smith: This was great. It was really a pleasure and I enjoyed it.
The Revenant, written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu, hits theaters in limited release Christmas Day, and expands nationwide January 8. Will you be checking out this harrowing drama when it hits theaters? Let us know what you think, and stay tuned for more on Mark L. Smith's upcoming projects.