The Revenant

rev1Today we take a break from our tour of the Coen Brothers to look at the original script from the new Inarritu film. A link to the script can be found here.

I must be very clear [from the beginning of this review] that I have read the 2008 Black List draft of this script. If you look at the IMDb page for the completed movie, you will see Inarritu listed as the primary author. In order to find any reference to the writer of this [the 2008 Black List] draft, you must click on the “1 more credit” link. Only then will Mark L. Smith’s name appear.

In a superficial way we can deduce that much has changed between the filmed script, and the Black List version, solely based on the fact that a disproportionate number of the plot points that propel the original draft forward are grounded by the color of Hugh Glass’ skin. Since Leo plays Hugh in the filmed version, we know that  moderate revision [at least] has occurred. I justify using this draft for the review in part because, as screenwriters, we are as interested in the drafts that get attention as those that get filmed.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Westerns are [like science-fictions] stories in a genre that seem to require more exposition than ordinary dramas. The West was a big place, the location [and time period chosen] winnow the possibility field down in a way that may not be historically familiar to an average script reader. For this reason, writers in the Western genre inevitably give us more exposition than writers of contemporary stories—it just feels like they have to do this.

If you’ve read my thoughts on Iceberg Exposition, then you already know I disagree. As writers, it is fair to rely on the idea that any average reader is capable of inferring whatever is necessary about your story’s possibility field from their prior experience. It is not necessary for us to be fully literate in the early 1900’s California oil industry for us to understand why There Will be Blood in your story about the early 1900’s California oil industry.

That said, I do not think this Black List draft of The Revenant is a marvel of iceberg exposition. The first egregious example comes on page 2:

FITZGERALD
(under his breath)
Shame my Pap was a broken down
drunk. Else he could’ve bought me
a Captain’s job too.

Boone snickers. Fitzgerald stomps his boot onto a branch,
easily snaps it into two easy-to-carry pieces.

FITZGERALD (cont’d)
We got a plan for these fires,
Captain, or are we roastin’ berries
all the way up to Fort Union?

HENRY
Glass and the others will be back
with some game, Fitzgerald. Just
make sure you have the fires ready.

FITZGERALD
My supper’s in the hands of a
hermit nigger, a kid and a dummy.
Hell, my belly feels full already.

I call this example egregious because it isn’t even about the West, or the fur hunting expedition that puts this group of men in a position to be the subject of a story. Instead, these four lines of dialogue introduce most of the characters and all of the relationship tensions experienced by these characters. Nothing in these lines is “shown”; it’s all “told”.

Else he could’ve bought me
a Captain’s job too.

This line tells us that Fitzgerald doesn’t respect Henry’s authority. According to Fitzgerald, Henry’s right to lead was purchased instead of earned.

We got a plan for these fires,
Captain, or are we roastin’ berries
all the way up to Fort Union?

Here we learn the men are approaching desperate. There is nothing desperate humans need more than a competent leader who has the respect of her subordinates. By inference from the first line, Henry is not this leader.

Glass and the others will be back
with some game, Fitzgerald. Just
make sure you have the fires ready.

We now have the author signaling Glass is more important than “the others”, if for no other reason than he is named and the others aren’t. It is also important  because Henry defers to Glass’ competence. Henry believes Glass will get the men fed.

My supper’s in the hands of a
hermit nigger, a kid and a dummy.
Hell, my belly feels full already.

As the last line cited, it makes sense this is the worst offender. In no possible world does this line get spoken. Everyone in this scene knows who “Glass and the others” are already. When Fitzgerald lists them [and their attributes], he is doing it solely for the audience. We are also getting a lot of information about Fitzgerald’s aggressiveness. Clearly, he is not the type of who gets high marks for teamwork.

None of these lines would offend as much as they do if not for the barrage-like quality they inherit by coming all at once… on page 2. Basically, the author has sketched the dramatic outlines of his story in four lines of exposition based dialogue. There is no denying it feels like a cheat.

The last example we’ll look at comes from pages 34-36. I cite this one because I feel like it does a somewhat better job of incorporating necessary story information into the dialogue without just telling us what we need to know.

[In this scene Fitzgerald ends up caught in a life and death lie. His interlocutor is Bridger—“the kid” mentioned in the previous example.]

EXT. WILDERNESS – MORNING
Cold and grey. Fitzgerald crouches beside a small fire,
warming his hands. WHISPS OF SMOKE rise into the sky.

FITZGERALD
We ran the better part of six
hours. Had to gain some ground on
Henry and them others.

Bridger sits at the base of a tree, not listening…
staring… his mind replaying the desertion of Glass over and
over. He notices the smoke.

BRIDGER
Best douse that smoke before them
‘Ree spot it.

FITZGERALD
We put enough distance between us
and them. And it’s too damn cold
to go without one.

BRIDGER
All we know, they hoofed it through
the night same as us.

FITZGERALD
(shakes his head)
A dozen ‘Ree can’t make the time us
two did.

Bridger looks back to the trees… then considers something,
stares at Fitzgerald a beat, before…

BRIDGER
It was twenty earlier.

FITZGERALD
What?

BRIDGER
When you woke me… you said you’d
spotted twenty ‘Ree.

FITZGERALD
A dozen… twenty. I wasn’t in a
mood to count feathers. Hell, one
‘Ree woulda been too many.

Fitzgerald empties his canteen over the fire, killing the
flames. Bridger stares at the water pouring out.

BRIDGER
What was you even doin’ down at the
creak in the middle of the night?
(beat)
I’d already brought plenty a water.

Fitzgerald doesn’t answer. Bridger tightens his grip on his
rifle… slowly rises.

BRIDGER (cont’d)
Answer me.

FITZGERALD
Don’t start questionin’ me on
accounta you feelin’ guilty ‘bout
leavin’ your nigger buddy behind.

Bridger musters up all the courage he can… aims his rifle
at Fitzgerald.

BRIDGER
ANSWER ME OR I BLOW YOUR DAMN HEAD
OFF!

Fitzgerald stares back at Bridger and his rifle… eyes
taking in everything… a snake sizing up its prey. Then
Fitzgerald stands… takes a step toward the boy.

FITZGERALD
What’re you askin’? Why it was you
turned your back on Glass? Why you
let him die to save your own sorry
skin?
(beat)
‘Cause you was scared shitless,
that’s why.

BRIDGER
The ‘Ree… did you see ‘em?
(off Fitzgerald’s silence)
DID YOU SEE ‘EM?

FITZGERALD
(moving closer)
Not a one.

rev2Before I get into what I like about this scene, let me note that it STILL begins with exposition:

We ran the better part of six
hours.

Even though Fitzgerald directs this to Bridger, it’s obviously meant for the audience—Bridger already knows how long they ran, he was one of the ones running. Lines like this are hard to avoid because screenwriters know the easiest way to get information that happens off screen to the audience is to have one of the characters say what happened when the camera wasn’t looking. But, you don’t have to do this.

If this scene begins exactly the same way [but Fitzgerald and Bridger look worn out] the audience is going to assume they spent the time between the cuts running. It’s natural for our brains to do this, we will always do this, so don’t put these expository lines into your script UNLESS the time between the cuts was filled by something the audience isn’t going to assume.

With that lone criticism out of the way, the thing I like about this scene is the way Bridger accidentally catches Fitzgerald in his lie. It’s subtextually clear that Bridger believes Fitzgerald saw the Ree when the scene begins. He believes this so much, that he still wants to be extra careful. He wants to put the fire out so that the Ree can’t continue tracking them. This causes Fitzgerald [in keeping with his established character] to say the fire doesn’t matter because they put enough distance between them and the dozen Ree pursuing them. This leads to the discrepancy between Fitzgerald’s current story and his original story, about how many Ree they faced back at the river. When Fitzgerald again acts bizarrely dismissive, Bridger realizes he’s been lied to.

I found this to be an effective method to get us the information we need to know—Fitzgerald and Bridger abandoned Glass while he was still alive.

Again, this isn’t a script to study if you want to get a handle on how not to write exposition but, overall, the author makes a passable effort:

7 out of 10 points.

Part B) The subtext revolves around the fact that Glass is an African-American male in the 1820’s West. Basically, the author examines what it means to treat someone with the respect they deserve based on their abilities and aptitudes. Glass is, by far, the most competent of the men in his group, but he is also the best of them by whatever ethical maxim you choose. His treatment in the story is a commentary on meritocracy in general.

I say all this in the removed terminology of “meritocracies and ethical maxims” because I believe this Black List draft leaves its subtext wildly unploughed—as many weeds as fruits spring from this story land. A de facto proof of this is Leo’s casting as Glass. If being an African-American is so unimportant to the story that it only gets made when it is re-written for a White actor, then being an African-American was never important to Glass’ story to begin with.

I will see this film when it comes out in theatres because I want to understand what Inarritu’s draft does to resolve this problem. As we will see in question three a new engine [at minimum] is required for Glass. Many of the plot points in this story hold no water if Glass is white.

You might try and connect leadership and competence to Black and White issues plaguing us to this day. You might also trace how these issues unfold in the characters of Henry, Glass, and Fitzgerald. But, if this is what the author meant for us to get from his story, he was more than a little lazy building it into his story.

4 out of 10 points.

Part C) As it goes with exposition and subtext, so it goes with individuation. Our characters aren’t cardboard, but they aren’t real either. They’re holographs of people and speeches made by much better characters drawn by more sincere authors. I’ll sum this idea up with a quote from Glass about the quality of his life. From page 87:

GLASS
You told me once that other men
didn’t think like him.
(beat)
But the truth is, most do. I seen
it my whole life… the looks folks
give… the whisperin’. I watched
my wife and son die from the fever
on accounta no white doctor would
care for ‘em. Wasn’t no different
to them than if their neighbor’s
dog was sick.
(beat)
So I don’t figure nobody’s gonna
care much that Fitzgerald took some
dyin’ nigger’s rifle, and left him
in the middle of nowhere.
(turns to Henry)
Do you, Captain?

And compare that to this:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

These soliloquies say the same thing. One is a Xerox. One is a pure feeling.

5 out of 10 points.

A link to part two of this review.

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2 responses to “The Revenant

  1. I had heard about the troubles on the shoot owing to the light choices. The rest was new.

    It definitely takes a strong personality to do something interesting, I have no doubt this film [and every Inarritu film] will be interesting to watch.

    I do want to see if they solved the script issues before they started filming. There is the skeleton of an impressive story lurking in this architecture– I want to see if all that “sculpting” put the flesh on the bones.

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