Thursday, January 14, 2016


This is a long post written over several weeks and three different posts. If you see a typo, please tell me. Thanks.

I've taken this long to post this long analysis because the movie demonstrates a perfect structure that resulted in a visible roller-coaster effect, thanks to LIGHTWAVE. It is, therefore, worthy of study. The turning points match the idea perfectly and yet are portrayed in several ironic ways. In terms of structure THE REVENANT, is the "same thing only different."

Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu,  based book by Michael Punke

FITZ - John Fitzgerald (TOM HARDY)
CA - Capt. Andrew Henry: DOMHNALL GLEESON
JB - Jim Bridger (WILL POULTER)
TO - Toussaint (FABRICE ADDE)

LENGTH: 106 minutes.

DISCLAIMER: The controversy swirls about what to call indigenous Native Americans, and whether to capitalize the term referring to them. There are arguments and interest groups on at least a dozen fronts. I don't pretend to have an opinion on the topic. In this post I've taken the common term "indian" to refer generically to these "first nation" peoples. 

Post 1-14-16: 
Here is the proof of what a number of us story gurus have been preaching for years. LIGHTWAVE (TM) has measured the emotional response of an audience watching THE REVENANT. I've been able to talk with Rana June, Lightwave's CEO. She supplied the higher resolution image below than was first disseminated to the news bureaus (click on it), and I'm attempting to get more information so I can correlate my forthcoming beat analysis of THE REVENANT to this chart. The wrist band that LIGHTWAVE has come up with to collect the biometric data and the data manipulating that they do will change how movies are written.

I predict that this wristband will be worn at table reads, or silent individual reads of the script. The analysis effort some of us provide can ensure this emotional response so the "slow middle" and other problems with stories, can be effectively eliminated. Just compare the structure of THE REVENANT biometrics with the chart I've been using for years, below.

Here is the chart we try to get filmmakers and novelists to follow. Look at the similarities. And I can tell you how to get there.

Post 1-30-16:  
Prompted by the Northville Screenwriter's Meetup Group I started in on analyzing the beats of REVENANT. I watched the movie for a second time from the back row, my iPhone's stopwatch giving me timings and a light to take many pages of notes of scene breaks and action. I then overlaid my notes on Lightwave's charts, here overlapped.

I've turned the chart below on it's side so the action/scene/sequence descriptions can be easily read, and I've put in the far right margin the traditional major story beats. They line up very closely if you have an idea about what the story is really about....there's a hint in my notes. I'll write a blog about this in the future, and on April 23, 2016 I will present a workshop on this at the Rochester Writer's Conference at Oakland University


In the meantime, (1) click on the image for a larger size, and then (2) download it for your own study. Again, a major hit movie follows the moral premise beats, whether or not the writer and director knew anything about them from my book or work. This doesn't prove anything about me, but rather about the natural law of good stories. As one Pixar writer/director told a friend of mine recently who was exposed to this stuff..."We didn't know any of that. We just kept working at it until it felt right." Exactly. Perseverance will get you there if you have enough smart people in the room and put in the time to do it. But knowing what makes good stories work...can get you there faster. I love this stuff. Writer better, write faster. Know the Moral Premise of your story and apply it to everything. 


Post 2-15-16
For a generic explanation of the major beats (explained below for THE REVENANT) see my post on StoryStructure Basics. I'll try to avoid duplication below and assume you understand that earlier post. 

While each of the major beat labels below work best in a general sense, in some instances there are other names for these beats used by other story gurus, (as well as beats within these beats). A good guide to what other structuralists term these major, accidental, and minor beats can be found on my expanded Story Diamond Key PDF.

The beats below focus on the protagonist, Hugh Glass (HG), his main arc, and the movie's major plot. HG has subplots, which also have beats, but not as many as the main plot described below. Other main characters also have beats and an arc, but not as many as HG's main plot. 

HG avoids conflict where possible. When given a choice between fight or flight he chooses flight. He is not seeking to confront the French who ravaged his wife's village and killed her (flight). When the indians attacks the American trappers he guides through the NW wilderness, he runs for the boats. When Fitz verbally attacks him for marrying a Pawnee woman and expresses his hate for Hawk, their son, Hawk wants to defend himself, but HG tells his son that to survive he must be silent.  

2. INCITING INCIDENT (Ideally 12.5%)
At 12% Fitz verbally attacks Hawk and HG. This is the challenge to HG not to take a neutral, Laissez-faire, avoid all conflict worldview. HG's best retort to Fitz is that he holds the "smart end of the gun," the barrel of which is pointed at Fitz's gut.  

At 16% the bear attack is the inciting incident for HG's "moral wound" sub plot (see THE GOAL below), but it is not the I.I. for the main plot. However, there's a rich connection. See 3, below).

HG tells his son, Hawk, to be silent and not confront Fitz's hatred.
Although Fitz never stops in his condemnation of HG, Hawk and such, HG avoids putting the confrontation front and center and dealing with it. HG lets the hatred ferment. 

The bear attack is a clear metaphor for Fitz's hatred. Consider: (a) the bear attack is more visible than Fitz's verbal taunts. (b) the bear's vicious attack of HG SHOWS us what Fitz would like to do to HG. (c) When faced with the bear, HG is on the "smart end of the gun" but he AVOIDS the confrontation at first and does not fire fast enough, and the mother bear (attempting to protect her cubs) attacks. (d) When his fellow trappers find HG and try to save his life, Fitz goes off and smokes his pipe commenting that they ought to let HG die. At one side of the screen is a passive (dead) bear; on the other side of the screen is a passive Fitz, but who is very much alive and is every bit the threat to HG that the bear was. It's like a WWF tag team. The first bear is defeated and the other bear jumps into the ring. In this case, dramatically, the bear and Fitz are allies, and Fritz takes this into account and his action coming up.

If I recall the scene correctly, also notice that just before HG goes off early morning to hunt and during which he encounters the bear, he consoles Hawk, who is grieving Fitz's hatred, his mother's death, and HG's insistence that he stay silent. If HG and Hawk were not in conflict over how to deal with Fitz, Hawk would not be grieving, and he would be capable and willing to go hunting with his father as he has done before. Had Hawk gone with HG, it is unlikely that HG would have been mauled by the bear because Hawk would have protected HG's flank. Thus, the bear attack is the  indirect consequence of HG's rejection of the journey to confront his oppressors.

At 25%, after difficulty carrying HG's litter through the wilderness, HG's litter slides down the rocky, ice covered embankment, announcing the litter's occupants silent decision to stay behind and not endanger the rest of the party's lives by being a burden to their ability to get quickly out of the wilderness and survive. 

This normally would be a clear choice of the protagonist to cross the threshold and go on the journey, but in this scene is it implied and not explicit. 

Another unique aspect to this turning point is that the protagonist STAYS IN PLACE while the rest of his "world" crosses the hill and continues on their physical journey. HG's journey begins with him staying put, thus endangering his life in multiple ways....but also forcing him to deal with his weakness of non-confrontation. 

"Crossing the Threshold" is counted as part of the Act 1 Climax, and not usually a separate beat, although it is usually a separate scene. It is here, nonetheless, that the protagonist's goal is revealed. So, let's take this moment to highlight three things: HG's goal(s), the Hook, and the Moral Premise.

1. THE GOAL. HG's Goal is to survive against all odds. To do that he must overcome various threats to his life and those he loves.  Each of these threats forms a subplot; one is the main plot. If you've taken my Storycraft Training Series or workshops you know that EACH subplot for each character must have a physical and visible goal. For HG, his goals for the various sub plots are:
  1. Overcome the extreme cold and wilderness.
  2. Avoid indians who war against the American and French trappers.
  3. Neutralize John Fitzgerald's hatred and bigotry (the main plot)
  4. Heal from his mortal wounds from a bear attack
  5. Defend and befriend his Pawnee in-law indian family
  6. Bring justice to and neutralize the French trappers who have killed HG's wife and ravaged her village

2. THE HOOK. A good hook pits an under achieving protagonist against impossible odds. While HG is a capable mountain guide and trapper, his weakness from non-confrontation, makes him an under achiever in the beginning of this story. And while any of the above threats to his life would be enough for most stories, THE REVENANT thrives on having all six. 

We have a Nicomachean Value Conflict (Continuum) upon which the moral premise is based. Here's the diagram. (If you can improve on this PLEASE let me know. These things always challenge me.) Remember the values (or virtues and vices) on these continuums are the MOTIVATIONS of the characters. You can't have action without a logical motivation for it.)

Embracing neutrality (absence of self-respect) or practicing
despotism (the extreme of self-respect), leads to death; but
seeking self-respect and justice for self and others leads to life.

(Motivated by Negative Side of Moral Premise)
Now the journey begins, with the purpose of achieving HG's six goals for the six plots listed above. This is an extreme of the David vs. Goliath tale. Here Goliath has almost slain David, who lies helpless on a litter. And this helpless shepherd (which HG is by shepherding the trappers through the wilderness) can't even pick up a sling or a small stone. He's immobile on a litter, and in a moment will be tied down to it, no Goliath attempts for a second time to kill HG the shepard.

At the beginning of Act 2, HG is thinking of just surviving his wounds. But (out of necessity) he's taking the epitome of avoidance. He's staying in bed. He's NOT trying to get out. He's trusting in OTHERS, even his enemy, to take care of him. This is HG's weakness. You may think that HG is incapable of doing anything but just lie there in the litter. But notice he is capable of action, as will be evident soon after Fitz leaves HG to die, and takes off with JB for the fort. So, in retrospect, Act 2 starts off just like a well structured movie should, with the protagonist pursuing the goal, but using the negative side of the moral premise. (Read those motivating values again on the left side of the diagram above, and see if they don't apply to HG as he lies on his litter.)

This avoidance results in HG not just making SLOW progress, but when Fitz tries to kill him and does kill Hawk, HG experiences NEGATIVE progress. 

Fitz's attempted murder of HG and his murder of Hawk is PINCH POINT A—the antagonist's presence in obstructing the protagonist from reaching his goal. Such points accelerate the plot. Avoiding them in a story slows down the middle. (Pinch Points are terms novelists use, but to keep the roller coaster going, screenwriters need to embrace them, as THE REVENANT DOES SO WELL. 

Three other moments in Act 2A that indicate not slow progress include:

1.  HG crawling out of his grave to mourn his son. This is NOT progress for HG's plots, although it is a Dark Night of the Soul for Hawk, and it does explain some of HG's motivation for going after Fitz. But notice he crawls screen left, and Fitz and safety is screen right. It's NEGATIVE progress, yet again.  This may be subtle, but it signals to the audience that the filmmakers are increasing the stakes. Every step back is one that has to be recovered in going forward. 

2. Cauterizing the hole in his neck with gunpowder knocks him out.

3. After hiding in a cave with a fire to keep him warm, he flights from some indians that try to kill him. But notice they don't try to kill him until he tries to get away from them. This is important in terms of storytelling because it's just the opposite of what is about to happen.  (Notice this is the skill of the storyteller to make scenes seem reasonable, even if in retrospect they could have happened differently. It seems entirely reasonable for HG to run from these indians and slip into the river to AVOID them.)

At 49%-50% HG passes from one part of the diegesis (or world of the story) to another. We do not see an explicit Moment of Grace as we do in more typical movies when the protagonist has a revelation—the camera zooms in, there's a musical cue, and the character says something revealing. But there is clearly here a "rebirth." THE REVENANT uses "baptism" (in both forms) as the metaphor. When first escaping the indians and their arrows HG immerses himself under the water, and moments later he passes over a waterfall which reminds us of the baptismal water that is poured over a converts head. And then, having been cleansed of his sin, he floats through a beatific vision — a beautiful scenic river as he holds onto a floating log (the tree of the cross?) It's as if he is floating away from a bad past and into a beautiful, hopeful future.  At 50% HG climbs out of the river a new man, and the first sign we see of his newness is when he casts off the bearskin, his old nature. (Although in a practical sense it was the bearskin that kept him from hypothermia in the cold river.) In terms of semiotics (or the significance of signs and symbols), the bearskin is a sign of the bear attack, which is the consequence of HG's avoidance of conflict and confrontation (explained earlier). And we are going to see in the next scenes a totally different HG as he pursues his goal.) Again, baptism and the removal of the old nature are classic metaphoric ways of communicating a turning point. 

As a further sign that something is new, HG witnesses a falling meteor, even as part of it (a meteorite) falls into the river from which he climbed. The falling star is a mythic sign of the Wisemen following a star of hope and salvation.

But the filmmakers do not let us forget the antagonistic forces that HG must still face, and with the falling meteor HG remembers the slaughter of his wife's village and his wife's death.

Altogether, this is a significant MOG right at the 50% mark in the movie.

(Motivated by Positive Side of Moral Premise)
And now HG makes progress, through providence and his own decisions. 

He hears a stampede of bison. He climbs out of the river valley to see this glorious sight and wolves carving out a calf for food. Notice he does not AVOID this wilderness danger, the stampede or the wolves, who might have attacked him, a wounded human. He stays nearby, and at night is awakened by another sound and flashes of firelight. 

Hikuc, a Pawnee warrior, chases the wolves away with fire, and kneels beside the ripped open bison and begins to feast on the raw flesh. 

Now, notice what HG does. He approaches the warrior and begs for food. This was not entirely necessary because HG had just hours earlier eaten fish he had trapped from the river. Yes, red meat would be a plentiful source of energy and more sustaining than fish. But what's important here, from a story structure standpoint, is that HG does not avoid the indian, but approaches him and after a tense standoff during which we think HG may get killed with an arrow at point-blank range, Hikuc throws HG the bison's liver, which Leonardo DiCapro actually tires to eat...the raw, bison liver. (His non-acting reaction is left in the film. Later he said it is something he will never do again.)

This event, meeting Hikuc, saves HG's life. It is is Salvation. If the baptism (a Catholic sacrament) is not salvation, then drinking Christ's blood in the Eucharist after baptism is. And it is Hikuc who acts as the priest who serves up the "Eucharistic" sustenance of body and blood. 

After hearing HG's story, Hikuc says he is traveling south to find other Pawnee rather that find the killers of his own son who was murdered as well. He tells HG: "But revenge is in the creator's hands. Travel with me." 

They travel together, with HG riding Hikuc's horse, and then Hikuc builds HG a healing shelter and cares for his "rotting" wounds. This is a metaphor for Christ healing the sick, even in the midst of a storm.

To reinforce that meaning, the filmmakers shows us HG's dream as he is being healed. The dream involves him in the ruin of a Catholic Chapel where he meets his deceased son...consolation that Hawk is in heaven...and on the wall behind where the altar once stood is a fresco of a crucifix—Christ on his crucifixion tree.  Don't miss what happens next, as HG makes both physical and spiritual progress toward his six goals. 

When the storm is over, HG comes out from his chrysalis a new man. At PINCH POINT B, moments later HG (like the Roman centurion in the Gospels and like Brad Whitlock's centurion character [George Clooney] in HAIL, CAESAR), finds Hikuc (his Christ) hanging lynched on a tree.  And like Pontius Pilate had a signed nailed to the cross above Christ's head mocking who he was ("The King of the Jews"), so Hikuc's crucifiers hang a mocking sign around Hikuc's neck, which in French reads, "We Are All Savages."

Now, comes the big test for HG. Has he been changed by his Moment of Grace? Has he learned his lesson about avoiding conflict and confronting it? Just beyond Hikuc's lynching HG sees the French trapper's camp. This is represented in the movie at least, by a group of men who are associated with the French that killed his wife and destroyed her village and another village that Fitz and JB come upon during their trek to the fort. But notice what HG does. HG does not avoid the camp, he steals into it, to steal supplies and Hikuc's horse. And as he does, he witnesses their leader (TO) raping the indian chief's daughter (PO) which the trappers have captured as their sex slave. PO's kidnapped disappearance from her tribe is one reason the local indians are on the warpath, and the indians suspect every white man they come across. 

HG gets supplies, Hikuc's horse, and frees PO, directing her to take TO's knife and kill him. Which she does, and in so doing scares off the French trappers, and after which she walks to freedom. This is a big turning point for HG as it frees him, eventually, form the indian's wrath.  This invading of the French camp also provides a climax of sorts for neutralizing the French threat against the indians and it finds justice for HG's wife's death. The implication is that it was TO that was responsible, and it is an indian, like HG's wife, who kills TO. 

But all the indians don't get the message, and soon HG is running for his life from indians on horses with guns, and as Hikuc's horse is shot by the pursuing indians, HG and the horse jump over a clip to what is certain death. Their dive into white oblivion is broken by a tree, but the horse dies and HG almost does so. 

At 75% is where HG and Hikuc's horse take their death dive.  HG came near being killed by the indians. The horse indeed dies, but HG, whose fall is broken by the tree, lives, barely.  

Here again the filmmakers take the beat to the extreme. It's not enough that there is a near death experience, or that he must mourn his horse's death, but they put HG, naked, into the dead corpse of the horse, ironically to survive in the cold weather. Thus, HG spends the "night" not "near" death, but in "IN" death, in the darkness of the horse.  

THE RESURRECTION BEAT (Ideally either 85% or 90%)
At 82%.  This is not one of the 13 beats, but I see it more and more in good movies. It's step 11 in Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey. In THE REVENANT it comes when a survivor from the French camp reports to the fort and CA and they discover that HG is in fact alive, and not dead as Fitz (who is now with CA) has reported. CA rushes out with a team and at night finds HG slogging through a dark forest. 

HG is brought back to the fort where he is fed, bathed, and his wounds are further treated. 

Meanwhile Fitz has escaped, having stolen money from CA's safe. Fitz knows that HG is coming after him, mostly for killing Hawk.  

10. FINAL INCIDENT (Ideally 87.5%)
At 89% as CA and HG track Fitz, Fitz ambushes and kills CA. 

HG gives chase, now willing to die for the cause of justice and revenge. HG and Fitz battle hand-to-hand in the snow near a small stream.

12. ACT 3 CLIMAX - FIGHT TO THE DEATH (Ideally 98%)
At 97% HG shoves an nearly dead Fitz into the stream saying, "Revenge is in God's hands not mine." Waiting down stream is the indian chief and a small war party who have been searching for PO, who, now, is with them on horseback.  The chief pulls Fitz off out of the river and finishes him off.  

Now it appears that there is one last hand-to-hand battle, between HG and the indians...who cross the stream and come toward HG. Now, not afraid of conflict as he's faced death many times, HG does not run from the indians. It's tense, but they pass him by, looking down on him with disgust, but letting him live. This is because PO is with them, and she has told them what HG did for her. 

HG struggles up a hill and sees a vision of his wife. She smiles at him and walks away. As she does we are left with a image of thin forest with crooked branches.  They trees stand, but not tall. They are frail and not strong. But they stand nonetheless.

This is in contrast to the many images we've seen throughout the movie of very tall trees and forests bending in the winds of mighty storms. And with each beautiful shot (perhaps 12-18 of them) we're reminded of the parable HG tells his then small son during the opening montage as we peruse the destruction of his wife's village:  
When there is a storm, and you stand in front of a tree. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk,  you will see its's roots grow deep.
The final shot is a Reverse CU of HG looking off-camera toward where his wife's vision was. He's cold, weak, shivering. Then, slowly he turns his head and his eyes gaze directly into ours.

Fade Out. 


suktion_alex said...

Wow, that is cool stuff! I also Googled them and went to their site, where they show off events they've done with interactive DJ experiences. All this is good fun, especially when you realize that, just like Virtual Reality, we are in the absolute infancy of these technologies, and they will develop beyond our wildest dreams! But let us not forget, the enjoyment of any of these technologies always comes down to: Story! BTW, I took advantage of Stan's generous year-end discount and subscribed to the Story Craft Series, and cannot recommend it high enough! His easy teaching style, articulate and precise presentation and wonderful material are a treat, and I look forward to watching (and learning from) the entire series!

Stanley D. Williams said...

Wow, thanks for the pitch, Alex. Not that I'm biased or anything, but the Storycraft series is more than the equivalent of a 3 day workshop for which you'd pay at least double or more what I'm asking. Not only that, but you can keep in on your computer and refer back to it for months and years to come. Can't do that with a live workshop.

suktion_alex said...

...and I took the live workshop to boot! But I've found that I'm a bit of a "water torture" learner (not that your method is torture!), and for me, it works best to review the same information more than once. I frequently re-read books on technique I like, and review parts I've highlighted to refresh my brain and bring me back up to speed. Having the StoryCraft series available "on demand" is a huge help for when I dive back in! — Alex