The Revenant's writer-director D. Kerry Prior on how going back to undead basics made his movie work
Director D. Kerry Prior on set of THE REVENANT (Image courtesy of Lightning Entertainment)
In The Revenant, a soldier dies in Iraq, only to awaken back home as a member of the living dead. But this particular undead guy isn't quite a vampire, and he isn't quite a zombie -- he's a revenant, a restless spirit returned in corporeal form. From that relatively straightforward premise, and a heaping dose of pitch-black comedy, writer-director D. Kerry Prior constructs one of the most original and impressive horror-comedies in years. Denverites had the chance to see it back in 2009, when it screened as part of the Starz Denver Film Festival, but if you missed it then, you were out of luck -- until now. After three years, The Revenant is finally getting a proper release, and it opens at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax Friday, August 31. Before it does, we caught up with Prior to talk about the movie's long road to theaters, why he chose such an unusual monster and what his next project will be.
Westword: This film took a long route -- three years from the festival circuit to getting general distribution. Is there a reason it took so long?
Kerry Prior: I'm certain that there is. I mean, I'm not really sure in this case why it took so long. I was continually running into Tom Six on the festival circuit, with his movie Human Centipede, and it seemed like my movie was always playing at the same time his was, so we'd run into each other at the hotel bar and chat a little bit. He'd be like, "Seen my movie yet?" "No. You seen mine yet?" "No." And yet he's released his sequel already and The Revenant is only now coming out. I don't know, bad luck? Who knows? I can't really explain it.
I understand it's a slightly different cut than what people saw when it was doing festivals?
Most of the movie is the same; the main difference is in the beginning. We tightened the beginning, the expository stuff introducing the main characters, just kind of compressed all that. We added a scene that had previously been extricated from the movie, which is a scene where we see Bart meeting his fate in the desert in Iraq. That punches up the action in the beginning a bit, and gives us a little more real estate to get to know the characters in the next scene. That's the biggest change. A lot of the reels we hardly touched. Just worked on transitions, making it flow better, quicken the pace a bit.
So what was the inspiration for going with a revenant, instead of sticking to a more established mythos like vampire or zombie?
While I was writing the screenplay, I just had an epiphany that, you know what? Everything we know about vampires is always taken from the movies. When I got rid of all the cinematic references to what this mythology was, and went back to this sort of old folklore of vampires, and made the decision to stick to that, without deviation, all of the sudden the screenplay got way better.
There are certain things to get around -- well, wait a second, in the old folklore, those vampires are dead during the day, they're just dead! How do we deal with that? That was kind of a pain in the ass, but it was exactly those hurdles that made the screenplay more interesting. It was like, rather than trying to sidestep those things for ease of narrative, embracing them and forcing them onto the characters as a problem became much more interesting. That was really what punched up the screenplay the most. that was the big epiphany for me.
Really, with one exception, I stuck to what the old folklore was, which is that it's a dead person, you have to die first, but for some reason at night, and maybe only on certain nights, this dead person comes live again and somehow gets out of the grave. They're not dressed like glamorous rock stars, they're not sexy. they're just reanimated corpses, they come out and torment their friends and loved ones. That seemed to work for the characters and the screenplay. There was one deviation, I added one thing to the mythos, but it was otherwise sticking to old folklore.
By sticking to this older blueprint and stripping away things other people had done to make their movie work better, you came up with something really original. It's not like other zombie movies or vampire movies.
Well, hopefully that works to its advantage. I had an instructor in college tell me once that part of what was good about poetry -- structure in poetry, iambic pentameter or whatever -- is that by forcing that structure onto the story you're trying to tell, you're forced around the structure to find new ways to tell the story. Obviously any new ways you have to tell a story is going to draw your audience in more than ever. It's analogous on some level I guess.
The Revenant trailer
You have a background in practical effects, right?
Yeah, exactly. I started working years and years ago. One of my first jobs was effects animation for a TV show. Then I moved from that onto model making and miniatures and motion control photography and that sort of thing. I cut my teeth working on big budget projects doing little minute tasks.
Was that a good learning process? Did it contribute toward making you a better director?
No, not necessarily. I'd say I learned more about directing from literature classes in college. It's all about storytelling. Certainly all those technical skills are a huge asset to have when you get on the set. You've got to know what you're doing so you don't let your crew push you around. But in terms of storytelling, you don't learn that sort of thing doing visual effects.
What's next now that The Revenant has finally got a proper release? Are you working on something?
I'm midway through a script right now called Merry Christmas from Me and Bubbles. It's a story about a guy who's forced by his shrink to adopt a dog, but he hates dogs. He decides he's going to get an old decrepit dog so it dies soon and he doesn't have to worry about it. But as fate would have it, he falls in love with the dog. He's so in love with the dog he feels he needs some kind of further level to talk to this dog, to deepen their communication. He goes to a pet psychic and one thing leads to the next and he decides to try ESP and he learns that trepanation can increase your mental state and possibly increase your ability for ESP.
If you're not familiar with trepanation, it's the oldest known surgical procedure. It's where you drill a hole in the skull to release pressure on the brain. He tries this first on the dog, then on himself, and sure enough it not only increases their telepathic connection, but it also transports him into a parallel universe where he meets his other dimensional self. It kind of leads to a whole series of conspiracy, world takeover plots, a terrorist cell, and finally meeting his ex wife... anyway, that's what I am working on now.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.