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Terrence Malick: The Reclusive Auteur

Written by: FFT Webmaster | May 16th, 2011

Director Terrence Malick is one of cinema’s mysteries, a reclusive auteur who has made only five films in a career that stretches back nearly 40 years. He is known as a perfectionist who has little patience for Hollywood’s glitz and glamour and the bottom line concerns of industryites. In many ways, he has patterned his life and career as a kind of Stanley Kubrick figure, another cinema talent who kept a arms-length relationship with the Hollywood establishment and made films in his own way and following his own muse.

Well, today the recluse comes out of hiding (for at least a moment) when Malick’s newest film THE TREE OF LIFE gets a high profile world premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival this evening. The film, an allegorical morality tale co-starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the film has the most advanced buzz of any title at Cannes this year, which is saying quite a bit already. It is the director’s first film since 2005’s THE NEW WORLD, a meditation on the European conquest of the New World starring Colin Farrell. As fascinating as the new film may be, it will be the rare sight of Terrence Malick, whose contracts stipulate that his likeness may not be used for promotional purposes and who is notoriously publicity shy when it comes to interviews, walking the Cannes red carpet.

Malick, age 68, currently resides in Austin, Texas, that rare bohemian town in a state known for its conservative politics. In fact, Malick is a native Texan, having been born in Waco on November 30, 1943. His father was an oil company executive in the boom years of the Texas oil spurt. As a young man, Malick himself worked on oil fields. However, despite his rural roots, his personal interests eventually brought him to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar studying philosophy. He has written several books about such leading German philosophers as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. His interest in the underlying questions of life first emerged in his early career as a journalist and found further expression when he turned to a fledgling film career.

Malick got his start in film after earning an MFA from the AFI Conservatory in 1969, His thesis film LANTON MILLS was an award winner on the shorts film circuit. His first jobs in Hollywood were as a script doctor, and he is credited with revising scripts for such films as DRIVE, HE SAID (1971), DIRTY HARRY (1971), POCKET MONEY (1972) and GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (1989). His 1971 original script DEADHEAD MILES was made into what distributor Paramount Pictures felt to be an unreleasable film. It was at that point that Malick made the pivotal decision to direct his own scripts. His first work was BADLANDS (1973), a pioneering independent film starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree in the 1950s. After a troubled production, BADLANDS drew raves at its premiere at the New York Film Festival, leading to Warner Brothers Pictures buying distribution rights for three times its budget. The film established Malick as a new director to watch, along with fellow 1970s tyros Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and others.

In what would become a pattern, Malick did not complete his next film for nearly six years. In 1978, Paramount Pictures produced DAYS OF HEAVEN, about a love triangle that develops on the croplands of the Texas Panhandle in the early 20th century, with a starry cast of newcomers including Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard. The film spent two years in post production, during which Malick and his crew experimented with unconventional editing and voiceover techniques. DAYS OF HEAVEN became an international sensation, winning for its cinematographer Nestor Almendros the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, as well as a Best Director prize at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

Following the release of DAYS OF HEAVEN, Malick began developing a project for Paramount, entitled Q, that explored the origins of life on earth. During pre-production, he suddenly moved to Paris and disappeared from public view. During this time, he wrote a number of screenplays including THE ENGLISH SPEAKER, which was about therapist Josef Breuer’s analysis of Anna O., adaptations of Walker Percy’s prize-winning novel THE MOVIEGOER and Larry McMurty’s THE DESERT ROSE (a script about rocker Jerry Lee Lewis) and a stage adaptation of the Japanese film SANSHO THE BAILIFF that was to be directed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda.

The Q script was never filmed and more than 10 years passed before Malick was again behind the cameras. In 1998, he completed shooting on THE THIN RED LINE, a loose adaptation of the James Jones World War II novel of the same name. The film featured an all-star cast that included Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John C. Reilly, John Travolta and Jared Leto.  The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won the Golden Bear at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival.

Another interim period between films ensued, with Malick producing a screenplay on the life of revolutionary Che Guevara to be produced by Steven Soderbergh and set to star Benicio del Toro. With the financing not coming together, Malick eventually abandoned the project, which would eventually be filmed by Soderbergh as the two-part, six-hour CHE in 2009. Malick then turned his attention to a script he had been developing since the 1970s, looking at the ambiguities of the conquest of the New World by European colonialists. THE NEW WORLD, which featured a romantic interpretation of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, was released in 2005. Over one million feet of film was shot for the film, and three different cuts of varying length were released. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but received generally mixed reviews during its theatrical run, though some critics have hailed it as one of the best films of the decade.

After its tepid release, Malick went into seclusion yet again, while developing his newest film THE TREE OF LIFE. He shot much of it in 2008 in Smithville, Texas with Heath Ledger cast in  the lead. When Ledger unexpectedly died, the project was in freefall, with Malick spending over three years on expensive re-shoots and obsessively tinkering with the story of interlocking families spanning multiple time periods. The industry speculated that Malick’s “mess” might never be released, but the Cannes Film Festival invitation became the incentive Malick needed to get the film done. It is set to be distributed in the United States on May 27 via Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Malick recently finished shooting his sixth feature in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The film will star Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem and Rachel Weisz.  Details about the yet untitled film are being kept closely guarded, with no title or plot information as yet announced, although it has been described as a romance. There has been talk about it having something to do with Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect of the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Considering Malick’s secretiveness and the length post-production process he indulges in, this film may not see the light of day for quite a number of years yet.

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