Terrence Frederick Malick (born November 30, 1943) is an American filmmaker known for his idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking and film production as well as the lengthy hiatuses between his projects as well as his protectiveness over his private life.
Unlike many members of the New Hollywood generation, Malick did not choose cinema as his vocation. In Harvard, he studied philosophy, writing on Martin Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and other existentialist thinkers. He later worked as a journalist for Life and New Yorker magazine, and had contributed obituaries to Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. He eventually did become interested in cinema, inspired by arthouse film-makers but also by silent film-masters such as F. W. Murnau. He studied film at AFI in the late-sixties (David Lynch and Paul Schrader were in the same class) and he found work as a screenwriter, before making his debut in 1973 with Badlands. This was his Breakthrough Hit, riffing on the (then) popular Outlaw Couple theme, by making a film about teenagers on a cross-country killing spree. Malick however differed with his incredibly distinct visual style, his poetic approach to narrative, use of landscape and groundbreaking cinematography and production design. In Malick's films, the style matters far more than the stories. Malick followed that up in 1978 with Days of Heaven, an evocative, dream-like portrait of a wheat farm in the early 20th century America. The film became iconic for its use of "magic hour" cinematography and natural lighting, i.e. using the actual sunlight and dim natural settings rather than studio lights.note
He then took a twenty-year break from the film industry without directing a single movie in the 1980's, spending a great deal of time in Paris and traveling. During that time he was rumored to have projects in the works, but nothing materialized until the late 1990s when he went into production on The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones's novel about the battle of Guadalcanal. This twenty-year absence is the true source of Malick's reputation as a reclusive artist, although friends note that it's because the film-maker is genuinely shy and not comfortable being a celebrity. Malick always maintained good relations with studios and producers, and being independently wealthy, he did not really need to direct for a living and his hiatus was self-imposed rather than any opposition to studios. Critics and audiences didn't know quite what to make of it when it was released (it didn't help that it was released the same time as the more mainstream Saving Private Ryan), but it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including two for Malick, as Best Director and for his screenplay.
For a while it looked as if Malick might be going back into hibernation, but he returned seven years later in 2005 with The New World, a portrait of John Smith and Pocahontas. Like The Thin Red Line before it, The New World baffled audiences and critics when it was initially released, but has since been acclaimed by critics as one of the best films of the 2000s. Six years later, Malick released his fifth film, The Tree of Life, a film about three boys growing up in 1950s Texas, which featured a much-discussed sequence involving the creation of the universe. It was met with critical acclaim on its release, and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The Tree of Life is the turning point in Malick's career in that it marked the start of his current and most prolific phase. Between 1970-2009, he had made four features. Between 2010-2017 he put out five films, outmatching his former output in less than a decade. Of course given the uncertain nature of independent film-making and Malick's history of dropping off the radar, no one can be sure how long this will last. He has also become a more public figure, appearing at film festivals and giving interviews, when before he had a reputation for being more aloof than Stanley Kubrick.
- Badlands (1973)
- Days of Heaven (1978)
- The Thin Red Line (1998)
- The New World (2005)
- The Tree of Life (2011)
- To the Wonder (2012)
- Knight of Cups (2015)
- Voyage of Time (2016)
- Song to Song (2017)
- A Hidden Life (2019)
Tropes that describe Malick's films:
- All-Star Cast: It's a testament to Malick's talent as a filmmaker that he is able to attract many top names to his films - the list of actors interested in appearing in The Thin Red Line reads like a Who's Who of It Hollywood Players. The films themselves include stars such as Richard Gere, John Travolta, Adrien Brody and more recently Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn (who, during the casting for The Thin Red Line, straight up told Malick "Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up")
- Billing Displacement: Especially common in his latter three films. Actors with high billing often have roles that are little more than cameos.
- Blade-of-Grass Cut: Pretty common throughout all of his films.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Malick has a wildly unconventional approach to filmmaking that pays dividends. Thomas Lennon's experience working on Knight of Cups is recounted in this article.Lennon: Is this how it goes?
Christian Bale: Yeah.
Lennon: Every day?
Lennon: How long have you been doing this?
Bale: This is, like, day 25.
- Central Theme: His films focus on themes of individual transcendence, nature, and the conflict between reason and instinct.
- Cool Old Guy: He's often been described as such and the rare public appearances he makes seem to confirm it.
- Deleted Role: He is notorious for cutting actors out of his movies, or reducing their screen time to the point of insignificance, as he shapes his films as he is making them:
- In The Thin Red Line, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, and Mickey Rourke all had their parts cut from the movie.
- In To the Wonder, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper all had scenes that were cut out of the final product.
- Descended Creator: Played a bit part in Badlands when the actor hired for the part didn't show up.
- Development Hell: He takes a very, very long time to work on his projects (most famously taking a twenty-year break between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), although lately he has been picking up the pace
- Doing It for the Art: His whole career. Malick is independently wealthy (on account of family involvement in the oil business), and doesn't have to make movies to make his living, and when he does he prefers working as an uncredited script-doctor instead of directing projects he's not interested in. This also explains the lengthy production (and post-production) periods of his films, and the lengthy gaps between them.
- Fauxlosophic Narration: For lack of a better term. Many of Malick's films involve voiceover narration only vaguely related to what's going on onscreen, usually reflecting on the overall themes of the film, the mood and the tone. Many note that his narration is closer to literary stream of consciousness than the usual voiceovers in conventional narrative.
- Production Posse: His last three films have all featured Cate Blanchett and two of those films have also starred Natalie Portman. He's also worked with Christian Bale twice and cast him in two other films before he dropped out.
- Reclusive Artist: He hasn't given a single interview since 1974, his contracts have stipulated that no pictures of him be taken on the set, and he doesn't attend official premieres of his films. Possibly averted, because friends say that he isn't really reclusive, and that he's just protective of his private life and prefers to work without press intrusion. He did show up for the official Cannes screening of The Tree of Life (but did not participate in the panel), and seemed rather comfortable with onlookers taking photos and video of him during the shooting of his latest film. One critic notes,Matt Zoller Seitz: Terrence Malick is not a recluse. A recluse is Howard Hughes holed up in a hotel pissing into a milk bottle. If you live in certain neighborhoods of Austin you’ll see Malick shambling about with his binoculars and bird-watching gear. And if you walk up to him and say, “I love your movies,” he’ll say, “Thank you so much, and isn’t it such a wonderful day?” He has his reasons, we don’t know what they are, and I like that...This is a guy who knows a hell of a lot about a hell of a lot of things: religion, astronomy, birds, philosophy. He doesn’t strike me as someone for whom the sun rises and sets on the next deal; maybe movie-making is not the be-all and end-all for him. It’s entirely possible that when he’s out bird-watching he gets so swept up in it that he doesn’t think about movies at all that day.
- Scenery Porn: Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World were all nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography for a reason. The Tree of Life took this up to eleven, earning wild praise even from people who otherwise vehemently hated the film and Malick's signature filming style (i.e. Brad Jones).
- Signature Style:
- His films are marked by broad philosophical and spiritual overtones, as well as the use of meditative voice-overs from individual characters.
- Among cinematographers, his name is pretty much synonymous with utterly extravagant Scenery Porn.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: While some his films can get dark actually can lead a tad more to the idealistic side.
- Troubled Production: Again, a result of his style of filmmaking — shooting miles and miles of footage, then figuring it out in the editing room (which often leads to the above mentioned Billing Displacement, where actors who once appeared in whole subplots end up getting reduced to a cameo):
- Days of Heaven: Malick and his cinematographer Nestor Almendros fought with the crew over how to shoot and light the film (the crew favoring more traditional Hollywood methods of lighting while Malick and Almendros wanted to solely use natural lighting from the sun, meaning they could only shoot for a few minutes every day when the lighting conditions were right) The harvesting machines kept breaking down, further slowing production. Not helping matters was Malick's very loose shooting schedule, which tended to change based on the weather and his mood (Helicopters were hired one day for a certain special effects shot, only for him to change his mind and shoot a different scene, resulting in the helicopters being put on hold at great expense)
- The Thin Red Line: After a twenty-year hiatus, Malick finally made the film, after months of pre-production. The production itself was extremely difficult, due to the logistics of transporting cast and crew around the jungle landscape, and once production wrapped he spent another two years editing the film.
- What Could Have Been: Was originally planning to direct Che, a project Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro were working on. That didn't happen due to difficulties finding financing at the time leading to Malick departing to direct The New World instead, and Soderbergh wound up directing it himself. The finished product wound up being highly acclaimed in its own right, but it's difficult not to wonder how it would've turned out if Malick had directed it. Interestingly, in his years as a journalist, Malick actually wrote on Che and travelled to Bolivia to investigate his life.