By Bruce Handy. This article originally appeared in Time magazine on October 13, 1997. Copyright Time Inc.
Who would have thought that George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, the three most notable AWOLS in American moviemaking, would all be directing films this year? It's like a harmonic convergence for cineastes and film geeks. Lucas, of course, hasn't been behind a camera since finishing 1977's Star Wars; he is currently in London shooting the first of the three long-awaited Star Wars prequels in which Ewan McGregor will star as the youthful Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Natalie Portman as Luke Skywalker's mom. Kubrick, who hasn't worked since 1987's Full Metal Jacket, is also in London, where he is filming Eyes Wide Shut, a psychosexual thriller with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; Kubrick began shooting the picture almost a full year ago and, exceeding even his own reputation as a quasi-demented perfectionist, shows no signs of wrapping any time soon. "They're having a great time," says Cruise and Kidman's publicist. We bet.
And then there's Malick, a director whose entire resume lists only a pair of box-office duds. But what duds! The two films have survived in critical esteem to be numbered among the more significant films of the 1970s--itself one of the more cinematically significant decades. Malick, however, is probably even better known for not only exiling himself from Hollywood, like Lucas and Kubrick, but also for having willfully removed himself from the public eye altogether and becoming, as it is commonly said, the J.D. Salinger of movies. Out of the aforementioned trio, you certainly wouldn't have guessed that Malick would be the one directing seemingly every other male movie star in Hollywood in a big-scale World War II combat epic. The picture is The Thin Red Line, based on the James Jones novel about the battle of Guadalcanal. The cast includes George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Gary Oldman, Sean Penn, Bill Pullman and John Travolta. And they are only, with the exception of Penn, members of the supporting cast.
The film's core players are a group of mostly unknowns who portray the grunts and noncoms of the novel's C for Charlie company. If the young actors and Malick do their jobs well, The Thin Red Line could do for this cast what The Godfather did once upon a time for the careers of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan. Altogether the film has more than 60 speaking parts, hundreds of extras and a shooting script of 180-plus pages--which would indicate a running time of more than three hours. And that's not including the scenes Malick has been adding and improvising since the movie's scheduled five-month shoot got under way late last June in the Daintree rain forest near Port Douglas, Australia, which is doubling for Guadalcanal. Later, the crew will depart for the island itself to shoot scenes involving a sojourn among the native Melanesians. All in all, it's a daunting undertaking for any director, let alone one who hasn't voluntarily worked in two decades, or talked to the press for even longer.
Perhaps because of this, Malick's colleagues tend to adopt a cheerfully reassuring tone when answering reporters' questions, which inevitably boil down to more polite versions of, Isn't he a bit, well, loony? "He's very mysterious, very private, but it's not like he's crazy. He's a lovely and charming man who just wants to keep things to himself," says Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000, the division of 20th Century Fox that is financing The Thin Red Line's $50 million to $60 million budget. "He's fun. He's not reclusive or dark. He just has a strong sense of privacy," says George Stevens Jr., the film's executive producer and a longtime friend and patron of Malick's. The supposed recluse could be glimpsed one day last month filming a scene of troops slogging through a jungle clearing amid real mud, real biting ants--they're green here--and enough fake smoke to impress even a young, hot, video-trained director. Fifty-three years old, Malick this day cuts a modestly dashing, mildly eccentric figure in work shirt, blue jeans, big black rubber boots, a wide-brimmed hat slung over his back Zorro-style and a surgical mask strapped Michael Jackson-style across his nose and mouth (the smoke, a producer says, is irritating a Malickian sinus condition).
Though he is tall, bald, possessed of a hawkish, handsome nose and a striking snow-white beard, Malick's most distinguishing feature may very well be the intensity of his gaze--appropriately enough for a filmmaker--which has an unsettling quality of being both wide-eyed and penetrating. As it happens, these are also qualities that associates and friends ascribe to the man himself. He is also said to be, in no particular order, difficult, honorable, secretive, deeply spiritual, sweet, vindictive, humble, mercurial, self-possessed, insecure and the best-read person on the planet. "He's a genius," says a colleague. "That's the good news and the bad news."
Though his current employment means he is no longer the J.D. Salinger of the movies, Malick can still lay claim to being their Thomas Pynchon. While allowing journalists to visit the set of The Thin Red Line (and acting the gracious host in an informal, off-the-record chat), he continues to refuse formal interviews, something he hasn't done since a 1974 chat with Women's Wear Daily. Indeed, his last recorded comment of any kind was, "Well, I, I, uh, I guess I don't want to talk about it..." when journalist David Handelman cold-called him in 1985 and asked what he was up to. Nor will he allow himself to be photographed, not even by the official set photographer or by a video crew documenting the shoot for the inevitable "making of" promotional film.
A quarter of a century ago, his first film, 1973's Badlands, earned the then 29-year-old a prominent spot in the generation of young film-schooled directors that included Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian DePalma, who together created a new, nervy kind of movie-literate cinema but who then, as the 1970s wore on into the '80s and '90s, made some really rotten movies along with the good. Malick's reputation, meanwhile, remains crystalline, pure with the promise and power of his youthful work. Badlands, which was shot for somewhere between $250,000 and $350,000--no money even in those days--starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as on-the-lam lovers, a story seemingly inspired by the case of Charles Starkweather, the 1950s spree killer. Unlike, say, Natural Born Killers, the film is less interested in violence than in the ways in which its two self-absorbed romantics fail to communicate with each other and yet somehow bond; to wit, the dialogue includes some of the drollest non sequiturs in movie history.
Five years later, Malick followed his lavishly praised debut with the studio-financed Days of Heaven, an opaque allegory about migrant farm workers in Texas on the eve of World War I. It is so lyrically beautiful and narratively elliptical that its cast, which included Richard Gere and Sam Shepard, was upstaged by a field of wheat--which might sound like a knock on the film but is really a tribute to the quiet, meditative power of its best moments, of its preoccupation with the verities of the natural world. As one might assume from that description, Days of Heaven, like Badlands, fared poorly at the box office. Unlike Badlands, it also received mixed reviews, but those who did like it were rhapsodic, and the film cemented Malick's reputation as one of the industry's most esteemed young talents.
Unfortunately for the sake of dramatic newsmagazine articles, Malick doesn't appear to have had a particularly sensational reason for turning his back on moviemaking. The shoots for both his films had been draining and difficult, and the director was said to have been disillusioned as well by the normal run of Hollywood hustling. According to an associate, Malick found the whole ancillary process of marketing a movie "sickening"--and who wouldn't? "He said he always planned to take a break," recounts Mike Medavoy, Malick's agent at the time of Badlands and currently the head of Phoenix Pictures, which is producing The Thin Red Line for Fox. "He just didn't plan to take such a long break."
There are, of course, plenty of other things to do in life, especially for someone with a c.v. like Malick's: high school football player; oil-field worker; Harvard graduate; Rhodes scholar; lecturer in philosophy at M.I.T.; journalist for both Life and the New Yorker--and all that before he had even thought about making a movie. While on "sabbatical," he traveled the world, indulging his love of nature, studying religion--Malick is a devout Episcopalian--and eventually began dividing his time between Paris, where he married a Frenchwoman (his second wife, from whom he is currently separated), and Austin, Texas, which is near where he grew up and where he now lives full time. He also kept a hand in Hollywood, writing numerous scripts for hire. The only one that saw anything approaching the light of day was an early draft of Great Balls of Fire, the 1989 movie about the singer Jerry Lee Lewis.
The Thin Red Line's genesis goes back to 1988, when Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau, two aesthetically ambitious but financially limited producers, approached Malick about writing a screenplay and settled on an adaptation of the Jones novel, to which Malick was drawn in part by its vision of the intense love that bonds men under hellish duress. A number of drafts later, the producers brought the project to Medavoy's Phoenix Pictures in 1995 in the hope of actually getting it made. At the time, Malick wasn't planning to direct it. He was talking about returning behind the camera, but for something smaller. None of the principals can identify the exact point when Malick decided to tackle The Thin Red Line, but soon he was discussing casting with nearly every major young actor in Hollywood, most of whom were enthralled at the prospect of working with a near mythic director.
Executives at Fox were initially nervous about trusting such a large-scale project to a man who hadn't worked in 20 years, but doubts were dispelled after Malick, in exploratory meetings, displayed a confident grasp of production details. For his part, Malick was just as wary. "Early on," says Nick Nolte, "Terry called me. He wanted to know what had changed in Hollywood. I told him I didn't think a thing had changed. I said maybe the fear is more pronounced, and the greed, but it's basically the same game."
Thus fortified, Malick plunged ahead. To do so, he may have indulged in a bit of self-deception. "Terry kept telling me before the film started that it was going to be a small movie," says Jack Fisk, the movie's production designer, who worked in the same capacity on Days of Heaven and Badlands. "I don't think Terry realized how big it was until the first day, when he showed up on location and saw the tents and trucks."
What's intriguing about The Thin Red Line is the chance it offers to watch the more indulgent filmmaking style of the 1970s collide with that of the 1990s. Roughly midway through its shoot, the film was only a half-day or so behind schedule--an incredible achievement considering both the scope of the production and the fact that the schedule must take into account Malick's fondness for multiple takes, for improvisation, for stopping to shoot, Days of Heaven-style, any flora and fauna that catch his eye ("He's obsessed with grass and feral pigs," notes a young cast member).
While filming a scene in which Nolte, who plays a hard-driving, glory-hunting lieutenant colonel, is chewed out by a superior over the phone (for Nolte's benefit, John Cusack improvises a verbal reaming from behind the camera), Malick's directions seem to consist solely of "Take a pause," "Look over at the river," and "Let's do another one." As the number of takes for this simple scene runs into the high teens, Nolte seems to get more ad more flustered, losing concentration and blowing his lines (Cusack: "Are you incompetent, Colonel?" Nolte: "Yes I'm incompetent. What's my first f-------- line?") until his growling frustration and the character's seem to merge, finally giving Malick what he wants. This is apparently his preferred way of working: letting actors go on and on until they exhaust themselves and stumble into some kind of spontaneous truth. "Terry loves scenes going wrong," says a cast member.
When Malick gives concrete notes, he tends to speak in metaphors as singular as the images in his films. He talks about the "green poison of war," and instructed one actor to play a scene like "a squid being thrown up on the beach from the abyss." On the other hand, the stage directions in his script could be dauntingly airy for an actor: "Fife's terror passes gradually over into a longing for life and peace." How do you play that?
From an audience's point of view, it will be interesting to see how Malick's meditative style meshes with the urgency of a combat tale. As it evolves on set, this is shaping up to be both the most ambitious war movie since Apocalypse Now and, potentially, the strangest. "It'll be Malick's Iliad," says Geisler with only slightly undue portentousness. A cast member says that the director, maybe sensing a roll, is already talking about an even more ambitious follow-up. Malick's Odyssey?
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