By Joe Gillis. This article originally appeared in Los Angeles magazine on December 1995. Copyright Los Angeles Magazine Inc.
Director Terrence Malick is profiled. Since his last films were produced in 1979, Malick has vanished from the scene, continuing to write scripts but never putting them together to direct.
It was Norma who first told me what becomes a legend most. "Absence," La Desmond barked, between sucks on her cigarette holder. Now, 40 years after Jimmy Dean screwed up, I see her point. I also see that if she took her own advice, I would be alive today--or at least a lot less cynical--but that's another movie.
As it is, I floated around, establishing, in the process, the Guinness record for writer's block (death will do that to a person). This went on, of course, until the management of this publication rescued me from the mai-tai limbo that is the Formosa.
Or so they tried. Trouble was, as I began to write more, I quickly realized that my best sources were the regulars back at the bar. Who can forget the days of splendor in the glass, I reminded myself, when a bunch of us unemployables could sit back and dish (without a twinge of irony) all those Industry legends making quite a career out of not working. Beatty, for example. For a long time after Reds, Warren developed a famous case of producer's block--the seducer trapped by his own seduction. He'd shuffle one big deal after another ad nauseam, but never commit. Foreplay became his lifestyle, on and off the court.
But the mother of all paraplegics, to mix another metaphor, had to be Terrence Malick, because his paralysis was one none of us had ever come across: director's block. In 1979, after writing and directing Badlands and Days of Heaven, two seminal films in the most seminal Hollywood decade since the Golden Age, Terry simply disappeared. "From this point on," he said in his last interview, "I'm being watched. That could trip me up."
The thing was, he kept on writing. He couldn't--wouldn't--put it together to direct. As the years rolled on, critics and producers would try to get to him, but he was vapor. Like Salinger. Or Norma. Absence means never having to say you're sorry. The legend grew.
Then, in the fall of 1992, Malick's partner Bobby Geisler revealed that Terry was about to do what he'd been unable to for 13 years: pull the trigger. The project was a play, a production of Sansho the Bailiff that Malick had adapted from Mizoguchi's film. Andrzej Wajda would direct, and a workshop production would be given before moving on to Broadway.
It never happened. Take your pick of the rumors. "Terry was there for rehearsals," according to Days of Heaven producer Jacob Brackman, "but I gather it was an unhappy experience." Says New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley: "It was a money problem." Says Variety's Todd McCarthy: "I heard Terry wanted to direct."
Let's be kind. Malick, after all, made it as an auteur, not a playwright. And the other part of that '92 announcement was he planned to write and direct The Thin Red Line--James Jones's sequel to From Here to Eternity. So what happened?
Not too much. Malick has managed to write several drafts of The Thin Red Line, one of which he considered good enough to have Kevin Costner, Ethan Hawke and Lukas Haas read last spring at the home of Mike Medavoy, head of Phoenix Pictures and Malick's former agent. Ring up Medavoy and ask him what's what, and you don't get a a lot.
Is there any timetable for Thin Red Line? "He's working on it, but until Terry says it's ready, there's nothing to tell. You know the piece--it's a follow-up with those characters ending up at Guadalcanal. What he's working on is how they sound."
How did they sound to you?
"Well I haven't read the latest draft."
You're not asking him how it's going.
"That's the one thing you don't do."
People like him are so rare, with such quality of vision," says screenwriter Bill Witliff. It's a sentiment that has echoed around Hollywood for years, the feeling that Malick, like Dean, had the makings of an American genius. Indeed, Badlands, released in 1973, is a coolly ironic drama about a spree of murders committed by a young psychopath who resembles Dean. Based on the Charles Starkweather case, Badlands is an undisputed classic. But it was Days of Heaven, released in late 1978, that brought forth the label of genius. Set on a sprawling wheat farm in the Texas panhandle in 1916, the story--the tragic intertwining of three migrant workers with the farm owner--was enhanced by Malick's decision to bypass the usual dramatic devices and go for a tapestry-like effect.
When it was shown to Paramount execs and Gulf & Western chairman Charlie Bluhdorn, everyone was impressed, but Bluhdorn was truly touched--so much so, he gave Malick a gift of $1 million, paid out in annual amounts of $100,000 to $200,000. The string: Malick would make his next film, whenever and whatever that would be, for Paramount.
Perhaps Bluhdorn, known for his eccentricities, recognized a kindred spirit in Malick. "Terry seemed very much the artist, which my father enjoyed," says Paul Bluhdorn, an ex-Paramount exec. It seems almost poignant that the money kept pouring into Terry's bank account even after Charlie's death.
But the gift may have been Malick's undoing: It may have given him too much freedom. "I knew he wasn't long for this business," says Don Simpson, who spent time with him on Days of Heaven. "He never loved the movies--he was more the philosopher."
In fact, Malick began thinking of quitting just after Days of Heaven opened, when he visited Bluhdorn's estate. "There was so much expectation placed on Terry, and he was feeling all that pressure," Paul Bluhdorn recalls. "His idea was to put distance between himself and let it die down."
And yet in the summer of 1978, Malick had begun work on Q--easily his most ambitious project. The original concept was a multicharacter drama set in the Middle East during World War I, with a prologue set in prehistoric times. But after dispatching an assistant for 10 weeks to scout locations, Malick chucked the Middle East section. By the end of the year, the prehistoric prologue had become the whole script.
Imagine this surrealistic reptilian world," says Richard Taylor, a special-effects consultant Malick hired. "There is this creature, a Minotaur, sleeping in the water, and he dreams about the evolution of the universe, seeing the earth change from a sea of magma to the earliest vegetation, to the dinosaurs, and then to man. It would be this metaphorical story that moves you through time."
Malick covered a lot of ground and spent a bundle of money preparing to film Q. By midsummer 1979, Paramount had become very frustrated trying to reconcile the mounting bills with the director's ever-evolving concept.
"It got to the point that whatever people wanted, he wouldn't give it to them," Taylor remembers. "Because he was expected to make a movie, he'd say, 'I don't want to.' One day he went to France, and that was it." What was thought to be a brief vacation turned into a permanent one. Says Witliff: "I think the more applause he got, the more frightened he got."
Much of Malick's life since has been spent avoiding that fright. He lives now with his second wife (a former Parisian guidance counselor whom he married in 1988 and her daughter. He writes and travels, spending half his time in Paris and the other half at his apartment in Austin, with stopovers in Oklahoma to visit his brother and father. Or he pops up on either coast. In the last few years, Malick was said to be in New York working as an adviser on an experimental film; visiting Sam Shepard (the farmer in Days of Heaven) in Virginia armed with a 250-page version of Q that Shepard thought "absolutely brilliant but virtually unfilmable," according to mutual friend, writer-director Chris Cleveland; and attending a Pasadena Playhouse production, where screenwriter Tom Rickman asked him what he'd been doing lately. "Nothing" was the reply.
"Maybe he just wants to do something else with his life besides direct movies," suggests producer Adam Fields. Film critic Andrew Sarris observes that artists "have only so much psychic essence. Some let it out with one big effort, others divvy it out slowly. But you only have what you have." However, few who claim to have read his scripts believe Malick's lost it. During the '80s, for example, he produced:
And yet it seems fair to ask whether, by today's Industry standards, Terry Malick could--or should--fit in. "I wonder if core Hollywood would let him make a movie," asks Cleveland. "There's a point where the mystique of working with a genius evolves into a kind of terror. There used to be a romance around the enigma of Terry. At its worst, there is now a taboo. He's one of those guys who has the movie all in his head but has trouble spreading it around. In today's climate, he's seen as a risk." As cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who first met Malick at AFI, points out, "A kind of paralysis can set in when you stop working. I'd love to see Terry come back. I just don't know if he can."
Forget that his friends describe him as lovable, witty, always considerate. Or that he's never fallen victim to substance abuse, made serious enemies or directed a runaway disaster. What Hollywood can't seem to understand about Terry Malick is that he hides.
Screenwriter David Odell, who attended college with Malick, says, "It's Howard Hughes time. I have this fear that the next time I see him he's going to have long fingernails. I just don't understand how someone with his nature could have gotten into directing in the first place. Directors have to be gregarious, and he certainly was that in his early days."
Indeed, there is little in Malick's pre-Hollywood bio that suggests he was a recluse. After an Oklahoma and Texas childhood, Malick entered Harvard in 1961. A philosophy major, he became known as a brilliant, self-mocking iconoclast--with no shortage of ambition. Following his junior year, for example, he traveled to Germany, met Heidegger and translated Essence of Reason. In 1966 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he switched to Latin American studies and first began thinking about movies.
Back in America, Malick worked as a journalist for Life and the New Yorker, which assigned him a profile of Che Guevara. But, according to his philosophy instructor, Paul Lee, Malick "got drowned in it and never turned it in." He then returned to Boston in 1968 and took over Lee's job at MIT. That same year, he made a short film that gained him admission to the AFI's first-ever class.
There, professor Frank Daniel says he knew Malick would fit in when he asked him what he wanted to learn. "Karate," he said. "He was like a sponge," Daniel recalls. "He quickly began absorbing the whole Hollywood scene." His first move was writing and directing an 18-minute comedy about cowboys holding up a Beverly Hills bank. Next, he befriended a young agent named Mike Medavoy, who found him rewrite jobs on a few films, like Dirty Harry. Then came Deadhead Miles, an original script about a Texas trucker. While the film has played on late-night TV, it was never released. Malick felt his script had been butchered.
Luckily, he hooked up with Ed Pressman and Paul Williams, who put together about $300,000 to shoot Badlands, which Malick had begun writing at AFI. As the closing-night attraction of 1973's New York Film Festival, it won unanimous praise and was picked up by Warner Bros. Malick was on his way. But the notion that his classmate might not be cut out for the system occurred to Odell as early as the first sneak of Badlands: "The audience hated it. Pressman was reading through the cards, stuffing the bad ones in his pockets, but there were so many he gave up. Terry, though, couldn't relate to the tension. His attitude was, these people don't matter, the film works, everything is fine."
More than 20 years later, Malick's sensibility apparently remains the same. Which is why his friends say that if he does return to filmmaking, it wouldn't be for a major studio. "Making a movie brings out every emotion," says Fields. "Probably the only way he would ever do it again is to work on a small scale."
But what about those big projects, The Thin Red Line or even Q, you may ask?
Well, so did I. Medavoy had already frustrated me, but I thought I'd try one last time because I knew he was leaving soon for China. What happened next could only be found in a script. Here's mine:
INT. COLDWATER CANYON HOME--DAY
ME: Uh, yes, this is Joe Gillis. May I speak to Mike, please?
ASSISTANT: I'm sorry, you've missed him. On to Shanghai, I'm afraid.
ME: Oh. Well, maybe you can help. I've been trying for a while now to get a letter to Terry Malick. I was hoping for an address.
ASSISTANT: I see. Actually, I could be of help. Terry has just walked in. I'll get him for you.
ME (to myself): He hasn't given an interview in 17 years]
ME: Hi, Terry. Joe Gillis.
And I'm, uh, we're doing a piece about you, and I'm just trying to sort things through. About what's going on with, well, to start with, The Thin Red Line, and, and, Sansho the Bailiff and ... I had wanted to speak with you, and now that I'm speaking with you, I feel, well, nervous.
TERRY: Don't be, Joe. But I have to say I just don't feel comfortable talking about it yet.
ME: Red Line?
TERRY: Yeah. It may happen sometime in the indefinite future.
ME: The indefinite future? You can say the same thing about the sun collapsing. I'm only mentioning this because ... well, you might have seen an item that said you read the script over with Costner and Ethan Hawke.
TERRY: We did it just to hear how it flowed.
ME: How did it flow?
TERRY: I don't feel comfortable talking about it.
ME: Mike says you're on the third draft.
TERRY: Thank you for your interest.
ME: I don't want to grill you, Terry. I understand the rules--that's the one thing we don't do. I had hopes, actually, of discussing movies in general, ones you've been impressed by. Just, you know, shooting the shit ...
TERRY: Well, I appreciate your interest. I guess I do feel uncomfortable talking about it.
ME (to myself): Ladies and gentlemen, the part of Terry Malick is being played by Bert Lahr.
ME AGAIN: I'm just one of many journalists who regard you as one of the best ever and watch your films over and over.
TERRY: You're very kind, Joe. I appreciate it and I feel it and it comes to me as very encouraging. But I feel uncomfortable talking about it.
ME (to myself): Open the pod-bay doors, Hal.
[Is Sansho something you plan to get back to later? Did Wajda bail]
Anguished, protracted silence.
ME: I know what the rules are. I said I wouldn't grill you, and here I am grilling you.
TERRY: I'll be ... happy to talk to you ... at some later point.
Hope it's sooner than your next picture.
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