Terrence Malick has the most provocative reputation of any living American director. He famously avoids photographs and interviews (a peek at Google image search shows the former is increasingly difficult for the filmmaker), he disappeared from Hollywood for 20 years after making his debut, “Badlands” (1973) and a magnificent follow-up, “Days of Heaven” (1978). Malick has directed six other films including “Lanton Mills” (1969), “The Thin Red Line” (1998), “The New World” (2005), “The Tree of Life” (2011), “To the Wonder” (2012) and the soon to be released “Knight of Cups.”
In addition to “Knight of Cups,” the reclusive, innovative director has other movies on the way (one being a colossal documentary titled “Voyage of Time”) and seems to be cultivating a newfound energy since “The Tree of Life.” Here are 5 filmmaking tips from the school of Terrence Malick to illustrate what makes him notable and, in this writer’s opinion, the finest film artist in history.
Malick’s films are frequently shot during the period of day known as the “Magic Hour” (also the “Golden Hour”). This is that mysterious time right before sunset and right after sunrise when the human form/face looks splendidly defined and–well, magical. “The Tree of Life,” probably the best example of Malick’s frequent use of natural light, is riddled with the curious nature of “Magic Hour’s” powerful love affair with the camera (“Days of Heaven” was almost exclusively made in natural light as well). Malick loves a hungry sunbeam slicing through the branches of a giant tree, a wobbly human shadow dancing on the ground, a mad painterly dawn (see Nick Nolte’s bit in “The Thin Red Line” about Homer’s “Rosy-Fingered Dawn…”) and that crisp, newborn feeling this time of day can evoke. Artificial light certainly has its place–but there’s nothing like natural light if you can employ it correctly. Malick knows all too well that natural light makes things look rich, vivid, layered and most important of all–sacred.
SKILLED, IMMINENTLY WATCHABLE PERFORMERS
The man has exceptional actors in his films. The performers in Malick’s cinema are talented and easy on the eyes. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in “Badlands.” Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams in “Days of Heaven.” Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, John Cusack and Nick Nolte in “The Thin Red Line.” Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale and Colin Farrell in “The New World.” Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life.” Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem in “To the Wonder.” Malick’s newest film, “Knight of Cups” stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto and Antonio Banderas. Oh–and Wes Bentley. Malick also has a film in post-production, “Weightless,” which stars Ryan Gosling. Enough said.
DISOBEY THE RULES
No one (maybe Godard?) ignores cinematic rules with more experimental abandon. Malick has an extremely minimal, nearly non-existent regard for convention. His movies defy the very concept of film grammar. Endless voice-overs (“To the Wonder”–90 percent voice-over), challenging narrative structures (but they are there if you look hard), abandoning characters in mid-monologue, omissions of sound during moments of severity, and a habit of cutting world famous actors out of his movies at the last minute! It’s all part of Malick’s method. In fact, he’s one of the very few directors that has succeeded in creating his own cinematic language over the course of a career. Richard Gere once (admiringly) remarked Malick makes the same film over and over again. There’s truth to this. This is yet another example of breaking rules (most artists do not wish to, or appear to be, repeating themselves). On closer inspection, his films are quite different in idea and concept–only the execution and pre-occupations are similar. Regardless, Malick is aware no one ever did anything worth time’s embrace by implicit compliance and playing it safe.
SHOW WHAT YOU KNOW
All directors should make films personal. “Days of Heaven” is informed by the Malicks’ formative years on a Texas farm (also Oklahoma). Even a film that is significantly removed from this time period, “The New World,” has echoes of Malick’s childhood (the characters joyously weave in and out of reeds, grasslands, wheat fields, etc.). “The Tree of Life” is overtly autobiographical and his most fully realized work (I’d argue it’s one of the best films ever made). “To the Wonder” is clearly about a rumored romance Malick had with a Parisian woman (while studying philosophy abroad) during his long absence from Hollywood (1979-1997). And his upcoming “Knight of Cups” looks to be an examination of the pitfalls, voids and impossibilities of success (something Malick experienced with “Tree of Life, ” in winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes). It’s a pretty basic rule of thumb that if you’re writing your own material to direct, show what you know, say what you’ve seen, and go where you’ve been.
A skilled artist in any creative field will display a mature understanding of time. They know when to be leisurely and when to move quickly. Malick knows time molds viewpoints, tempers reactions and fiddles with an audience’s perceptions. He doesn’t rush anything and he understands the value of sculpting a project (although, lately, he’s becoming more rapid with his output). In the past he has taken long periods of time to develop material (only Kubrick would equal him) and the resulting films do not lack as a result. Movies function best when they tap into our dreams and desires edifying previously dormant states. Malick’s intuitions about the passage of time allow for a cinema experience aimed at everything hiding in a human being–everything shunned into the darkness. His films invite, honor, and even applaud the viewer for unleashing what’s good in you. Malick’s movies smile on your hidden need to be decent and good.