Filmmaker hits his stride at age 70

At age 70 reclusive director Terrence Malick has hit his stride, with his film output burgeoning, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 5:49pm

He's the most mysterious director on the planet. With just six feature-length films, made over four decades, Terrence Malick has garnered a god-like reputation in cinema. Critics apply words such as "elegiac" and "soulful" to his work. Hollywood stars, from Sean Penn and Brad Pitt to Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling, flock to work with him. "Everybody - actor, crew member, audience - knows that when they go into a Malick film," says producer Nicolas Gonda, "they're going to have a unique experience."

It's been that way since his 1973 debut work, Badlands, inspired by the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Yet part of what adds fuel to the Malick experience is his shadowy existence. Like authors J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, he has stayed away from the limelight. Politely refusing to take part in promotional activities - no interviews, red carpet or even photos - the filmmaker has added an indelible layer of secrecy to his image.

It's not [about being] secretive. He's shy ... I think he can't talk about himself. He's not that vain 
Olga Kurylenko, actress

But Olga Kurylenko, who starred in Malick's To the Wonder (2012), sees another reason for the director's public reticence. "It's not [about being] secretive," she says. "He's shy. I think he can't talk about himself. He could probably talk to you about something else, but not about himself. He's not that kind of person. He's not that vain."

What about discussing his work? "Would you really want him to chew it all up for you? That's why his movies are mysterious. He doesn't want to break it all [down]," she says.

The aura around Malick - now 70 - also comes from the 20-year gap between his second film, 1978's Days of Heaven, set in 1916 Texas, and his third, 1998's The Thin Red Line. Rumour had it that he disappeared to Paris to work on a film called Q that was later abandoned. Already divorced, he met Michèle Morette, a Parisienne with a daughter who lived in his apartment block; they married and eventually returned to Texas, where Malick had grown up.

Much of this is hinted at in To the Wonder, in which Kurylenko's single mother Marina heads in the same direction, to be with Ben Affleck's character (who, like Malick's own geologist father, spends his time examining oil spills). Later, he is drawn back to an old flame, played by Rachel McAdams; likewise, Malick divorced Morette in 1998, and married Alexandra Wallace - said to be his high school sweetheart from his days at St Stephens Episcopal School in Austin, Texas.

Wallace, unlike Malick, is not camera-shy. She introduced the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival screening of To the Wonder. "My husband sends salutes to the men and hugs to the women," she said. "We love Canada, and, in fact, we thought about becoming Canadian citizens after 9/11. We have much to learn from you." Making a sly dig at aggressive US foreign policy - just before the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre - it left onlookers in no doubt as to Malick's politics.

Then again, you only had to look at The Thin Red Line. Based on the 1962 novel by James Jones, and focusing on the American victory over the Japanese at Guadalcanal during the second world war, it remains one of modern cinema's great anti-war films. The opening shot, as an alligator snakes its way into a swamp, sums up Malick's concerns: a fascination with the natural world, and man's place in it - a theme that has intrigued him in every film.

It also introduced audiences to Malick's ruthlessness in the edit room. Known for taking years in post-production he is also famed for slicing actors out. Mickey Rourke and Billy Bob Thornton's parts were left on The Thin Red Line's cutting room floor, while Adrien Brody's role was considerably cut down, much to his annoyance. "I was focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive everything … it was extremely unpleasant," he later said.

Remarkably, for a director who made only three films in the first 26 years of his career, Malick has burst into life this past decade. Partly it's come from building a team around him able to implement his vision. Producer Sarah Green was introduced to Malick before he made his fourth film, 2005's period love story, The New World. "He was looking for a way to do things outside the system and to have some freedom and explore different ways of making films," she says.

Since then, along with Gonda, she's produced The Tree of Life (2011), which won Cannes' Palme d'Or, To the Wonder, and three films Malick has in post-production. "He's been full of ideas since we started working with him," says Green, which is putting it mildly. Among them is this year's Voyage of Time, a visual essay of sorts that delves into the creation of the universe in the way the astounding The Tree of Life does (Green calls it "pretty epic storytelling").

Then there are two narrative features, shot virtually back-to-back and with many of the same cast members. One is Knight of Cups, starring The New World's Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett in a story of "temptations, celebrity and excess". Seemingly, it looks set to continue the ultra-naturalistic style developed from The Tree of Life onwards; glimpses of behaviour, often accompanied by voiceover.

"You have to unlearn everything you learned," says Wes Bentley, who co-stars. "You're kinda doing what you wanted to do when you were a kid, and you thought the way you made a movie was you had a camera and they were whipping around catching all these moments. It wasn't like a set-up and you wait 30 minutes and it's another set-up on the other side of the room. Terry doesn't do that - he wants to find those natural moments."

The other film, still untitled, also stars Bale, Blanchett and Portman, along with Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Holly Hunter, and is said to be a tale of intersecting love triangles set around the Austin music scene. With scenes shot at the Austin City Limits music festival, it would seem Malick has less qualms about going out in public than the media might imagine.

"He remains very human," says Gonda. "[He] will visit the local restaurants and be a part of the community and people respect him as such and respect his privacy, and that's when he's very comfortable." Still, even a private man like Malick has seen his cover blown; in 2012, a cameraman for entertainment website TMZ bounded up to Benicio Del Toro in Brentwood, Los Angeles; with the actor was a man trying to avoid the camera's gaze - who many believed to be Malick.

Does this mean the filmmaker is gradually coming into the public gaze? "I'd be surprised," says Green. "Again, you never know what he's going to do. But I would be surprised. Brad Pitt has a really lovely thought about that at the press conference in Cannes [for The Tree of Life], where he said, 'It's interesting that people expect the house-builder to also sell the house. That's not what they're trained to do.' And it's not what Terry knows how to do." Maybe it's better just to sit back and absorb the mystery.

The "Terrence Malick: Spoken Voices and Wordless Poetry" series runs from May 5 to May 31. Part of the HKIFF Cine Fan programme