Terrence Malick: The Mysterious Man Behind the 'The New World'
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Daily Life Producer
If you’ve read the reviews of The New World, you probably already know that the film is unlike most movies one finds coming from Hollywood. A number of things could account for this, but probably the most obvious is that the film’s director, Terrence Malick, is unlike most directors that one finds in Hollywood.
The 62-year-old has directed only three other films in his 33-year career. In the 1970s he directed Badlands and Days of Heaven, and then dropped out of view for twenty years before directing The Thin Red Line in 1998.
Malick has an eclectic background. He earned a degree in philosophy from Harvard, eventually going on to translate some of German existentialist Martin Heidegger’s shorter works into English. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and studied cinema at the American Film Institute. He also worked for a time as a journalist, publishing articles in Life, Newsweek, and The New Yorker.
Other details about his life are somewhat sketchy. Malick is an intensely private individual; he hasn’t done interviews with the media since the 1970s. His reclusive lifestyle combined with his unique film style has garnered him a cult following among movie fans. Likewise, Hollywood stars also flock to work with him when word spreads that he is doing something new.
What is it that draws people to this director and his films? When asked about their experiences working with Malick, actors and actresses are quick to point out his idiosyncrasies, like the fact that he works with all natural lighting, often scraps pages of dialogue in favor of doing a scene silently, and interrupts scenes to capture shots of whatever catches his eye – a bug on a leaf or a waving blade of grass. But mostly, the stars of his films have nothing but praise for the director.
“For me, watching his movies is like listening to a favorite piece of music of mine,” said Christian Bale, who portrays John Rolfe in The New World. “I mean you’ve got headphones on and you kind of sit in the dark, and it just really gets to you personally. And he just, for me, has an incredible ability to do that.”
Bale said what he most admired about Malick was how much he trusted the actors and valued their opinions. “The wonderful thing with Terry is, for such an accomplished director, he wants input from absolutely everybody, and he is secure enough that he doesn’t feel that to be an affront to him,” Bale said.
Malick also insisted on creating a location that could be filmed in every direction without seeing inappropriate objects, such as a sound mixer or other equipment, in a scene. As a result, actors were given the freedom to move wherever they wanted and the cameras would follow them.
The director also enjoyed capturing candid moments on the set. Bale said Malick would often have a camera rolling without the actors knowing they were being filmed. And to keep the realness of each scene, the actors did not do any rehearsals and would not do scenes over numerous times for fear that it would become too rehearsed and less realistic.
It was this be-ready-for-anything attitude that newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, who portrays Pocahontas in the film, enjoyed most about working with the famous director. She described herself as someone who loves “acting on her impulses” which fit Malick’s directing style perfectly.
Many times, Kilcher said, Malick would advise the actors to say only a few of the scripted lines and do the rest of the scene silently.
“Doing the silent thing, in a way, it was a whole new language to be learned,” Kilcher said, “because I really had to internalize what I was saying, and think about it, and try to convey it through my expressions and my movement.”
Bale said he found the atmosphere that Malick created for the crew to be liberating, describing the director as the “king of creating wonderful vibes on the set.” The actor said he found himself, along with many of the other actors, wanting to be around the director all the time. Many of them wouldn’t leave the set even after their parts had wrapped for the day, he said.
“He’s just a very enjoyable personality and soul to be around,” Bale said. “And he just creates, I think, the most perfect acting environment that I’ve ever been involved in.”
Producer Sarah Green shared the actor’s sentiments. She said on most projects she doesn’t stick around for the the post-production work on a film, but this one was different. “I was here everyday of the whole process because (Malick) is so unusual and because I learned so much every day.”
She said that Malick has always been her favorite director and she described him as “one of the more true artists.” Prior to working with him on The New World, she spent about a year getting to know him. “What I’ve learned about Terry is that he makes friends with people and then decides how he wants to work with them,” Green said.
The producer said she admires the choices that Malick made in The New World opting to leave out some elements of the historical tale to allow viewers to interpret those parts of the film however they wanted. She also has an answer for moviegoers who criticize Malick for the film’s slow pace.
“Terry had the challenge of trying to make a movie that wasn’t too long for people to sit through and try to tell this sweeping story, and to give it a pace that he felt was appropriate for the story,” Green said. “It’s a love story in a natural setting. If we had cut it like a modern movie, with everything just flying in on top of one another, I don’t think that we would have felt the resonance that we do.”
Indeed, The New World unfolds more like a slow, beautiful adventure to be experienced, rather than a typical Hollywood film that focuses exclusively on a dramatic plot and races to a climatic finish. The impromptu decisions that he makes while filming enable him to create films that are “rich in humanity,” Green said.
“Terry is not big on convention,” she said. “He is big on what has an impact on him in the moment.”
And for all of his mystique, perhaps it is this quality alone that makes him so appealing. For Malick’s fans, this is what sets his films apart and makes them true works of art.
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