“Terrence Malick has legendary status for two things: the movies he has made, and the movies he has not made.”
— James Sterngold
IN JUNE OF LAST YEAR, celebrity gossip website TMZ uploaded a video of Benicio del Toro on a sidewalk in Los Angeles. The outing was entirely unremarkable save for one detail: an older gentleman accompanying the actor kept attempting to get out of frame. Days later, several more reputable outlets — Vulture, Slate, and The Guardian among them — realized something TMZ had not: the man in question was Terrence Malick, the quote-unquote reclusive filmmaker responsible for Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life, and the newly released To the Wonder. At the time the video was uploaded, Malick had made only a handful of under-the-radar public appearances since the 1970s, which had earned him a disproportionately enigmatic reputation as a result; he had also won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival and been nominated for three more by the Academy. A few months later, another video surfaced — this one of Malick dancing to country music at a bar in Austin. Both went as close to viral as blurry footage of an art-house filmmaker possibly could and restarted the perpetual rumor machine that has long been a part of Malick’s public image.
Malick has the rare distinction of becoming a celebrity — at least in part — for rejecting the notion of celebrity. At a time when we’re given a direct line into our favorite stars’ streams of consciousness via the social media avenue of our choosing, the 69-year-old continues to let his films speak for themselves. When he was nominated for Best Director at the 1998 Academy Awards, the picture that appeared onscreen was of a chair with his name on it; at last year’s ceremony, a different on-set photo from the same production was used. Each new project of Malick’s is said to come with a contractual stipulation that no photos of him may be used in the film’s promotional materials. No matter: people have repeatedly proven able and willing to create an image of their own. That this picture is incomplete at best and may well be wholly inaccurate matters little. Now more than ever, it seems we still can’t conceive of a famous person who doesn’t want to be famous, and even caricatures are more satisfying than a note reading “not pictured” in the celebrity yearbook.
As such, a number of temptations continue to arise when discussing Malick. Foremost among these is the tendency to perpetuate the go-to myths: that the famously media-shy filmmaker is also a recluse, or that he once disappeared from Hollywood for two decades for reasons unknown. Starting with the most basic of biographical details — or lack thereof — it’s easy to see why there are so many misconceptions: there isn’t even a consensus on where the man was born. The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, and The Telegraph all list Malick’s birthplace as Ottawa, Illinois; The New York Times and USA Today cite Waco, Texas as the true site. (That none of these outlets place their own opinion in opposition to anyone else’s is either evidence of their confidence or a suggestion that they aren’t even aware there’s room for debate.)
Malick has politely declined every single one of the countless interview requests he’s received since 1975 (by which point he had granted only a few), but mum has rarely, if ever, been the word on him. Critics, academics, and fans alike have made a habit of endlessly speculating about Malick’s habits and whereabouts for the entirety of his now four-decade career; he’s amassed something of a cult following for exhibiting what many would consider perfectly normal behavior and attempting to work in private. The mass speculation this aversion to media coverage has somewhat ironically engendered is nowhere more evident than in the gap between his second and third films, 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line. A full 20 years even further out of the public eye, the unaccounted-for departure gave rise to myriad rumors and apocryphal stories that continue to color the public’s perception of him.
There are nevertheless a number of salient details about the first 30 years of Malick’s life that come to bear on his subsequent career as a filmmaker — including the two decades during which many think he quit being one. Terrence Frederick Malick was born to Emil and Irene (née Thompson) on November 30, 1943, in one of the two cities listed above (overall, research leans toward the former ) and grew up in Oklahoma and Texas. An all-conference football player at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Malick went on to study philosophy under Stanley Cavell at Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965 before crossing the Atlantic as a Rhodes scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford. Prior to completing his PhD, he left the school over a dispute with his thesis advisor. The details of this argument are largely unknown, though The Harvard Crimson claims it had to do with “the contrasting worldviews of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.” Upon arriving back in the United States, Malick taught philosophy at MIT and published a translation of Martin Heidegger’s Essence of Reasons. (While at Harvard, he also translated Heidegger’s Holzwege and met the philosopher during a year abroad in Germany.) For a number of years following his return, he worked as a journalist for Newsweek and Life, where he wrote about Latin America, and The New Yorker, where he had an office from 1968 to 1969. Malick then enrolled at the AFI Conservatory as part of its inaugural class, graduating two years later with David Lynch. The decision to apply to the program was apparently an easy one: “I’d always liked the movies in a kind of naïve way,” Malick once said, for the simple reason that “they seemed no less improbable a career than anything else.”
Shortly thereafter, Malick was profiled in Esquire along with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, with one critic saying that he could never make a film again and still be considered a legend.
And then just that happened — or so it falsely appeared. As far as Malick’s small-but-growing audience could tell, the man simply disappeared from Hollywood without a trace for almost a quarter of a century.
“Well, I, I, uh, I guess I don’t want to talk about it …”
— Terrence Malick’s last on-the-record statement
If moviegoers familiar with Malick’s first two films had little idea what to make of his sudden absence, the reports that occasionally showed up in the trades did little to help. The lion’s share of journalists and reporters may have been similarly in the dark as to what Malick was up to, but they were certainly aware of something: a presence, an enigma, and, most of all, a chance for good copy. Any number of articles were written about Malick between 1978 and 1998, many carrying rather fetching headlines: “Waiting for Godot”; no fewer than three called “Absence of Malick”; a faux-police report entitled “Missing Persons Corner”; “Director’s cut — and run”; “The Elusive Playwright.”
Variety’s “Missing Persons Corner,” for instance, accurately reports that the “wunderkind director” was offered creative freedom on a Paramount-funded project called Q but then follows with the more questionable claim that Malick’s response when things unraveled was “disappearing from Hollywood, and never directing another feature.” The piece ends thusly: “Having discovered that he has Assyrian roots, Malick set forth in the Middle East to find Assyria. He never accomplished that, either. Others say he teaches in Texas.”
Other journos were even more extreme: “There were even reports that he might be dead, depressed, or just holed up in some back corner of the world,” writes David Thomson in “Malick: The Prodigal Returns.” Even those who knew the filmmaker personally were perplexed. “He’s the ultimate phantom,” former vice president of production at Paramount Don Simpson said in 1985. “Last I heard, he was in some garret in France with no electricity and no phone. There are so many rumors about him — it’s like Ken Kesey’s fake suicide. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were dead.”
Not even Malick’s eventual return slowed the myth making. Richard Corliss, writing for Time in anticipation of The Tree of Life’s release, summarized the period as follows: “In 1978 he moved to Paris, and he did not release another film for 20 years. Legends grew around his silence: Was he living in a garage? Teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne?” According to Variety’s Tatiana Siegel, the disappearance helped solidify Malick’s reputation: “When Malick returned to action 20 years after Days of Heaven with The Thin Red Line, his reputation had gone beyond cult to legend, doubtlessly due in no small measure to a reclusiveness that would make J.D. Salinger proud.” The result was “an Academy that welcomed Malick into the fold, rewarding the enigmatic artist with his first two Oscar nominations, for writing and directing.” In May 2006, Christopher Kelly of Texas Monthly observed that “the Malick mystique only multiplied over the next two decades, when the director seemed to pretty much evaporate off the face of the planet. The film industry suddenly had its own Thomas Pynchon–like figure, the phantom artist whose whereabouts were endlessly speculated upon. (The juiciest of rumors placed him in Paris working as a hairdresser.)
Taken on their own, any one of these reports might seem semi-plausible or at least funny; presented together, their collective absurdity amounts to an echo chamber of secondhand misinformation. Moreover, information on these 20 years is not as scarce as people tend to report. The mythical image of Malick that has been built up over the last 30-odd years is, in essence, a creation of the same media corps with whom the filmmaker himself has continually chosen not to engage.
Terrence Malick. Courtesy of New York Magazine.
Dissatisfaction with these reports led me to conduct brief interviews with three noted film critics in order to gauge their individual perceptions of Malick’s supposed absence: Richard Brody, Leonard Maltin, and Matt Zoller Seitz. The intent was not so much to use them as fact-finders but rather to get a sense of how three in-the-know figures made sense of an on-the-rise filmmaker supposedly banishing himself from Hollywood. Brody, who edits The New Yorker’s film section and runs their movie blog, The Front Row, found the time away worrisome:
I figured that, even for a director such as Malick, a true cinema intellectual who is in the grip of a few themes and a few ideas, a long time away from filmmaking had to pose problems. If ever he had the intention of keeping abreast with the moment — something his first two movies did in emotions and forms but not in concrete details — it slipped away in the 20-year layoff, as seemed likely. There’s a kind of facility that arises from practice; the use of the camera is something like the use of a violin: having perfect pitch isn’t the same thing as being in practice. And it doesn’t surprise me that, now that he has accelerated the pace of his production, he has made, with The Tree of Life, his most virtuosic film, which is also the one in which he dares to unfurl something of life in the present tense.
Maltin, meanwhile, had more confidence in Malick, writing that he “created such a stir with Badlands, and then Days of Heaven, that he rooted himself in the collective consciousness of critics and film buffs” — and, it seems, gained himself a reputation and credibility:
So while there were varied rumors over the years, and much buzz about unrealized projects, I think people came to the conclusion that he was marching to his own drum and no one else’s. If it would take five, ten, or twenty years to make his next film, that’s just the way it was.
Clearly, the uncertainty and disagreement regarding Malick extend beyond biographical speculation and into the realm of professional productivity — how “time away” changed his approach and what elements of his post–Days of Heaven can be traced back to his supposed hiatus.
The most extensive of my conversations was with Seitz, TV critic for New York magazine whose former credits include film review posts at The Dallas Observer, New York Press, and The New York Times. Of the three, Seitz may have the most personal connection to Malick: he cites The New World as his favorite film, and, in advance of The Tree of Life’s release, he curated and introduced a retrospective of Malick’s work at the Museum of the Moving Image. Over the phone, Seitz didn’t mince words:
The thing that really, really bothers me about the perception of Terrence Malick is the idea that he made Days of Heaven and then sat with his thumb up his butt for twenty years. That’s not what happened; he never stopped working. Terrence Malick is not a recluse. A recluse is Howard Hughes holed up in a hotel pissing into a milk bottle. If you live in certain neighborhoods of Austin you’ll see Malick shambling about with his binoculars and bird-watching gear. And if you walk up to him and say, “I love your movies,” he’ll say, “Thank you so much, and isn’t it such a wonderful day?” He has his reasons, we don’t know what they are, and I like that. […]
This is a guy who knows a hell of a lot about a hell of a lot of things: religion, astronomy, birds, philosophy. He doesn’t strike me as someone for whom the sun rises and sets on the next deal; maybe movie-making is not the be-all and end-all for him. It’s entirely possible that when he’s out bird-watching he gets so swept up in it that he doesn’t think about movies at all that day.
Seitz is right that Malick is often erroneously pegged as a recluse by those who confuse “reclusive” with “media-shy.” Indeed, the director has been pegged as a “recluse” more often than he has been compared to Stanley Kubrick, J.D. Salinger, and Thomas Pynchon. (Whether there exist any photos or videos of Salinger dancing in bars is unknown to me, but I assume there are not.)
It isn’t only journalists and audiences who were and are taken by Malick; actors are drawn to him too. The Thin Red Line features performances by Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta; Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Mickey Rourke, and Martin Sheen were in the film but had their scenes excised; and, in an early version, Billy Bob Thornton provided a reported four hours of narration. The list does not quite end there: Edward Norton was attached to the project early on, Brad Pitt was in talks at one point, and Johnny Depp told Malick, “Let’s sign this napkin: you tell me where to show up, when, what to play.” By all accounts, the reason for this high-profile cast is simple: nearly everyone in Hollywood wanted to be a part of Malick’s return.
As for why it took him so long, well, “I doubt Terry intended to be away from directing for such a long time,” says Jack Fisk, the production designer on all of Malick’s features, who met his wife, Sissy Spacek, on the set of Badlands. “I have never asked him about that period, but I know he was writing and shooting film all along.”
“Imagine this surrealistic reptilian world.”
— Richard Taylor
The question thus becomes: what was Malick writing and shooting? Quite a lot, it would appear. He was either involved in or offered the chance to work on no fewer than a dozen different projects, several of which made it rather far along in the development process before ultimately being shelved by financiers who grew weary of their director’s slow pace. Malick never truly stopped being a filmmaker; he simply — and temporarily — stopped being one whose unconventional working methods meshed with the more business-minded elements of Hollywood.
Shortly after completing Days of Heaven, Malick met an aspiring producer named Bobby Geisler. Geisler had only a few credits to his name (some television and one feature film), but his enthusiasm for Malick’s first two movies led to a working relationship that would continue until The Thin Red Line was eventually completed without his direct involvement. He first offered Malick the opportunity to adapt David Rabe’s play In The Boom Boom Room for the screen, which his new collaborator turned down. The two instead began work on The Elephant Man, a biopic about Joseph Merrick (a human curiosity whose exact ailment is still debated well over a century after his untimely death) for which Malick turned in a spec script, but it fell to the wayside when the pair received word that David Lynch’s film of the same name was already nearing completion.
By far the most ambitious of Malick’s unfinished projects, Q — also known in various stages as Qasida and Creation — is also the one about which we know the most today, by virtue of the fact that it was in pre-production for well over a year beginning in 1979 and financed by Paramount. According to Paul Ryan, who shot second unit on Days of Heaven and was hired to the do the same for Q, “Some people had criticized Days of Heaven for not having enough of a story, but Terry would say, ‘I want to go more in that direction.’ He was interested in a non-narrative style, the cinematic equivalent of how, say, Beethoven had structured his symphonies.” The scope of the project quickly expanded, says Los Angeles magazine’s Joe Gillis, and the balance between concept and narrative began leaning further toward the former. “The original concept was a multi-character drama set in the Middle East during World War I, with a prologue set in prehistoric times,” Gillis continues. “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.”
These prehistoric elements were eventually integrated into The Tree of Life, and it has been reported that actual canisters of film from Q were unearthed and inserted into the later film. That said, some of the headiest aspects never made the leap — including, perhaps most notably, a “sleeping god” once described as a minotaur “underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward as fluorescent fish swim into the deity’s nostrils and out again.” Malick’s refusal to work at anyone’s pace but his own is credited as the primary reason the project never got off the ground; Paramount had spent over $1 million developing the project, not shelving it until Malick failed to deliver an official script after a year, instead turning in as many as 40 pages of poetic descriptions at a time. Another contributing factor, according to Biskind, was the death of Charles Bludhorn, the executive who had originally been working with Malick.
The money and creative control given to Malick were, for him, unprecedented. But that sum might ultimately have been a double-edged sword in that it “may have given him too much freedom,” notes Gillis. According to California’s David Handleman, Q was Malick’s “response to Days of Heaven, [to] being hailed as a genius and not knowing if he agreed with the characterization […] he seemed bent on topping himself, wandering close to lunacy to avoid repetition — or failure.” Though speculative, this account is in keeping with descriptions of Malick as a perfectionist who wanted to make a great film or no film at all.
In the 1980s, Malick was said to be working on a script for Louis Malle (a process that reportedly involved him spending a few summers at the French filmmaker’s country home), but nothing came of it. Like a great many of his other projects during this period, this venture was screenwriting only. Malick had written scripts for others before, but not since completing Badlands had he ever written a movie for someone else. And, though The Thin Red Line’s source material is a novel, it was Malick himself who penned the adaptation — originally under the impression that he wouldn’t be directing it.
Next came a proposed adaptation of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, about a man in New Orleans who connects to movies more easily than he does to everyday life. Given that Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins were attached at one point in 1994, it seems fair to assume that Robbins was to play the title role. Projects from this time period apparently had a very high failure rate as it is, but once pre-production on The Thin Red Line began in earnest and The New World followed, Hurricane Katrina apparently dashed any hopes of this Louisiana-set film getting made: “I don’t think the New Orleans of the book exists anymore,” Malick said at an extremely rare question-and-answer session prior to the release of The New World in 2005. Unlike many other aborted projects, it seemed likely at one point that he would have served as both writer and director on The Moviegoer.
Another adaptation, Malick’s take on the Larry McMurtry novel Desert Rose, is regarded as having been more financially motivated than some of his other attempts. Malick was approached by Rob Cohen, then the head of Taft-Barish Productions, with plans for Barry Levinson to direct. At roughly the same time in the 1980s, Malick was hired to write a script about Jerry Lee Lewis. Said by Gillis to have been “much darker” than Great Balls of Fire! (1989), the project never got off the ground. Malick has reportedly kept the script, however, and, as recently as the fall of 2011, Brad Pitt (who not only starred in but co-produced Tree of Life) was said to be developing it with Natalie Portman in mind as a potential lead.
Geisler again approached Malick in 1988, 10 years after first attempting to work with him, this time with co-producer John Roberdeau and a $2 million offer (which they didn’t have) to direct the D.M. Thomas novel The White Hotel. Malick, uninterested in the source material, countered with Molière’s Tartuffe; eventually they settled on The Thin Red Line, which Malick began adapting in 1989. Apparently concerned by the manner of Q’s dissolution, Geisler and Roberdeau felt it pertinent to make this a two-picture deal in the hopes that it would keep Malick focused and, indeed, reined in. By not allowing him time to creatively meander, they hoped to maximize his productivity, and nearly 20 years later, the fact that To the Wonder premiered some 15 months after The Tree of Life with at least two other of Malick’s films in one stage of production or another may have retroactively proved their point — perhaps multiple projects really do spur this filmmaker’s creativity.
The second part of that proposed deal, perhaps the strangest of Malick’s many failed ventures during this period, was a stage adaptation of Sansho the Bailiff, one of Japan’s best-known pieces of folklore, previously filmed (and rather beautifully at that) by Kenji Mizoguchi. “At heart, it’s a very intimate story,” Geisler told Variety in 1992, “but its ambition has been to shake up Broadway. It’s a work of size and soul.” Completing the script was no easy task. Malick finished a first draft in 1990 and sent it to a number of directors, including Ingmar Bergman, all of whom turned it down. “No script existed for the Mizoguchi film, so [Geisler and Roberdeau] had it transcribed and translated by both a Japanese linguist who spoke English and an American who spoke Japanese.” Eventually Andrzej Wajda (of Ashes and Diamonds) agreed to direct. Malick then flew to Warsaw to meet the Polish auteur, but their meeting did not go well. Wajda is said to have told Malick, “Terry, what you need to do to Sansho the Bailiff is make it more like Shakespeare.” After over a year the play’s price tag had ballooned to $800,000, little of note had come together in any substantive way, and it was shelved.
Along with Q and Sansho the Bailiff, The English Speaker completes Malick’s triptych of incomplete passion projects. According to Geisler’s interview with Variety mentioned above, Malick had been interested in the “tale of 19th century psychoanalysis” even before Days of Heaven. The script was so personal to him, in fact, that he would only let Geisler read it; Peter Biskind alluringly describes it as “The Exorcist as written by Dostoevsky.” Given the similarity of the real-life story on which it is based to that of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, the film is now especially unlikely to ever be released. It is tempting to try and track down a screenplay like this one — and some have tried — but only for the roughest of outlines: Malick is well-known for straying incredibly far from the words he puts down paper and improvising on set.
The rest of his rumored projects are all scattershot and perhaps only proposals. In 1991, Malick was attached to produce an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock with a script by Don MacPherson. It never advanced beyond the earliest stages of production. Malick reportedly asked Geisler and Roberdeau to allow him to adapt A Tale of Two Cities for the stage, but nothing ever came of it either; similarly, he penned a reworking of Robert Dillon’s Countryman screenplay which he called Hungry Heart and fashioned as a sort of modern-day Grapes of Wrath. Little is known about it other than the fact that it was never made. Malick did, however, produce a documentary titled Endurance, which Variety reported on in 1997: “Malick and [Leslie] Woodhead are out in Ethiopia at the moment, making a film about why African athletes run so fast.” As for money, Malick made upwards of $100,000 per project as script doctor, was on retainer at Paramount during the production process of Q, and, according to an executive there in 1985, “[Malick and Paramount] have an understanding, that’s all. He’s independently wealthy — oil money. There’s no story.” Says a friend, “he lived austerely.” (That a nature-obsessed filmmaker who uses his own screenplays as the vaguest of outlines sustains himself financially via oil and script-doctoring is an irony that should not go unmentioned.)
1978 to 1998 notwithstanding, the number of years between each of Malick’s successful projects has varied. Five years between Badlands and Days of Heaven, seven between The Thin Red Line and The New World, six between The New World and The Tree of Life, and now one, from the latter to his latest, To the Wonder. At an average of one film as writer-director every six years or so, this means that the completion of only a few of these dozen-odd unrealized projects — the three in which he most involved (Q, Sansho the Bailiff, and The English Speaker), for instance — would account for the entirety of Malick’s absence and then some. His filmmaking style is freewheeling, improvisatory; a look at any one of his scripts reveals just how loosely he interprets them. He’s been described more than once as a butterfly-catcher, a truth-seeker who once halted a day-long setup of a fighter jet taking off in The Thin Red Line in order to film a bird that happened to be flying by. Considering his characteristically slow pace, ornithological/celestial preoccupations, and the fact that he combines an auteur’s sensibility with the resources of major studios (the three films preceding To the Wonder cost between $30–$50 million each), the real marvel here may not be that it took him so long to “return” to filmmaking — it’s that he’s made as many movies as he has.
So why does bridging the gap between perceived and actual reality matter? Well, because Malick himself does. He’s one of the most revered filmmakers alive: three Oscar nods, top prizes from the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, and a movie that placed 102nd on Sight and Sound’s most recent list of the best films of all time just a year after it was made. (This includes a ringing endorsement from the dearly departed Roger Ebert, whose final review happened to be on To the Wonder.) Devoted cineastes (including this one) fall over themselves in rapturous excitement each time Malick releases a new film, the first viewing of which is akin to either a drug or a religious experience — maybe both. If we care this much about the six movies he’s managed to finish, it’s worth looking back on the ones that he didn’t in order to see what, if anything, they might reveal about his working methods and thematic underpinnings. Imagine how strange it would be if, for instance, 20 years of Steven Spielberg’s working life were largely unknown to the public and, rather than make a serious attempt to describe that period accurately, most journalists were content to simply relay humorous apocrypha. To think: Malick might one day be referred to as a filmmaker who happened not to complete a film for 20 years rather than as a former hairdresser from Paris.
 Davenport, Hayes H. “Alumni Watch: Terrence Malick ‘65.” The Harvard Crimson, December 15, 2005.
 Production notes for Amazing Grace and The Beautiful Country, two films Malick produced in the 2000s, both list his birthplace as Illinois; one suspects these are closer to “official” than conflicting newspaper reports.
 Walker, Beverly. “Malick on Badlands.” Sight and Sound, Spring 1975.
 Penn, Nathaniel. “Badlands: An Oral History.” GQ, May 2011.
 One of which is Che, a biopic Malick started work on after his so-called return and eventually handed over to Steven Soderbergh.
 Biskind, Peter. “The Runaway Genius.” Vanity Fair, December 1998. Print.
 To date this remains the only Oscar win for any of Malick’s films; it speaks to both the visual nature of his work as well as his unconventional use of actors that, while four of his five movies have been nominated for their camerawork, not a single one his performers has ever been so honored.
 This discussion took place before the release of To the Wonder, which Brody similarly enjoyed.
 Special mention is owed in this section to both Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, and Oliver Lyttleton’s “The Lost Projects and Unproduced Screenplays of Terrence Malick” and Bilge Ebiri’s “Thirty-Three Years of Principal Filming.”
 Unattributed. “Malick behind camera?” Variety, December 19, 1994.
 It was a Red-tailed Hawk, for anyone keeping track at home