Hollywood's prodigal son

Terrence Malick made two brilliant films, then disappeared. Twenty years on, the reclusive director is back with a film that actors are fighting to be in. Josh Young reports from the set - Saturday 11 July 1998

TWENTY years into a world-class disappearing act, Terrence Malick had come to be known as the J. D. Salinger of the movie business. After writing and directing two of the more potent films of the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, the abrasively brilliant film-maker dropped out of sight, leaving an aura of mystery that transformed him into a Hollywood legend - the genius in absentia.

John Milius, co-writer of Apocalypse Now and director of Conan the Barbarian, calls Malick "a very talented director, if not the most talented of my generation", a generation that includes Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese. Now Hollywood is witnessing the second coming of Malick.

Witnesses have been few, however, because the 54-year-old director, who looks like a professor with his balding head, grey beard and thoughtful eyes, shot his comeback movie, his own adaptation of James Jones's Second World War novel The Thin Red Line, in the rainforest near Port Douglas in Queensland, Australia.

Told against the backdrop of America's bloody defeat of the Japanese at Guadalcanal, the film explores the raw human dynamics of a rifle company in combat. Malick finished filming in February and is now in an editing-room in Hollywood, whittling down his six-hour first cut to a three-hour version, which is scheduled for a Christmas Day release in the US.

What a pedigree the $50 million drama has: actors enlisted in the film's company include Sean Penn, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, John Cusack, Bill Pullman, John Savage, Lukas Haas and Ben Chaplin. And The Thin Red Line is a follow-up to Jones's novel From Here to Eternity, which became the 1953 film starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra; it won eight Oscars.

Malick's return was nurtured for nine years by two little-known New York-based producers, Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau, who wooed the director with a combination of patience and charm. "Our main accomplishment is that we didn't take no for an answer because, left to his own devices, Terry would still be sitting in his apartment in Austin, Texas," Geisler says. "It required reeling him in day by day, month by month, over all those years." How it all finally came together is, in the words of Jones's widow, Gloria, "almost a miracle".

Malick, who hasn't given a formal interview since 1974 (and has a clause in his contract stating he won't do any publicity to promote his new film), was an anomaly from the day he arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1960s with a collection of life experiences that people in Hollywood call interesting backstory.

He grew up in Waco, Texas, where he spent summers working on oil wells and operating cement mixers. He later attended Harvard, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He once worked as a logjammer by day while translating Heidegger from German to English by night. He was teaching philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when his application to the American Film Institute was accepted by George Stevens Jr, the son of the famous director, who is now executive producer of The Thin Red Line. "I always liked the movies in kind of a naive way," Malick remarked at the time. "They seemed no less improbable a career than anything else."

Malick moved to Los Angeles with his fiancée (and later first wife), Jill Jakes, against her protestations. " 'Do not get into the movie business'," she remembers telling Malick, " 'it will kill your soul. It will suffocate you.' But he had to do it."

After watching his script for the trucker flick Deadhead Miles turned into an unreleasably bad film, Malick enlisted his brother, Chris, who works in the natural gas business in Oklahoma, to help raise $300,000 so he could direct Badlands. When the film, which starred Martin Sheen as a garbage man who goes on a killing spree with a baton-twirling 15-year-old, played by Sissy Spacek, opened in 1974, the venerable New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it "cool, sometimes brilliant, always ferociously American".

Two years later, as Malick holed up at the Holiday Inn in Lethbridge, Alberta, to prepare Days of Heaven, Jakes served him with divorce papers. Then things got worse. During filming, Malick felt artistically compromised. He had wanted John Travolta and Genevieve Bujold for the leads but settled for unknowns Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. This caused him to abandon his talkative screenplay for a version so laconic that a voice-over narrative had to be added at the last minute to tell the story.

But like the chef who takes cheese scraps and makes a heavenly soufflé, the grumpy Malick created a finished product that elevated him to auteur status before his 35th birthday. Variety, the Hollywood trade publication, hailed Days of Heaven as "one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last decade", and it won best picture and best director at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. Paramount poured more than $1 million into the development of Malick's next film, a half-baked idea about the creation of the universe. Three years later, Malick walked out of the movie business; he never finished the script.

After leaving Los Angeles, Malick led a peripatetic life. He explored the ancient caves of Nepal, climbed in the Alps, embarked on long excursions in Greece, Nova Scotia and the south of France. Home base was an apartment in Paris and later two apartments (one for living, one for writing) in a prefabricated building in Austin, Texas. Over the years, he rewrote a few scripts that didn't get made, including a dark draft of the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire!

Geisler, who had met Malick in 1978, and Roberdeau tracked Malick down in 1988 in Paris and asked the elusive film-maker to write and direct a film based on D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel from a script by Dennis Potter. (The producers have since signed Emir Kusturica for the project.)

Malick declined but gave the producers a choice of two other projects, a modern-day version of Moliere's play Tartuffe or The Thin Red Line. "More than anything, the theme of fate interested Terry," Geisler says.

Malick began adapting The Thin Red Line on January 1, 1989. Five months later, the producers received his first draft, and Geisler delivered an impassioned speech about why Malick should direct it. "He asked me how long we were willing to wait for him," Geisler says, "and I told him as long as it takes."

As Malick worked on the script, the producers pulled out all the stops. They flooded Malick with obscure research material, such as a book titled Reptiles & Amphibians of Australia, an audiotape of Kodo: Heartbeat Drummers of Japan, information on Navaho code-talkers enlisted to speak a special language in case Japanese troops intercepted radio transmissions. When they wanted to give Malick a rare viewfinder, the producers contacted Stanley Kubrick for his recommendation. They even helped him get a mortgage for an apartment in Paris.

Finally he committed. "Terry said he thought about it long and hard, and if we could find no other acceptable director, then kicking and screaming he would come back to the movies because the story was too good not to be told," Geisler remembers.

It was 1995 when word started to spread around Hollywood that Malick was returning, and actors practically lined up for parts. Malick staged a reading with Kevin Costner, Martin Sheen, Will Patton, Ethan Hawke, Lukas Haas and Dermot Mulroney. Edward Norton was the first actor to fly to Austin and meet Malick, who had seen Norton's screen test for Primal Fear, his first major role, which later earned the actor an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Matthew McConaughey took a day off while filming A Time to Kill and visited Malick.

Others who made the pilgrimage to Austin included William Baldwin, Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Burns. Before the cast was finally decided, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage all had conversations with Malick but fell out for various reasons.

Cage's puzzling exclusion is an example of Malick's strange behaviour. Malick and Cage lunched in Hollywood in February 1996, shortly after Cage was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. The two hit it off. Malick then left for Australia to scout locations. Back by midsummer, Malick called Cage to tell him about the trip, but the number was disconnected. "Terry felt it was an act of rudeness, if not betrayal and irresponsibility that Nic had not called and given him the new number," recalls a source involved in the film's casting, "and Terry's reaction was 'f*ck him'."

The big names who were eventually cast all took pay cuts to work with Malick. The producers say that no actor was paid more than $1 million, though many stars have smaller roles. For example, Clooney, Pullman and Travolta all worked less than a week. Of the major stars, only Penn (who wanted to be in the film so badly he once told Malick in a bar, "Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up") worked the entire shoot.

Unknowns Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Dash Mihok and David Harrod were cast as the principal leads, and they all came under his spell. "Terry Malick was like a father to us," Caviezel says. "He has so much love in his heart for everyone."

On the days I visited the set, high atop a mountain about an hour from Port Douglas, Malick was the calm in the middle of the storm. While preparing to shoot a scene, he seldom gave actors more than a line or two of direction.

Once when torrential rain interrupted filming, the cast and crew huddled under a makeshift tent. Malick removed his hat, rubbed his bald head with a handkerchief and listened with rapt attention to the silly stories of his 20-year-old cast members. At lunch break one afternoon, Malick waved off the production truck and hiked up the hill with the tired cast. "He knew everyone's name and treated everyone as equals," Caviezel adds.

Theories on why Malick waited so long to make a third film range from the philosophical to the sublime. Jill Jakes, Malick's first wife, believes that the process disgusted him. She laments, "In Hollywood you practise your craft at such a cost to your soul, to any spirituality you have. Terry managed to do it for two pictures, but he must have felt that he was paying a high price in terms of being a good person or a pure person."

But Malick's brother debunks that theory. "There isn't any mystery to why he chose not to direct for a while, he just decided to do other things." And Geisler points to a telling line Malick wrote in the play Sansho Bailiff. "I have grown old in places where I never meant stay."

Note: This article comes from the Electronic Telegraph - the Web presence of "The Daily Telegraph" - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/