Terrence Malick is known for poetic films that often include philosophical and spiritual overtones, as well as the use of voice-over narration from characters.
The stylistic elements of his films have divided opinions among critics and audiences; with many praising the visual aesthetics and cinematography, while others find his work lacking in story and character development.
Malik began directing his first movie 50 years ago and has gone on to make just 9 movies including Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The Tree of Life (2005).
He has three academy award nominations to his name; two for Best Director and one for Best Adapted Screenplay. He was awarded the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival and the Palme d’Or at the 64th Cannes Film Festival for The Tree of life.
The director disapeared from Hollywood for 20 years and has continued to decline interviews since 1975. After countless hours of research on Malik, we’ve managed to find some great filmmaking wisdom from the revered film director. If you find this article then please share with other filmmakers and cinephiles.
Terrence Malik Filmmaking Quotes
If you want to be a filmmaker, ask yourself if you could imagine doing any other job. If you can, that’s a script!
[on why he doesn’t work with storyboards] If you try to make things happen, they start to feel presented. The action has been premeditated. It starts to feel like theater, which is wonderful in its own right. But you don’t want the movies to be like theater.
I have trouble working off things that are too preconceived, like storyboards.
While I was shooting my short, I believed in the myth of improvisation without realizing that in following your instincts, you can end up with the best or the worst results. However, for my next film, I hope to be freer in my shooting, less constrained by my initial ideas.
I film quite a bit of footage, then edit. Changes before your eyes, things you can do and things you can’t. My attitude is always ‘let it keep rolling
You never know at the end of the day what you actually got. The editing takes a longer time than usual. You have to ask the patience of the studio or the financier. Sometimes more than once.
[on setting a film in the modern day] I remember feeling timid about it because it’s hard to project yourself into the present. I think making a contemporary film you think about what images haven’t been used in advertising… but what you come see there is as many images today as there was in the past.
When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in cliches. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.
There’s a good many pictures I’d like to make, we’ll see how many I’ll be allowed to make.
Maik on Badlands
Raising the money took a long time. In fact, it took longer to raise half of the money I needed than it took to shoot the film. The other half was raised by Ed Pressman. We shot the film in the summer of 1972 in the southeast of Colorado, the Dust Bowl, and South Dakota for three hundred thousand dollars.
Things started out well but went downhill as we ran out of money: a terrible fire destroyed some equipment and seriously injured the special-effects technician. Soon our team was made up of only four or five people. The shooting took longer than expected because we didn’t have enough money. I stopped shooting to write screenplays, and that took almost a year.
The film is very similar to the original screenplay except for the scenes in the forest, which were improvised. I’d searched locations and auditioned the actors before shooting because I thought that it would be easier to raise money if I had something to show potential investors. In the end, they never wanted to see anything. We kept all of the scenes that we shot with the exception of a sequence in which Kit goes into a radio station to send a message back home.
I tried to keep the 1950s to a bare minimum. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island. I hoped this would, among other things, take a little of the sharpness out of the violence, but still keep its dreamy quality.
Martin Sheen was extraordinary. He’s a very gifted man. He’s from a working class family, so he had all the moods down for the film. And when he wasn’t before the cameras, he was helping in the background, wrapping cables, packing up light reflectors. One day I found him going around a gas station and picking up aluminum snapback lids from soda cans. He knew they didn’t exist in 1959.
I wanted to remain at a distance from my characters, which is why I refused to film with a handheld camera.
In a fairy tale, you shouldn’t interfere with a story that follows its own logic. I hope that the voiceover and the cinematography create some distance without alienating the viewer too much. They should distance you, and then make you par- ticipate, then distance you again, in a back-and-forth movement. I was worried that the audience would patronize the characters if they became too involved.
If you feel that you understand them perfectly, you have no respect for them in the end; you reject them. I didn’t want their lives to end with the end of the film. I wanted them to live beyond the end of the film with the sort of autonomy that people we encounter, but never befriend, have.
This is particularly true for Kit.
Other Malik Films
[on the cinematography of Days of Heaven (1978)] With Néstor Almendros, we decided to film without any artificial light. It wasn’t possible in the houses at night, but outside, we shot with natural light or with the fire.
When the American team was saying, ‘This is not how we should proceed,’ Nestor Almendros, very courageously insisted. As we filmed, the team discovered that it was technically easier, and I was able to capture absolute reality.
That was my wish: to prevent the appearance of any technique, and that the photography was to be processed to be visually beautiful and to ensure this beauty existed within the world I was trying to show, suggesting that which was lost, or what we were now losing.
[on The New World (2005)] I knew it would have a slow, rolling pace. Just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself, figure things out yourself.
[on shooting Song to Song (2017)] With new cameras, you can quickly accumulate a lot of footage. We had an eight-hour first cut. We thought, ‘Is this a mini-series?’ It really could have been. It took a long time to cut it down to a manageable length.
[on what he was aiming for in Song to Song (2017)] I think you want to make it feel to like there just bits and pieces of (the characters’) lives. It goes to that quotation that can you live in this world just moment to moment, song to song, kiss to kiss, as she (Rooney Mara’s character) says and try to create these different moods for yourself and go through the world as in that (Virginia Woolf) quote, “”How can I proceed now, I said, without a self, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?”, and living one desire to the next, and where does that lead, what happens to you in that sort of (life of moments)… It’s a hard thing to convey and we didn’t know how, so doing lots of locations and lots of songs was our best guess about how to do that.
How Malik Got Started
During my studies at the AFI, I made a short film called Lanton Mills with some friends. It was the story of two cowboys who leave the West on horseback, enter the modern world, and try to rob a bank. I acted in it along with Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, whom you might have seen in Dillinger and Godfather II. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and acting in the film was a distraction. I was far from satisfied.
While I was at the institute, I wrote, and above all rewrote, screenplays. I made a name for myself in rewriting. I studied in the morning, and I went to the studio in the afternoon.
I worked on the first screenplay of Dirty Harry that Irvin Kershner was supposed to direct with Marlon Brando in the lead. Kershner and I were very excited about the film, and we worked on it together for two months. In the end, Don Siegel directed the film using a very different screenplay.
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