`He told me he got Martin Sheen to block the shots'

Terrence Malick was a notorious loner. But when he wanted help with a running movie he turned to the British producer Leslie Woodhead
I WAS at home in Cheshire one day in 1995 and got a call from Ed Pressman, who is probably America's leading independent producer. I met him in London and he said, "My friend Terrence Malick wants to do a film about the making of a great East African runner. Except he doesn't want to make it himself. He wonders whether you might be interested."

The idea was quite extraordinary. I'd spent most of my career making documentaries for Granada - Michael Apted and Mike Newell were among those I'd joined with in the early 1960s. Somehow or other Terrence Malick had seen some of the programmes I'd made for the Disappearing World series, and that was the start of how he became my producer on Endurance.

I'd loved Badlands and Days of Heaven and knew all about the Malick legend, and couldn't quite believe anything would come of this. But I got another call from Ed a few weeks later, and soon after that I was meeting Terry for the first time in LA. It was if I'd been anointed.

I was struck by his great courtesy. He was charming, gracious, very understated and quietly spoken. He was already working on The Thin Red Line, and I wondered to myself how someone like this could ever be in charge of a $50m movie.

We had a most surprising conversation. This being Hollywood, I'd assumed they wanted something populist with, say, Madonna on the soundtrack. But no. Terry wanted African poetry. He told me to consider the epic poems of Pindar, the aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl, the nobility of peasant life in Africa.

Terry was obviously fascinated by the world of long-distance running, but at that stage we didn't know who we were going to make the film about. It all depended on what happened at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. We optioned half a dozen athletes - among them the great Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie. Haile was very interested in the idea, and from my point of view he was perfect because he was so sparky and spoke good English, and also I'd made films in Ethiopia before. I've never rooted for anyone so much as when he won the final of the 10,000 metres.

We did two shoots in Ethiopia, sending the rushes back to Terry. He kept saying, "Shoot more film, stay longer." He was absolutely insistent not to Disney-fy either the story or Africa. He ruthlessly expunged anything he thought was too beautiful. He was very autocratic about that. People say the film's beautiful anyway, but it's nothing compared to my original cut.

It also had about 70 pieces of voiceover, and he wanted to get rid of them too. He didn't want anything over-explained. I thought that was a bit rich coming from someone who'd made so much use of voice-over in his other films. I said to him one day, "I wish you'd been as self-disciplined with Days of Heaven as you are with Endurance." I won't deny there were moments of great exasperation and we had some tremendous fallings-out, though I did at least win the battle to keep the music on the soundtrack, and when it was all over, we hugged and parted friends. The film is far more serious and demanding than I would have offered, and that's 100 per cent down to Terry. Looking at the film now, I think he's probably right.

We talked a lot about Badlands and Days of Heaven. He told me he hadn't really known what he was doing - that in Days of Heaven he'd got Martin Sheen to block a lot of the shots. Terry could be very self-deprecating, but I wondered sometimes if it wasn't something else.

I don't think he ever really regarded himself as "disappearing" for all those years. He just got involved in a number of projects that didn't come off. He never confessed to me that he was in some holy terror of returning to the fold. I'm sure he didn't set out to create a myth, but then again, I think he was aware of the potency of his elusiveness. On the Warner lot in Hollywood, everyone had their titles on their office doors - film editor, lighting director or whatever. Terry's was blank.

I experienced his extreme caution over preserving his private life. We had a meeting in his home town of Austin, Texas. We met at a hotel, drove around in his battered old beige Toyota, and then he dropped me back at the hotel without my ever seeing the ranch where he lives.

Terry came up with a series of ever more exotic metaphors to describe our relationship. First I was Neil Armstrong and he was mission control. Then we were jazz musicians trading riffs; then we were fishermen casting our nets together. Finally we were medieval church-builders building a cathedral. Whatever we were, I'd certainly never experienced anything like it.

`Endurance' opens in America in April. UK release later this year.

Interview by Simon O'Hagan