The secret life of Terrence Malick

Most directors would bask in the limelight of a Palme d'Or win, but Malick did what he always does – watch from the shadows. Luke Blackall profiles the reclusive genius

Tuesday 24 May 2011 00:00 BST

Terrence Malick wasn't around to pick up his Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his film The Tree of Life. But it shouldn't have come as a surprise – the director wasn't there for the film's premiere, either. Never mind that this was billed as the culmination of his glittering career so far, Malick wasn't going to break his reclusive habit for anyone.

The word "reclusive", however, would seem to be an understatement for a man of whom, it is believed, barely any, and mostly dated, photographs exist. Not only that, but he almost never gives interviews, not even to promote his films, preferring to speak through his movies.

His quietness and long periods of absence seem to have elevated him to a godlike status in film-making circles, with fellow professionals desperate to get close to him. "We worked together for a period of over a year," said British documentary-maker Leslie Woodhead, who was asked by Malick to direct Endurance, a 1998 feature about the Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie and his gold medal in the 10,000 metres at the 1996 Olympic Games. "I think for a while, I was the only person in America who had his phone number. He remains what he was then, an extremely mysterious figure, whose mythology in Hollywood is impossible to exaggerate."

After studying philosophy at Harvard, where he specialised in Heidegger – whose work is thought to have a strong influence in his films – he studied for a time at Oxford University, but is thought to have left before completing his studies. His name appears on a list of "lost alumni" on the Magdalen College website. He later worked as a teacher and a journalist before moving into film. The 1973 film Badlands with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek helped to make his name as a serious talent, in the auteur mould.

After the Oscar-winning Days of Heaven came out in 1978, Malick disappeared from the film world for some 20 years, not re-emerging until The Thin Red Line came out in 1998. Even the reasons behind his disappearance from film remain a mystery and his elusiveness has led to his being described as "the film world's J D Salinger". It has had the effect of only adding to his allure.

"After we had worked together and Terry was off filming The Thin Red Line, one film-maker wanted to come and see us in the edit suite; we told him Terry wasn't here and he said, 'I don't mind, I just want to be in the same room as he was in.'"

But while Salinger had to deal with his biggest hit coming so early in his career, Malick's rare films, always set in an America of days gone by and often with a narrator, have continued to receive critical acclaim. "Where other movies have fans, Malick's produce disciples," US film critic James Hoberman has said.

What tales do emerge about Malick, paint a portrait of a great talent encumbered by a strong eccentric streak and obsessive secrecy.

He refused to let producers keep copies of his own handwriting, and after going missing, he once called a producer to say he was walking from Texas to Oklahoma "looking at birds".

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Michele Morette, his late ex-wife of 13 years, revealed that while they were together she wasn't allowed into his office, and that he would rather buy her a copy of a book than lend her his own. He also liked to leave his books and cassettes face-down, so people couldn't see what he was reading or listening to.

Another tale suggests a darkness and artistic obsession ran in the family. His youngest brother, Larry, went to Spain to study with the guitarist Andres Segovia, but the young Malick was so frustrated by his lack of progress that he broke his own hands, and later committed suicide.

Hannah Patterson, author of Poetic Visions of America: The Cinema of Terrence Malick, believes that his reclusiveness only adds to the interest in him and the values of his films. "There is that level of mystery that comes from not doing interviews and not being in the public eye; he lets his films talk for themselves," she says. "In a way, you concentrate on the films if there's less known about the director, otherwise you psychologically connect their background to the films."

With his obsessive devotion to his craft, long periods between films and recurrent themes in his works, parallels can be drawn with another recluse who made American-inspired films but with a European sensibility, Stanley Kubrick.

"He is working within a Hollywood system, but in a unique and personal way, much the same as Kubrick did," Patterson adds.

Like Kubrick, he also has many of Hollywood's biggest stars desperate to work with him. The Thin Red Line featured several prominent names, such as George Clooney, who were more than happy to sign up for what were essentially small parts, all for the honour of working with one of cinema's modern masters.

He lifted his veil of secrecy to film a walk-on part in Badlands. He is also said to be such a fan of Zoolander, the 2001 send-up of the fashion world, that colleagues say he watches it regularly and likes to quote it. Ben Stiller, the star of the film, once dressed up in character and recorded him a special birthday video message.

Not only that, the long gestation period between films seems to have been forgotten, too. His next work, known only as "Untitled Terrence Malick Project" and with a cast including Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem and Rachel Weisz, is already reported to be in post-production, and scheduled to be released next year. But it seems unlikely that he'll break the habit of a lifetime and promote it.


Badlands (1973)

"In Terrence Malick's cool, sometimes brilliant, always ferociously American film, Badlands, which marks Malick's debut as a director, Kit and Holly take an all-American joyride across the upper Middle West... One may legitimately debate the validity of Malick's vision, but not, I think, his immense talent. Badlands is a most important and exciting film." Vincent Canby, former chief film critic, The New York Times

Days of Heaven (1978)

"The film proceeds in short takes: people seldom say more than two or three connected sentences. It might be described as the mosaic school of filmmaking as the camera and the action hop around, concentrating on a bit here, a bit there." Harold C. Schonberg, Pulitzer Prize winner and former critic, The New York Times

The Thin Red Line (1998)

"Malick ... has made very few movies and they're all perfect. I mean, Badlands: brilliant. Days of Heaven: look – Richard Gere can act! The Thin Red Line: it's Saving Private Ryan for clever people... In The Thin Red Line, there was a whole thing going on about whilst war is raging, nature happens anyway. It was really beautifully done. You get these terrible scenes of [men] mutilating each other, meanwhile snails are getting about their business ... and it was actually rather profound..." Mark Kermode, film critic, BBC Five Live

The New World (2005)

"There are two new worlds in this film, the one the English discover, and the one Pocahontas discovers ... Pocahontas was given the gift of sensing the whole picture, and that is what Malick founds his film on, not tawdry stories of adventure. He is a visionary, and this story requires one." Roger Ebert, film critic, Chicago Sun-Times

The Tree of Life (2011)

"You have to admire Terrence Malick's cussedness. No other major American film-maker, not even Stanley Kubrick at his most wilful, has ever made a film quite as idiosyncratic as The Tree Of Life. This is a two-hour experimental movie that could just as easily be seen in a gallery as in a cinema. Full of interior monologues, flashbacks and flash-forwards, it is lyrical, mystical, awe-inspiring – and often quite baffling." Geoffrey Macnab, film critic, The Independent

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