In a 10.5 Slate piece about the screwy-monkey working habits of Tree of Life helmer Terrence Malick (which must be the sixth or or seventh article in journalistic history to be titled “Absence of Malick”), Jessica Winters notes that “genius filmmakers are allowed to improvise, request supernatural feats from their staff, waste time and money, and generally behave in an inscrutable manner befitting their ineffable gifts.”
Malick, however, is a species unto himself. Here’s a portion of the piece, which mainly focuses on the making of Malick’s The Thin Red Line:
“It seems to me that Terry does so much of his work in the editing room,” explains production designer Jack Fisk on the Thin Red Line Bluray commentary. But there, too, Malick works in mysterious ways. According to one of film’s three editors, Billy Weber, Malick saw a full version of the film exactly once: a five-hour work print assembled during the 18-month-long post-production process, and screened for him under some duress. (‘We forced him to watch,’ Weber says in an interview.)
“Otherwise, Malick edited by watching one reel at a time, with the sound off, while listening to a Green Day CD. If he missed any dialogue, it stayed in; if he didn’t, it would likely be supplanted by music or voiceover. ‘I don’t think he was capable of seeing the movie as a whole during the process,’ co-editor Leslie Jones says evenly. ‘…That was a big adjustment.’
“It’s an adjustment for viewers, too, especially for that fervent cult of fans who have psychoanalyzed, memorized, and immersed themselves in The Thin Red Line over the years. (Among the men in my family, Nick Nolte‘s volatile Col. Tall is as eminently quotable as Jeff Lebowski.) It’s startling to find out that this same obsession-worthy film is not one that its director could find cause to watch in full or to edit with the sound on.
“Still, Malick doesn’t fit into our established category for cinema’s pure artists, who tend to fall somewhere on the control-freak spectrum — think of David Fincher asking for 100 takes of a scene or Martin Scorsese knotting the gangsters’ ties himself on the set of GoodFellas. Malick seems to be a different animal: unavailable, cryptic, indecisive, evasive, there-but-not-there. (His self-effacement may extend beyond a simple aversion to interviews.) To judge from the admiring but bemused conversations with his cast and crew, Malick is less like a conductor and more like a muse, perhaps, or an elusive father figure, or a benign god in whom an apostle can have faith but nothing so presumptuous as understanding.
“What emerges isn’t a group of people striving to fulfill an artist’s vision, but rather striving to figure out what that vision might be.”