Yesterday, actor/screenwriter/former The State member Thomas Lennon’s account of his work in one (1) scene of Terrence Malick’s upcoming Knight of Cups went online. The full article is well worth a read on its own, because it’s hilarious, so I’ll just post some of the choice snippets from it here.
“I could only assume it was Terrence Malick because he was the most eccentric-looking person there,” Lennon said. “He’s in this sort of straw hat, slightly dirty khaki pants, and a real loose, floppy shirt.”
“We’re all standing there and Malick hands out these pieces of paper to all of us,” Lennon said. “And the one he gave me said, ‘There’s no such thing as a fireproof wall.’ And I ask, ‘Is this something I’m supposed to say in the scene?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’”
“And then Malick goes, ‘Would you like some more? Because I have a whole stack of these.’ And I was like, ‘I think I’m good,’” Lennon said.
Lennon: “Is this how it goes?
[Christian] Bale: “Yeah.”
Lennon: “Every day?”
Lennon: “How long have you been doing this?”
Bale: “This is, like, day 25.”
“Sometimes Malick would stop and introduce a new cinematographer: ‘Guys, this is Marta, she’s an up-and-coming DP from Mexico City and she’s going to film the scene for a while.’ And sometimes Christian would take a GoPro and shoot something.”
“We [Lennon and his wife] were basically yelling at each other [over the phone],” Lennon said. “And at that point Malick himself came up to me with a camera with a stubby lens and got, I’m not kidding, eight inches away from my face, filming me having this totally real fight with my wife. At first I felt it was kind of an invasion of privacy and then I was like, ‘F— it, this is the realest thing that has happened all day.’”
Despite all the insanity (a lot of which I’ve left out in this) occurring during the filming of the scene (which went on for 13 hours and was cut down to four minutes for the film, only one of which features Lennon), Lennon ultimately had a blast shooting it, calling it “the single most fun day I’ve ever had on a movie set ever”, not even caring that there most likely wouldn’t be much of him in the final cut. This is what separates Lennon’s account from those of many other Malick actors, who have very publicly announced their displeasure with his filmmaking style. Examples include Adrien Brody, who famously saw his lead role in The Thin Red Line cut down to basically a walk-on, Christopher Plummer, who had a particularly bad time shooting The New World and seeing Malick constantly diverting attention from the characters to wildlife, and Sean Penn, who couldn’t figure out what his character was doing there in The Tree of Life. And there are probably many more who just haven’t spoken out. Malick’s films don’t see too much return business on the acting side, even with the mind-blowing number of great actors he’s hired over the years. it seems that, Malick is just as much an acquired taste amongst actors as he is amongst moviegoers.
I’ll admit that I’m writing this as a huge Malick fan, with The Tree of Life being my favorite film of all time. The moments in that film that resonate with me the most are the ones that do feel like Malick threw the script away and just pointed the camera on natural behavior (in a movie that’s chock full of bravura moments, the one that sticks with me most is a dumb little bit where Jack picks up a “dinosaur bone” and has to clarify to his brothers that no, it’s not actually a dinosaur bone), and I’ve found that, on the whole, I prefer Malick in semi-improvisational mode to the Malick of his first two films, the opposite view of many film fans. And my favorite parts by far of To the Wonder were the digressions with Javier Bardem’s priest. However, I also found To the Wonder, the film where Malick’s story-dead-last tendencies completely took over, to be his weakest film, and apparently Knight of Cups goes even further in that direction, so I can understand the weariness of the actors who found that it wasn’t to their tastes, even if I’m still a good deal more entranced by the end results than they and most of humanity are.
I’ve said my piece, now I want to hear yours; do you think that the kind of chaos Lennon describes can result in something completely natural and winning, or is it just rendered as chaos without a means to an end? Has a version of this approach paid dividends to Malick in the past? Do you think Malick would be better-suited to returning to even semi-narrative filmmaking? Does any of this matter as long as we get some of that Chivo Lubezki magic?