Even for a filmmaker known as someone who drastically skews perspectives and storytelling methods, obscuring his art while illuminating, Terrence Malick‘s “The New World” presents an unusual method of telling a familiar core story. With another filmmaker, we might simply get the straightforward tale of John Smith and Pocahontas, Malick sees the beginning of a unique and troubled union, not only between the star-crossed lovers, but between the spirits of two civilizations and their relationships with the land.
Characters make rash decisions in “The New World,” mostly for pride, some oblivious to their actual situation. But there’s an overwhelming natural curiosity that permeates the film, from the way the brook babbles to the sound of bare feet against leaves. In some ways, it is the best contemporary depiction of a topsy-turvy time in our history, when we were trying to find the middle ground between diplomacy and discovery. There is awe, not just at this new, seemingly-unfettered land, but in how our characters learn of their capacity to care. Considering the paucity of Thanksgiving-related programming, it’s a surprise “The New World” hasn’t become a seasonal tradition for those seeking reasons why we convene at that time in good faith.
“The Tree Of Life” expands into wide release on July 8th. To commemorate what, to many, is the year’s biggest cinematic event, we’ve been taking a look back at each of Malick’s previous films. We’ve already gone behind the scenes with “Badlands,” taken a close look at “Days Of Heaven,” discovered the world of “The Thin Red Line,” and gone knee-deep into “The Tree Of Life.” And now, a peek behind the curtain of “The New World.”
1. Terrence Malick Demanded An Almost Fanatical Approach To Historical Accuracy
Just as Terrence Malick’s vision for a film titled “Q” eventually morphed into the Palme d’Or winner that’s currently in theaters, “The New World” was also something the director was thinking about decades ago. In fact, the script was completed in the late ‘70s. “I was pushing him for twenty years to do ‘The New World.’ I kept telling him, ‘Do the Pocahontas one. That’s the one,’ ” longtime editor Billy Weber said on the Criterion “Days of Heaven” DVD commentary, noting the script was ready after the completion of ‘Heaven.’ But as is Malick’s wont, he let the project germinate and gestate, and one can only imagine how many variations of approaches he considered before finally settling on one that would embody as much historical accuracy as possible.
Malick’s eye for detail did not abandon him during “The New World,” but what’s fascinating about his process is the relation between the reality of time and place and the mythical attributes that are his trademark aesthetic. Production took place in James City, County Virginia, less than ten miles away from the original events that inspired the film. To capture the atmosphere, the production hosted an intensive extras camp for all the native actors to teach them how stand, move, act and speak like natives would have 400 years ago.
Teaching the cast the Powhaten dialect was also no idle feat. “It’s completely unusual that a language that ceased to be spoken is going to be revived for the purposes of a film, in order to bring the authenticity of having the people speak the language that was really being spoken here,” Blair Rhuds, the on-set Algonquian translator noted on the BluRay. “This film is making a great deal of effort to be as authentic as possible in terms of representing the native people of historic Virginia.”
The emphasis on accuracy also made a deeply positive impression on Chief Robert Green, who heads the Patawomeck Tribe, and who offered some unique help to the production free of charge. “I was very honored in June [of 2004] to be invited to a meeting with the production staff and other chiefs in Virginia, to simply review what the movie was going to be about and how it was it was going to be presented,” said Green. “And during our discussions, they expressed some concern to me that they were having difficulty finding some wild turkey feathers and deer antlers for the purposes of costume construction. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of friends that are very good hunters and at that time I had about twelve boxes of wild turkey feathers and sixty to seventy sets of antlers in my shed. [Costume designer] Jackie [West] so impressed me with the research and the honesty that she was attempting to portray, that I offered to give them to her so that the costumes could be as authentic as possible to ensure that our people would be accurately represented.”
Malick even went to the trouble of finding the precise species of bird that inhabited the region during the settlers’ journeys. According to a piece in Reverse Shot, a researcher was ordered by Malick to fill the picture’s soundscape with the sounds of only the types of birds that could have existed there during that period. Those recordings wound up providing the majority of the film’s soundtrack.
However, for some of the actors, all this preparation was academic as much of their education was snipped from the film. Wes Studi was one of the actors tasked with modifying and altering the language to make it sound authentic, but, as usual for Malick, a lot of that hit the cutting room floor.”I have to tell you I’m a bit disappointed that so much of that particular re-invented language wasn’t used in the film because there’s a lot of dialogue missing from this theatrical release…,” Studi told About. “A lot of effort was put into the re-creation of this language, as well as…around the Indian community, it was touted as having a lot to do with that language and the use of it.”
2. The Seal Of Approval From Native Americans Was Imperative
Producer Sarah Green insisted that the production gain the approval of nearby tribes. “We invited the chiefs and assistant chiefs and representatives of the native tribes in all of West Virginia to come and see what we were doing and participate as much as they liked,” says Green on BluRay. “And we had wonderful, wonderful participation from several of them.”
But initially, the production didn’t win over all the significant parties. “In April 2004 … I became aware that there will be a film production company in Virginia that would be filming a [feature] length movie called ‘The New World,’“ said Chief Stephen R. Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe. “My initial reaction to the term ‘New World’ was one of, ‘Hey, what’s new about it, we’ve been here 15,000 years’ and it really rubbed me wrong that the title of this movie would be ‘New World.’ So it started out on the wrong foot. I did in fact talk with Terry Malick and he said I think you’ll be pleased with the twist we put on the title ‘New World.'”
Some of the tribe members got to be extras and players in the film, but it became a struggle between fidelity to the project and honor to their background.
“I had a hair issue,” said Anthony Parker, a local extra from the Omaha tribe. “I didn’t want to cut my hair because for my tribe and our beliefs, we only cut our hair when someone close to us dies. I kind of had to do some soul searching about it, but I had to realize who I was representing here and it does the Algonquin people and the Powhaten…it does them justice. It’s kind of like a tribute to them.”
Producer Sarah Green confirmed the follicle issue with many cast members. “The Patawomeck Indians of that day shaved their head right down the middle and would take off one whole side,” she said. “This had a very practical application which had to do with their long hair not interfering with their bow and arrow, and it defined their tribal look. I don’t think any of us had realized what a personal sacrifice this was going to be.”
3. Q’orianka Kilcher Had No Idea Who Colin Farrell & Christian Bale Were
Casting for a Malick picture is never a straightforward process. Though producers labored in finding the ideal Pocahontas to stand up to John Smith and company, their eventual choice, Q’orianka Kilcher, proved to be a boon, as she projected both an earthy beauty and natural intelligence that made her character compellingly watchable.
“The great challenge of this movie was finding an actress to play Pocahontas,” confirms producer Sarah Green on the BluRay. “We searched for eight months starting in Virginia, moving throughout the United States and North America and eventually through the whole world. It was only in the last month that our casting director — who was also casting for a different project in a very different sort of role — noticed the headshot of Q’orianka Kilcher who had been living in Los Angeles this whole time. We happened to be doing a camera test so we said ‘Oh come, stand in front of this 35mm camera with no makeup and just [be] yourself, and see what happens.’ And I tell you, when we screened that footage, she just jumped off the screen at us.”
Some of that footage is on the extensive “Making Of” documentary on “The New World” BluRay, and it is definitely quite stirring; if Malick was searching for someone who would project the wide-eyed innocence the character needed, he couldn’t have done much better than Kilcher. For starters, she hadn’t seen any of his films (not surprising given her age), and didn’t really seek them out until after filming was over, telling Cinematical, “I watched ‘The Thin Red Line‘; I tried to track down [Malick’s] other movies (‘Days of Heaven‘ and ‘Badlands‘), but they didn’t have them at Blockbuster…I’m really looking forward to watching ‘Badlands.'”
Moreover, she didn’t get the fuss her friends were making about her hunky co-stars. “You know, I didn’t know who [Colin Farrell] was before. When I got on set of course everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re working with Colin Farrell and Christian Bale!’ [Farrell] was really wonderful, a very giving actor and he was like my older brother in a way,” Kilcher told About. “He took me under his wing and he taught me so much in acting and [was] very supportive. And Christian Bale and Wes Studi and Augi Schellenberg, they were all so good at what they did and it was such an honor for me. I felt so lucky just to be on set being able to watch all these actors work.”
But when it came to the task at hand, Kilcher had just as much, if not more homework than her new colleagues saying, “I learned the entire script in a perfect British accent. Then, strip that away for the first 60 pages and learn Algonquin, and I actually made myself learn Algonquin because that’s her native language so I really would know what I was saying. And then strip half of the Algonquin away and then do different stages of Algonquin mixed with English. So that was definitely very challenging.”
4. Once Again, Malick’s Ever-Mercurial Shooting Process Was In Full Effect
Naturally, Malick did not make it easy on his charges and extras were warned beforehand it was going to be grueling shoot.
“It’s going to be particularly difficult out here because it’s going to be hot, it’s going be nasty, you’re going to be covered with mud,“ Vern Crofoot, the production’s Master Armorer advised the extras, as seen in footage from the BluRay. “The working conditions are not going to be pleasant, you’re gonna be working real hard and the temperature is going to be up there.”
However, Malick’s well-documented unconventional shooting approach was a pleasure for Christian Bale who enjoyed being able to roam freely on the sets. “It’s very funny at times because Terry liked Jack Fisk to create the houses and the locations so he could shoot three hundred and sixty degrees,” says Bale on the BluRay. “So the crew had to be ready for that as well, because unlike most movies where they absolutely know the camera is locked between these two positions and that’s it, with Terry you never knew. It could be there, and then suddenly he’s spinning around looking there. So you can’t have a bunch of gaffers or craft service set up [nearby].”
“And I couldn’t stop laughing on my very first day when he did do this thing to me, where he just suddenly turned the camera on me and said ‘Christian just do whatever you feel like doing,'” Bale continues. “And so I did start doing that, and I realized, there was a bunch of crew [nearby] so if I walked over there, what were they going to do? In my bloody-minded nature I was like, ‘I’m going to go take a look, see what they do.’ So I did, I started walking over and they were running, they were diving behind bushes to get out the way, because they knew that this was just part of the deal of working with Terry.”
5. “The New World” Had Three Different Cuts
Those seeking the total “The New World” experience found themselves with a challenge, including, not surprisingly, editor Richard Chew who is one of the four credited editors who had to wade through a million feet of film. “Terry shoots a lot because, I think, he’s really trying to get into the subconscious of the actors who inhabit these characters,” says Chew on the BluRay. “And he’s trying to find these unconscious kind of movements or postures, expressions that the actors can give.”
“The New World” was initially released in a 150-minute cut for Academy consideration, though later it would see wide release in an altered version that ran 16 minutes shorter and featured new scenes, but condensed others and severely truncated the narration to allow for a more straightforward reading. DVD allowed these theatrical presentations to exist in another medium, but most diehards would rally around the extended edition, which boasts a notable 172-minute runtime featuring the extensions of several key sequences. However, there was still much left on the cutting room floor and Kilcher detailed a surprising scene that she was bummed to see missing from the movie:
“….some of Pocahontas’ lowest points in life were taken out…You know the part where John Smith [Farrell] is chopping wood in the back and this is after Pocahontas is kidnapped and she’s brought back to the James Fort? She comes to Smith and he’s chopping the wood. Pocahontas actually… that day, I had a knife and I was going to stab him and that really showed that she was going to kill her heart,” the actress explained to About. “Because in the beginning, Powhatan tells his daughter, ‘You need to put your people before your own heart,’ and he’s referring to Smith. And so that really showed Pocahontas was about to kill her own heart. And then she gets really confused and then you see her gradually start to fix herself until Smith leaves. It was also missing some of the more, happier times. More of the Indian village. Like we were once dancing around this huge bonfire—everyone. It was so gorgeous. They told me that a lot of the scenes that I was missing were going to be on the DVD so I’m excited. It’s going to be somewhere.”
As for Bale, he told Hollywood.com that much of his contribution came in post-production as Malick tried to wrangle his film down to size. ” I think that was a product of Terry being required to bring the movie down to two and a half hours. A number of the dialogue scenes had to be taken out and many times it was almost like a silent movie, but we were accustomed to that on the set because many times he would say to us, ‘Here’s the scene. Here’s the dialogue.’ And we might change it at the last minute, or whatever, but he’d also say, ‘If you don’t like saying it, don’t say it.’ And he really meant it. He didn’t say it just say to say it,” Bale explained. “He really meant that we should do what felt right. ‘I don’t want you saying any of the lines that I’ve written if it doesn’t feel right.’ Then with the voiceover it was really quite fascinating. I mean, Terry would sometimes send me thirty pages of voiceover and it was fascinating. He’s a wonderful writer. I stole a number of the pages because I thought that they were just some wonderful comments on life and love and relationships and things.”
6. Unfortunately, Malick’s Less Than Traditional Editing Approach Made Him An Enemy Of Composer James Horner
Terrence Malick’s intuitive, freewheeling approach to shooting and his disregard for sticking with the script made scoring the film a nightmare for James Horner. Writing and then rewriting pieces for scenes that changed from page to camera, were cut, re-ordered or abandoned, most of Horner’s music was eventually axed and the experience severely embittered the composer. In a radio interview with “On The Score” conducted by Daniel Schweiger for Film Music Radio, Horner laid into Malick hard. It was a lengthy diatribe — which you can read in full here — but we’ve condensed it a bit to give an overall impression of Horner’s experience working with Malick:
So he went out shooting the movie, went over time, and got beautiful images and everybody [said] “Oh god, this is so beautiful.” There were a couple of things that were pasted together by a couple of the experienced editors of the love scenes: “Oh, this gonna be great, absolutely great”. OK.
He had eight editors working for him — two prestigious, the rest out of the woodwork, and some assistants. There was so much film he was working on night on night, [that] there was a crew… When I first saw it, it was a mishmash of unrelated scenes, complete mishmash. I said, “Well Terry, you need to…” He asked me what I thought. “You need to cohere this. I mean this scene should be there” … all kinds of editing things were wrong. It was the first assembly.
It was April and he was supposed to have a cut ready by May to look at, and that we missed. He missed his deadline and it was in the middle of June when we saw it. The studio saw it, and it was the same thing I saw two days after he finished shooting. It has gone through two and a half month’s work and it was in just the same state. This was when I first saw it and red lights started to go up everywhere because I’m getting close to my recording dates and this is unscoreable like this.
I played him scenes, I played him everything on the piano and I had the feeling he did not really know what movie music was. He didn’t have any experience with real film music being presented to him. Even in ‘Thin Red Line’ it was all cut up. Here I was writing music for him, which he would say was “beautiful and great” and sounded “great” on the piano. Whatever. But I knew – and I warned everybody – this man does not have a clue what to do with movie music or how it works, not a clue. He is gonna to hear his first cue and not know what to do with it and I warned everybody.
I begged him to watch several movies that have music in them [used] very effectively. Be it ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ I mean I showed him all kinds of films or asked him to see all kinds of films that had scores in them. He said he would, but he never did.
Slowly the editorial team started to disintegrate. The good editors left and they brought in more asisstants and it was cut by a bunch of incompetents. There was no real editor. He continued on in that way asking for opinions and we were approaching recording and there were no scenes to record, there were no scenes to time. I had my music editors assemble sequences as I thought they should be or as they normally [would] be, and we scored some of that and it was lovely, just what everybody had hoped would be intended by the film.
Terry saw it and immediately took it back to his editing room and cut it apart and we were still recording and I realized that it was just a waste of everybody’s money to keep recording, though we were commited because we had hired the orchestra. So Terry was making this movie that was incomprehensible.
Everybody told him it was unwatchable. Everybody! Everybody! And he had Final Cut, and when a director has final cut, everbody can scream and shout, but unless you’re willing to really go head-to-head in combat, you basically have to throw up your hands and say, “I have no control over this man.” The editor who had worked on “The Thin Red Line” begged Terry to fix the fim. It was a love story, and Terry doesn’t feel those feelings. All I can say is that Terry is on the surface a stone and he does not know how to tell love stories to save his life. When we scored the movie he completely disassembled everything. The score made no sense anymore and he started to stick in Wagner over scenes, and a Mozart piano concerto over an Indian attack. Everybody thought he was insane. By this time I was no longer on, I basically said, ‘futz you. So I just did say a four letter word. I’m out of here. I’ve done my score.’
I never felt so letdown by a filmmaker in my life….It was the most disappointing experience I’ve ever had with a man because not only did he throw out my score, he loved my score, he didn’t have a clue what to do with it. He didn’t have a clue how to use music. So what he started to do was, as I said, to take classical pieces, but not even pieces that would be transparent and lovely, he was taking Wagner like a thick blanket and putting it in his movie. I swear to god, on the dubbing stage everybody thought he was joking and he would bring up these musical solutions and take out the score and put in Wagner, or take out the score and put in Mozart.
It’s not like he fired me and I’m bitter. What happened was I’m bitter because he did not make the movie he promised everybody he would make. Everybody felt betrayed, from the film company down to the editors. Everybody felt betrayed, and this was the man who took the story that could have been one of the great love stories and was one of the great love stories in history, and turned it into crap, and it’s because he doesn’t believe in those things. He doesn’t understand them. And most importantly, he has not an emotion in his body. He’s emotionless.
James Horner’s complete score for the film was released on CD.
7. Christopher Plummer Didn’t Care For Malick’s Methods Either
While if you compare the drama on “The Thin Red Line” to “The New World,” and read both these features, the latter film seems tame by comparison, but actually like Horner, others had their issues as well. One was Christopher Plummer who was extremely candid about his disappointment in Malick’s notorious methods, even comparing his excised role to Adrien Brody‘s infamously chopped role in his WWII film.
“He’s fascinated by nature, and just cuts to birds,” he told New York Magazine earlier this year. “Colin Farrell kept saying, ‘My character, he’s a fuckin’ osprey. That’s how he sees me.’ You’d be playing a passionate scene, and he’d say in that strange southern voice of his, mixed with Harvard and Oxford, ‘Ah, jes’ stop a minute, Chris. I think there’s an osprey flying over there. Do you mind if I just take a few shots?’ I wrote him an infuriated letter because I saw the film and I was hardly in it—he cut my part to shit. And it recalled the story of Adrien Brody, the lead in The Thin Red Line. He went to the premiere, and he wasn’t in it! I wrote to Terry and said, ‘You need a writer, baby, you need somebody to follow the story.’ I was awful to him, but I did say I admired him. He’s an individual—also mad as a hatter.”
8. A Flop During Its Initial Release, The Film Has Since Grown In Acclaim
“The New World” was given a very limited Oscar-qualifying Christmas release on Christmas Day 2005, before going into wider release in January 2006, but while his last film “The Thin Red Line” was a critical and box office success, “The New World” failed to find traction with both parties, and was largely absent from that year’s awards season (it earned a nod for Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography). While distributor New Line Cinema struggled with trying to figure out if they had a wide release or arthouse platformer on their hands, most of the buzz centered on star Colin Farrell.
While Farrell’s performance in the film is a wonderfully shaded, haunting turn, he was clearly a victim of the Jude Law Curse, and was coming off a string of underperforming films including “S.W.A.T,” “Intermission” and more notably, Oliver Stone‘s disaster “Alexander.” And to make matters worse, the studio couldn’t even get Farrell out on the press circuit as he entered rehab for five weeks just as the film was headed into theaters.
“So much of the work that I did I was struggling so hard to keep my shit together. A lot of my energy was going into trying not to have a complete meltdown. By the end of ‘Miami Vice‘ I was just done,” Farrell told Jonathan Ross in 2008 about his trying to balance his addictions and his career. “I had created an environment for myself, a way of living for myself which, on the outside, seemed incredibly gregarious and vivacious. I don’t believe I have any chemical predisposition towards depression, but let’s just say I was suffering from a spiritual malady for years and I indulged it.”
“The New World” would take in a paltry $30 million worldwide, a stinging disappointment after the nearly $100 million haul of “The Thin Red Line.” For comparison’s sake, “The Tree Of Life” already has $27 million in limited release, with many foreign territories still to open. But regardless of the muted response at the box office, and initial critical shrug towards the film, “The New World” has since found its place in the cineaste canon.
In a somewhat backhanded piece for the Village Voice, critic J. Hoberman noted that, in the film’s final weeks of release, a group of diehard audience members and critics had decided to rally around the beleaguered picture. Slant writer Matt Zoeller Seitz at once declared it a “new watermark” stating that one of his most prized possessions was a Jan. 21st-dated ticket stub commemorating one of his many viewings. Slant’s Ed Gonzalez considered it, “a film that also refuses to shake itself loose from the confines of our memories,” and commenting on the film being mostly ignored for Academy Award consideration, NY Times critic Manohla Dargis proclaimed, “with the exception of my few dear friends in that august body, [Academy members] are idiots.”
The eventual Extended Cut release of the film also helped raise the profile of “The New World” in subsequent years. — additional writing and research by Kevin Jagernauth