Filmmaker Terrence Malick has been busy of late. After his improvisational meditation "To The Wonder," starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, met a mixed response at Venice and Toronto and landed distributor Magnolia, the filmmaker wrapped shooting LA-set "Knight of Cups." And he's adding cast to his box of toys for his next untitled project, currently shooting in Austin.
Ubiquitous Michael Fassbender joins the Malick ensemble of Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Haley Bennett, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Holly Hunter for a tale about love triangles and sexual obsession amidst Austin's music scene.
It is likely that not all of these actors will make the final cut, and unclear which stars will end up toplining the finished film. Rachel Weisz didn't make the final edit in "To The Wonder" (nor did Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet or Michael Sheen) and two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn's disappointment with "The Tree of Life" was highly publicized last year, providing ample warning to actors who board future Malick projects: Act at your own risk. With Malick, it seems, the journey itself really is the reward. Unless you are Jessica Chastain, and then it's the lighter fluid to your career.
Actors are honored to be invited to play in the Malick playground. Mara went from unknown to Oscar nominee with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (with a pitstop as Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend on "The Social Network") before getting the director's attention. Bale, Blanchett, Portman, Hunter and Weisz are all Oscar winners, while Gosling, Chastain and her "Tree of Life" co-star Brad Pitt are past nominees. Haley Bennett is unknown, but like Kurylenko, she's got the beauty to which Malick is devoted, male and female (see: Jim Caviezel's face in "The Thin Red Line").
Being cut or reduced in prominence in a Malick film is not a mark of disapproval; his films are made in the editing room. His scripts change constantly. His status as a genius auteur permits him to never articulate to anyone, press or otherwise, his vision outside the frame.
Malick's actors have mixed feelings about their experiences. See the quotes below:
Rachel Weisz ("To The Wonder"): "It seems that my parthas been cut…so I had the experience of working with him but I will not have the pleasure of seeing my work."
Adrien Brody ("The Thin Red Line"): "I was so focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive everything … in terms of witnessing my own work. It was extremely unpleasant because I'd already begun the press for a film that I wasn't really in. Terry obviously changed the entire concept of the film. I had never experienced anything like that."
But he wasn't cut from the film completely: less fortunate were Mickey Rourke, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Pullman and Martin Sheen.
When a new DVD was released for "Red Line" in 2010, Slate considered the insight provided by its bonus materials. Noting Malick's "hypnotic pull on actors," Slate reports that Penn declared, "give me a dollar and tell me when to show up" before production on the film began:
"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."
When "The Tree of Life" premiered at Cannes (to both applause and boos) in 2011, Penn stated:
"The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I've ever read but I couldn't find that same emotion on screen. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly,..Nevertheless it's a film that I recommend provided one goes in without preconceptions."
His comments led the LA Times to ask the question, "Is Sean Penn Right about Terrence Malick, or is he Just Bitter?" "Tree" went on to snag a spot on Roger Ebert's Ten Greatest Films of All Time list, many Best of 2011 lists, as well as ranking at #102 on Sight & Sound's 250 Greatest Films of All Time list. Basically, Penn wound up with a smaller-than-hoped-for role in a landmark film.
For his part, Pitt's "Tree of Life" performance was arguably one of his best, and the experience of working with Malick likely prepared him for the equally stellar Oscar-nominated performance he delivers in "Moneyball." On the other hand, Affleck's performance in "To The Wonder" left many critics disappointed. Affleck is called out for being "largely a blank" and "isn't given a chance." Still, some critics are smitten with the film (any others have yet to weigh in). Affleck himself, who told TOH that he loved watching the master at work and stole some pointers for his directing gig on "Argo," gives his Malick experience a sun-kissed review:
"I see it as using actors as paint. What I'm doing is blue, and Olga is magenta, and Rachel is yellow. In most movies you're doing the painting while you're shooting. But Terry is just collecting colors; he'll do the painting in the editing room."
The question for an actor is whether or not it's worth it to take the chance that your bit of a Malick movie will wind up in the American film canon –or on the cutting room floor.