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Berlin: Christian Bale Was Given No Script For Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight Of Cups,’ Cast Was “Torpedoed” Into Scenes

Berlin: Christian Bale Was Given No Script For Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight Of Cups,’ Cast Was “Torpedoed” Into Scenes

This weekend during the Berlin Film Festival, Terrence Malick’s latest and long-anticipated impressionistic movie about memory, existential voids, and loves past and present, “Knight Of Cups,” was finally unveiled (here’s our review). Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman, with appearances by Imogen Poots, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman, Teresa Palmer, and more, the movie centers on a Hollywood screenwriter (Bale) who has it all, but still feels a deep existential emptiness in his life. The movie is essentially, from what we can gather from reviews anyhow, the writer’s reflective and introspective journey through his own past in hopes of making sense of his purpose in life.

Although the press conference for “Knight Of Cups” did not feature the perennially press-reclusive director (Malick hasn’t done a lick of press or shown up for any media event in over 40 years), the international media didn’t seem to get the memo: at least two questions were directed at the filmmaker, much to the laughter of the cast and producers on hand.

“You all need glasses” the Teutonic Berlin moderator finally scolded after she eventually just dismissed a second gaffe question aimed at Malick. And don’t ask Christian Bale about his own existential void. “I don’t like to compare myself to the characters that I play,” he said tersely. But it wasn’t all a wash as Bale, Portman, and producers Sarah Green, Ken Kao, and more were on hand to answer questions about the shoot-from-the-hi, “start before we’re ready” production. Here are some highlights from the press conference.

Christian Bale on the experience of making the film
The interesting thing about Terry’s approach is that he didn’t tell us what it was about. I worked with Terry 10 years back on “The New World,” we talked an awful lot about different ideas of things and this [project] is something which I think had been gestating for a long time and he really just gave me the character description. We worked on the character a great deal, talking about the back story and who he was and — I almost forget who the character’s name is, we don’t say it in the movie. But Rick, I do remember [laughs]. He likes to call it “torpedoing us,” actors and non-actors throughout production and just get a real great response based on knowledge of character. But certainly as you can see it’s about someone whose dreams and desires have been fulfilled, but who feels a great void. It’s someone who’s seen the peak of the mountain, has all the acclaim and all the invitation to all the right places with all the right people, and there’s a lot of laughter, but there’s a lot of sorrow too.

So he finds himself on a journey searching for something [and] he’s not exactly sure what [that is]. For each and every scene I didn’t know what I was going to be doing each and every day. But he would like [makes torpedo explosion sound] and push me and it was a notion of “let’s see what happens.” With Terry there’s a great deal of comfort in doing that. He’s a lovely man and our mantra throughout the whole film was “let’s start before we’re ready.” So you get a lot of happy accidents that happen in those very real moments. I like Terry’s company a great deal and he’s a very unique storyteller who’s on his own journey, much as the character is.

Natlie Portman on what she admires about Terrence Malick
I’ve been a fan of Terry’s for my whole life. I love his films. I think “Days Of Heaven” is my favorite film ever and of course “Tree of Life” and “Badlands,” he makes really incredible impactful films both visually and emotionally for all of us lucky enough to be in the audience. So I felt very lucky to be part of his work and it was one of the rare experiences where the person exceeds your expectations. I admired him as an artist and to get to know him as a human being was even better. I admired him even more.

The process of voice-over in the film.
Portman: I think I actually did more days of voice-over than I did shooting.

Bale: I did. We [recorded the voice-over] whenever we [could]. We’d sit in vans and do it, we’d do it on the side of the street; afterwards in different studios. With Terry there’s no sort of regular or conventional approach so we just did it wherever we could. Sometimes I would drive in my pick-up and they would record me, so whatever worked.

Portman: It was fun to play with different things and different ways of trying an interior voice. It’s unique also the way he blends many voices, it doesn’t have to be from one point of view from this communal consciousness that coincides in the movie.

Christian Bale on his screenwriter character in the movie.
I think it’s about somebody who doesn’t realize he needed help. He’s someone whose dreams and desires have come to fruition. He’s succeeded on exactly what he planned on doing. He has all the access and contacts of the right people and all the things that people often consider being successful. And he finds, in seeing the top of the mountain, that it’s going to be continual repetition rather than a genuine, soulful feeling of satisfaction and wholeness. So we start with a man who’s on a journey, we don’t know what it is, but it’s for something. I think he’s looking forward, looking backwards as well.. cause he’s lost as a man. And looking forward as a search for he knows not what and we finish the film with him driving down a road and we don’t know. Is he going to go back to making the same mistakes, is he going to make the right choices, the wrong choices? We have no idea. But the point is to fill a void he believed would have be filled by his success but which was not.

Christian Bale on Los Angeles in the movie.
I also think Los Angeles is a great goldfish bowl and a vivid and very colorful backdrop for this world and something all of us have experienced to some degree. And it’s something that relates to everyone, globally, in terms of looking for something that finds a satisfaction in the soul and it gives us a sense of usefulness in the world and that’s what he’s looking for.

Producer Sarah Green on what it’s like working with Malick.
To work with Terry is to be light on one’s feet, all the planning and organization that one might normally do, doesn’t actually serve this style. We look like a student film. You know a couple of vans and people running around hitting the moments [trying] to capture what might happen. So it takes a lot of trust, looseness, and an openness. One of things we’ve learned over the years is to keep a team around us who have worked with Terry before, understand and appreciate the style so everyone’s on the same page, every dept. The extraordinary thing is [DP] Emmanuel Lubezki and our operator Jörg Widmer understand Terry’s aesthetic so completely it’s like they are one person behind the camera. All three of them operate and I would defy anyone to tell you which shots have been operated by any one of them because they are very much of the same mind. And that’s what it really is, is support of vision that’s so strong and yet so loose, it’s a really interesting combination.

Christian Bale was also his own DP using a Go-Pro.
Sometimes they would just hand me a Go-Pro and say, “go shoot a scene.” Here’s a car, go off with someone, go to the ocean.” And then I’d hand back the Go-Pro to Terry or Chivo [Lubeszki] and see if it ended up in the film. It was a wonderful sense of trust among everybody and from the most experienced filmmakers to people who were doing this for the very first time.

Natalie Portman on what she’s learned from with working with Malick
I felt really lucky to have worked with Terry right before directing for the first time [the feature “A Tale of Love and Darkness”] because he reminded me that the rules of filmmaking are not necessary, the way we do things, the rituals we have are not necessary and you can find your own way. [You have] to allow the mistakes, to welcome the problems. What you might normally consider a problem, Terry would look as an opportunity: when it’s raining, you shoot in the rain. You don’t change the schedule which is what you would normally do. I think that kind of embracing the unknown and chance and anything can happen was really… and also a certain searching for the discoveries every day. There’s no sense of that you have a script that you’re executing and making the movie. It’s like every day is a search for something beautiful, which is a great way to go even into a more conventional shoot.

Bale gets rhetorical when asked if the movie reflects back his personal life and personal experiences.
I’d ask the same question back, does this conjure up memories of depression with civilization with you? Does it? Yes. So it’s kind of a universal thing, Los Angeles is the setting for this, but I think it’s very universal story. You can ask Terry because he’s standing right back there. [laughs]

Natalie Portman on using her own personal painful experiences as fodder for the film.
I don’t know if it was from personal experience necessarily, but it was the first film I made after having a child, so I hadn’t done anything, I hadn’t acted in two years and to come into — it was quite an intense story to play after having a kid. So I’m sure I brought that to it.

Christian Bale on Malick’s use of Tarot Cards, the themes of spirituality throughout, and L.A. as a beautiful place to live.
I don’t know anything about Tarot cards, but in terms of spirituality in reaching for something more meaningful than the character’s circle of existence, this was obviously clear. And in [the character’s] efforts to find kind of purification in the desert that he requires, is obviously an important element of the film.

Contrary to what a number of people said in recent interviews, I find L.A. to be quite beautiful in the film, it’s such an important character and there’s many elements which are ridiculously superficial and decaying and ugly, but in that you get great beauty and substance as well. I don’t know if everyone agrees with this, but I found [the movie] to be quite an ode to L.A. and cities in general in the amount you can discover within them and there being a spirituality in a great many places where you would not necessarily expect to find it.

I don’t feel [my character] he needs to search outside, it’s all within himself that he discovers this new search and journey that he is embarking upon. And he has to go to revisit people, his ex-wife played by Cate [Blanchett], Natalie’s character that he had an affair with that he’s cast a shadow upon, in order to be able to move on. But that change being possible anywhere, regardless of location.

Christian Bale on the “demands” of Terrence Malick
There were no demands from Terry because he just enjoyed discovering what happened. We’d always say, “start before we’re ready” and then see what happens and so if it had been a script with a character who doesn’t say very much, but responds silently to many people I would have felt that to be very challenging. But because it was very organic and Terry wasn’t asking that of me, but it was something that came — and yeah, he has an awful lot of footage that isn’t used — but there was no challenge to that whatsoever

Natalie Portman spent less than a week shooting on the film.
I shot maybe 4-5 days. The nice thing was that I started with everyone so it was nice to  I wasn’t coming into a company that had already been together for a long time as the outsider. I was starting with everyone else.

The representation of women in the film has been questioned. Many of the women are chased around and seen as either seductresses or saviors. What did the cast think of the portrayal of the women in the film?
Bale: I felt as though women were clearly Rick’s primary source of life after his family in writing. And that’s why he revisits so many of them in memory in considering how important they were or whether he was a good man or a bad man in dealing with them. And I feel like we had so many incredible soulful and intelligent actresses playing those roles that it was clear that these were the most important people in his life.

Portman: I feel like Christian’s character experiences his journey reflected through his different relationships with these women and of course, part of that is reflecting the great diversity, the type of people, male and female, you find in Los Angeles. And it’s everything from this superficiality you might find at a Hollywood party, the way women might be treated there as opposed to Cate Blanchett’s character has great soul, generosity, and humanity, and you see that through suggested gesture more than anything overt, but that the city can encompass those extremes and he’s trying to find his path in a world peppered by those extremes both male and female.

Christian Bale on preparing for a role that had no dialogue written for him.
You did have a few lines to learn [Bale laughs in Portman’s direction]. I never had any lines to learn, but I would see other people coming in and they would have pages and I would always try and look over their shoulder and see what I was going to be being told that day because I never knew.

Natalie Portman was given “suggested dialogue.”
We would get like 30 pages a day, some days of suggested ideas for dialogue that we could pick and choose what we felt comfortable with. Also, Terry sent me books and movies and we wrote back and forth before [production]. And it was actually quite a lot of discussion considering how little I worked on the film, but it was a wonderful part of the process.

Christian Bale on what Natalie Portman’s toes tasted like.
Very nice toes.

Lastly, dozens of actors were listed as being part of the movie originally. Who actually made the cut? Here’s the thespians that weren’t left on the cutting room floor according to the film’s official press notes: Christian Bale , Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Peter Matthiessen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Cherry Jones, Patrick Whitesell (Matt Damon’s agent, fyi), Rick Hess Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman, Clifton Collins, Jr. , Nick Offerman, Jamie Harris, Lawrence Jackson, Dane DeHaan, Shea Whigham, Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Wagner, Jocelin Donahue, Nicky Whelan, Fabio, Joe Manganiello, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Beau Garrett, Katia Winter Jelly Howie, Nick Kroll, Danny Strong, Sergei Bodrov, and the voice of Ben Kingsley.

Browse through all our coverage of the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival by clicking here. Here’s some video highlights from the press conference.

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