Working with Terrence Malick can be a transformative experience for an actor, or lay the groundwork for an extremely unpleasant surprise. Every performer who steps onto a Malick set undoubtedly knows the story of Adrien Brody, who shot Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” under the impression he was playing the leading role, only to discover that he’d been virtually cut out of the finished film. (IMDb lists Brody’s only noteworthy line as the not-especially-memorable “They’re coming! Fall back!”) After finding his most impassioned scene reduced to “background noise” in “The New World,” Christopher Plummer swore he’d never work with Malick again, as he relates in this 2012 actors’ roundtable with George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Viola Davis, Michael Fassbender and then-Newsweek critic David Ansen. (Be sure to watch Tilda Swinton’s bemused grin as Plummer opines that Malick “needs a writer, desperately.”) The way Clooney, who also wound up with a minor part in “Thin Red Line” tells the Brody story, you can tell it’s passed into legend, with Malick as the editing-room equivalent of a fairy tale ogre who’ll eat up bad little boys and girls if they don’t behave.
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Other actors are more open to Malick’s process, like “The Tree of Life’s” Jessica Chastain, who told me in a 2011 interview: “There’s a lot of actors where they can visualize their performance. Sometimes you can read a scene and go, ‘Oh, I know what this scene is,’ and then you go in and you go within your ideas of what it was. But with Terrence Malick, his movies don’t work if you do that. If you show up saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to play the scene this way,’ it’s going to be the least interesting choice. He’s the most wonderful person at inspiring you to see what’s in front of you, and if you want, throw away the script, throw away the scene, and just look at what’s here now, let’s just work with this. And that’s exciting. I don’t think that ever happens.” (In that same interview, Chastain said she’d already shot scenes for Malick’s next movie, but she wouldn’t be surprised if she was cut out entirely. She was.)
Now, from Business Insider’s Jason Guerrasio, comes a delightful account of the making of Malick’s “Knight of Cups,” from “Reno 911” comedian Thomas Lennon. Lennon appears in “Knight” at a swanky movie industry party attended by the movie’s central character, an existentially adrift comedy screenwriter played by Christian Bale. According to Lennon, he only found out about the scene a few days before it was shot, and was given no information other than to dress as if he were going to a party in the Hollywood Hills.
“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.'”
Lennon learned, after talking to the director, that there was no script, just a phrase that might inspire him when cameras started rolling.
“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 goes on to say that Malick would frequently throw new cinematographers into the mix — “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 shooting duties would pass to Bale, who would film with a GoPro. The main instruction the cast received, Guerrasio says, was “to make it as difficult as possible for the camera operator to shoot them, never standing in a way that they were squared up with the camera.”