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Terrence Malick Makes a Rare Appearance at SXSW 2017 and Digs Deep On His Process

Making an extremely rare public appearance, the elusive auteur spoke about his latest film with Richard Linklater and Michael Fassbender.

Richard Linklater, Michael Fassbender & Terrence Malick discuss "Song to Song" at SXSW 2017

Richard Linklater, Michael Fassbender and Terrence Malick discuss “Song to Song” at SXSW 2017

Chris O'Falt

Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song” opened the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, and as usual, the reclusive filmmaker was nowhere to be seen. But the next morning, Malick joined “Song to Song” star Michael Fassbender to discuss the film. A Malick sighting is a big deal in itself: The filmmaker has a well-earned reputation for being press-shy, and hasn’t done interviews in decades.

On Saturday, however, Malick offered a surprisingly deep dive into his process, guided along by director, moderator, longtime friend, and evident super-fan Richard Linklater.

“You can’t live in Austin and escape the music,” said Malick about making his new film set against the city’smusic scene.

The director, who often sets his movies in the past, admitted he was concerned about setting a film in the modern day.

“I remember feeling timid about it  because it’s hard to project yourself into the present,” he said. “I think making a contemporary film you think about what images haven’t been used in advertising … but what you come see is there is as many images today as there was in the past.”

Linklater kept returning to this idea: Over Malick’s last three films, “To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” and now “Song to Song,” Malick is reaching for something different in his approach to filmmaking. Malick agreed that there was some truth to this takeaway, but that his progress is largely due to technology. He could never have shot so many locations, he said, if it weren’t for the new digital cameras that allow him to film all the time.

“These days, with modern technology, you can shoot a lot in 40 days,” said Malick, who admitted his first cut of “Song to Song” was eight hours long. “It took a long time to cut it down to a manageable length … We had enough footage to tell the story from different perspectives.”

Fassbender said the shoot was so demanding that he doesn’t know if the cast could handle more than 40 days. Unlike a normal film, there’s no down time.

“If we are driving to a location, we are shooting on the way there,” said Fassbender.

Ultimately, the discussion focused on Malick’s process of searching and exploring in the act of shooting. Malick said that his famed cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki has given him the nickname of apuntador, which is a job title on Mexican soap operas: It’s the person who tells the cast what happens next in the scene.

“I have trouble working off things that are too preconceived, like storyboards,” said Malick. “When things become too prepared, the life comes out of it. I think you work this way, Rick.” (Linklater replied, “Not this hardcore. That’s why I’m so intrigued.”)

Later, Fassbender chimed in that Malick’s search for something new, and dismissing anything contrived and conventional, was an incredible discipline. Although, he admitted, it could be frustrating.

“I’ll be acting my socks off, and you turn around and Terry is filming a beetle,” said Fassbender.

Malick admitted there was a downside to his approach: Editing takes a very long time. “You never know at the end of the day what you got,” said Malick. “The editing takes longer than you thought. So you have to ask the patience of the studios and financiers, sometimes more than once.”

Malick had difficulty formulating his thoughts about what he was trying to say about modern alienation in “Song to Song,” but indicated it had to do with the desire to shed the modern-day oversaturation of stimuli. He revealed the original title was “Weightless,” based on the Virginia Woolf quote, which in an early cut had its own title card.

Woolf wrote,”How can I proceed now, I said, without a self, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?”

At the end of the talk, Malick returned to what he was aiming for in “Song to Song.”

“I think you want to make it feel to like they’re just bits and pieces of [the characters’] lives,” he said. “It goes to that quotation that can you live in this world just moment to moment, song to song, kiss to kiss, as she [Rooney Mara’s character] says and try to create these different moods for yourself and go through the world as in that [Virginia Woolf] quote, ‘without a self,’ … and living one desire to the next, and where does that lead, what happens to you in that sort of [life of moments]… It’s a hard thing to convey and we didn’t know how, so doing lots of locations and lots of songs was our best guess about how to do that.”

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