Working with Malick: Inside the Dance Between Camera, Actor, and Light in ‘A Hidden Life’

Malick’s camera op-turned-DP and two stars on movement, improv, "The Tree of Life" dogma, even wider lenses, and the switch to digital.
A Hidden Life: Terrence Malick's Improv Between Camera, Actor, & Light
"A Hidden LIfe"

Terrence Malick has one of the most intriguing — and influential — approaches to cinematic storytelling of any director working today. His process is also one that has evolved over the years. In the 38 years prior to “The Tree of Life,” he has made only four feature films. In the eight years since 2011, the 76-year old director has released four more features, along with a documentary, “Voyage of Time.”

And since Malick doesn’t do interviews, his close collaborators are tasked with explaining his process. IndieWire recently sat down with the two lead actors on his most recent film “A Hidden Life,” Valerie Pachner and August Diehl, and the film’s cinematographer Jörg Widmer. While this was the first Malick project for Widmer as cinematographer, he was the steadicam operator and second unit cinematographer under Emmanuel Lubezki on all of Malick’s films dating back to 2005’s “The New World.”

Malick cast Pachner early on, but spent a year after that trying to find the man who would play her husband, Franz Jägerstätter (Diehl), the Austrian farmer who refused to fight alongside the Nazis in World War II. The following observations, excerpted from separate interviews with Widmer and the film’s stars, have been condensed and edited.

"A Hidden Life" cinematographer Joerg Widmer
“A Hidden Life” cinematographer Jorg WidmerReiner Bajo

Pachner: Once Terry found  and cast August, then that was it — we saw each other again during the shoot. There was no rehearsing. You just really had to jump into it. What helped was you have all these outer things like the farm, the actual farm work, you have the kids.

Diehl: It was a huge, long preparation, most of which was learning these tools that farmers don’t use anymore. Looking back it was very much like living on a farm, working all day, doing real farm work, and being filmed.

Pachner: That was really such an important part of the film — the physicality of it, which was intense. The scenes just happen in between. Milking the cow and you’re talking. It was really hard work, but it also helped. It made you forget about acting. You really were like, “Okay, I have to get this thing done, and what’s the cow doing?”

Diehl: There was a script. We knew the whole narrative, it was written down. It was nicely written, I remember, but it was also thin. It was helpful to have it at the beginning, but later on we didn’t use it so much anymore. It was more the guideline. We put it away after a few weeks, because we were not shooting scene 106B, or whatever. It was more moments.

Widmer: This film follows a storyline, but it’s about exploring this humanity. You have many different options of how to capture that, and the way Terry does it is by letting the scene flow.

Pachner: It’s more like you sort of walk through the storyline. It was not like, “Oh, this is now that specific aspect of the story.”

Diehl: Most of the time it was more or less clear which phase of the story we were filming.

Pachner: A few scenes were scripted and were used in the film. In the morning, Terry sometimes would send actors new lines. Then there were moments where we could come up with our own lines. Just things happened, some dialogue scenes happened.

August Diehl in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
August Diehl in “A Hidden Life”Fox Searchlight Pictures

Widmer: They say their lines, but the moments between the lines are important — it’s this whole feeling that happens and it’s really magic how it happens. It’s an interesting experience.

It didn’t really matter if the best takes had the actors’ lines or not, they were added in voiceover. It was just to find good expressions, good emotions, to find also right movements, for example the hands touching, and create emotions.

Diehl: Terry has a certain thing: He likes when people are moving. I remember we were never standing still.

Pachner: You keep moving, never stop. That was the rule.

Widmer: If they move, I can move. There are hardly any shots that are static – maybe, sometimes a landscape, because nature stays where it is. Whatever happens on Earth, nature doesn’t care too much. [laughs]

Diehl: The movement was something that Valerie and I found together, that came very much from us. Terry encouraged you to be completely leading the camera and take over.

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Valerie Pachner and August Diehl “A Hidden Life”Fox Searchlight Pictures

Pachner: They are dairy farmers, they’re people of not many words, and that really helped us also to find this very strong nonverbal connection.

When Widmer worked with Malick and Lubezki on “The Tree of Life,” they relied on only two or three wide lenses. (Widmer joked that they sent their longest lens, a 35mm, home the first week of  production on “The Tree of Life.”) Yet early in shooting “A Hidden Life,” the cinematographer and director settled on going even wider – relying heavily on a 12mm lens, and never going longer than a 16mm lens.

Widmer: We got closer to the actors because of the focal length. The wider lens gives you the chance to have close-ups even if they are six inches away. Then you can quickly pull back, just a little bit, and you have an over-the-shoulder shot, which if you’re on a long lens [that same type of transition between shots] would require an enormous amount movement. But with the wider lens, you can get to new positions and compositions easily.

When actors move their hands and touch each other, you can follow the hand, and then you come back to a close-up, so if it’s all in the movement it looks so natural. It’s like the flow of water. It’s really a very immediate way of telling a story. So you can totally react to whatever they do.

Pachner: Terry would interrupt while you’re doing the scene. It’s just him whispering something, which sometimes could be surprising.

Widmer: The good thing about the short lenses is I was always close to the actor, so I hear what Terry’s saying, which gave me the opportunity to react. So if he said, “There are townspeople coming who are mad at you,” then I made sure to see their faces as they react when people spit at them, or things like this.

Pachner: There was a constant change within a single take. The takes were often 20 minutes or longer.

Widmer: “Song to Song” and “Knight of Cups” [Malick’s last two films] were shot on film, and when it came to nighttime scenes, we changed to digital. This one was entirely digital for the first time. When we shot some tests Terry was quite convinced digital would work and for good reason, it looked good.

It helped him extend the length of the scenes and this is really an exciting experience, because the actors would usually stop after two to four minutes, and the scene is done. They could go again and keep experiencing, explore what they wanted to do. It’s about harvesting, it’s about interacting with the kids, it’s about interacting with the people and also in the prison scenes – the scene could go on forever as you wait for the moment when it happens. It’s just like magic that you see that something is different and you just try to catch these moments, which are so important for this movie.

Pachner: [Malick] has a certain texture of the film in mind. And then he’s just looking to get all those elements, as many parts of it as he can. He would always say, “It’s like catching fish.” So he was like, “You could pick the right moments where something special happened.”

So you have this freedom to explore, and Jörg really follows you. But there are also very clear visual rules that Terry has, like always keep moving, but also not to be on the same plane. You should have depth. Terry has his visual style that you have to follow as an actor, too. And you know if you don’t follow it, this take is not going to end up in the movie.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/Shutterstock (1939954d) Jessica Chastain The Tree Of Life - 2011
“The Tree of Life”Snap Stills/Shutterstock

Widmer: On “Tree of Life,” there were the dogma that Chivo [Lubezki] and Terry established, which they set up for the camera movements, but also for the lighting. The rule was to stay in the so-called z-axis, so you have movement which is always towards the sun, or away from the sun, and the actors move on this path, and there’s some restrictions for them. This was still a little bit the case on “A Hidden Life” because it gives you such a flow in the camera movement, but this time we moved more freely. If something happens and you have to pan, then this is now an option.

In Texas [where “Tree of Life,” and “Song to Song” shot], you have sunlight every day and predictable sunlight. You could say, “In the morning, we shoot east, because the light is coming in the parlor window, and at lunch we shoot south, and in the evening we shoot the kitchen because the light would come in there.

In Europe, we had to deal with clouds and bad weather, which you should embrace if you do a movie like this, but with Terry, it’s very easy because he’s so technically interested and artistically involved that you can find positions where you can handle this. We had to change the rules a little bit because nothing is as predictable as the Texas sun, so you had to find solutions, including, when absolutely necessary, adding a little bit of lighting.

Pachner: In a way, we had to do the lighting on our own. There was no artificial lighting, so especially when we were shooting inside, he would always say, “Search the light.” So we had to be aware of where the light from the window was coming, and you know if you don’t get that right, it’s not going to end up in the movie. So you had to be acting, and at the same time also sort of think about the light.

Widmer: When there was a chance to get the sunlight in the windows, we were always in the right position, and if not, we tried to play the scene close to the windows or to embrace what we had, or enhance the contrast by making the camera side darker, giving the image a bit of depth.

We prepared for a scenes to move between the outdoors and indoors. We had a very small crew of people following with white boards, or with black duvetyne. Even if we went into a building while we played the scene, we were able to handle these situations by brightening, or darkening, but we had to be flexible because we were moving a lot and with the wide lenses you see everything.

And because we are in the digital world, instead of changing film stock, we changed cameras. We had one prepared for high light and we had one prepared for low light. The high light [camera] gives you more latitude in the skies and the low light [camera] gives you more definition in the dark. It was also important we could go from slider to steadicam to handheld in just a fraction of a minute, so we prepared for everything.

Pachner: Everyone on set was working in the same sort of mindset that Terry has, or that his work needs.

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