Terrence Malick has always played it pretty loose with his approach to filmmaking, the director famously often ‘finding’ his movies during post-production which is why actors can work for weeks and months on his films – only to find themselves reduced to a few minutes screen time in the final edit.
His three most recent narrative features – “To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups” and the recent “Song to Song” – have only pushed this ‘mood first, structure last’ seemingly directionless approach even further. Like any obsession though, that pursuit of the divine (in this case fleeting and surprising moments of true screen realness) has come at a cost.
Once a critical darling, those three aforementioned films along with his documentary “Voyage of Time” have all been widely dismissed – not just by major outlet critics but film festival reviewers as well, the latter often proving his strongest supporters.
On top of that is the money issue. Malick’s films were never big earners, but at least “The New World,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Tree of Life” and “The Thin Red Line” made some money. None of his three most recent films have made more than a mere $600,000 at the box-office – only a fraction of their several million budgets.
Malick supporters were incensed the other week when it was suggested the filmmaker should maybe go back to a slightly more structured approach to filmmaking, scoffing that he should do no such thing. Yet even the dimmest of investors looking at the pans and the economics of the situation are likely to balk.
Malick is aware of the problem it seems. Appearing at a Q&A following a screening of “Voyage of Time” at the Washington D.C. Air & Space Museum, Malick spoke out his regret for ditching a traditional scripted approach as of late and indicating he’s changing things up again:
“Well, there was a script, which was the evolutionary history of the universe [audience laughs]. And lately – I keep insisting, only very lately – have I been working without a script, and I’ve lately repented the idea. The last picture we shot, and we’re now cutting, went back to a script that was very well ordered.
There’s a lot of strain when working without a script because you can lose track of where you are. It’s very hard to coordinate with others who are working on the film. Production designers and location managers arrive in the morning and don’t know what we’re going to shoot or where we’re going to shoot.
The reason we did it was to try and get moments that are spontaneous and free. As a movie director, you always feel with a script that you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. And with no script, there’s no round hole, there’s just air. But I’m backing away from that style now.”
Malick’s next picture, the one he refers to having a script, is the WWII drama “Radegund” which will likely have the fastest post-production period of a Malick film in a long time. Malick warns fans though that he’s not about to return to ‘classic Malick’-era filmmaking either:
“I think you’re strangely unconscious of change yourself, the way you’re unconscious of your own face. You’re changing but you’re not realizing you’re changing. But you hope that you’re on track with something; that you’ll keep changing. But those early pictures [of mine] feel strange, and five lifetimes ago.”
“Song to Song” is now playing in limited release, “Radegund” has not yet set a date.