“He wanted to die with me and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.” –– Sissy Spacek in “Badlands.”
When you think of lovers and killers on the lam, you think of roadtrip movies like “True Romance,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Bonnie & Clyde” or “The Getaway.” But when philosopher, journalist and renaissance man turned filmmaker Terrence Malick tackled the genre for his debut picture, he created a film more interested in innocence (and its loss) and love than the crimes and acts of violence occurring within the story based on Charles Starkweather’s late ‘50s killing spree. A lyrical and impressionistic take on a troubled young killer and the girl that falls for him — perhaps all the more chilling for its beautiful imagery and sublime/naive view of life that some of us still argue is his finest work to date — “Badlands” would launch the career of one of cinema’s most enigmatic and inscrutable filmmakers who would soon stop talking to the press or allowing his photo to be taken.
But at the time, Malick was just beginning, with only one short film under his belt. His open, improvisational and exploratory style of filmmaking had not yet taken on the mythic proportions it boasts today. With “Badlands” finally arriving on DVD/Blu-Ray in a proper deluxe edition from The Criterion Collection this week, we dove into the extras to highlight 10 things you may not know about the film. Note: This is also an augmented version of a similar feature we wrote around “The Tree of Life,” but this version hews closer to the DVD extras provided by Criterion.
1. Malick wasn’t really interested in making a movie about killers, obviously.
If you couldn’t tell this by our above description, the theme is echoed throughout the Criterion extras. While “Badlands” is based on Charles Starkweather’s shocking true crimes that rocked the nation in the late ‘50s, leads Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen and various talking heads describe on the DVD how Malick didn’t want to tell the story of this serial killer in any literal or linear fashion. He told the actors to do no research. He didn’t want them to look like the original people they were depicting, and told his cast to not search out photos. Malick was affected by the story, but he never once told the actors “We are doing these people’s stories.”
2. Martin Sheen Almost Didn’t Star In “Badlands” because he was considered too old.
“We were looking for a James Dean character, basically. Somebody confident and a bit narcissistic, and Marty Sheen came to mind,” casting director Diane Crittenden told GQ in 2011. “But Terry didn’t think that would fly. He thought he was too old.” But not only that, Sheen nearly didn’t even bother reading for the part.
“I went to this hotel on Sunset Boulevard one day to read for a commercial for a haberdashery. Afterwards, as I headed toward my car, this woman is pounding on the window of the first floor of the hotel, trying to get my attention,” Sheen also told GQ. Crittenden elaborated. “I ran up to him and said, ‘I’m doing this great script. You should come in and read for it.’ He said, ‘Look, if it’s an independent film with no money, I’m not interested.’ And I said, ‘But it’s so good!'”
At a 2011 screening of “Badlands” at the LACMA, Sissy Spacek confirmed that Sheen was not the first choice. “I was cast first, and I got to do scenes with every good looking actor in Hollywood, and Terry said, ‘We have to meet with this guy as a favor, but he’s too old.’ That was Martin Sheen, and it was obvious immediately. From the moment we met him he was Kit, he had the boots and everything.”
However, Martin Sheen tells the story a little differently on the new 45-minute “Making Badlands” documentary on the Criterion disc, and says he was the one that almost bailed on it because of his age. ‘The script was astonishing. It was by far the best script I had ever read. And the most extraordinary role that I could ever possibly have been offered,” he said. But Sheen says he was heartbroken because he thought he was too old, as the script called for a 19-year-old, and Sheen was already 31. “It’s gonna spoil the storyline,” he thought. He called Malick the next day and said, “Terry, I read the script, frankly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever read, and I hate to disappoint you, I adore you, I’ve become so fond of you, but I’m too old.”
Malick said he knew that and he’d adjust the character’s age (this must have been after the reported audition wherein Sheen blew everyone away, including Malick and Spacek). Sheen was overjoyed, and in the extras describes a special moment the next day before he agreed. Driving at dawn to set for a TV show, listening to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” he was struck with a realization, “The sun was coming up and suddenly it hit me. I was going to play the part of my life. I knew it. I couldn’t believe it. I pulled off to the side of the highway and I wept with uncontrollable joy and relief. Because I knew someone had finally seen something in me that I knew was there, but I couldn’t get anyone else to see.”
Here’s the original trailer: