While many directors worry about the sophomore slump, Terrence Malick might be remembered most for his second film, “Days of Heaven.” The film stars Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as a lovestruck young couple in early 1900s Texas. After Bill, Gere’s character, kills his boss, the couple and Bill’s sister Linda (Linda Manz) flee. While looking for work they stumble upon an idyllic farm run by a sickly, yet kind farmer played by Sam Shepard. When the farmer falls in love with Abby, played by Adams, Bill convinces her to enter into a sham marriage with him in the hopes he’ll die soon and leave them his considerable wealth. As one could guess, things go awry when Abby develops conflicting feelings of affection for the farmer.
This film is instrumental in understanding Malick’s career for several reasons. “Days of Heaven” is an artistic leap forward from the more traditional “Badlands” and garnered major awards consideration, including four Oscar nominations and a win for Néstor Almendros for Best Cinematography (more on this later). Malick also won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, which should have catapulted him into the position of being one of the most desirable directors of his day. The movie also established Malick as a director interested in the visual and the abstract rather than the expository, creating narrative through a series of images rather than dialogue; something that would mark the rest of his cinematic career and would perhaps be pushed to its zenith in the recent “The Tree of Life.” Astonishingly, Malick had created his unique style of storytelling in only two films. Most importantly, perhaps, this film is the one in which Malick’s eccentricities as a director became apparent, as the production was fraught with drama, so much so that Malick waited almost 20 years to direct his next movie “The Thin Red Line” (though why he disappeared for 20 years still seems to have no, one specific answer; much like the questions his films often raise). Perhaps these difficulties are what have led Malick to shun the public limelight so desperately that he wasn’t even on hand to accept his Palme d’Or award for “The Tree of Life” at the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks ago.
In the lead up to the national release of “The Tree of Life,” week-by-week, we’re getting reacquainted with the films of Terrence Malick. We tackled the visionary filmmaker’s latest effort, “The Tree Of Life,” and two weeks ago we tracked his debut, “Badlands.” Now we’ve got plenty of nuggets on his transformative “Days of Heaven.” Additionally, here’s our feature on “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line.”
1. It was nearly a crew revolt from almost Day One, as Terrence Malick and Néstor Almendros boldly indulged in their experimental techniques.
“They didn’t know what he was doing,” Richard Gere said about the “Days of Heaven” crew on the audio interview recorded for the Criterion Collection DVD which was released in 2007. “There was a lot of mutiny about him and they were grumbling how he was setting back [film] 20 years.”
“He not only allowed me to do what I wanted – which was to use hardly any studio lighting in this period film – but he encouraged me,” Almendros said in his 1984 autobiography “Man with a Camera. This fruitful collaboration would work wonders for Almendros and Malick (more on this later) – but not so much for the rest of the crew.
Some people, mainly his long-time collaborators, were down with the freewheeling, as-it-happens creative approach. “Terry’s completely unpredictable, you never know what he’s going to shoot,” legendary production designer Jack Fisk said on the Criterion DVD commentary. “Part of it keeps all of us on our toes and lends a certain excitement. I think it helps the actors too because they get in a routine of a performance in a certain way and then the environment changes and their reading changes.”
Others were less charitable, and Malick’s now-legendary indecisiveness coupled with his spontaneous “now-let’s-shoot-this!” creative bursts would irritate those crew members in front of and behind the camera who liked to actually plan things.
“The [crew] were accustomed to a glossy style of photography,” Almendros recalled in his biography.”They felt frustrated because I gave them so little work. Day after day I would ask them to turn [off all the lights] they had prepared for me. This annoyed them; some of them began openly saying that we didn’t know what we were doing, that were weren’t ‘professional.'”
Malick didn’t care, and when he saw the footage of what he and Almendros were doing, it emboldened the director to even go further in this direction. “He didn’t know what he was getting away with until he saw the footage,” longtime Malick editor and associate Billy Weber (he’s worked on every one of his pictures) said on the Criterion DVD. “He was guessing that he could push the limits of the film stock the way he did, but then when he saw he was right he realized he could get away with murder and shoot with no light.”
2. Richard Gere didn’t adjust easily to Terrence Malick’s unorthodox methods.
“I don’t know how equipped he was to lead actors, or anyone,” Gere said in a Criterion interview extra devoted to his work and his perspective on the film. “I think he had a really good idea, in the broad sense, of what he wanted and what he wanted it to look like, feel like, but I don’t know that he knew the exact specifics, he wasn’t that kind of a filmmaker. Because he was relatively new to directing, as I recall he didn’t really know how to talk to an actor the way a theater director does, so that led to some frustration from the actor’s point of view. It would be like, ‘do it again,’ and hopefully you would come up with something he liked, but it could be deeply frustrating, but that’s just how Terry works and it worked for him.”
Gere does sound petulant. In a Village Voice interview with his co-star Sam Shepard, a proponent of Malick’s working style, Shepard said, “And then the notorious shot of Richard Gere falling face first into the river — that was shot in a big aquarium in Sissy Spacek [and Jack Fisk]’s living room. They had to convince Richard to do this — he said, ‘Are you crazy?’ Terry begged him.”
Pretty much every key member of the team can attest to the near-revolt that was brewing within the crew. “There was a lot of griping from the Hollywood crews,” Weber said on the DVD. “I remember the electricians being really ticked off because they had nothing to light and they built hammocks in the electrical trucks for taking naps,” art director Patricia Norris said on the same commentary track.
“The camera crew didn’t really [understand] what Terry was doing,” said Weber. “Besides Néstor, who was fantastic and whose attitude was great, (he was wonderful with Terry) the rest of the camera crew were all from L.A.. Néstor never met them, he couldn’t bring his crew from France and they were pretty obstinate and didn’t like the way Terry shot.”
“I remember someone [complaining and] saying, ‘It wasn’t like this on ‘El Cid,’ Fisk laughed.
3.The production began to run more smoothly once Néstor Almendros left the picture and American cinematographer Haskell Wexler assumed the duties of the Director of Photography.
Almendros described the atmosphere on set in his autobiography saying, “[“Days of Heaven” was] not a rigidly prepared film. Many interesting ideas developed as we went along. This left room for improvisation and allowed us to take advantage of circumstances. Call sheets were not very detailed, the schedule was changed to suit the weather and also our frame of mind. This disoriented some of the Hollywood crew who were not used to improvisation and complained,” he said.
Haskell Wexler had an easier time with the camera crews, who clearly didn’t care for Almendros’ unorthodox style that was much closer to what they viewed to be Malick’s ‘chaotic’ vision. “[Wexler] worked better with the camera department. They respected him more, they understood him and he had [already] been in the system,” Fisk said. “[Wexler already] had a reputation when he came to us,” Norris said of the built-in admiration the technical crew had for the new DP.
Apparently, there was also some hope from the producers that Wexler would be able to push the falling-behind-schedule film through to finish. “They thought I would crack the whip,” Wexler said on the DVD in an extra dedicated to his work on the film (Almendros passed away in 1992). Producers and crew also thought that maybe Wexler could give everyone working on the film a little more cohesion than there seemed to be before his entrance.
“Terry asked me to do a lot of things at which I had to suppress my laughter,” Wexler admitted in the Malick documentary, “Rosy-Fingered Dawn.” I remember I did a shot of, I think it was supposed to be a wolf running up the hill. I didn’t know what the hell … I didn’t know what was on his mind. But I did begin to see that he sees connection… between life, between animals, growth, between the land, and I guarantee he would never say any of this to me, but this was some of the subconscious messages that I got when I was with him.”
4. Malick and Almendros became BFFs, above and beyond the shooting of “Days of Heaven.”
When Haskell Wexler came on board, “that made [the production] easier and he seemed to work well with Terry, but Terry loved Néstor,” Jack Fisk said in the Criterion commentary. “He was ok,” Weber amended of Wexler’s relationship with Malick, “But Terry loved Néstor.”
According to Weber, who visited Malick in his “wilderness” days in Paris, he was actually living in Néstor’s third floor apartment. “It was a nice place, on the left bank, it wasn’t fancy at all. He lives like a monk; frugally and quiet.” Unfortunately, Malick didn’t make a film again for 20 years (stay tuned for our feature on the films Malick worked on that never came to fruition) and since Almendros passed away in 1992 of AIDS-related illness, according to IMDB, the two never had the opportunity to work together again.
5. The legend goes that Néstor Almendros was replaced by Haskell Wexler because he was going blind. Though he was indeed losing his eyesight, Wexler replaced Almendros for very different reasons.
Almendros actually had to leave the set because he was scheduled to lens Francois Truffaut‘s “The Man Who Loved Women,” a commitment the producers were well aware of. He only had approximately nine weeks to shoot “Days of Heaven,” and per most Malick flicks, the director ran over…way over. Producer Harold Schneider (brother of BBS founder and “Days of Heaven” co-producer Burt Schneider) knew Almendros’ time was running out and the cinematographer approached his friend Wexler to finish the work. Known for lensing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Bound For Glory” Wexler arrived for an overlapping week (according to Almendros’ biography) so the two cinematographers could compare notes.
“Néstor told me, ‘don’t use any diffusion, Haskell. Remember, natural light,’ ” Wexler remembered on the Criterion DVD, but he also seemed to suggest this method wasn’t exactly one that anyone should congratulate themselves over. “You don’t get any gold stars for not using the equipment. You may save the rental, but usually they’ve got the stuff in case you need ‘em so it’s not a virtue, I don’t think. But I think Néstor’s concept was good, it was a useful discipline.”
Still he followed Almendros’ dictum for the most part, even against his better judgment. “There were some [darkly lit] shots that he thought would turn out to be black frames,” Weber said, “because there was no light, but he was wrong. There was definitely some low light footage that was on the edge, but we ended up using everything we wanted to use.”
“Néstor was an extraordinary guy, but as I recall his English wasn’t perfect and he was also almost blind which was not an advantage for a DP,” Gere chuckled on the Criterion DVD, confirming the little-known eyesight issues of one of the world’s greatest cinematographers. “His ability was to feel light; [to him] it had a texture, it’s tactile. He was a major, major artist; maybe a genius.”
According to Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” book on the golden age of 1970s American filmmaking, in order to evaluate his shots, Almendros “had one of his assistants take Polaroids of the scene, then examined them through very strong glasses.” It’s possible this is true, but Biskind was not on set, and over the years, many people have poked holes in his hugely entertaining book.