In late ’98/early ‘99, on the eve of the release of “The Thin Red Line,” two major events were concurrently taking place, each threatening to consume one another but both feeding the anticipation around them (the film was given a limited release in December, followed by wide release in January). One was “The Thin Red Line” itself — Terrence Malick‘s first new film in 20 years, an approximately $52 million dollar war film backed by Fox 2000 (a shingle housed under 20th Century Fox) — and the other the hallowed return of Malick the director, believed to be lost in the wilderness, driving cabs in Paris, selling T-shirts on Les Champs-Élysées or whatever fictional rumor pleases you most.
Both were massive events in cinema; a sanctified resurrection of sorts met with feverish anticipation that drew in cinephiles and tourist pop-culture pundits who just had to weigh in. Adding appropriate noise to the latter point was a massive cinematic homecoming of sorts. 1999 would not only mark the return of Terry Malick, it would also mark the anticipated return of Stanley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut“) and George Lucas (“The Phantom Menace“) to the world of filmmaking. Complicating things for Malick and, or maybe just the marketing team at Fox, was Steven Spielberg, who five months earlier would steal his thunder and release his more conventional WWII film, “Saving Private Ryan,” filled with moments of heartswelling American pride, heroism, patriotism and self-sacrifice. Malick’s take on the nature of war couldn’t be more polar opposite and abstract.
“What’s this war in the heart of nature?” is the first question quietly posed in narrative voice-over that opens the film laid over beautiful images of the Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. It would announce everything the viewer would need to know about the poetic, elusive and intangible anti-war film: the specific conflict at hand was just a side dish, the bigger concern was what madness lies in man that he feels the need to destroy himself and everything around it? What were the struggles and forces within humanity that compelled itself to act in such a savage manner? And finally, what seed, what root did evil grow from? As usual, Malick wasn’t fucking around with platitudes of heroism. His film was about the horrors of war, the fear and innocence lost that quaked through soldiers and the capacity for humanity that still existed amongst such insanity.
In the lead up to the wide release of Malick’s latest film, “The Tree of Life” (July 8 is the date), week by week, we’ve been getting reacquainted with his body of films and the behind-the-scenes making of each picture. Here’s similarly exhaustive features we wrote about “The Tree Of Life,” “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line.”
1. In many ways Terrence Malick did not want to make “The Thin Red Line,” or at least not a war film.
What Terrence Malick truly wanted to make was what ended up on screen, another meditation on the human condition that happened to be set around the setting of WWII. But he had his doubts early on when he too thought he was making a war picture.
“I feel like I’m boarding a train I can’t get off,” Malick told actor Jim Caviezel when he first hired him over the phone according to the actor on the Criterion Collection’s “The Thin Red Line” edition. “And I said, ‘Don’t worry I’ll be there.’ So I knew before my agents even knew! I had to call them,” Caviezel said trying to assuage the director, but perhaps missing the director’s main concern in his understandable excitement.
The characteristically cautious and indecisive filmmaker was reluctant to even make the picture in the first place and according to a 1999 Vanity Fair profile, he left open “numerous doors through which he might make a hasty exit. “
These doubts even existed during production in Australia. “I remember him wondering why he was [making] this movie,” editor Leslie Jones said on the Editing portion of the Criterion DVD (she had spent some time on set). “He doesn’t like war, he’s not an action director, battles scenes, he would say, ‘I don’t know how to direct a battle scene, what am I doing?’ And you can see what he turned the movie into – that sequence in the movie where they’re on rest, was time for reflection and a time for him to get out of that war experience.”
Co-editor Saar Klein echoed these same sentiments. “The logistics of it were so overwhelming. Having to direct like a huge army, running up the hill with all these cameras and tanks and walkie [talkies], he just kind of felt that wasn’t directing,” Klein said on the same DVD extra. “In fact, I think at one point he said it would be great to just get like Renny Harlin or some other director to direct those parts of it, so he could actually spend some time directing the actors. I don’t think [the war sequences] were his favorite part.”
Actor Ben Chaplin suggested the director just didn’t know what he was in for. “He never expected it to be this big thing with loads of men and machines,” the actor said in an extensive EW interview from 1999. ”He had written this film about people and nature, and he got here and there was this war going on.”
2. Like all Terrence Malick films, the script and the final film were eons apart.
”Terry’s wildly intuitive and impressionistic,” John Cusack said in the same 1999 interview with EW from the set of the film. “He wrote a script based on the novel, and he’s making a film based on the script, but he’s not shooting the script. He’s shooting the essence of the script, and he’s also shooting the movie that’s up there on the hill. He’s trying to transcend the book and the script and himself. He’s just out there. He’s a wild cat.” This might be the best description of what generally goes on during the filming of one of Terrence Malick’s movies.
“He has a script, but the script is not necessarily what he shoots,” Klein said on the DVD. “Once he gets on the set whatever inspires him is what he goes with. And then the way that you edit has to be completely reinvented because you don’t have any traditional coverage of anything.”