The Terrence Malick Blog


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Having won the Palme D’or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for his fifth film feature, The Tree of Life, film writer and director Terrence Malick has become one of the most intriguing of cinema personalities. Now in its 3rd edition, ONE BIG SOUL: AN ORAL HISTORY OF TERRENCE MALICK is the first ever full-length oral biography of the mysterious director of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder and more. The cinematic world of Terrence Malick is explored by those that have known, worked with or experienced Terrence Malick’s private universe up close and personal. Using previously published interviews and articles, as well as material researched by the author, ONE BIG SOUL: AN ORAL HISTORY OF TERRENCE MALICK promises to be an instantly readable and informative account of one of the world’s most reclusive and enigmatic filmmakers. Now including five interviews with Terrence Malick never-before collected into one volume.


Opening Vienna scenes from the unproduced script,The English-Speaker


Winding streets and dark, ascending staircases.

Schönbrunn Park. The eroded faces of statues at the end of unfrequented lanes. The sound of solitary footsteps on gravel.

Forgotten gods and heroes, covered with ivy, snow or soot. Perseus with the head of the Gorgon, Priam mourning Hector, Orpheus and Eurydice at the gates to the underworld.

Caryatids at the Belvedere frown under the weight of the pediment.

Pigeons nest among the gargoyles that stare down from the eaves of the Rathaus.

Great stone griffins, sphinxes, angels; powers the reasonable city no longer recognizes.

Laocoon, in the Michaelerplatz. A great snake has risen up from the sea to wind itself around him.

Paths piled with leaves, inscriptions which cannot be read, their letters obscured by moss or age. The signs of those who have lost their way.

Winter, The still, chaste snow. The faint sound of distant voices, singing. The camera rising, always rising.

Byways, narrow lanes, the grates of sewers, drains and subterranean rooms. An atmosphere of secrecy and hiding.

A white crocus.

Dusk, the perishing light. Bats sweep up insects along the Danube embankment. Lovers withdraw into the shadows of the lindens. Brahms’ First Symphony. Signs of the falling night.

Music rises from one building in particular. The gargoyles and griffins seem to look down from the darkness at its glowing windows with a strange longing.

— from the first revised draft of The English-Speaker (written in 1993 and cut from the June 6, 2002 final draft)




Rare Malick photo after the release of Badlands



Review: “Bayonets in Paradise” (B.F.I. – February 1999)

Terrence Malick’s preference for nature and myth over history tarnishes his rich come-back epic The Thin Red Line, argues Colin MacCabe

It may be that a suburban mall in Pittsburgh during a blizzard is not the ideal venue to see Terrence Malick’s long-awaited third movie The Thin Red Line. Twenty years since Days of Heaven, Malick’s $55 million three-hour epic about the World War II battle of Guadalcanal obviously posed the marketing executives a problem. Full of stars, the film is nonetheless unashamedly, indeed embarrassingly, determined to press its claim as an art movie – its meditations on war and violence make the voiceover in Apocalypse Now look like an exercise in downmarket accessibility. Fox’s solution was to open in only five cinemas in New York and Los Angeles and to try to build word of mouth through selected audiences at special screenings. But if Pittsburgh is anything to go by, the strategy is doomed to failure. As the movie wound down for its final undramatic hour the audience became openly restive and derisive. As we exited the cinema one patron remarked, “Well that was very deep… and very long.” Her companion responded, “That’s going to win Academy awards – Jeez – never.”

It was the promise of seeing an Academy award-winning movie that had tempted the audience to venture out; it must have been the thought of Academy awards that lured the finest roster of acting talent to be assembled in a single film for a generation; and it is only the promise of Oscars that explains why Fox wrote a very big cheque after Sony had balked at funding a movie that breaks most commercial rules about narrative and drama. It would be surprising, despite the reservations of the Pittsburgh spectators, if the film does not figure in the awards ceremony in March. As a visual spectacle The Thin Red Line lives up to the expectations created by Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven. There can be no question that Malick’s ability to inscribe images with depth and texture is unrivalled in contemporary Hollywood. Guadalcanal (doubled here by the tropical rainforest of Queensland, where almost all the film was shot) is presented as an idyllic paradise into which the serpent of war creeps – and at no point are you allowed to forget the beauty of these killing fields. If John Toll’s superb cinematography never quite matches Nestor Almendros’ haunting images of the cornfields of America in Days of Heaven, it must be odds on that like Almendros he will walk away with the Oscar for cinematography. And the soundtrack is equally accomplished, mixing music, effects and dialogue in a constantly complex pattern.

Above all the acting is, quite simply, superb. Nick Nolte as the repellent Lt. Colonel Tall determined finally to get the recognition his life of shit-eating deserves, Sean Penn as the ultimately cynical Sergeant Welsh, Elias Koteas as Captain Staros, refusing Tall’s orders to make a suicidal frontal attack, are all excellent. And most of the cameos work too. John Travolta is attractively repulsive as a worldly-wise general. Woody Harrelson is convincing as a sergeant who sacrifices himself having endangered his squad through the act of a frightened novice. But among a torrent of talent John Cusack is outstanding. The scene where he stands silent as Nolte pours out shame and resentment is a magisterial demonstration of the truth that in film acting, less is more.

But The Thin Red Line is badly let down by a script that buries an excellent 90-minute war movie in a stream of pretentious, portentous and sententious verbiage which, at least on first hearing, is nothing more than a mishmash of recycled clichés about nature and violence, death and sacrifice. Narrative drive has never been Malick’s strong point, but in the first two films this weakness was compensated for by extraordinarily dense voiceovers. The same technique is used in The Thin Red Line, but whereas in Badlands and Days of Heaven the voiceover was that of a naïve adolescent girl and the films gained much of their power from the distance between voiceover and image, in The Thin Red Line the voiceover is that of adult males, and time and again the film invites us to take their statements as defining the images we are seeing. The results are catastrophic in a film that is otherwise a magnificent achievement.

Walking into myth

For many this was a movie that was never going to get made. By the time Malick finished Days of Heaven in 1978 after nearly two years in the cutting room he was already famous as a meticulous perfectionist who would brook no arguments. His fights with Richard Gere and the producers of Days of Heaven are legendary. When that film finished he was offered a dream deal by Charles Bluhdorn, head of Paramount’s parent company Gulf and Western, which allowed him almost unlimited resources to develop his next film. For four years, mainly from his base in Paris, Malick worked on the prologue of his new movie; a prologue that would dramatise the origins of life. With a small crew including cameraman Paul Ryan, who had shot second unit on Days of Heaven, and special-effects consultant Richard Taylor, Malick assembled footage from all over the world: micro jellyfish on the Great Barrier reef, ice shelves breaking off from Antarctica – neither time nor space was allowed to prevent the gathering of material. When Paramount got restless he would send in portions of a script which was always prolonged passages of visual description with little narrative or dialogue. Finally, in 1983, he walked away from the project and into the world of myth. There was much gossip and rumour, but none of it suggested that Malick would ever return – still less bring in a multi-million dollar movie on schedule and to budget.

In fact, Malick’s career was less eccentric than is often suggested. True, he left Hollywood. True, he didn’t direct a movie for over a decade. But Hollywood of the 80s ate the directors of the 70s for breakfast, and sitting out that particular invitation was a smart move. And he did continue to work for Los Angeles, doing rewrites and among other projects adapting Larry McMurtry’s Desert Rose for Barry Levinson.

At this stage it might have seemed Malick had made a decision never to direct again. Then in the late 80s he was approached by theatre producers Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau to write a script of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel. He turned the offer down but told them he was willing to write two other scripts, one based on Molière’s classic farce Tartuffe and the other on James Jones’ World War II epic The Thin Red Line. The producers chose The Thin Red Line and when the script was finally delivered persuaded Malick he had to direct it. If a subsequent falling-out meant they appeared on the credits but not on the set, they probably deserve real plaudits for luring Malick back to film-making.

Citizen army

Jones’ novel takes its title from Kipling’s lines:

“Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that,

And Tommy, ‘ow’s your soul?

But it’s ‘Thin red line of ‘eroes’

When the drums began to roll.”

The idea of individual martial heroism so crucial to western culture from Homer to Shakespeare has had an increasingly hard time from a bourgeois culture that values life in terms of vocation and career. And from the French Revolution onwards the individual hero is replaced by the citizen army, the ordinary Joes and Tommies who in the heat of battle discover the qualities that make them a fighting unit which can both defend the nation and participate in the universal struggle for progress.

World War II was in many ways the culmination of this democratic heroism in both fact and fiction. In fact it combined the last great war of imperial expansion and national survival with the global struggle against fascism. In fiction it is represented by what Pauline Kael called “a 40s movie bomber crew cast” in which the diversity of America is celebrated as Ohio farmboy buddies up with New York Jew and Brooklyn Italian befriends lonely WASP. Jones’ novel is perhaps the single best example of this fictional strategy. Based closely on his own combat experiences, it follows the story of C for Charlie company as they land on the island of Guadalcanal and are blooded in combat.

Malick worshipped Jones’ novel and apparently had great difficulty in altering any of its details for his screenplay, asking the author’s widow for leave to make the smallest changes. She finally gave him blanket permission to do as he liked, convinced he had entered the spirit of her husband’s work. In one way this is true. From the landing on the island to the aftermath of the taking of the Japanese-defended hill, the film follows the book extremely closely. There is, however, one highly significant change, and it demonstrates how Malick’s aim is very different from that of the conventional World War II movie which at one level he seems to be making. In the novel the captain of C for Charlie company, “Bugger” Stein, is a Jew. His con?ict with the WASP Lt. Colonel Tall is thus overlaid with implications of anti-Semitism that situate the novel centrally in the contradictions of the Second World War. But Malick makes his captain a Greek-American, a transformation that signals a move out of history. As if to underline the point, Tall quotes Homer in the Greek to Staros as they prepare for battle.

Malick is not concerned with the citizen army and its political con?icts representing the class and ethnic diversity of the nation; indeed, he has no interest in World War II. The Thin Red Line’s C for Charlie company are engaged in a con?ict which is as old as time, which is simply a modern version of the Trojan War. This is evident in minor irritations like Sean Penn’s hair, which luxuriates anachronistically. But it is also what provides the rationale for the other half of the movie: the opening 30 minutes which introduce us to the tropical paradise of Guadalcanal, the natural world which is to be the setting for the battle, and the final hour in which Witt (James Caviezel) transforms himself into the figure of the god sacrificed so that others can live – Christian symbolism seasoned with a hodgepodge of anthropological references which suggest Malick has spent more time than was good for him reading The Golden Bough.

It is the transformation of Witt from book to film which gives the clearest indication of Malick’s purpose. In the book Witt stands for an indestructible Americanness. A near-illiterate Kentuckian, he joins and leaves C for Charlie depending entirely on his view of the commanding officers. He refuses to serve with officers he despises, so uses the chaos of frontline combat to allocate himself to different units, uncontrollable by the military machine.

For Malick, Witt’s ability to escape the machine in which he serves is due not to a specific social formation but to his status as natural man. Far from being the archetypal American he is a figure who has lost all trace of nationality. When we are introduced to him in the lyrical opening sequence we find him in a native village where he has gone absent without leave. Malick’s genius can be seen in his determination to render Guadalcanal as a real place – not simply the site for the first great land battle between the Americans and the Japanese but a tropical island complete with its indigenous peoples. But his depiction of this place is insufferably and patronisingly innocent – a natural world without con?ict or contradiction. Its only real function is to signal Witt’s privileged access to a natural order which the army can recognise only as something to destroy.

Human abattoir

In its drive to replace history by nature, to transform World War II into War itself, Malick’s film at the most crude ideological level is identical to the movie with which it will be endlessly compared: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Such a comparison may seem unfair. Malick’s film even at its most pretentious is both interesting and captivating; his use of image and actors, sound and landscape is always intelligent. At the core of his movie is probably the best single description of close-quarters combat to come out of World War II. By contrast Spielberg’s movie has at its core a story so mendacious as to be ludicrous. Apart from in the opening sequence, its attempt to universalise “the American bomber crew movie” is merely patronising, and, at least to this viewer, insufferably tedious.

It is instructive here to remember Sam Fuller, one of the greatest directors of war movies. In an interview with Tim Robbins shortly before his death Fuller mused that it was impossible to catch the true horror of modern warfare because no audience would be prepared to look at the human abattoir a modern infantry battle creates. Was it Fuller’s words which provided the inspiration for Spielberg’s opening sequence of the landing on Omaha beach? But Spielberg then abandons all attempts at realism in favour of a story which defies every aspect of military history to produce Kael’s “American bomber crew” wandering around Normandy to save the one remaining member of the Ryan family. When the small patrol led by Tom Hanks finally locates Private Ryan only to find that he is unwilling to abandon his own comrades, the cynical sergeant argues in favour of remaining to fight with their charge because this may be “the one decent thing to come out of this war”. How someone who made a film about the Holocaust can so trivialise the struggle against fascism beggars belief. How audiences are willing to let him get away with it shows how far we now are from World War II.

If Tom Hanks can die…

The war movies of the 40s, 50s and early 60s were secure in the justness of their cause. Vietnam changed all that, with every movie having to confront both the justification of the war and the racial divisions within the ranks. The citizen army was shown to represent a fatally divided nation no longer convinced of its historically allocated role. Both Malick’s and Spielberg’s movies can be seen as attempts to forget Vietnam. It is a long time since we saw an all-white American army on our screens and, if anyone were tempted to argue that these films are rightly representing the make-up of the pre-60s segregated US army, it can be no accident that it is an army equalled purged of any other difficult ethnic divisions. But if it is an army which is no longer divided, it is certainly not an army which has rediscovered any kind of historical role. The decision to ignore history cannot be partial. If the films no longer make any attempt to investigate the reality of American society then they can make no attempt to understand the wider world of which that society is a part. War here is an evil which can find no justification and the finality of the death it brings is brought home by both films as stars die right and left, cut off with all the murderous randomness of battle.

Ideological readings of films are usually both predictable and uninteresting, an earnest footnoting of the obvious. But these two films, one a flawed masterpiece, the other an enormous commercial success, demand ideological analysis. For both films make crystal clear that the greatest military power the globe has ever known will not now allow even one of its soldiers to die in any foreseeable military con?ict. If Tom Hanks can die senselessly, then anybody can and nobody will. It is well known that life imitates art, but there can be few more striking examples of this than Operation Desert Fox, which signalled a new era in military history – battles in which the attacking force operates under the constraint that it can sustain no casualties. If this is the first clear political message of these two films, they also share a second one. The most powerful form of entertainment ever developed, a form which now benefits from a range of technical and human resources never before enjoyed, has abandoned any attempt to understand the world except in the most banal and immediate of human terms. The United States of America has an army that is devoted to ignoring death and a culture that is devoted to ignoring history. Comprenne qui voudra or, if you prefer an Americanism, go figure.


Review: The Thin Red Line (Variety- December 20, 1998)

Like a Rousseau painting splattered with carnage of warfare, “The Thin Red Line” indelibly presents a worldly paradise devastated by man’s irrepressible impulse to destroy. Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated return to the film scene after a 20-year hiatus is a complex, highly talented work marked by intellectual and philosophical ambitions that will captivate some critics and serious viewers.

Todd McCarthy
Like a Rousseau painting splattered with carnage of warfare, “The Thin Red Line” indelibly presents a worldly paradise devastated by man’s irrepressible impulse to destroy. Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated return to the film scene after a 20-year hiatus is a complex, highly talented work marked by intellectual and philosophical ambitions that will captivate some critics and serious viewers as well as by an abstract nature, emotional remoteness and lack of dramatic focus that will frustrate mainstream audiences. Fox’s only hope with this large-canvas art film is to get enough strong reviews to engage the attention of the upscale viewers beyond the small portion of them familiar with Malick’s outstanding 1970s work, then give it enough breathing room to allow for word-of-mouth to have an effect. Otherwise, the highbrow film elite will be its only constituency.

The film under review is the final release version, for which the sans-end-credits picture portion runs three minutes shorter than the unfinished cut screened for critics in L.A. and New York nearly two weeks ago.

Malick’s previous features, “Badlands” (1973) and “Days of Heaven” (1978), were never more than cult hits, but they were sufficiently distinctive and memorable for the reclusive writer-director to parlay them into legendary status for himself during his two decades of Garboesque silence. The fact that few, if any, filmmakers this side of Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira have ever resurfaced after such a long layoff was hardly encouraging, but Malick has made it back with a picture that bears many of his trademark touches, as well as a scope far beyond anything he’s done before.

Part of the problem with “The Thin Red Line” lies with expectations. Modern audiences will initially be interested in how it stacks up against the year’s previous World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan,” and while Malick does deliver a fair amount of bloody action, including one very intense sequence involving the taking of a hilltop bunker, the film’s intentions could not be more diverse; the new picture’s counterpart to “Ryan’s” stunning opening act is an armed beach landing in which not a shot is even fired.

WWII buffs and fans of the James Jones novel on which the film is based may be brought up short by the lack of political, strategic and military nuts and bolts vis-a-vis the battle of Guadalcanal, while even the Malick faithful will have to remember that the director’s forte was always for fabulous visuals and haunting moods rather than for coherent storytelling.

However, from the opening shot of a giant crocodile sliding into the muck through a 10-minute prologue devoted to the ruminations of a U.S. Army soldier AWOL with a buddy on an idyllic tropical island, it is clear that Malick has things on his mind other than the specifics of what it took to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. Things like the Garden of Eden, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” mankind as a collective embodiment of the two extremes of nature, and other lofty but hardly obscure notions.

The first characters to come to the fore in Malick’s significantly splintered tale are Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), one of the AWOL soldiers, who will always idealize his privileged moments among the friendly island natives even during the peak of battle, and First Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), the cynical every-man-for-himself leader of Charlie Company, an Army infantry outfit being sent to replace Marines in the invasion of Japanese-held Guadal-canal.

The troop ship is loaded with other soldiers very anxious about what awaits them on the island: Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), an aging lifer with the opportunity to finally lead a battalion in battle; Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), a thoughtful lawyer and commander of Charlie Company whose desire to protect his men puts him at odds with Tall; Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), who is fixated on the wife he left back home; and Capt. Gaff (John Cusack), whose intelligent resourcefulness will prove no more or less useful in battle than the animal instincts of Pfc. Doll (Dash Mihok).

Surprised to encounter no initial resistance on the lush green island, the Americans are forced to pursue the Japanese up toward their dug-in positions in the hills, resulting in some fierce action, loads of casualties and a resulting refusal by Staros to obey what he views as Tall’s suicidal order to take one hill by frontal assault. The way the fighting plays out, with stars in cameos, such as Woody Harrelson, as well as nonentities being killed, fully justifies one character’s remark about the utter randomness of who survives in war and who doesn’t.

The tense, superbly rendered capture of the hilltop machine gun nest reps the film’s exciting midpoint to which everything has built; after that, the focus disperses again, as the men rout a Japanese encampment, Tall relieves the sensitive Staros of his command for not being “tough enough,” Bell learns what his beloved wife has been up to during his prolonged absence, and Witt puts his life on the line in a final confrontation with the Japanese before what’s left of the company is shipped out.

Structurally, the film is decidedly lumpy, with confrontations and climaxes coming and going abruptly, and a final 45 minutes in which the dramatic momentum slides noticeably downhill. Characters who are given special attention for a while then disappear for considerable lengths of time — Penn’s stand-apart sergeant is a particular victim of this choppiness; some, such as John Savage’s ranting and raving sergeant, have little apparent connection to anything else going on, while others, particularly Cpl. Fife (Adrien Brody), a much more central character in the novel, have been cut down to virtually nothing (Brody has all of two lines, incomprehensible ones at that).

The matter of dramatic coherence is compounded by some casting moves. Caviezel and Chaplin carve two of the best characterizations in the picture, but their physical resemblance, especially at a distance and in uniform, makes it difficult to always keep them distinct; even the more recognizable Cusack and Koteas, the latter outstanding as the conscience-afflicted captain, share the same coloring and general demeanor as the former two.

Among the better known thesps, Nolte stands out as the determined chief of ground forces and Harrelson has a strong death scene. But John Travolta, in early on as a general, and George Clooney, on view even more briefly six minutes before the end, prove more distracting than helpful in cameos.

As good as some of the actors are in individual dramatic moments, there are no real character arcs here and, as a result, no truly rounded performances. As far as the men are concerned, Malick’s conception works only if the individuals are viewed as aspects of a collective humanity, with each soldier’s response to the extremity of war as plausible as any other.

Just as in Malick’s previous films, the full meaning of “The Thin Red Line” is realized only in the extensive voiceover commentaries, which are offered up by several of the characters. Many of these consist of elemental rhetorical queries into the spiritual bearings of the universe. “What’s this war at the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? Is there an avenging power in nature?” Witt asks at the outset, with frolicking natives and vaulting choral music backgrounding his inquiries.

Other investigations into the sources of evil and love, into the contrary impulses to look out for oneself or to behave selflessly and, ultimately, into biblical notions of innocence forever lost — Witt wonders, “How did we lose the good that was given us, let it slip away, scattered careless?” — give the film a philosophical dimension — some will say pretension — rare in films at any time, no more so than today.

Physically, the film is ravishing, and Malick’s ability to build dense, multi-layered sequences proves as supple as ever. Lenser John Toll’s most striking images come in shots that seem to float above the tall reeds and grass of the hillsides as the men make their arduous ascents. A limited amount of shooting was done at Guadalcanal, but for the most part the Daintree Rain Forest in Queensland, Australia, has filled in beautifully for the intended location. Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent score stresses a meditative, often mournful tone, and the intricate sound editing emphasizes natural ambient noises just as occasional cutaways to jungle animals places the men in the context of all living things. Among former Malick collaborators back with him here are production designer Jack Fisk, co-editor Billy Weber and casting director Dianne Crittenden.

Jones’ novel was filmed once before, in 1964, with director Andrew Marton and stars Keir Dullea and Jack Warden fighting a losing battle with a lackluster supporting cast and meager production values but nonetheless managing to deliver a convincingly bleak and despairing view of warfare.


Akela Crane on-set of The Thin Red Line

Screenshot 2014-05-21 18.40.16


Update: Voyage at Cannes

From The Wrap on the Voyage of Time clip screening at Cannes: “When he showed a few minutes of footage from “Voyage of Time” to a couple of dozen buyers, no press were allowed, and one person at the session says that even cellphones were confiscated before Malick showed up or the footage was shown. Malick introduced the clips himself, surprising those who’d been invited by the Wild Bunch sales agents. The film purports to cover the history of the universe, and a buyer reported that the footage shown consisted of dazzling effects work and gorgeous shots of natural wonders ranging from landscapes to the human eyeball. Cate Blanchett supplied the narration. “Malick has reportedly been working on the film since the 1970s, and it sounds as if it might be the inspiration for the creation-of-the-universe sequence in “Tree of Life.” “So did he wow the crowd and land a deal? According to the buyer who was present, the footage was spectacular, but there probably wasn’t enough of it to tempt anyone into making a substantial offer.”


Terrence Malick introduces the 5-minute clip of Voyage of Time at Cannes

from Variety . . . Voyage of Time is scheduled for delivery in 2016. Malick has now “thousands of hours of footage. There is a vision of what Terrence Malick wants with this film. He has in a way collected colors and has an idea of what he wants to paint,” said producer Sophokles Tasioulis at Berlin-based Sophisticated Films. The film has drawn on scientific advisers from MIT, Cambridge and Harvard. “On the scientific side, everything the film may contain will be very well researched and will be at the top end of what we know,” Tasioulis added. Voyage of Time will draw on multiple filmic resources: One is footage Malick has directed himself, shooting with 65mm film negative. “It doesn’t get any better in terms of resolution, colors, in terms of capturing the beauty of what Terrence Malick calls the miracle of the world, Tasioulis said. Other scenes have been created working with leading vfx artists such as Dan Glass (“Matrix Trilogy,” “Batman Begins”), and with the help of natural history cameramen, shooting with Imax cameras. Voyage of Time will draw on select material created but never used for Tree of Life, and ceded to the film by River Road’s Bill Pohlad, a Tree producer. Also arresting is the scale of distribution ambition. “Because of the size of the story, there’s an opportunity to take a more poetic approach in a 90-minute feature film which is an emotional journey,” said Tasioulis, who has been brought on board because of his expertise in making big theatrical events out of natural history movies: “Earth,” which he produced, grossed $109 million worldwide. “The 40-minute large-screen format would be more educational, with more facts, the science, in a more overt way, he added.”


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We are slowly adding content, but we aim to make this site the definitive resource for all things Malick.

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Days of Heaven: Nestor Almendros

Photographing “Days of Heaven” – Nestor Almendros
Thanks to Nestor Almendros…

As a cameraman, I am drawn naturally to the works of visual directors. In particular, there are three American directors I consider masters of visual presentation: King Vidor, Josef Von Sternberg, and John Ford. Their interest in set design, camera angles, composition, and lighting combined to produce films of timetested originality and expression.

These men were, above all, visual directors, and in spite of their reputations for complex and detailed aesthetics, they maintained a simplicity of the essential in their lighting preferences.

In their films, the light is united to the mise-en-scene to the extent that it actually becomes a part of the mise-enscene. Their total integration of light and visuals has always been a guide for me, and it was this artistic preference which drew me to Terrence Malick and his project, DAYS OF HEAVEN.

When producers Harold and Bert Schneider first contacted me regarding DAYS OF HEAVEN, I asked to see Malick’s previous film, BADLANDS. On the basis of this screening, I immediately realized that Malick was a director with whom I could establish a unique and productive collaboration. Later, I learned that Terry greatly admired my work in L’ENFANT SAUVAGE (THE WILD CHILD), which, although black and white, was also a period movie with similarities to DAYS OF HEAVEN. As a matter of fact, it was because of this film, directed by Francois Truffaut, that Malick asked me to photograph DAYS OF HEAVEN.

In the filmmaking process, the communication between a director and a cameraman is often ambiguous and confused because the majority of directors don’t understand the technical details required in cinematography. With Terry, there was never any miscommunication. He always understood exactly my cinematographic preferences and explanations. And not only did he allow me to do what I had always wanted to do which was to use less artificial light in a period movie than is conventionally used (many times I used none at all)-but he actually pushed me in that direction. Such creative support was personally exciting and directly enhanced the work I was doing.

Our creative work consisted basically in simplifying photography: cleansing it of the artificial glossy look of the films of the recent past. Our models were the films of the silent era, (Griffith, Chaplin, etc.), when cinematographers made unique and fundamental use of natural light.

Using natural light as often as possible meant using only natural window light for day interiors, like the great Dutch painter Johann Vermeer. For night interiors it meant using very little light, from a single justifiable source, such as a lantern, candle, or electric light bulb.

In this sense DAYS OF HEAVEN is a homage to those creators of images in the years before sound whose works I admire for their raw quality and for their lack of artificial refinement and gloss.

Cinema-the visual presentation of film-became very sophisticated in the thirties, forties, and fifties. As a filmgoer, I like the photography of these films, particularly the early sound pictures, but it is not the style I look for in my own work.

As in all my films, I was inspired by works of great painters. For this particular project, I was influenced primarily by American painters such as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.

Besides being a very educated and knowledgeable man of the arts, Terry Malick is also a collector of classic still photographs. His collection of turn-of-the-century reproduction books became a guide for designing clothes and sensing the mood of the people of the era.

Eventually we felt these stills to be such an influence that they were the first images chosen for the audience to see during the title sequence, thereby setting the mood and sense of period for the picture.

With Bill Weber’s editing, these title images follow one another in a visual classic symphony, with andantes, maestossos, staccatos, tremolos, etc.

To develop a design and style for this particular film, my first consideration upon arriving on location in Canada was the character of the natural sunlight.

The light in France is very soft and subtle because of a mattress-like layer of clouds that covers the sky, making work in exteriors very easy, shots matching each other from any angle without modification.

In North America, however, the air seems more transparent and the light more harsh. When a person is backlit, his face appears to be in dark shadows to the eye of the film.

In filming day exteriors, the normal procedure is to use reflected or artificial light (such as an arc) to fill the shadowed areas and thereby reduce the photographic contrast.

In this film, however, Malick and I felt it would be better not to follow convention, to use no lights, and to expose instead more for the shadowed areas. The effect of this was that the sky would come out over-exposed (“burned”), thereby losing its blue hue. This was an effect that pleased Terry.

Malick, like Truffaut, follows today’s tendency to eliminate color. The blue sky bothers them. They seem to feel that the blue sky gives the landscape a postcard quality, as though it was put there for vulgar tourist publicity.

Straight exposure of shadow in backlit situations would have given us a “burned out” sky-white, colorless. Using arcs or reflectors would have made the scene flat, without dimension and not very visually interesting.

I decided to forego the use of any artificial or reflected light, and to split the difference between my reading for the sky and my reading for the shadow, resulting in faces being slightly underexposed, and the sky slightly overexposed, taking away thereby the intensity of blue, yet not letting it burn white.

Surprisingly for me, this creative decision became a primary point of dissension among the technicians.

The circumstances of a European cameraman working on a major studio film precluded me from being able to select the technicians who would work for me. Instead, the producers assigned the technicians to the production. With very few exceptions, the crew was made up of the typical Hollywood old guard.

They were accustomed to a very polished form of lighting and photography. For them the faces should never be in shadow and the sky should always be blue. I found myself walking onto the set with the arcs in place and ready for each scene. My work became deilluminating, that is, removing the false and conventional light.

I could see members of the crew were very unhappy with our creative approach to this film, and some began openly to comment that we did not know what we were doing, and that we were not “professional”. At this point, as a gesture of good will, we would do one take with the arcs, and another without. We then invited the dissenters to view the rushes to see and compare the results, and offer their comments.

This creative conflict became more accentuated as filming progressed. I was fortunate that Malick not only sided with me, but was even MORE daring. In scenes where I initially felt it necessary to use a sheet of white Styrofoam to bounce a little sunlight into an actor’s face to slightly reduce the contrast, Malick would ask me to shoot without it.

Since we could see the rushes immediately and it was apparent the results were adding to the visual presentation of the story, we became more and more daring, using less and less artificial light, preferring the look of the raw, natural images. Some of the crew began to see what we were doing and little by little, joined our interpretation. Others never understood.

If on the one hand there were conflicts with some of the technicians, on the artistic level I had the good fortune of working with some of the very best collaborators I could have imagined.

In each film there is actually a very small group of people who are really responsible for “creating” the film. On DAYS OF HEAVEN this group consisted of about six or seven individuals:

Production designer Jack Fisk, who designed and constructed the mansion and the shacks where the migrant workers lived.

Patricia Norris, costume designer, who created with great taste and extraordinary sensitivity the clothes of the period.

Jacob Brackman, an associate of Malick’s, who was in charge of second unit; and, of course, Producers Harold and Bert Schneider.

Each day, this group would ride in a large van from the hotel to the wheat fields. The trip was an hour one way, and invariably we would talk about the film. In this way, this group would have an improvised special production meeting each morning. The effect of such a creative unity and focus in the actual production of a major film cannot be discounted.

Between the set decorator, props, and wardrobe, we selected combinations of colors which were muted because historically colors then were not as bright and aggressive as colors today.

Patricia Norris created old clothing and dresses that didn’t have that synthetic look or quality that is recognizable in the finely machined clothing of today.

The mansion was built solid in the middle of rolling wheat fields. It was a real “house-both inside and outside-not just a facade, as is typically done for a film. Even the colors and selection of the wood were period, all dark and realistic.

Many people in the film business think the Director of Photography need only be concerned with the camera and related technology. I believe that the Director of Photography must also work closely with everyone involved in the visual presentation. The truth is, you cannot achieve good photography-photography with a particular style and grace-unless you work hand in hand with the set designer and the costume designer.

If poor taste is used in the selection of the items that will visually appear in the film, then no matter how striking the work of the cameraman, the strength of the visuals will always be diminished by the ugliness or inappropriateness of the items within the frame.

You cannot get beauty out of ugliness; unless you aim for the oxymoron of Andy Warhol, who found “ugly beauty”.

There were several camera operators for this film. Contrary to the films I do in Europe, (for union reasons) I was not allowed to operate a camera. Of course, I lined up the shots, and rehearsed their visual design with Terry (the movements of the camera and the actors inside the frame). Considering the situation, I was fortunate to have four camera operators of great skill and talent. From Hollywood, John Bailey; from Canada, Rod Parkhurst; Eric Van Haren Noman, the Panaglide specialist, and the second unit camera operator, Paul Ryan.

To be fair, the praises given to my work should be distributed among these and other anonymous technicians, especially in the multi-camera scenes where one camera shot wide angle, another detailed with a telephoto lens, and another was hand-held-all while the Panaglide slid through the flames and around and in between groups of people. And finally, Haskell Wexler, ASC, who supervised the last three weeks when I had to leave due to a prior commitment. ALL this was unified by the immense talent of Terry; thanks to his technical knowledge and his infallible taste.

When I was initially contacted by Producers Harold and Bert Schneider, I advised them of my commitment to Truffaut, which would begin just as DAYS OF HEAVEN was scheduled to end.

Malick and the Schneiders accepted this condition with the hope that Truffaut’s film, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN would be delayed in preproduction. It wasn’t, and to complicate matters, Canada experienced an Indian Summer and the snows we needed for the story were late in coming.

Once the situation became apparent and I knew I would not be able to finish the film, I thought of all the great Directors of Photography in America, searching for someone who would be appropriate to replace me. I thought of Haskell Wexler, a man whose work I greatly admire, and a man I also consider a friend. I asked him if he would complete the work I had begun, and again, fortunately for me and the project, he accepted.

He overlapped with me for one week, observing the style we were using, screening all our rushes, sensing what we were after.

In the end I had shot for 53 days; Haskell shot another 19. I don’t believe anyone can tell the difference between what I shot and what he did.

He was directly responsible for the final scenes in the city, after the death of Richard Gere; for all the snow sequences; and for completing shots in other sequences where additional angles or coverage was necessary.

The continuity he achieved is a remarkable achievement; an example of his immense talent for which I am forever thankful.

As often happens in films, a story with a particular setting may actually be filmed in a totally different locale that has the appearance of the real setting. Such was the case with DAYS OF HEAVEN.

Set in the Texas Panhandle, in 1916, the film was made in Canada, in a region of southern Alberta. And as so often happens in filmmaking, the elements of the location directly enhanced the design of the film.

The locale chosen was a vast virgin landscape owned and farmed by the Hitterites, a religious sect who emigrated many years ago from religious intolerance in Europe. Like the Mennonites and Amish in America, these people live in another era.

They communally own and work the great stretches of land, growing a wheat that is longer than the kind grown by modern farming today.

They make all their material possessions, including their austere furniture. They have no radio or television, eat homegrown natural foods, and even their faces look different from ours (some appear in the film). In the one-hour drive from our hotel we would pass from the twentieth to the nineteenth century.

There is no doubt that the atmosphere of this land added authenticity to the images in our movie.

In addition, rising out of and rolling across this extraordinary landscape were red-wine-colored silos and antique, steam-driven tractors and combines loaned to us from nearby private collections.

DAYS OF HEAVEN was my first opportunity to use a camera which was the rage in America but hadn’t yet arrived in Europe: the Panaflex.

It is a very light, self-blimped, late American answer (but I believe superior) to similar European cameras.

Today’s evolution is toward the miniaturization of equipment that will afford more freedom of movement during shooting. To this end the Panaflex was developed, with such versatility that now we have a studio camera with the flexibility and configuration of a documentary or newsreel camera. During our production its only drawback was a dim viewfinder, something that hassince been corrected with great ingenuity.

It is a highly sophisticated camera, and adding the ultra-speed lenses, filming that was once impossible is now available to us all. DAYS OF HEAVEN could not have been made without this camera and those lenses.

Over the years, I have noticed a certain inertia among Hollywood technicians. Since they were the first in everything, it takes them time to catch up to date or to accept the need for modification or new design.

After World War II, Europe was the forefront of new equipment development. Light cameras were among the first items developed, allowing the filmmakers to be freed of the confines of only studio sets. As a further development, these cameras were made as reflex cameras, something that did not happen in America until much later.

Another example of this inertia is the use and development of the dolly. I prefer simple movements-and I find handiest for this the Italian Elemack, which is very versatile and light. On DAYS OF HEAVEN, the crew was determined to use a conventional studio dolly with hydraulic riser-a piece of machinery so heavy it takes six men to lift it, and its size precludes it from fitting where you need it. Obviously not a flexible unit for filmmaking.

I suppose there is an American weakness (or perhaps human weakness) which prompts men to resist simplification.

Typical of this resistance is the continued use of the gear head. Today there are gyroscopic and hydraulic fluid heads which move the camera as smoothly and directly as the old-fashioned gear heads, or even better. (Sachler and Ronford are two perfect examples.)

It does not require a great deal of experience to use them -a person with a good sense of rhythm can make a perfect panoramic sweep and accompany characters in their movements without losing the composition.

With a camera on a simple head with a handle, the man and mechanical elements become one, and the movement becomes almost human. The mechanical perfection of the gear head cannot compare with the almost human sense of a handmade panoramic.

If Americans resist on the one hand, on the other hand there is no doubt that when they put their mind to something, they are the greatest technicians and innovators in the world. And doubly praiseworthy is that whenever they seriously attack a technological problem, they offer the results freely to any nation.

On DAYS OF HEAVEN we were fortunate to have a perfect example of this ingenuity: the Panaglide System. This is Panavision’s version of the Steadicam System, with several advantages.

In the beginning, Terry was very enthusiastic and wanted to do practically the whole movie with Panaglide. Very soon, however, we realized it was a useful gadget, virtually indispensable on occasions, but not universal.

Like the first filmmakers, who used the zoom lens and were so enthusiastic over their new toy that they made audiences seasick, we too paid to be freshmen.

Because we had the freedom to move in all directions, the thing became a merry-go-round. The whole crewsound, script, director, and myself-had to run behind the operator on every take so we would not be in frame.

The dailies were incredible-brilliant; but there was an impression of tour de force, of great effort. The camera became a protagonist, a living actor; and it was an intruder. We discovered that very often, nothing is worth more than a steady shot on a tripod or a very smooth, invisible classic dolly move.

Nevertheless, the main sequences and shots in DAYS OF HEAVEN could not have been done without a Panaglide. It is these scenes that the audience and the critics continually talk about.

For instance, there is a scene in the river where Richard Gere convinces Brooke Adams to accept the marriage proposition of Sam Shepard. This scene required movement, yet it would have been impossible to put track under the water for a dolly. Further, the actors improvised in the water, wading around knee deep, moving wherever they wanted without blocking, and the camera never lost them. Only the Panaglide made that shot possible.

Similarly, in the fire sequences, the camera could penetrate the flames and move around in a brilliant vertical movement that visually heightened the drama of the moment.

Juxtaposed with these brilliant takes were editing problems. The novel improvisations of the actors and the camera prevented several cuts without continuity problems.

Also, it was quite difficult to shorten a sequence, and for this reason one of the most perfect scenes had to be eliminated in the final cut. The operator was standing on the crane arm, even with the balcony on the third floor of the mansion. Linda Mantz walked into the house from the terrace, through the bedroom, and down the stairs. The crane boomed down at the same time, following her, and we could see her intermittently through the windows. When she reached the ground floor, the operator stepped off the crane, and moved step-for-step with Linda, following her into the kitchen, where she encountered Richard Gere, and they exchanged dialogue (in sync sound).

The first part of the shot, the crane following her down the facade of a building, and describing along its way several actions as seen through the windows is nothing new. King Vidor did it in STREET SCENE; Max Ophuls in MADAME DE. On the other hand, what follows-the camera actually entering the building, is very, very new.

The French invention, the Louma, could penetrate into the building at the end of MADAME ROSA, but only in one room because it cannot twist; it cannot bend and follow a character into another room. But with the Panaglide, you get the true impression of three-dimension and the real geography of the set is described perfectly.

For all its magnificent possibilities, however, the Panaglide has one very serious drawback. The weight of the system is considerable and the operator has to be an Olympic athlete. If the system becomes standard equipment in the state it is in now, we will have to create a whole new generation of cameramenathletes, and the problem will be to find athletes who are also artists.

All three operators and myself tried to operate the apparatus, and we all gave up, breathless. Undoubtedly that is why Bob Gottshalk at Panavision sent a special operator with the camera; a very well-trained athlete, Eric Van Haren Noman who did his push-ups all day long, and who is also a great artist.

From the very start of filming, I consistently pushed the night scenes. A few years ago when 5247 was first released, the results of forcing the film were not very good, but when we began DAYS OF HEAVEN, the response of the new stock had come to perfection, and our tests at Alfa-Cine Laboratory in Vancouver were more than satisfactory.

Our night scenes were overdeveloped one stop, to ASA 200, and in extreme cases, two stops, to ASA 400. Astonishingly, the grain was not noticeable, even with the 70mm blow-up.

These ASA ratings, combined with the new ultra-speed lenses, enabled me to shoot at lower light levels than I had ever done before. For example, the speed of the 55mm lensisT/1.1, and you can literally shoot with the light of a match or a flashlight. Very often we would shoot at T/1.1, pushing one stop, without the 85 filter, using the last glow of the day.

Even though I was sure of the exposure, I was concerned about the focus, since the depth of field was at an absolute minimum, and my concern doubled when we began to consider blowing the release prints to 70mm.

Again I was fortunate to have a second assistant who was an artist. Michael Gershman was responsible for the focus, and he knew he was gambling with his job. Difficult as his task was, he proved himself to be a perfectionist, and he rehearsed and rehearsed until he was sure of his gauge. Whereas some became impatient with him, I can never thank him enough for his dedication. I was using no diffusion and I wanted a very crisp, clear image. The sharp images in the film are directly attributable to his professionalism.

Professional cinema does not risk underexposure and focus very often, but Malick wanted the film to have a certain style, which carried with it those risks. To achieve this style, he allowed me to go very far-as far as I wanted.

The night exteriors in 1917 would have been illuminated by bonfire or lantern. In our bonfire sequences, to give the impression of reality, our challenge was to light the scene as though the light came only from the flames.

Westerns are famous for these scenes, when the characters are sitting around the campfire. Usually electric lights are hidden behind the firewood to increase the natural light given by the flames. I always thought these scenes looked very fake.

Even in a marvelous movie, like DERSU UZALA, they have a photographically ridiculous scene near the fire. Not only is there too much light, even overpowering the flames, it is white, conflicting with the color temperature of the fire and ruining the atmosphere.

Another often-used technique is to shake things in front of the lights to give the impression of flickering flames across a person’s face.

All these methods were always unsatisfactory to me, so I was looking for a technique to use real fire to light the actors. As with all discoveries, the solution that presented itself was a fortuitous coincidence.

When we prepared for the bonfire sequences when the workers celebrated the end of the harvest, I saw the special effect of controlled fire was made by regulating the flow of natural gas through a pipe or tube with several openings. It was from these openings the flames would generate, regulated by the valve on the propane bottle. With this valve the height (and therefore illumination) of the flames was controlled.

We held one of these pipes next to the camera and created the only supplemental illumination in the bonfire sequences. We lit fire with fire-with its own color, its own movement. My exposure was between T/1.4 and T/2, pushing the film one stop, to ASA 200. I think that not only did we capture authenticity, but also beauty.

Similarly, the huge vistas of the burning wheat fields were shot with practically no artificial enhancement. For if you illuminate fire artificially, you diminish the power of its visual effect.

In super-productions with huge fire scenes a mistake often made is overlighting, and thereby spoiling the effect. Principally I think this is done because the Director of Photography feels almost obliged to justify his salary and his presence by using all his electrical paraphernalia that supposedly impresses everyone.

Our large fire sequences of burning wheat fields took two weeks of night work. Each night we would burn a new field. The excitement and drama on the screen was nearly outweighed by the tension of the actual situation.

Though all precautions were taken, the fires were difficult to control and once we found ourselves surrounded by flames, the air asphyxiating. The entire crew, grips, wranglers, and transportation acted very quickly and loaded everyone and the equipment into trucks and drove through the flames to open ground.

It was a moment of fate that could have turned either way, but this was a blessed movie, protected by the gods.

Like the fire scenes, the night lantern scenes needed to appear as though the light actually came from the lanterns, rather than using the lanterns merely as props as is traditionally done in films.

To create the effect of such realism the lanterns were electrified, the wires running up the actors’ wrists to a belt battery they wore under their clothes. For color, the lantern crystals were painted a deep orange. For these scenes I usually used a very soft frontal fill colored with a doubled 85 orange gel. This supplementary light was only to add a little exposure and color to the shadow areas.

DAYS OF HEAVEN was the first time I used a new method for photographing back-and-front-lit actors whose shots would be intercut as cross-cuts.

When shooting exteriors a problem that is continually encountered is this cross-cut. In nature this situation looks normal, but photographically it is a disaster, the edited cuts creating a sensation of not matching (one character being in shadow, the other in sun).

The typical solution is to light the face of the back-lit character, giving him the same relative luminosity as the front-lit character. The drawback to this is that now the sky behind the back-lit character is white (overexposed) and the sky behind the front-lit character is blue. (Unless of course you over-light the back-lit character for exposure, which looks equally as horrible.)

Totally in contradiction to my realist preferences is the perfect solution, which I discovered by mistake in one of the scenes from the film FEMMES AU SOLEIL, (WOMEN IN THE SUN).

What it amounted to was placing each of the actors against the sun for the cross-cut shots, taking caution to insure that the eye-line and direction of the actor’s look was correct. In this way each face and each background had exactly the same luminous value, and the edited cross-cuts came without shock.

Of course, the geography was totally to our advantage. The land was all flat and covered with the same wheat in all directions.

When there was a geographic restriction, we would shoot one character in the morning and the other in the afternoon, after the sun had come around to the other side of the sky.

Two people facing each other, each back-lit; two suns on the planet Earthand I don’t think anyone was the wiser.

If during the day scenes, a very careful moviegoer can count two suns, in the sunset scenes, he will not be able to count even one. I believe this is precisely what called unconscious attention to the light in DAYS OF HEAVEN.

Generally speaking, the most beautiful moments of light in nature are in the extreme situations; those moments when you think you cannot shoot anymore; when every photographic manual advises you not to try.

Malick wanted a major portion of the film photographed during one of these extreme situations, a period of time he called “the magic hour”. The time between when the sun has set and the fall of night-when the light seems to come from nowhere; from a magic place. It is a time of extraordinary beauty.

Actually the time between sunset and total darkness is only about twenty minutes, so the term “magic hour” is an optimistic euphemism.

Malick’s decision to shoot so much of the film in this light was not simply gratuitous aesthetics. Historically and in story context, this was the period when these scenes would really have occurred, for the field workers would rise before the sun and work until it set. Their only “free” time being this “magic hour”.

Because of the talented intuition and daring of Malick, these sequences are the most interesting scenes in the film “daring” because it is not an easy task to make all-Hollywood technicians understand that we would only shoot for twenty minutes a day.

To be as prepared as possible we would rehearse the scenes with the camera and the actors during the day. And then, with everyone poised and ready, as soon as the sun had set, we would shoot as quickly as possible -even frantically-fearful of even wasting a minute.

Everyday Malick would be like Joshua in the Bible, wishing he could stop the inexorable running of the sun.

And yet, some days, because of the length of the sequences, we would be unable to finish before darkness engulfed all. We were forced to complete these scenes on the following day, waiting again for the “magic hour”.

“Magic Hour” scenes were always forced one stop, to ASA 200. As the light waned, the lens was opened wider and wider, until finally we would use our fastest lens, the 55mm, opened to its maximum aperture, T/1.1.

Next we would pull the 85 filter, gaining what I consider in this situation the equivalent of nearly a full stop.

As a last resort we would reduce the shutter speed and shoot at 12, then 8 frames per second, careful to instruct the actors to move very slowly so their movements would appear “normal” when the film was projected at the normal projection rate of 24 frames per second.

Dropping from 24 to 8 frames per second, we effectively increased our exposure time from 1/50 of a second to 1/16, gaining a stop and a half.

Shooting with this last breath of light meant the negative would have different tones, almost mutations, and these would increase in variation the deeper we shot into the “magic hour”.

MGM was the laboratory that took these unmatched variations and harmonized and timed them into a smooth, consistent flow. Bob McMillan was given screen credit as color consultant, and the results of his work are miraculous.

Often the rushes and rough cuts seemed like patchwork because of the color differences. His work unified it all and, unquestionably, I am very indebted to him.

Other than the sequences mentioned, the film was shot without artificial or supplemental light. When light was needed, we made every effort to make it appear natural and to justify its source.

To this extent even our night interiors in the house were “illuminated” by the small electric table lamps of the time.

These lamps were on dimmers that reduced the color temperature of the light bulbs from their modern brilliance to a more appropriate warm, low-wattage apperance of original tungsten filaments. Softlights were the only supplemental lights used for these scenes.

Our day interiors were photographed without any supplemental or fill lighting. We shot only with the natural light that was coming through the window. It was like photographing a Vermeer.

I had already had experience with this technique on other films, especially the French-German production LA MARQUISE DO, (THE MARQUISE OF O) by Eric Rohmer.

As with so many moments on this project, I had used the technique before, but never to the limit encouraged by Malick. For instance, in THE MARQUISE OF O, although we timed every day interior to the optimum moment when the sunlight through the window best illuminated the shot, we added supplemental fill for the shadows, because Rohmer doesn’t like high contrast.

With Terry, however, we added absolutely nothing. The result was, frankly, that the backgrounds are in darkness. Only the characters stand out as exposed.

The technical advantage to this, besides the extraordinary beauty and quality of pure natural light, was the freedom given to the actors from glaring lights and the asphyxiating heat from artificial lights-not to mention the lost time running cable, bringing in equipment, and adjusting lights.

The negative aspect is the shallow depth of field. With the lens wide open, the depth of field is at an absolute minimum. Fortunately Malick is a unique director, and he readily understands and knows photographic techniques and restrictions.

Any other director would not have taken into consideration the lack of depth of field; at least, he would not have accepted it so readily and designed the blocking so the actors were always on the same focal plane, (i.e., no over-theshoulders or foreground vs. background placement that would have made one actor out of focus).

Our creative ^effort was always aimed at simplification. Again, like the great silent filmmakers, we used fundamental illusions or tricks that were done simply, quickly, effectively, and-contrary to today’s tendency-always in the camera.

Audiences have learned a lot over the years (if not consciously, then at least subconsciously). An audience recognizes immediately when there is an optical trick because the grain of the film becomes noticeable and the color tones shift. To avoid this optical stage for our special visual effects, we kept everything in the camera.

From my European experience I brought a technique my camera crew at first considered a sacrilege, the incarnera fade.

At the end of some scenes, we would fade to black by closing the lens stop slowly. For instance, if our exposure was an F/2.8, we would fade slowly to an F/16, and then close the variable shutter on the Panaflex until we achieved total black.

Another technique we utilized was a stylized method of shooting “day for night”. During the years of black and white, “day for night” was a way of shooting wide exteriors during the day and making them appear as though they were night scenes. (Interestingly, in Europe this technique is known as “American Night”, a semantic acknowledgment of its origins.)

The standard black and white method that is used even with color today is to underexpose the scene and print down in the positive print. The main difference with black and white was the use of a red filter that added luminosity to faces, added overall contrast, and, most importantly, darkened the sky.

In color, to affect the sky and the contrast, polarizing filters or graded neutral density filters are used. I find both these methods unsatisfactory.

For DAYS OF HEAVEN, we simply avoided the sky by elevating the camera and shooting down, or by choosing spots where the horizon was not visible-such as at the foot of a mountain.

To accentuate the night effect, besides the standard underexposure and printing down, we also pulled the 85 filter and placed the actors so that they were backlit.

The result was an intense cold, blueish moonlight-a supplementary advantage of shooting in color.

Throughout the production of DAYS OF HEAVEN, Terry Malick created an atmosphere and space for improvisation, enabling us to take advantage of each moment.

His striking understanding of cinematographic techniques and his continued artistic encouragement and support were, more than anything else, responsible for the visual achievements we obtained.

When the plague of locusts descends on the fields of wheat, Terry’s atmosphere of daring and essential simplicity made me suggest a simple technique that would allow us to maintain optimum image quality (without resorting to an optical), and allow us to obtain the maximum dramatic effect.

For our foreground, we used live locusts supplied to us by the Canadian Department of Agriculture, but for the wide panoramics, silhouetted tractors and blackened workers, we used a technique used in THE GOOD EARTH: running the camera in reverse and dropping peanut shells from helicopters.

When the film was projected forward, the “locusts” would appear to be flying up. Of course, this meant everything had to act or perform in reverse, specifically the actors and the tractors.

Virtually everyone said “No, it will never work.” But the few believers convinced them to let us try-again, special thanks to Terry’s daring. And when they saw the rushes, they were astounded. It worked perfectly.

All because of Malick. Truly one of America’s finest filmmakers, a man of universal culture.

In cinematographic terms he belongs to the same artistic family as Rohmer and Truffaut. A man whose daring and artistic talent encouraged me and complemented my photography. He made it easy for me to adapt myself to my new work on the new continent. The days we worked together were, indeed, DAYS OF HEAVEN.


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