John C. Reilly on The Thin Red Line
from Interview with John C. Reilly
University of California Davis
I just want to know about working with the director Terrence Malick, how was it?
It was great. It was very strange too.
How long did that shoot go on, or how long were you on that shoot?
That went on for about five months. We were up in far north Queensland in the rain forest area of Australia and then for about a month in Guadalcanal. He’s an amazing guy. He’s, despite his reputation, he’s not some Howard Hughes-like hermit figure whose afraid to talk to people. He’s very open and friendly and warm and encouraging. He’s just a very private person. He’s almost like . . . I heard that he’s studied philosophy before he started directing films, before he made Badlands, when he went to AFI, the American Film Institute, using their first class. He was a philosophy student before that, and it makes sense when you meet him, because it doesn’t really, he doesn’t really seem like a film director. He doesn’t have any of that . . . he just seems like a truth seeker. He’s someone . . I’ll give you an example of a story. We’re making The Thin Red Line and there was this day when there was this army base, and there was hundreds and hundreds of extras and this huge base with tents and trucks, and vintage airplanes taking off and landing. It was this big massive shot, and the camera was gonna’ be in the back of this truck with some of the main actors, myself included, as it drove through the camp. Soo in order to get the shot, they had to orchestrate this massive group of people, like an entire camp, and they were like, “STAND BY! SHOOT THE AIRPLANES! GET THE TRUCKS GOING! OKAY, EXTRAS!” There was dust everywhere and there was noise, and everybody’s waiting you know, and we’re in the back of the truck, “Here we go, here we go . . ” and “STAND BY!” And all of a sudden, Terry’s like, “Oh look, there’s a Red-Tailed Hawk! Look! John, John [Toll] get the camera! Get the camera! There he is!” We’re all like [imitating a confused slack-jawed look]. “Are we really filming a hawk right now? Are you kidding? There’s airplanes taking off!” And we sat there for five or ten minutes while he got different angles of this bird flying through the sky, you know, but that’s how, it was like the script didn’t really matter to him, the story didn’t matter, although we shot the script and we shot the story, the movie didn’t really resemble the script by the time he finished editing it. I think that shows real vision, you know, he didn’t let anything distract him from what he found to be truthful or meaningful, whether it was a Red-Tailed Hawk or whether it was a bug landing on a leaf, or whether it was an extra suddenly starting to cry because he was moved by something, or whether it was the main actor doing a speech. So, it was just like he was gathering moments, just taking them with him and then he’d get back and say “Let’s turn this into a movie.”
He also said to me once, I’ll never forget this, he said . . . this is after a day when I had done a three-page scene where it’s just a huge speech. Speech, speech, speech . . . all this memorization I had to do, it was this amazing speech that James Jones wrote, it was really his distillation from his point-of-view from that book, which was that, you know, war is like a hotel, people just move through, a very existential, almost a post-Vietnam point-of-view about the war, except he wrote it after World War II. It was an amazing, amazing thing. So I did this whole speech, this long long scene and then, at the end of the day we were sitting at dinner together and Terry says to me, “You know, John, I’m always slightly disappointed when you all open your mouths to speak. I almost wish the picture could play like a silent picture.” And I was like, “Oh.” Well needless to say, the speech is not in the movie. There’s a picture of a bug on a leaf instead.
You got off easy, what about Adrien Brody?
Yeah, I know the whole movie, his whole main character was changed by the time . . . it’s a brilliant movie and I felt very, very lucky to be part of it. It was a strange shoot though, like for five months you’d go in, you’d get dressed, you put on your uniform, your makeup and the dirt, your weapon and get ready and “STAND BY!” and then you would sit in the base camp all day long for ten hours wondering, ‘are we gonna’ do anything today?’ “Terry’s off looking for a location,” or “he’s working with these two people today . . .” I was lucky, I got to work fairly often but there were really great actors there that spent a whole month just waiting. Coming in every day, getting ready and then waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. I think everyone . .. it was an amazing, amazing confusing delightful experience.