Terrence Malick Interview: May 17, 1979
In May of 1979, Malick candidly explained the origin of his ideas for Days of Heaven and how he went about making it happen. This interview was originally published in French and is sourced from the above book. The initial translation was admirably done by Hugues Fournier and passed to me for further translating of problem spots and minor editing. Nothing was expurgated or altered, but only polished for ease of flow and clarity without taking away the gist of meaning, complexity of thought or the beauty of Ms. Baby’s writing and Terrence Malick’s statements.
The below introduction written by Yvonne Baby was written some years after the 2005 release of The New World.
About twenty years ago, Terrence Malick lived in Paris and knew my family. He was a friend. Our paths crossed through his country, America -where we lived – our relations fostered a natural warmth, an innate sense of belonging in this interview given for Le Monde to celebrate the release of Days of Heaven (1979).
Terrence Malick, as we now know, avoids the rituals of publicity which he has vowed to shirk in the future. What makes our interview valuable accentuates its uniqueness. By now it is clear that Terrence Malick flees the offal of the world, remaining dedicated to the study of deciphering and analyzing its terrible complexity; to grasp and describe its magnitude yet remain fixed to the enormity of his ideas and dreams. Writing his own films requires concentration and silence.
It is a May afternoon. I join Terrence Malick on the terrace of a Parisian cafe he frequents. His goodness is visible by his short beard and black eyes. Terrence Malick, as I see and will see at each ensuing encounter, is fully present yet fully absent. He leads the double life of an artist: resolute, constant, and acrobatic in a way that maintains and strengthens his internal balance. My eldest son, then a teenager, believed that Terrence Malick is a wise man, and my son is right. Wise, yes, it goes without saying, and a fool. He sees both east and west – as one would say in China – advancing to face the adversity of the stormy darkness, striking through the veil that conceals paradise.
It is a long, long journey in which Malick is Captain Ahab; the Promised Land is his White Whale. Paradise remains within reach; an Edenic vision glimpsed between fingers, disappearing as the sun rises and sets in its slow, sacred yet vital splendor.
Outdoors, in the fresh air, we follow Malick across the vast spaces that constantly push their limits: sky and sea, mountains, hills, valleys and rivers; everywhere water sparkles calmly, trickling indifferently with its ability to conceal. Almost everywhere are children on the verge of adolescence (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The New World), their narrative voice is the flow of poetry, commenting and leading the epic, the elegy, the utopias, and tragedies spanning his exile. Around them are humans, all too human: sinners and saviors, invaders, fiery smugglers of emotions, innovations and beliefs. Sometimes it appears as pure innocence alleviating all, even betrayal (The New World) or murder (Badlands). But the feeling remains, of nature, men and God. Ultimately, the only real fault is to forget God. Yet, nature shines on regardless, the foster mother seemingly sent by God to inspire and invoke prayer (“Help us sing the story of our land …”). And yes, it’s true, the earth sings, among Terrence Malick, and among such countrymen like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, or the Russian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko.
Piano, table, lamp, machinery, ceramics, fabrics, each object in Terrence Malick’s gaze springs from necessity as much as from contemplation; each object – long shot or close – embodies itself immediately and realizes a mind state, from joy to rest, from torment to despair. Contemplation leads to meditation, and from these arise the questions that haunt man: “Who am I? Who are you? Love, where does it come from?” And for Terrence Malick, from film to film, isn’t it love that guides us toward the light leading toward the true path of the heart, recreating the landscape, the constellation of soul and spirit, encompassing all of its virtues? Terrence Malick takes time to attain the beauty that accompanies it, withers it, ennobles it or, with impunity, massacres it. Because, if Good touches us, Evil affects us too, Evil exists mildly or in its most brutal forms: war and its combat, racism, abuse, and torture (The Thin Red Line, The New World). Thus, despite the golden age, it is rethought, transcribed, reimagined, cutting reality with a hot iron, from the wilderness, the frontier, and the shores of love it recedes, steps back.
Where can one discover new worlds? Within Terrence Malick is the spirit of the American pioneer, its breath and force that has accomplished the greatness of the “American Dream.” He evokes its dark moments, and for me, the ensuing days and years have extended these dark moments. I think he would continue to see things for the worst surely, and if not, he would see them as not very welcoming for his illusions lyriques. If he was speaking today, Terrence Malick would not tell us anything else. His work testifies and rises like a symphony, a cantata, an anthem, a requiem, capable of perhaps reducing or suppressing the hurly-burly, the fuss and the din of violent films. Those films that crush, or even contaminate the simple, clear concepts of “living better” and loving more, notions and dreams that have been lost, retaken, in hopes of a better world.
It was in Austin, Texas that I had the idea for Days of Heaven. I found myself alone for a summer in the town I had left when I was a high school student. There were those green, undulating hills, and the very beautiful Colorado river. The place is inspired. It is inspiring, and there the film came to me all together.
I had not liked working at harvest time, I have a very good memory of it, of wheat, and the comings and goings in the fields, and of all the people I met. They were mostly petty criminals who were on their way to Phoenix, Arizona or Las Vegas for the rest of the year.
Like those of the film, these were not people of the soil, but urban dwellers who had abandoned their city, their factories. Rather than criminals, it would be fairer to say they lived on the margins of crime, fed by elusive hopes. At the time of the film, those who worked the seasons hated their jobs and the farmers did not trust them. They could not touch the machinery: if something was breaking, they had to signal by raising their hat on a stick. To distinguish themselves, they were always putting on their best clothes. I had noticed that myself when I was a teenager. To the farmers they were bringing – and this is still true – a piece of their homeland and of new horizons. And farmers sat down to listen – charmed – to hear the story of these workers. Already the farmers were almost nothing more than businessmen and they felt nostalgia for those days of yesteryear where they were themselves caretakers of their earthly riches. Workers and farmers were embodying people whose hopes were being destroyed, some more than others, by opulence or poverty. All were full of desires, dreams, and appetites, which I hope permeates the film. For these people, happiness comes and goes, they are fleeting moments. Why? They don’t know, just as they don’t know how to achieve happiness. If they see before them another season, another harvest, they feel unable to build a life. Though this is familiar to a European, it may seem puzzling for Americans. Americans feel entitled to happiness, and once they manage to find it, they feel as if they own it. If they are deprived of it, they feel cheated. If they feel it has been taken away from them, they imagine they have been done wrong. This guilt I have felt from everyone I’ve known. It’s a bit like a Dylan song: they have held the world in their hands and let it slip through their fingers.
As for the title, it is a feeling that a place exists that is within reach and where we will be safe. It is a place where a house will not rest on the sand, where you will not become crazier by fighting again and again against the impossible.
Linda [Manz], the teenage girl, is the heart of the film. She was a sort of street child we had discovered in a laundromat. For the role, she should have been younger, but as soon as I spoke to her, I found in her the maturity of a forty-year old woman. Non-judgmental and left to her own imagination, she had her own ideas [for the role] giving the impression of having actually lived this life instead of having to invent and play within another.
At first it was a bit frustrating to work with her. She couldn’t remember her lines, couldn’t be interrupted, and was difficult to photograph. Despite this, I started to love her and I believed in her more than anything else. She transformed the role. I am glad that she’s the narrator. Her personality shines through the film’s objectivity. Every time I gave her new lines, she interpreted it in her own way; when she refers to heaven and hell, she says that everyone is bursting into flames. It was her response to the film on the day when she saw the rushes. That comment was included in the final version. Linda said so many things that I despaired being unable to keep them… I feel like I have not been able to grasp a fraction of who she really is.
With Nestor Almendros, we decided to film without any artificial light. It wasn’t possible in the houses at night, but outside, we shot with natural light or with the fire. When the American team was saying, “This is not how we should proceed,” Nestor Almendros, very courageously insisted. As we filmed, the team discovered that it was technically easier, and I was able to capture absolute reality. That was my wish: to prevent the appearance of any technique, and that the photography was to be processed to be visually beautiful and to ensure this beauty existed within the world I was trying to show, suggesting that which was lost, or what we were now losing Because he is also a filmmaker, Nestor Almendros understood Days of Heaven in every way.
I wanted the omnipresence of sound, so I used the Dolby system. Dolby purifies sound and is able to record multiple audio tracks (e.g. wind, the rustle of corn stalks, the pulse of crickets). I wanted to remove any distance from the public. It was my secret intention; to make the film experience more concrete, more direct. And, for the audience, I am tempted to say, experience it like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature. That’s what I wanted, that is how the Dolby and technological developments improved our work.
It would be difficult for me to make a film about contemporary America today. We live in such dark times and we have gradually lost our open spaces. We always had hope, the illusion that there was a place where we could live, where one could emigrate and go even further. Wilderness, this is the place where everything seems possible, where solidarity exists – and justice – where the virtues are somehow linked to this justice. In the region where I grew up, everyone felt it in a very strong way. This sense of space disappearing, we nevertheless can find it in cinema, which will pass it on to us There is so much to do: it’s as if we were on the Mississippi Territory, in the eighteenth century. For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more. And even an old movie in poor and beaten condition and can give us that. What else is there to ask for?