Slate Up: Five Filmmaking Tips from the School of Terrence Malick

In partnership with Film Slate Magazine, we’re publishing “Slate Up,” a fortnightly series with practical filmmaking advice and musings. New articles, written by the team at Film Slate, will be posted every other Monday.


Terrence Malick has the most provocative reputation of any living American director. He famously avoids photographs and interviews (a peek at Google image search shows the former is increasingly difficult for the filmmaker). He disappeared from Hollywood for 20 years after making his debut, Badlands (1973) and a magnificent follow-up, Days of Heaven (1978).

Malick has directed Lanton Mills (1969), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015). In addition to Knight of Cups, the reclusive, innovative director has other movies on the way (one being a colossal documentary titled Voyage of Time) and seems to have been cultivating a newfound energy since The Tree of Life. Here are five filmmaking tips from the school of Terrence Malick to illustrate what makes him notable and, in this writer’s opinion, the finest film artist in history.

1. Natural light

Malick’s films are frequently shot during the period of day known as the “Magic Hour” (also the “Golden Hour”). This is the mysterious time right before sunset, and right after sunrise, when the human form and face looks splendidly defined and—well, magical. The Tree of Life is probably the best example of Malick’s frequent use of natural light, and Days of Heaven was almost exclusively made in natural light as well. Malick loves a hungry sunbeam slicing through the branches of a giant tree, a wobbly human shadow dancing on the ground, a mad painterly dawn (see Nick Nolte’s bit in The Thin Red Line about Homer’s “‘Rosy-fingered’ dawn”) and that crisp, newborn feeling this time of day can evoke. Artificial light certainly has its place—but there’s nothing like natural light if you can employ it correctly. Malick knows all too well that natural light makes things look rich, vivid, layered and most important of all—sacred.

2. Skilled, imminently watchable performers

The man has exceptional actors in his films. The performers in Malick’s cinema are talented and easy on the eyes. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands. Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven. Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, John Cusack and Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line. Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale and Colin Farrell in The New World. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life. Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem in To the Wonder. Malick’s newest film, Knight of Cups stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Wes Bentley, Frieda Pinto and Antonio Banderas. Malick also has a film in post-production, Weightless, which stars Ryan Gosling. Enough said.

3. Disobey the rules

No one (except maybe Jean-Luc Godard?) ignores cinematic rules with more experimental abandon. Malick has an extremely minimal, nearly nonexistent regard for convention. His movies defy the very concept of film grammar: endless voiceovers (To the Wonder—90 percent voiceover), challenging narrative structures, abandoning characters in mid-monologue, omissions of sound during moments of severity, and a habit of cutting world-famous actors out of his movies at the last minute! It’s all part of Malick’s method. In fact, he’s one of the very few directors that has succeeded in creating his own cinematic language over the course of a career. Richard Gere once admiringly remarked Malick makes the same film over and over again. There’s truth to this. This is yet another example of breaking rules (most artists do not wish to, or appear to be, repeating themselves). On closer inspection, his films are quite different in idea and concept—only the execution and pre-occupations are similar. Regardless, Malick is aware no one ever did anything worth time’s embrace by implicit compliance and playing it safe.

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

4. Show what you know

All directors should make films personal. Days of Heaven is informed by the Malicks’ formative years on Oklahoma and Texas farms. Even a film that is significantly removed from this time period, The New World, has echoes of Malick’s childhood (the characters joyously weave in and out of reeds, grasslands, wheat fields, etc.). The Tree of Life is overtly autobiographical and his most fully realized work. To the Wonder could be about a rumored romance Malick had with a Parisian woman, while studying philosophy abroad, during his long absence from Hollywood (1979-1997). And Knight of Cups looks to be an examination of the pitfalls, voids and impossibilities of success (something Malick experienced with Tree of Life, in winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes). It’s a pretty basic rule of thumb that if you’re writing your own material to direct, show what you know, say what you’ve seen, and go where you’ve been.

5. Understand time

A skilled artist in any creative field will display a mature understanding of time. They know when to be leisurely and when to move quickly. Malick knows time molds viewpoints, tempers reactions and fiddles with an audience’s perceptions. He doesn’t rush anything and he understands the value of sculpting a project (although, lately, he’s becoming more rapid with his output). In the past he has taken long periods of time to develop material (only Stanley Kubrick would equal him) and the resulting films do not lack as a result. Movies function best when they tap into our dreams and desires, awakening previously dormant states. Malick’s intuitions about the passage of time allow for a cinema experience aimed at everything hiding in a human being—everything shunned into the darkness. His films invite, honor, and even applaud the viewer for unleashing what’s good inside of oneself. Malick’s movies smile on your hidden need to be decent and good. MM

This post originally appeared on Film Slate Magazine’s website. Film Slate Magazine is a guide to the world of film and television. From craft articles to filmmaker interviews, first-person blogs to insightful opinion pieces, FSM tries to dig a little deeper to find the stories you don’t normally see from the filmmakers, producers, and actors who are making a difference. Follow Film Slate on Twitter and Facebook. Featured image photographed by Melinda Sue Gordon; courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

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