Overdosing on his on own ambition, confronted with the shattered reality of a broken brotherly bond and a slew of unsatisfying affairs, Michael Fassbender’s Cook in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song is the catalyst to the turmoil that enraptures the rest of the characters.
Cook, a music mogul, is the insidious center of more than one love triangle. He seduces those around him with charming, careless pleasure-seeking, promising success beyond their dreams. His romancing of a young waitress (Natalie Portman), betrayal of a close friend (Ryan Gosling) and abuse of an up-and-coming musician (Rooney Mara) all seem like so many tactics in the playbook of this slick devil.
A new addition to the Malickian universe, the Oscar-nominated Irish actor nevertheless fits perfectly into the ethereal, existentialist world that the reclusive auteur and his lauded cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have been painting in recent work like 2015’s Knight of Cups and 2012’s To the Wonder. Fassbender, also starring this spring in the May release Alien: Covenant, had delved into the music world in his quirky performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, where he started as the introverted singer of rock band. In Song to Song he stands on a different shore, interacting with world-famous musical acts, from Lykke Li to Iggy Pop, in their natural habitats—stages and festival grounds.
Off the film’s recent South by Southwest premiere, Fassbender got the phone with MovieMaker for a brief chat about diving into the fiercely original visual poetry of Terrence Malick.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Terrence Malick is known for his unconventional style of directing. How is the process of working with him different that what you experience as an actor on a studio project like Alien: Covenant?
Michael Fassbender (MF): I guess it’s different from all structural filmmaking, not only the big-budget scale or blockbuster mold. He’s got his own technique, and it’s one that doesn’t involve a lot of repetition, so it involves very little continuity. These are kind of the staples of most of his works.
MM: Is there any way that an actor can prepare to be in a Malick film? Or is preparation irrelevant, given the way he crafts his films?
MF: I think you just have to give yourself over to the process. That’s the way I approached it. I don’t know if I can give any advice, but that’s what I found to be most helpful, to just give myself up to it. And to be prepared to make a lot of mistakes, and fall flat on my face, but to keep working with the process, and keep trying to discover things.
MM: Were you surprised when you saw the finished product or did you have an idea of the direction it would take?
MF: I couldn’t predict it, though I wasn’t necessarily surprised. It was fun to reminisce about the various places where we had been together. There’s always a special touch when Terry puts [a film] together. It was seven weeks of relentless filming: You take a half-hour lunch break and then it’s one take after the next, or you’re doing voiceover. It’s a very intense experience, so it’s very interesting to see it in an edited form.
MM: What were some of the highlights, for you, of making Song to Song?
MF: Just the way [Malick] approaches things. He’s a very unique artist. He is definitely a poet, and just as a great human being as well. There is also the chemistry on set, and how he allows you to really explore the scene without a huge amount of notes, just a certain persuasion. The highlights would also be just being in and amongst Austin during the festival [the film shot scenes at both SXSW and Austin City Limits]. I had a lot of fun during the experience. He’s a man of great energy and enthusiasm and passion for film, and he’s also a lot of fun.
MM: What were your first impressions of the character Cook when you came on board?
MF: [Malick] just said he was Satan in Paradise Lost. That was it; I went with that concept. Somebody who’s really trying to transcend life in every way, whether it’s by taking drugs or sexual experiences. He is someone who’s very manipulative, and essentially somebody who’s desperate, and searching for some kind of answer or meaning to it all.
MM: A few years ago you played Frank, the masked leader of a band. In Song to Song you are on the other side as a music executive. Now that you’ve played both, what’s your perception of the music industry?
MF: I think it’s a very tough business—especially nowadays, in terms of the demand to have a hit immediately and then to continue having hits, when before you had the opportunity to have three albums before you were expected to really deliver financially. The touring element of a band must be very grueling. The hours are long, but there’s a close-knit family within it, which is very evident. Music is something that’s a universal language. You don’t need to translate music. Mathematics and music are the two universal languages. Having real legends from the music business be part of the movie, to be working with them, it was a real treat.
MM: Song to Song has a few scenes in Mexico, and those scenes in particular feel like they blend reality with the characters in the fictional narrative.
MF: We all loved going to down to Yucatan and filming there. I think it was just two days. As Terry said, it was to find a purer, easier way of life. There’s so much pulling the characters in all different directions when they’re in Austin, but then they go down to Mexico and find a harmony of sorts. We loved filming down there; it was fantastic.
MM: Does shooting in the real world make the process more complex for an actor?
MF: It definitely adds something to it. There’s another element. I guess having the ability to be quite free in a public environment is an added angle in the filming that Terry put us into.
MM: Another element that seems to be prominent in Malick’s films is the element of broken brotherhood, and I feel like there’s something like that between your character and Ryan Gosling’s character, BV.
MF: Yeah, I think there were notes along those lines when we were filming: the idea of a physical part of the relationship. Terry was like, “I want some roughhousing.” And there’s a great sort of bond between them at one moment, and then there’s absolute friction, and in some respect, violence. I think there was always a brotherly element in that relationship.
MM: What is about the way Emmanuel Lubezki works that’s different from other cinematographers you’ve worked with in other films?
MF: It’s the fact that we used natural lights all the time during the day, so you don’t have to wait for a scene to be lit. Ideally it’s one source of light. It’s a very guerrilla style of filmmaking. You’re on the move: You could be driving to a location somewhere, and you get off somewhere. That would happen a lot of times, when we were heading to the set location, and we’d stop on route, or film in the car on route. It’s a very alive way of working. It’s about time, being able to see what’s happening, and feel the rhythm of the scene, and pick up key moments, gestures, objects, whatever it may be in the scene. He’s a master of that.
MM: Like all Terrence Malick films, it’s hard to pinpoint what the core idea or message in Song to Song is. Everyone gets something different. What does Song to Song say to you?
MF: I think it says that there’s a lot of information coming at us in this modern age, and a lot of things that could seduce us and draw us in all sorts of different directions, and at times we find that we lose our center, and an element of attentiveness and harmony. MM
Song to Song opened in theaters March 17, 2017, courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.