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It Was A War For Cast & Crew: 16 Things You Need To Know About Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line'

Photo of Rodrigo Perez By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist June 17, 2011 at 8:54AM

In late ’98/early ‘99, on the eve of the release of “The Thin Red Line,” two major events were concurrently taking place, each threatening to consume one another but both feeding the anticipation around them (the film was given a limited release in December, followed by wide release in January). One was "The Thin Red Line" itself -- Terrence Malick's first new film in 20 years, an approximately $52 million dollar war film backed by Fox 2000 (a shingle housed under 20th Century Fox) -- and the other the hallowed return of Malick the director, believed to be lost in the wilderness, driving cabs in Paris, selling T-shirts on Les Champs-Élysées or whatever fictional rumor pleases you most.
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5. In particular, Elias Koteas had a very difficult time and a near-miserable experience.
At the last minute, Koteas’ character was changed from Jewish to Greek and he wasn’t aware until he arrived on set – weeks after the principal cast had already bonded. The experience left him disoriented and off to a bad start. ''It added to my angst, to my sense of not belonging, my sense of not knowing who I was and why am I here,” he said in a 1999 EW interview.

Part of this was because he didn’t even really want the difficult role at first and had to be convinced by his agents to take it. "[The character’s] men weren't behind him, they didn't believe in him, so I felt it was a thankless role,” Koteas admitted on the Criterion DVD extras.” [The character and I] get beat up, gets fired and then is sent home. So I thought, ‘Where's the joy in that?’”

Exacerbating his anxiety was Malick’s directorial style which did not correspond with his acting approach. “I would say, ‘we need rehearsal,’ it was a bit of a running joke,” he said on the DVD. “For me personally it was tough because you come in with a bit of an ego, you have some idea of how to play it and when you’re told, ‘look to your left, now turn around, turn to your right, look up there, listen to the distant bird’ so you have this kind of hands on direction, it feels a little humbling. But ultimately you have to realize you’re part of a bigger vision and you have to surrender yourself to it.”

6. Malick is the master of either evasive answers, assuaging fears or both.
In a 2003 interview with Time Out, Nick Nolte recalled being amazed at an outcome of a a meeting that the actors had called. “So I watched all the actors talk about why they felt so discombobulated,” he said. “One complaint was that [Terry] didn't finish scenes. Terry listened to everything, and at the end said: 'Thank you, this has been a wonderful meeting, you're absolutely right, and we must do what we've talked about.' They're all looking at Terry like, 'We do it? What can we do?' I've never seen a guy defuse a situation like that.”

Sean Penn notes that he too was concerned with his role. “There was a time where I was having a bit of a crisis with [the picture and my role] where I felt that, my understanding of it was that it was getting a little too black and white for me,” he said on the Criterion DVD extras.

“I explained this with a lot of energy and emotion to Terry and his answer -- after I'd been up all night worrying about this two weeks into shooting – he just said, 'Oh, I think we're just fine.' He didn't really address those things, but that seemed ok with me [at the time],” Penn recalled with a chuckle. Ultimately, he realized questions weren’t going to be answered; one had to just surrender to the director’s opaque vision.

“If you love his work, you jump on board his train and you don't ask where it’s going. If you do ask he'll answer you, but it doesn't help," Penn laughed. "It's not a destination you've been before."

“He would say, ‘Your whole life has prepared you for this moment.’ And I’d be like, “ok, what does he mean by this?’,” Koteas said on the Criterion DVD articulating his frustration and confusion.

7. Adrien Brody was fairly devastated that his lead role was reduced to a small side character. John C. Reilly was also a major character who was reduced to a few lines and moments.
Adrien Brody’s character, Cpl. Geoffrey Fife, was the lead role in James Jones' original book and the 198-page screenplay that Malick wrote, but come editing time (and earlier) that was all changed when Brody’s role was decimated down to a glorified extra with two lines and about five minutes of screentime. It was humiliating for the actor who was already doing press for the film and was being touted as one of its leads. Of course, he had yet to see the film.

"I was so focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive everything ... in terms of witnessing my own work. It was extremely unpleasant because I'd already begun the press for a film that I wasn't really in,” Brody said candidly in an April 2011 interview with the Independent.

“Terry obviously changed the entire concept of the film. I had never experienced anything like that." He said he learnt a valuable, if painful, Hollywood lesson. "You know the expression 'Don't believe the hype'? Well, you shouldn't." Maybe he should have just called Richard Gere in advance and prepared himself considering that actor’s experience on “Days of Heaven.”

"I am anxious," Brody said in the 1999 Premiere piece, "Welcome To The Jungle." In the script his character would make a huge transformation from cowardly to courageous. "I can't wait to get to into the more aggressive, confident stage. It will be easier for me as a person," he said. Sadly, if that moment ever came, it never ended up on screen.

However, Malick knew while he was shooting the film was about to change drastically. "The first cut of the film was about Whit. He shifted everything while he was shooting," longtime Malick editor and collaborator Billy Weber said on the Criterion DVD. There was a good, understandable reason for this. Malick was becoming enamored with an actor whose performance was blowing everyone away.

"He just had a really strong connection with that character and Jim Caviezel,” co-editor Leslie Jones said on the DVD extras. “You could see it; new footage coming in with Jim and it was much more focused and powerful. He found Whit's voice during production and elaborated on it later.”

John C. Reilly had a much bigger role in the original script as well, but he seemed more at peace with his major excision from the film (he barely has any lines in the finished product). “I was lucky, I [at least] got to work fairly often. 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,” he said in an interview that took place at the University of California Davis. “It was an amazing, amazing confusing delightful experience.”

In a very recent interview with The Playlist about his upcoming film “Terri,” Reilly told us that, "Terry was a fascinating guy – of all the kind of legendary directors I've worked with, he seemed the least like a filmmaker.”

“The way I saw it, [he felt], 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, nevermind about all that,” Reilly said meaning the screenplay and the book. “ ‘I've got you all here now, and now I'm just going to see what's happening for real. Like, what’s really happening today.' Which is a crazy way to work for a producer, so he's like 'Okay, well we're going to do the script so that I don't get in trouble with the producer, but what I'm really doing is waiting for something real to happen. Then I'm going to collect it all, I go back and turn it into the story that it needs to be. Not what I planned on doing, not what the script said, not what the book said, not what I promised the producer; what I really had, and what seems like a really personal statement about what I experience when I was making this thing.’ " Ballsy and far out.

8. There is no “legendary” five-hour cut. It was just the first assembly cut of all the footage.
Still even unmixed, without score and bare bones, "That five-hour version was very powerful, and you could see it was a very moving story back then," Billy Weber said in an 1999 interview with the Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter.

But Malick had difficulty watching any assembly of the picture and had to be forced at near gunpoint to watch it by the editors who were about to revolt.

"We forced him to watch the first assembly cut of the movie which was five hours,” editor Billy Weber said on the Criterion DVD. “And we sat him down and I said to him, 'I'm not going to work anymore. I'm stopping until you watch everything.' So he did, we sat one day and we watched the five hour cut and I think he only watched the movie once from beginning to end and that was the first cut. I don't think he ever watched it again from beginning to end."

9. Hans Zimmer, by his own admission, may have gone a little nuts composing the music for “The Thin Red Line.”
Malick wanted Hans Zimmer to write the music before the movie was actually shot which is a highly unorthodox way of scoring films. Traditionally, composers watch the footage and score to picture, but this is Terrence Malick we’re talking about. He also wrote six hours of music, a fraction of which is used in the final film.

“I threw all my previous knowledge out the window and started again,” he said in an Inside Film interview from the late ‘90s. “I wrote for nine months without a day off. It was incredible pressure in the cutting room.” On the Criterion DVD he said that Malick moved into his studio for “a year, year and half before he even started on 'Thin Red Line.' ”

Zimmer never mentioned the mammoth script after he read it, feeling it was like the elephant in the room Malick didn’t want to discuss. “We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about colors, and these sorts of things,” he said. “Most of the time we having impractical, unpragmatic, philosophical conversations about films heading towards this monumental beast of a film [in] sideways and obtuse ways"

Zimmer became so neurotic about the experience that Billy Weber banned him from the dub stage. “I sound flippant about it [now], but it was six hours of music and it was hard work and I thought it was going to kill me,” he recalled on the Criterion DVD. "I remember going home, clutching my chest and going, 'I don't think I'm going to see Christmas' and meaning it. I wasn't joking.”

Zimmer and Malick then began to have heated conversations about absurd musical minutia that boiled over into huge arguments (according to the composer, Malick said the two men fought “like brothers”.). “It was so complicated, especially once we set upon this course of removing more and more dialogue,” he said. “I kept feeling the weight of the lack of words on my shoulders trying to keep the river running. After a while it became a mine field of my own neurosis.”

This article is related to: Films, Terrence Malick, '90s Films, The Thin Red Line


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