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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'

by Rodrigo Perez
June 17, 2011 8:54 AM
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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.”

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  • GERARD KENNELLY | April 21, 2013 9:34 AMReply

    makes me mad when people compare TTRL to saving private ryan

    the thin red line is in another league

    much better picture

  • Daniel | January 10, 2013 9:22 PMReply

    Terrence Malick is pretentious and by the sounds of it, a C**t!

  • joeyjojo | June 27, 2011 11:43 AMReply

    You would think that, with all that research, you would've found a source with the correct spelling of Kirk Acevedo.

  • Anuar | June 20, 2011 3:41 AMReply

    Such a cool article. Great job!

  • Alonso | June 19, 2011 2:10 AMReply

    Fascinating read. Thank you so much for this. I realize most of this is old, but I would have never come across ALL of this info without hunting the webs for days.

    Great stuff.

  • hmm | June 18, 2011 12:19 PMReply

    "His film was about the horrors of war, the fear and innocence lost that quaked through soldiers and the capacity for humanity that still existed amongst such insanity."

    Have you even seen Saving Private Ryan? Did you miss the chapel scene? Most of the conversations walking? The movie was a lot more than the D day. The entire movie was about the search for decency within war.

  • Thomas | June 18, 2011 7:33 AMReply

    Fantastic post about an incredible film guys, cheers.

  • Rufus | June 18, 2011 6:41 AMReply

    What a great way to start off the weekend. Thank you for this great article. :)

  • Matt | June 18, 2011 6:08 AMReply

    I LOVE this article and enjoy reading it tremendously. Thank you so much. Great work!

  • rodie | June 18, 2011 4:44 AMReply

    I thought this was a great read and look forward to more posts like this by other directors. I would consider myself a Malick fan, but by no means an obsessive one. And I don't own any Malick films on Criterion, so I was new to a lot of this information. I still haven't been able to see Tree of Life because it's not playing in my town, but this post gave me just the right Malick fix.

  • Nik Grape | June 17, 2011 11:02 AMReply

    Yeah I knew most of this stuff too...but not all of it. And it was nicely written.

    The New World one is definitely the one I'm most anticipating though.

  • K. Bowen | June 17, 2011 11:02 AMReply

    I saw this recently as part of the Malick retrospectives, and while it has a few dips and Days of Heaven is smoother, The Thin Red Line has so many passages of sustained excellence it's freakish. I mean, like the whole first hour.

  • Castor | June 17, 2011 10:44 AMReply

    Absolutely fascinating read. Don't let the naysayers convince you otherwise.

  • The Playlist | June 17, 2011 10:38 AMReply


    I read that back in the day and even emailed Rachel recent, but no luck. I can't find a copy of it online.

    You don't happen to have, do you?

  • Hanka | June 17, 2011 10:36 AMReply

    As someone who's trying to make their way through the film production world, I really find all of these sort of posts to be absolutely fascinating. Behind the scenes production stories never cease to entertain me.

  • CC | June 17, 2011 10:32 AMReply

    Great work. Especially for clarifying exactly which actors were cut out and that there weren't 125 famous actors edited out of the final film. That rumor has been getting more and more elaborate over the years, and with Tree Of Life's release reached absurd proportions.

    Another superb Thin Red Line article fans of the film should seek out was in the January 1999 issue of "Premiere", titled "Welcome to The Jungle", by Rachel Abramowitz. She seems to have been one of the few journalists allowed to visit the set and actually be present during filming, and she qoutes Malick's directions to the actors several times.

  • Ryan | June 17, 2011 10:23 AMReply

    I enjoy reading these articles quite a bit so thank you Playlist. Looking forward to the New World's piece.

  • The Playlist | June 17, 2011 10:15 AMReply

    Well, we set out to do this: things you may or may not know about the MAKING of the film.

    That was the idea. So that's what we did. I collected tons of stuff for this piece and then filtered what I personally found interesting.

    Maybe on the frantisk blog you can discuss what you think is interesting?

    Personally, i just find this stuff much more interesting than my take on "movie itself" which would amount to the same review that's been written 4,0000 times.

    You sound like someone who knows this story well, so its probably dull for you, c'est la vie?

  • frantisk | June 17, 2011 10:10 AMReply

    I'm just saying, Thin Red Line is a pretty interesting movie, you guys could probably do something cool exploring the actual movie, rather than just rehashing the same "Terrence Malick is so eccentric...he shoots birds instead of actors!" type stuff.

    don't you think movie itself is a whole lot more interesting than casting gossip from 1999?

  • Edward Davis | June 17, 2011 10:03 AMReply

    There will be 12 more posts like this. Get ready.

  • frantisk | June 17, 2011 9:59 AMReply

    Just many more "Terrance Malick has unorthodox shooting methods and can be difficult to work with!" posts do you guys really need?

    that's literally the gist of every single Malick post you put up, why not try exploring something other than that?

  • Edward Davis | June 17, 2011 9:47 AMReply

    "what is this?" uhh, we're celebrating the release of Terrence Malick films -- as stated in the intro you dummy. Put some fruitjuice in your milk.

    "In the lead up to the wide release of Malick’s latest film, “The Tree of Life” (July 8 is the date), week by week, we’ve been getting reacquainted with his body of films and the behind-the-scenes making of each picture."

  • Kevin Jagernauth | June 17, 2011 9:44 AMReply

    Are you guys really so dense? Not everyone has time or even knows about this info. Congratulations, you guys are obsessive Malick nerds and you can now crow about it. But there are lots of people who haven't dug into the film or may not know some of this stuff (certainly some of this info was new to me). And we explain why we did the feature in the first place in the article.

    So if you already know, don't read and stop getting your panties in a twist each week.

  • frantisk | June 17, 2011 9:39 AMReply

    this would be a really interesting article, if it were 10 years ago, we didn't already have the criterion DVD, and the articles where you took all of your info hadn't already been published.

    seriously, what is this?

  • Jason | June 17, 2011 9:31 AMReply

    Thank u criterion for all this info.

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