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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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13. Billy Weber gave Malick an inspired piece of advice that he’s employed to this day.
Malick’s always wanted a near-silent film and his close collaborators know this all too well. “Days of Heaven” took two years because Weber and Malick were constantly “whittling away” at the dialogue scenes and those difficulties gave Weber an idea 20 years later. On the “Days of Heaven” Criterion DVD commentary, Weber recalled some sage advice he gave him that most Malick-philes knows he uses now constantly: shoot the scene once with dialogue and then the same once again without dialogue. "And so we did a lot of takes like that on [‘Thin Red Line’]. Because he and I both knew he would want the shot like that,” he said, but unfortunately, it does not speed up the editing process one bit. “No it doesn’t speed up the editing at all. As a matter of fact it slows it down, but it does allow for actors that aren’t very good to come off a lot better than they really are.”

14. The bootcamp for actors was was the real deal and tough.
"It was physical, it was dirty – no shower in a week in the bush, digging our own trenches and staying up half the night on lookout, it was the real thing,” actor Dash Mihok said on the Criterion extras. “But when you're sleeping eight guys in a tent with each other and it's freezing at night and and you had to cuddle up, you become pretty close."

Jim Caviezel even admitted that in a confused moment at night in the middle of a thundershower, he snuggled a bit too close to Adrien Brody. "He was like, ‘Jim, Jim, I'm not your wife!’,” he recalled on the DVD. “And I was like, ‘Sorry I think I kissed his ear or something, maybe I even bit it, I dunno."

The production itself was also punishing. The actors had to run uphill several times a day in disgusting hot temperatures as close to the camera as possible (to stay in focus) carrying 40 pounds of gear plus real machine guns that weighed 10 to 15 pounds. By the end of the day most of the actors were left exhausted and battered and bruised.

“Because of the [tall grass] you had no idea where your footing was, plus you had to dodge bodies or explosives,” Acevedo said on the DVD of the daily difficulties of just running around on set.

"You're constantly falling and your weapon is bumping into you. You have to match your distance in these shots and you cannot let up, you have to stay two feet from the lens otherwise focus goes out,” Mihok said. Plus there were other rather revolting obstacles.

“My uniform on this movie was never washed,” Mihok recalled on the DVD. “Every morning, you'd wake up at 4:30, it'd be freezing out, you'd drive an hour to set, get into the trailer and put on this gross tank top on. And they disinfected it, but they couldn't wash it for continuity reasons. It weighed about 20 lbs and it was [freezing] out and in this cold rotten ham thing and then you put the dirt all over your face and then it would all of a sudden turn to be 120 degrees out and you sweated all day and literally it became another weapon; you’re wearing 40 pounds of stank, greasy hot ham.”

15. Sean Penn had a say in the final editing of the film and perhaps it’s because he had Malick’s back.
“I can't speak to what secrets Terry has in his head, but when he would share certain things with me he would often end them with, 'loose lips sinks ships,'" Penn said vaguely on the Criterion DVD extras about the mysterious Malick. “Terry has a lot of secrets and if you're supportive of the director at some point you must be willing to support those secrets.”

Perhaps this is why the trusted ally had a special insight to the film that no other actor received. According to that informative 1999 EW article, Penn went through the movie frame by frame and suggested cuts to Malick and the director then trimmed about five minutes from the final picture.

“I went to that movie and saw something as surprising to me as it would have been to you or anybody seeing it who was not directly involved,” he said.

16. If you thought the production was difficult, wait til you hear about the behind-the-scenes drama that unfolded with producers
The tale of "The Thin Red Line" producers Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau is epic, ugly and well-documented. Chronicled deeply by both the Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly pieces (both are must-reads frankly), they tell an alleged (mostly one-sided) story of betrayal and deceit on the part of Terrence Malick (though do note: Malick doesn’t speak in interviews anymore so it’s only so balanced). The facts are this: Geisler and Roberdeau were banned from the set of “The Thin Red Line” and were banned from the Oscar ceremony; the EW writer was sent a damaging unsigned letter on ‘Thin Red Line’ stationery that called the producers “imposters and confidence men who have no connection with Mr. Malick…journalists should beware of letting these tricksters promote their own careers.” From all accounts they do seem to be the two people directly responsible for Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking, but their patience and endurance may have come at a heavy price (financially, spiritually and emotionally). "I didn't think he was capable of betrayal of this magnitude," they told EW. More facts: producer Mike Medavoy's attorneys declared them in breach of contract and threatened to remove their names from the film unless they agreed to do no future interviews until after the Academy Awards according to the Vanity Fair article. As the author of the article says, “we’ll probably never know the entire truth about this relationship.” One thing is certain: ugly is an understatement.

Here’s Mickey Rourke’s deleted scene and one with John C. Reilly.



“The Thin Red Line” by the numbers.
- It cost $52 million to make, grossed $36 million domestically and another $61 million internationally for a worldwide gross of $98.1 million.
- The film garnered seven Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best in Sound Mixing. It won none.
- It won the top prize Golden Bear at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival. Martin Scorsese ranked it as his second favorite film of the 1990s.
- Shooting began on June 23, 1997 for 100 days in Australia, 24 in the Solomon Islands, and 3 in the U.S.
- The editing team, starting with Leslie Jones, then Billy Weber and then Saar Klein, worked for 13 months in post, and the mix lasted four months.

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


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