While many directors worry about the sophomore slump, Terrence Malick might be remembered most for his second film, "Days of Heaven." The film stars Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as a lovestruck young couple in early 1900s Texas. After Bill, Gere's character, kills his boss, the couple and Bill's sister Linda (Linda Manz) flee. While looking for work they stumble upon an idyllic farm run by a sickly, yet kind farmer played by Sam Shepard. When the farmer falls in love with Abby, played by Adams, Bill convinces her to enter into a sham marriage with him in the hopes he’ll die soon and leave them his considerable wealth. As one could guess, things go awry when Abby develops conflicting feelings of affection for the farmer.
This film is instrumental in understanding Malick's career for several reasons. "Days of Heaven" is an artistic leap forward from the more traditional “Badlands” and garnered major awards consideration, including four Oscar nominations and a win for Néstor Almendros for Best Cinematography (more on this later). Malick also won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, which should have catapulted him into the position of being one of the most desirable directors of his day. The movie also established Malick as a director interested in the visual and the abstract rather than the expository, creating narrative through a series of images rather than dialogue; something that would mark the rest of his cinematic career and would perhaps be pushed to its zenith in the recent “The Tree of Life.” Astonishingly, Malick had created his unique style of storytelling in only two films. Most importantly, perhaps, this film is the one in which Malick's eccentricities as a director became apparent, as the production was fraught with drama, so much so that Malick waited almost 20 years to direct his next movie "The Thin Red Line" (though why he disappeared for 20 years still seems to have no, one specific answer; much like the questions his films often raise). Perhaps these difficulties are what have led Malick to shun the public limelight so desperately that he wasn't even on hand to accept his Palme d'Or award for "The Tree of Life" at the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks ago.
In the lead up to the national release of “The Tree of Life,” week-by-week, we’re getting reacquainted with the films of Terrence Malick. We tackled the visionary filmmaker's latest effort, "The Tree Of Life," and two weeks ago we tracked his debut, "Badlands." Now we've got plenty of nuggets on his transformative "Days of Heaven." Additionally, here's our feature on "The New World" and "The Thin Red Line."
1. It was nearly a crew revolt from almost Day One, as Terrence Malick and Néstor Almendros boldly indulged in their experimental techniques.
"They didn't know what he was doing," Richard Gere said about the “Days of Heaven” crew on the audio interview recorded for the Criterion Collection DVD which was released in 2007. "There was a lot of mutiny about him and they were grumbling how he was setting back [film] 20 years."
"He not only allowed me to do what I wanted – which was to use hardly any studio lighting in this period film – but he encouraged me," Almendros said in his 1984 autobiography "Man with a Camera. This fruitful collaboration would work wonders for Almendros and Malick (more on this later) – but not so much for the rest of the crew.
Some people, mainly his long-time collaborators, were down with the freewheeling, as-it-happens creative approach. "Terry's completely unpredictable, you never know what he's going to shoot,” legendary production designer Jack Fisk said on the Criterion DVD commentary. “Part of it keeps all of us on our toes and lends a certain excitement. I think it helps the actors too because they get in a routine of a performance in a certain way and then the environment changes and their reading changes.”
Others were less charitable, and Malick’s now-legendary indecisiveness coupled with his spontaneous “now-let's-shoot-this!” creative bursts would irritate those crew members in front of and behind the camera who liked to actually plan things.
"The [crew] were accustomed to a glossy style of photography,” Almendros recalled in his biography."They felt frustrated because I gave them so little work. Day after day I would ask them to turn [off all the lights] they had prepared for me. This annoyed them; some of them began openly saying that we didn't know what we were doing, that were weren't 'professional.'"
Malick didn’t care, and when he saw the footage of what he and Almendros were doing, it emboldened the director to even go further in this direction. "He didn't know what he was getting away with until he saw the footage," longtime Malick editor and associate Billy Weber (he’s worked on every one of his pictures) said on the Criterion DVD. "He was guessing that he could push the limits of the film stock the way he did, but then when he saw he was right he realized he could get away with murder and shoot with no light.”