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Terrence Malick Wanted John Travolta & 15 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Days of Heaven'

The Playlist By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist June 9, 2011 at 8:01AM

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.
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2. Richard Gere didn’t adjust easily to Terrence Malick’s unorthodox methods.
"I don't know how equipped he was to lead actors, or anyone,” Gere said in a Criterion interview extra devoted to his work and his perspective on the film. “I think he had a really good idea, in the broad sense, of what he wanted and what he wanted it to look like, feel like, but I don't know that he knew the exact specifics, he wasn't that kind of a filmmaker. Because he was relatively new to directing, as I recall he didn't really know how to talk to an actor the way a theater director does, so that led to some frustration from the actor's point of view. It would be like, 'do it again,' and hopefully you would come up with something he liked, but it could be deeply frustrating, but that's just how Terry works and it worked for him."

Gere does sound petulant. In a Village Voice interview with his co-star Sam Shepard, a proponent of Malick's working style, Shepard said, "And then the notorious shot of Richard Gere falling face first into the river -- that was shot in a big aquarium in Sissy Spacek [and Jack Fisk]'s living room. They had to convince Richard to do this -- he said, 'Are you crazy?' Terry begged him."

Pretty much every key member of the team can attest to the near-revolt that was brewing within the crew. "There was a lot of griping from the Hollywood crews," Weber said on the DVD. "I remember the electricians being really ticked off because they had nothing to light and they built hammocks in the electrical trucks for taking naps," art director Patricia Norris said on the same commentary track.

"The camera crew didn't really [understand] what Terry was doing,” said Weber. “Besides Néstor, who was fantastic and whose attitude was great, (he was wonderful with Terry) the rest of the camera crew were all from L.A.. Néstor never met them, he couldn't bring his crew from France and they were pretty obstinate and didn't like the way Terry shot.”

“I remember someone [complaining and] saying, ‘It wasn’t like this on ‘El Cid,’ Fisk laughed.

3.The production began to run more smoothly once Néstor Almendros left the picture and American cinematographer Haskell Wexler assumed the duties of the Director of Photography.
Almendros described the atmosphere on set in his autobiography saying, "["Days of Heaven" was] not a rigidly prepared film. Many interesting ideas developed as we went along. This left room for improvisation and allowed us to take advantage of circumstances. Call sheets were not very detailed, the schedule was changed to suit the weather and also our frame of mind. This disoriented some of the Hollywood crew who were not used to improvisation and complained,” he said.

Haskell Wexler had an easier time with the camera crews, who clearly didn't care for Almendros' unorthodox style that was much closer to what they viewed to be Malick’s 'chaotic' vision. "[Wexler] worked better with the camera department. They respected him more, they understood him and he had [already] been in the system," Fisk said. "[Wexler already] had a reputation when he came to us," Norris said of the built-in admiration the technical crew had for the new DP.

Apparently, there was also some hope from the producers that Wexler would be able to push the falling-behind-schedule film through to finish. "They thought I would crack the whip," Wexler said on the DVD in an extra dedicated to his work on the film (Almendros passed away in 1992). Producers and crew also thought that maybe Wexler could give everyone working on the film a little more cohesion than there seemed to be before his entrance.

“Terry asked me to do a lot of things at which I had to suppress my laughter,” Wexler admitted in the Malick documentary, "Rosy-Fingered Dawn." I remember I did a shot of, I think it was supposed to be a wolf running up the hill. I didn't know what the hell ... I didn't know what was on his mind. But I did begin to see that he sees connection… between life, between animals, growth, between the land, and I guarantee he would never say any of this to me, but this was some of the subconscious messages that I got when I was with him.”

4. Malick and Almendros became BFFs, above and beyond the shooting of “Days of Heaven.”
When Haskell Wexler came on board, “that made [the production] easier [for the crew] and he seemed to work well with Terry, but Terry loved Néstor," Jack Fisk said in the Criterion commentary. “He was ok," Weber amended of Wexler's relationship with Malick, "But Terry loved Néstor."

According to Weber, who visited Malick in his “wilderness” days in Paris, he was actually living in Néstor’s third floor apartment. “It was a nice place, on the left bank, it wasn’t fancy at all. He lives like a monk; frugally and quiet.” Unfortunately, Malick didn't make a film again for 20 years (stay tuned for our feature on the films Malick worked on that never came to fruition) and since Almendros passed away in 1992 of AIDS-related illness, according to IMDB, the two never had the opportunity to work together again.

This article is related to: Classic Films , Feature, Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven