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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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7. Actually there was a 3rd unnamed cinematographer who worked on the film as well.
"What people don't know is that a year later we shot for about two weeks with neither of these guys (Almendros or Wexler) involved,” Richard Gere said on the DVD extras, not naming who he was talking about. “But a lot of the movie was done in those two weeks we shot later."

Jacob Brackman is credited as the second unit director but Paul Ryan was the second unit DP who shot all the nature footage in Montana (principal production took place in Alberta, Canada), so it’s possible he was the cinematographer in question. Though surely any Malick scholar would likely tell you that Gere’s “a lot of the movie was done in those two weeks” claim is overstated. Someone have Weber or Fisk’s phone number?

Interestingly enough, Ryan’s 2nd unit shooting was “all secret,” according to Weber. “No one knew he was shooting. Néstor had no idea Paul was shooting anything.” Why was it kept secret? “It was a union thing,” he said. [Producer] Harold [Schneider] was concerned about it.”

8. In the script, “Days of Heaven” was a dialogue-heavy, emotionally rich piece of work and Richard Gere was unpleasantly surprised that the final cut was very, very different.
Gere admitted that at the time he was upset much of his work didn't make it into the final product.

"[‘Days of Heaven’] ended up being a much more silent movie than the original script which was very much a full, normal kind of script,” he said. “In the end Terry was as interested in watching the ducks in the water as he was in us walking down the road. And I think a dramaturgical approach – which was what we shot and what was in the script – ultimately, it just felt too normal and easy for him.”

Malick had a greater ambition that was at the expense of the words he wrote and the acting. “The game he was playing was much more elusive than that,” Gere said. “From an acting point of view, we had done a lot of intense work in it that no one will ever see, but at the same time, it is an extraordinary film that we're all proud of."

9. Malick originally wanted John Travolta for the lead role that Gere would eventually get. No, really.
It’s a relatively little-known fact (depending on how big a Terrence Malick fan you are) that the director wanted John Travolta for the lead. This is confirmed and discussed on the Criterion DVD. “Richard was cast when John Travolta fell out of the picture,” Weber said. Diane Crittenden, the casting director said, speaking on behalf of Malick,"He just felt like [Travolta] was very real, that he had the qualities, that blue-collar kind of quality that he wanted, and he worked very, very hard to try and make it work out, even giving up all his points in the film to [producer] Aaron Spelling,” she said. “He was producing 'Welcome Back Kotter' and telling him that he would let John Travolta travel back for those couple days, that they would need him for [‘Kotter’]. And it was a no go, they just wouldn't do it. And so we knew we weren't going to get John and sort of had to go looking for someone else pretty quickly," Crittenden said on the Criterion DVD.

Even then, Malick went on with casting for over a year trying to match specific actors with other complimentary actors. "Terry can't make a decision anyhow. This went on forever," Gere laughed. “I surprised him and said, ‘Look I can't do this anymore so you need to make a decision.’ ”

Losing Travolta was once rumored to be the reason why Malick left filmmaking for 20 years, that he was so heartbroken that he could not get his lead actor. However, like most Terrence Malick legends, there seems little foundation in provable fact. Note, in Peter Biskind’s book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” he contends that Malick tried and failed to get Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino to star in the film, but the details on that are also very thin.

Sidenote: Casting director Diane Crittenden initially wanted Tommy Lee Jones for Shepard’s part, but what Malick liked the most about Shepard was “that he was really unknown as an actor – and he’s not an actor, he’s a playwright,” she said (Malick also let Shepard write one scene). “So he liked the honesty of [Sam’s] character.” She also mentioned that Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold (De Palma's "Obsession,” Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers”) was also someone they looked at closely for the lead before they chose Brooke Adams.

10. Years later Travolta would swear his absence in "Days Of Heaven" was the reason Malick abandoned film for 20 years.
Why did Malick vanish without a trace? ''That's easy,'' Travolta told EW in an 1999 interview. ''He hired me for 'Heaven,' I couldn't do it, it broke his heart, and he never wanted to do a movie again. It was the most romantic notion I'd ever heard.'' It sounds like an absolutely absurd notion perhaps one brought on by ego, but Travolta swears by it. ''He cried and cried,'' Travolta recalled. ''I looked at him and thought, 'Well, I feel bad, but I'm going to get over this. He's claiming he'll never get over this. He will. It's a matter of time.'' ' Travolta even says he revisited the issue with Malick several times, in fact every time he saw him. ''If I asked him once, I asked him five times, 'Was it really that?''' Travolta said. ''Terry always said, 'Yep. There was something about how Hollywood worked that [casting issue] that made me feel unsafe about doing movies.' He marches to his own drum. I'm still not sure what drum it is, but I like it.''

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


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