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

Photo of Rodrigo Perez 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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11. As Gere suggests, Malick’s original screenplay (like almost all of them) was originally much more dense, but he cut down the dialogue in the editing room.
As mentioned before, many were shocked to see the final cut of the film in which there's almost no dialogue, rather a series of images and wordless situations. Malick spent two years cutting the film with Billy Weber, so much time that the Truffaut film that Néstor Almendros left to shoot actually came out before “Days of Heaven.”

"He got bored with his writing and our acting and started to see another movie in there, but I didn't know that," Gere explained on the Criterion edition. "We shot a much more richly verbal movie, with much more high emotions, much more dramatic. And when I came to loop the movie and I saw that it wasn't that, I clearly was not too happy about that because all of us could have saved a lot of brain cells in the process."

“That’s why it took so long to cut the movie, why it was two years later,” Weber said. “Because we were always whittling away at the dialogue. It was a learning process for both of us that we could tell the story with a minimum amount of dialogue.”

Even Malick's collaborators were initially shocked by the huge discrepancy between what was filmed and what ended up on the screen. "I felt overwhelmed, because I didn't know those changes would be there, that there would be so little dialogue, and that there would be a voice-over," Diane Crittenden said. "So the first time you saw it, it was very jarring. But the more I thought about it, the better it seemed to work."

12. Editor Billy Weber says ‘Days of Heaven’ was the most difficult of all of Terrence Malick’s film to cut.
While there was only 100,000 feet of film compared to the 1.1 million feet of film shot on “The Thin Red Line,” by then Malick and Weber had honed their process (even if it was 20 years later). On “Days of Heaven,” they were just finding their way in this new style that would similarly apply to all of Malick’s films that followed. According to Weber on the DVD they didn't have anything they thought was working well until about 75%-80% of the way into editing “I remember we had a screening and I remember thinking, ‘we nailed it,’” he said, reliving the relief. “But it was a tough one. This was the one movie that was really… we just felt sick all the time, we didn’t know if we were going to make it through to the end.”

13. According to some, however, Malick knew he wasn’t going to stick to the script.
Again on the DVD, Sam Shepard, making his film debut in “Days of Heaven,” (unless you count his small part in Bob Dylan’s still-unreleased “Renaldo and Clara”) claimed to have known that the script was eventually going to be thrown out. "Terry told me very early on that he wanted to make a silent movie. He didn't want dialogue and I knew what he meant -- dialogue in some ways engaged the audience too much. He wanted almost a voyeuristic thing from the audiences, to witness the image. And the dialogue interfered with that because it engages, that's the function of dialogue – it pulls you in.”

14. Linda Manz’s voice-over was largely ad-libbed and edited down from 60 hours worth of recordings.
Many people have wondered where the voice-over came from, as it wasn't part of the original script and wasn't recorded on set to anyone's knowledge. Apparently much of it was made up of Linda Manz's own ad-libbed thoughts that Malick would record on the fly. The opening train-sequence voice-over was taken from an apocalyptic bible story that she had been read the night before by the people she was staying with. The next day she told Malick her version of those events and he incorporated that into the movie. She had trouble remembering lines and/or people's names and would call the actors by their real names during shooting so Malick then changed the names of the characters to ABC -- Abby, Bill and Chuck -- so the teenage Manz would remember. They recorded a whopping 60 hours of Linda's voice-over, and there's about 15 minutes in the film. "All that stuff is Linda’s own mind. It was very hard to script stuff for her, “ Weber said. “We'd show Linda the scene and ask her, 'What just happened in the scene?' and she'd talk about it and a lot of that became her voice-over."


15. Malick and Billy Weber had cut the film to the temp music of Ennio Morricone's score for Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900."
Another of the great triumphs of the film alongside the photography is the score by legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone that evokes the pastoral landscape and the universal emotions of unrequited love. What some people don't know, though, is that the score rarely appears in the places Morricone intended it to be. Though in many ways that was ok with the musician.

"We sent [Morricone] a copy of the movie with the music of "1900" in it,” Billy Weber recalled on the Criterion commentary track. “And he [agreed to score the film], and then Terry flew to Italy (Morricone didn't fly at this time). Morricone was writing for it the whole time, and they scored it in Italy.”

Perhaps in working together, the composer got a glimpse of what Malick’s process would eventually be. “Just before Terry left, Morricone said a wonderful thing to him, 'You can put the music I wrote for your movie anywhere you want in the picture. There's only one piece of music I don't want you to move, and that's the music for the wheat fire.' And Terry agreed and that actually is the only piece of music that is where it was written for." Weber said.

16. While "Days of Heaven" was met with mixed reviews and only marginal box office at the time, Paramount studio chief Charles Bluhdorn loved it and allowed Malick to continue developing movies at the studio.
"Charles Bluhdorn loved the movie," Weber said on the DVD. "He thought Terry was a great artist and would have given Terry anything." "He could have made any movie he wanted," Patricia Norris, the film's costume designer, added.

"[Bludorn] said in front of me, 'I don't care if your movies ever make a nickel; you'll always make movies for me," Weber recalled. Unfortunately for Malick, Bluhdorn died of a heart attack in 1983 when Malick had moved to Paris to work on "Q" (a project that would turn out to be the beginnings of "The Tree of Life") and other films, some of which Paramount funded (the studio had allegedly given him a $1 million-dollar-plus stipend to write and develop his projects). Deeper into the 1980s, Paramount eventually lost patience with Malick's slow-moving process and pulled the plug on further funds when no new films materialized.

17. While prevalent throughout, the legendary use of natural light and “magic hour” lensing may have been somewhat overstated.
On the Criterion DVD, camera operator John Bailey undercuts the legend somewhat. "It's not true we didn't use lights. The interiors almost always had lights,” he said. “There were a number of scenes that were done under cover of shade or inside a barn that had a north light, a soft light that remained constant. But anytime you see an extended scene where you have a dramatic light coming in like a window or something like that there, in order to maintain the continuity of that light you have to use an artificial light because the sun is constantly moving." This may be due to the fact that, according to Weber and Fisk on the commentary, Wexler shot all the interiors save for one scene.

Editor Billy Weber also admitted on the same DVD that the "magic hour" filming wasn't exactly set in stone. "If you shoot on overcast, cloudy days, you can then make it look like magic hour just in the color timing, so a lot of the movie, whenever it was overcast, we'd shoot," Weber said. There's no question that one of the movie's strengths is its look, but you can never underestimate the power of Hollywood magic.

"The fire was shot actually as it was. It was real fire," Almendros said in "Masters of Light." "No enhancing, no nothing. In fact, if you light fire you spoil it. We did some tests, of course, and we saw that it looked better without any 'enhancement.'"

He added, "For [the campfire scene], we used propane bottles with burners to simulate the light of the fire. We lit it exactly as we would with electric light, only we used a flame instead. And of course that made the gaffers, the grips and the prop men unhappy. No one knew whose job it was to handle the propane." This sort of misunderstanding would just be one of many that would cause bad feelings between the cast and crew on the one side, and Malick and Almendros on the other, for the remainder of the production.

“Days of Heaven” by the numbers (all according to the DVD).
• The film cost approximately $3 million to make. Its domestic gross was $3.4 million
• It took almost two years to edit and there was only four weeks of pre-production.
• 60 hours of voice over was recorded.
• Shot in Alberta, Canada, production began in the fall of 1976. By Almendros' count there were 54 days of shooting, though some put it at 9 weeks (63 days) just for Almendros shooting alone. It was released in the U.S on September 13, 1978
• The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including costume design, sound, original score and cinematography which resulted in Néstor Almendros' only Oscar win, out of four nominations during his career.

"Days of Heaven" is available on DVD, and we recommend picking up the Criterion edition as there's a lot more commentary to go around, including more video and audio interviews with the cast and crew. Sorry, folks, but there are no interviews with Malick on here as he prefers to stay private, though what we wouldn't give to hear his take on the production of "Days of Heaven." - Rodrigo Perez with contributions by Catherine Scott

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


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