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Terrence Malick Made An Enemy Out Of James Horner & 7 More Things We Learned About 'The New World'

by Gabe Toro
July 6, 2011 10:10 AM
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Christopher Plummer Didn't Care For His Ways Either

Even for a filmmaker known as someone who drastically skews perspectives and storytelling methods, obscuring his art while illuminating, Terrence Malick's “The New World” presents an unusual method of telling a familiar core story. With another filmmaker, we might simply get the straightforward tale of John Smith and Pocahontas, Malick sees the beginning of a unique and troubled union, not only between the star-crossed lovers, but between the spirits of two civilizations and their relationships with the land.

Characters make rash decisions in “The New World,” mostly for pride, some oblivious to their actual situation. But there’s an overwhelming natural curiosity that permeates the film, from the way the brook babbles to the sound of bare feet against leaves. In some ways, it is the best contemporary depiction of a topsy-turvy time in our history, when we were trying to find the middle ground between diplomacy and discovery. There is awe, not just at this new, seemingly-unfettered land, but in how our characters learn of their capacity to care. Considering the paucity of Thanksgiving-related programming, it’s a surprise “The New World” hasn’t become a seasonal tradition for those seeking reasons why we convene at that time in good faith.

"The Tree Of Life" expands into wide release on July 8th. To commemorate what, to many, is the year's biggest cinematic event, we've been taking a look back at each of Malick's previous films. We've already gone behind the scenes with "Badlands," taken a close look at "Days Of Heaven," discovered the world of "The Thin Red Line," and gone knee-deep into "The Tree Of Life." And now, a peek behind the curtain of "The New World."

1. Terrence Malick Demanded An Almost Fanatical Approach To Historical Accuracy
Just as Terrence Malick's vision for a film titled "Q" eventually morphed into the Palme d'Or winner that's currently in theaters, "The New World" was also something the director was thinking about decades ago. In fact, the script was completed in the late ‘70s. "I was pushing him for twenty years to do 'The New World.' I kept telling him, 'Do the Pocahontas one. That's the one,' " longtime editor Billy Weber said on the Criterion "Days of Heaven" DVD commentary, noting the script was ready after the completion of ‘Heaven.’ But as is Malick's wont, he let the project germinate and gestate, and one can only imagine how many variations of approaches he considered before finally settling on one that would embody as much historical accuracy as possible.

Malick’s eye for detail did not abandon him during “The New World,” but what’s fascinating about his process is the relation between the reality of time and place and the mythical attributes that are his trademark aesthetic. Production took place in James City, County Virginia, less than ten miles away from the original events that inspired the film. To capture the atmosphere, the production hosted an intensive extras camp for all the native actors to teach them how stand, move, act and speak like natives would have 400 years ago.

Teaching the cast the Powhaten dialect was also no idle feat. "It's completely unusual that a language that ceased to be spoken is going to be revived for the purposes of a film, in order to bring the authenticity of having the people speak the language that was really being spoken here,” Blair Rhuds, the on-set Algonquian translator noted on the BluRay. “This film is making a great deal of effort to be as authentic as possible in terms of representing the native people of historic Virginia."

The emphasis on accuracy also made a deeply positive impression on Chief Robert Green, who heads the Patawomeck Tribe, and who offered some unique help to the production free of charge. "I was very honored in June [of 2004] to be invited to a meeting with the production staff and other chiefs in Virginia, to simply review what the movie was going to be about and how it was it was going to be presented,” said Green. “And during our discussions, they expressed some concern to me that they were having difficulty finding some wild turkey feathers and deer antlers for the purposes of costume construction. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of friends that are very good hunters and at that time I had about twelve boxes of wild turkey feathers and sixty to seventy sets of antlers in my shed. [Costume designer] Jackie [West] so impressed me with the research and the honesty that she was attempting to portray, that I offered to give them to her so that the costumes could be as authentic as possible to ensure that our people would be accurately represented."

Malick even went to the trouble of finding the precise species of bird that inhabited the region during the settlers’ journeys. According to a piece in Reverse Shot, a researcher was ordered by Malick to fill the picture’s soundscape with the sounds of only the types of birds that could have existed there during that period. Those recordings wound up providing the majority of the film’s soundtrack.

However, for some of the actors, all this preparation was academic as much of their education was snipped from the film. Wes Studi was one of the actors tasked with modifying and altering the language to make it sound authentic, but, as usual for Malick, a lot of that hit the cutting room floor."I have to tell you I'm a bit disappointed that so much of that particular re-invented language wasn't used in the film because there’s a lot of dialogue missing from this theatrical release...," Studi told About. "A lot of effort was put into the re-creation of this language, as well as...around the Indian community, it was touted as having a lot to do with that language and the use of it."

2. The Seal Of Approval From Native Americans Was Imperative
Producer Sarah Green insisted that the production gain the approval of nearby tribes. "We invited the chiefs and assistant chiefs and representatives of the native tribes in all of West Virginia to come and see what we were doing and participate as much as they liked," says Green on BluRay. “And we had wonderful, wonderful participation from several of them."

But initially, the production didn’t win over all the significant parties. "In April 2004 ... I became aware that there will be a film production company in Virginia that would be filming a [feature] length movie called 'The New World,'“ said Chief Stephen R. Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe. “My initial reaction to the term 'New World' was one of, 'Hey, what's new about it, we've been here 15,000 years' and it really rubbed me wrong that the title of this movie would be 'New World.' So it started out on the wrong foot. I did in fact talk with Terry Malick and he said I think you'll be pleased with the twist we put on the title 'New World.'"

Some of the tribe members got to be extras and players in the film, but it became a struggle between fidelity to the project and honor to their background.

"I had a hair issue,” said Anthony Parker, a local extra from the Omaha tribe. “I didn't want to cut my hair because for my tribe and our beliefs, we only cut our hair when someone close to us dies. I kind of had to do some soul searching about it, but I had to realize who I was representing here and it does the Algonquin people and the does them justice. It's kind of like a tribute to them."

Producer Sarah Green confirmed the follicle issue with many cast members. "The Patawomeck Indians of that day shaved their head right down the middle and would take off one whole side,” she said. “This had a very practical application which had to do with their long hair not interfering with their bow and arrow, and it defined their tribal look. I don't think any of us had realized what a personal sacrifice this was going to be."

3. Q'orianka Kilcher Had No Idea Who Colin Farrell & Christian Bale Were
Casting for a Malick picture is never a straightforward process. Though producers labored in finding the ideal Pocahontas to stand up to John Smith and company, their eventual choice, Q'orianka Kilcher, proved to be a boon, as she projected both an earthy beauty and natural intelligence that made her character compellingly watchable.

"The great challenge of this movie was finding an actress to play Pocahontas,” confirms producer Sarah Green on the BluRay. “We searched for eight months starting in Virginia, moving throughout the United States and North America and eventually through the whole world. It was only in the last month that our casting director -- who was also casting for a different project in a very different sort of role -- noticed the headshot of Q'orianka Kilcher who had been living in Los Angeles this whole time. We happened to be doing a camera test so we said 'Oh come, stand in front of this 35mm camera with no makeup and just [be] yourself, and see what happens.' And I tell you, when we screened that footage, she just jumped off the screen at us."

Some of that footage is on the extensive "Making Of" documentary on "The New World" BluRay, and it is definitely quite stirring; if Malick was searching for someone who would project the wide-eyed innocence the character needed, he couldn't have done much better than Kilcher. For starters, she hadn't seen any of his films (not surprising given her age), and didn't really seek them out until after filming was over, telling Cinematical, "I watched 'The Thin Red Line'; I tried to track down [Malick's] other movies ('Days of Heaven' and 'Badlands'), but they didn't have them at Blockbuster…I'm really looking forward to watching 'Badlands.'"

Moreover, she didn't get the fuss her friends were making about her hunky co-stars. “You know, I didn’t know who [Colin Farrell] was before. When I got on set of course everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re working with Colin Farrell and Christian Bale!’ [Farrell] was really wonderful, a very giving actor and he was like my older brother in a way," Kilcher told About. "He took me under his wing and he taught me so much in acting and [was] very supportive. And Christian Bale and Wes Studi and Augi Schellenberg, they were all so good at what they did and it was such an honor for me. I felt so lucky just to be on set being able to watch all these actors work.”

But when it came to the task at hand, Kilcher had just as much, if not more homework than her new colleagues saying, "I learned the entire script in a perfect British accent. Then, strip that away for the first 60 pages and learn Algonquin, and I actually made myself learn Algonquin because that’s her native language so I really would know what I was saying. And then strip half of the Algonquin away and then do different stages of Algonquin mixed with English. So that was definitely very challenging."

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  • Savanna | July 12, 2011 4:39 AMReply

    James Horner has talent but he recycles so much of his music that there are unintentional references to other movies in many of his scores, very distracting and in a movie like this unforgivable. Better to have left all his music out than to have a quote from Braveheart in the middle of the movie.

  • K. Bowen | July 8, 2011 9:01 AMReply

    Oh, and the finale of this movie is one of the great five to ten minutes ever shot .... and scored.

  • K. Bowen | July 8, 2011 8:59 AMReply

    Horner is an idiot.

    It doesn't surprise me at all that he was replaced by Wagner, et al.

    Malick has always moved around the score. He did it with Morricone's score on Days of Heaven. How'd that work out?

  • Pah shu akah o wah | July 8, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    Viewing from the point of perspective of one of Dakota blood, one sees how Europeans could have learned so much from us, and chose to consider us inferior, it's no wonder we now suffer from global warming, and are tied to foreign oil. We lived with nature, wasted nothing, and spoiled nothing. This film shows how beautiful our lives were, John Smith's actual writings echo this.

  • Perra Hosney | February 20, 2012 11:01 PM

    Yes so beautiful but almost unbearably sad.

  • MDL | July 7, 2011 5:41 AMReply

    It's so interesting to read about all these egos working with Malick. He goes his own way but a few people who work with him never figure that out. So naturally they complain. But, man, the results are often great. Wong kar-wai is the same.

  • carrie | July 7, 2011 5:13 AMReply

    i dislike Farrell in this movie,his acting may be good but he has a "rock&roll; " vibe who doesn't work with his character
    the story with Plummer and Horner is interesting

  • cirkusfolk | July 7, 2011 4:10 AMReply

    Am I the only one that agrees with Horner? If you are gonna hire a composer and actually want his/her music to be integral to the film, they should have as much access to your vision as possible. You shouldn't change the film and scenes around and not tell them, and then cut up the music which was composed specific to the scenes and throw it anywhere you want including the cutting room floor. This will most definately not make for a good patnership. Imagine if Chris Nolan did this with Hans Zimmer. No, they work together to achieve the perfect synthesis. If I recall, Hans Zimmer had a similar problem with The Thin Red Line. He composed over three times the amount of music that was actually used. And what he did score wasn't even put to the same images he scored the music to. Sure the director has final creative say, but comon, let them do the job you hired them for.

    And I wouldn't knock Horner if I were you. He made the best score of all time in my opinion with Legends of the Fall. Then has done outstanding work like Glory, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Field of Dreams, Enemy at the Gates, Titanic etc.

  • actionman | July 7, 2011 2:16 AMReply

    the financial backers of The Tree of Life have all already been paid.

  • BuntyHoven | July 7, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    Malick fans will appreciate this:

    I laughed out loud several times.

  • Edward Davis | July 7, 2011 2:05 AMReply

    Annoying is Malick-ites assuming Horner, Plummer and anyone around this genius is wrong. I adore his films, but from all the evidence around he sounds like a bit of a nightmare to work for. But maybe if you know what you're getting into it's not so bad.

  • Kelly | July 7, 2011 2:01 AMReply

    It is an incredible film...Not like anything else and it kind of creeps up on you...Horner was wrong, the Mozart and Wagner belong to that picture much more than his score.

  • Glass | July 7, 2011 1:46 AMReply

    A good movie, but WTF is with that 1990s-History Channel opening credit sequence? That put the audience right to sleep when I first saw it.

    I don't mean that in a sort of "blow something up in the first five minutes or you'll lose your audience" kind of way. I mean, what a bland and distracting choice that was. Didn't fit the rest of the picture at all. Again, a good movie, but my least favorite of his.

  • James | July 7, 2011 1:42 AMReply

    It would appear Horner simply didn't understand Malick's use of music because it's unconventional. Alexandre Desplat had no such problems working with Malick, or with having much of his score left unused. He realized what an honor it was to have any of his music in a film by such an artist. An infinitely more intelligent man than Horner, it would seem.

  • James | July 7, 2011 1:40 AMReply

    I think the 150 min cut is far and away the best. I saw it in theaters twice. A shame it's the most difficult to see now. The only commercial releases of it were as a bonus Digital Copy download with the theatrical cut DVD in the US and as part of an OOP Italian DVD set including both the 150 min and 135 min cuts.

    To me the 135 min cut takes all the bad reviews to heart and makes the film overly literal and simplistic. The altered voiceover is a mistake, and one of the key shots of the film - the Inuit girl dancing on the beach in Greenland towards the end, who looks just like Pocahontas - is deleted. The loss of that one shot ruins the whole movie for me. The look on Farrell's face as he watches her, realizing everything he left behind and can never recapture, was the soul of the film. Malick at least restored that shot for the final version.

    The 172 min cut, on the other hand, rambles all over the place and introduces bizarre jump cuts in many scenes that weren't there in either earlier cut. It's the closest to the 150 min version though, so definitely better than the 135 min cut.

  • The Playlist | July 7, 2011 1:26 AMReply

    Thanks to @ rotch for giving us the head's up about Plummer. Had read that before, but had totally forgotten about it. We added it to this piece just after it published. Thanks again.

  • BuntyHoven | July 7, 2011 1:10 AMReply

    Horner's comments are bizarre. Malick is among the best users of music in film. And the Wagner piece that he badmouths plays over some of the most memorable sequences.

    I've listened to a fair amount of Horner's score, and aside from quite a nice love theme, it's not particularly good. It wouldn't surprise me if Malick just didn't like Horner's score and that's why he didn't use much of it.

  • starway2001 | July 6, 2011 12:20 PMReply

    Trust me. Tree of Life's financial backers aren't skipping and whistling over that $27M haul.

  • Erik | July 6, 2011 12:03 PMReply

    James Horner sounds like a dick and someone with a very narrow view on what a movie should be.

  • actionman | July 6, 2011 11:37 AMReply

    James Horner sounds like a MEGA-TOOL.

  • rotch | July 6, 2011 11:15 AMReply

    @ Daniel

    He unleashed 'my heart will go on' to the world.

    I kid, I like many of Horner's scores.

  • Daniel | July 6, 2011 11:09 AMReply

    Rotch - what did James Horner do to you?

  • dudu | July 6, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    I've re-evaluated the film a great deal after watching the extended cut. It's an excellent film, and a wonderful portrait of a woman.

  • rotch | July 6, 2011 10:26 AMReply

    Any enemy of James Horner is a friend of mine.

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