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 Powhaten...it 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."