Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick knew this when he worried aloud and said in his last interview in the 1970s, "From this point on. I'm being watched. That could trip me up.” Malick wasn’t referring to detectives -- though cinephiles possibly could have used some in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This was in reference to critics, audiences and studios coming to the realization that after “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” Malick was possibly the most important American filmmaker alive.
Such existential worries, plus studio pressures on the project “Q” forced Malick to fly the coop, pulling one of cinema’s greatest disappearing acts, one that would last 20 years. “I think the more applause he got, the more frightened he got,” screenwriter pal Bill Witliff said of Malick’s departure in a 1995 Los Angeles magazine interview. “I knew he wasn't long for this business,” producer Don Simpson, who’d hung out with Malick on "Days of Heaven," said in the same article. “He never loved the movies - he was more the philosopher.”
But longtime editor Billy Weber, who has worked on every Malick film to date, said the vacation was never meant to be two decades long. “He just got waylaid for 20 years,” he said on the “Days of Heaven” commentary track for Criterion. Furthermore, ideas that Malick was reciting poetry, painting or had called it quits were dead wrong. He was working throughout the entire period and wrote several screenplays. “Terry's continually working, He has a project he's been working on for 30 years and he just doesn’t talk about it,” Jack Fisk said on the same commentary track, likely referring to “Q” or what became “The Tree of Life.”
Some are positive they know why Malick vanished from the film industry so suddenly and mysteriously. ''That's easy,'' John Travolta said, not exactly modestly, in a 1999 EW article about “The Thin Red Line.” ''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.'' Others closer to his inner circle claim to know the answer as well, but they’re not saying. “I know why he left, but that’s just for us,” Billy Weber said in the 1999 Premiere article “Welcome to the Jungle.” Frankly, anyone keeping silent probably has more knowledge than those speaking out of turn.
But whatever the case was, and it was likely a confluence of several issues, conflicts and problems rather than one just quote-worthy talking point that would satisfy the public, Terrence Malick was not idle in his 20 years away from directing films. “The Tree of Life” went into wide release last Friday and leading up to the release we’ve been tracking the films of Terrence Malick and all their behind-the-scenes happenings, from his debut, “Badlands,” his prairie-set drama, "Days of Heaven," his triumphant return 20 years later with the WWII epic, "The Thin Red Line," the Pocahontas picture, "The New World," right through to his most recent film, the metaphysical and spiritual 'Tree of Life.' In our final installment in this series, we chart everything in between: the unpublished screenplays and unmade projects of Terrence Malick.
“Sansho the Bailiff”
While the popular myth is that Terrence Malick simply disappeared between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line,” as always, the truth is a bit more blurry. He continued to write screenplays and two projects had progressed considerably: “The English Speaker” (which we’ll get to below) and “Sansho the Bailiff,” developed by entrepreneurial producers Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau. Malick had first met Geisler way back in 1978 when the budding producer offered him the gig of directing an adaptation of David Rabe’s play, “In The Boom Boom Room.” While he turned that down, the two then worked on a film about 19th Century freakshow attraction Joseph Merrick but that too was scuttled once David Lynch delivered “The Elephant Man” on the same subject.
A decade later, Geisler reconnected with Malick, with Roberdeau in tow, with an offer for the helmer to tackle an adaptation of D.M. Thomas’ novel “The White Hotel.” Malick countered with a proposal to direct Molière’s “Tartuffe,” but eventually they agreed on “The Thin Red Line” (and you can read about how that all went down right here).
While Malick got to work on “The Thin Red Line” under a loose contract that afforded him many opportunities to leave, the producers knew they had to do something to stay in contact with the director. “It was important that we find a way to remain in continual touch with Terry,” Geisler told Vanity Fair. “The best way to do that was to commission him to develop another project.” They enticed the director to write a stage play based on the fable “Sansho the Bailiff,” which film buffs know was turned into a great movie by Kenzo Mizoguchi in 1954. What was in it for Malick? $200,000 plus $50,000 when it opened on Broadway.
In 1990, after intensive research paid for by the producers, including tracking down anything and everything Malick could ask for (quite the task, given the man's famed, endless curiosity), the helmer turned in his first draft which was promptly sent out to directors Peter Brook, Peter Stein, and Ingmar Bergman -- who all turned it down. However, getting a great director to stage the production was still the goal and the producers eventually found their man.
In 1992, Polish director Andrzej Wajda -- best known for his trilogy "A Generation," "Kanal" and "Ashes and Diamonds" -- agreed to the job after flying to New York City and watching "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" (he was not familiar with Malick’s work previously). So Malick flew to Warsaw, but it was not a meeting of minds. After a grand dinner, Wajda is reported to have told Malick, “Terry, what you need to do to "Sansho the Bailiff" is make it more like Shakespeare.”
While lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, sound designer Hans Peter Kuhn, and a collection of fine Asian-American actors were brought together for a $600,000 “workshop” at BAM, the relationship -- if there ever was one -- between Wajda and Malick dissolved. The former demanded rewrites while the latter bemoaned Wajda’s inability to engage with the material.
From there things just got worse as costs rose to $800,000 and the producers were besieged by creditors. “It was ridiculous. We were sitting on all these assets that we had sunk our money, blood, and time into. It was time to put Terry on notice,” Roberdeau said, with Geisler adding that Malick refused “to take any responsibility whatsoever. Our problems were our problems. He had forewarned us in the beginning that his timetable would be his timetable, and if we were still standing by the time that he got around to directing one or both of the movies, that would be great.”
While all three soured on the relationship, they began to narrow down their choices for their next venture to two possible projects: “The English Speaker” or “The Thin Red Line.”