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The Lost Projects And Unproduced Screenplays Of Terrence Malick

by The Playlist Staff
July 12, 2011 5:29 AM
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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.”

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  • Jean Erica Moniker | March 25, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    I saw "Deadhad Miles" with my father at a WGA screening in 1971(?) except that it didn't yet have a title and as I recall no title sequence. For years I've wondered about it but didn't even have a name to search for although I did recall Alan Arkin being the star. The one scene that stands out in my mind was when a car (a hearse or ?) pulls up next to Alan Arkin's truck and there's a prostitute splayed out in the back soliciting truck drivers for sex. I assume her pimp was driving. It was quite surreal as was the film in general. The film definitely made an impression though it seemed rather random to me as a 15-year old at the time.

  • r | February 19, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    John Travolta was obviously joking when he said Malick stopped working because he couldn't do Days of Heaven.

  • Michael Chase Walker | February 18, 2013 9:02 PMReply

    Wow, this is a giant get --exceptional article -- ought to launch Oliver Lytellton into film journalism stratosphere. Kudos all around to Indiewire et al! Congrats guys! Superb! “It’s as if he had ripped open his heart and bled his true feelings onto the page,” he said at that time. The Vanity Fair article author Peter Biskind said, “it is indeed a remarkable script,” describing it as “”The Exorcist” as written by Dostoyevsky.”

  • IWM | April 9, 2012 5:10 AMReply

    Great reporting, very informative.

  • Chris P. | September 20, 2011 3:34 AMReply

    It was Martin Scorsese who was supposed to direct THE GRAVY TRAIN but was replaced by Starrett. If Malick was considered for the job, it was before Roger Gimbel and Jonathan Taplin were involved.

  • Orchid | August 2, 2011 6:03 AMReply

    STORY STRUCTURE, STORY STRUCTURE, STORY STRUCTURE - go see Kal's excellent work at

  • CC | August 2, 2011 5:28 AMReply

    Wow, Damian. You are a moron....

  • Damian | July 22, 2011 7:08 AMReply

    Nice article. Very informative.
    But thank goodness the majority of his screenplays haven't been made. And the ones that have been produced have sunk into near-oblivion. Malick, for me is one of those very rare directors: each of his succeeding films was worse than his previous one. I'm serious about this: if it wasn't for "Zookeeper," "The Tree of Life" would be the worst film I've seen this year.
    Oh, one thing about the article. The part about, "...after "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" Malick was possibly the most important American filmmaker alive." He wouldn't have been, even if Coppola, Lumet, Allen and Fosse were dead.

  • Matt | July 15, 2011 7:45 AMReply

    Thank you.

  • Edward Davis | July 15, 2011 3:53 AMReply

    Phil we actually mentioned most of the pre-Badlands stuff in our Badlands piece.

    Great read, hats off to these guys.

  • phil p. | July 15, 2011 3:50 AMReply

    Great article, with a lot of information on unproduced screenplays that I hadn't picked up over the years.

    However, you neglected to mention Malick's involvement in the writing of DIRTY HARRY, Jack Nicholson's DRIVE, HE SAID, and POCKET MONEY (for which Malick receives sole screenwriting credit, though his script is an adaptation).

    Btw, DEADHEAD MILES is excellent -- an unsung gem of the 1970s -- with an incredible comic performance from Alan Arkin, who (it has been speculated) was actually imitating Malick. The film used to air regularly on the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) network, though the print on Netflix Streaming is uncut and well worth catching.

  • juan | July 14, 2011 7:14 AMReply

    I am spanisch srerwrentier films

  • Paul Maher Jr. | July 13, 2011 12:56 PMReply

    1. Malick's last interview was in 1979.

    2. Most of this information was already published in Peter Biskind's article, "The Runaway Genius" in Vanity Fair and David Handelman's "Absence of Malick" published in California magazine in 1985. The rest is from Criterion commentaries. A great pastiche piece, but nothing original.

  • Bobby Geisler | July 13, 2011 11:35 AMReply

    Best account I have read, and I as there. --- great work. Thank you. / -- Bobby Geisler

  • Bobby Geisler | July 13, 2011 8:24 AMReply

    I'm compelled to correct a couple of typographical mistakes in my earlier simple (but sincere) comment:

    Best account I have read, and I was there --- great work. Thank you. / -- Bobby Geisler

  • Theoc | July 13, 2011 7:34 AMReply

    Excellent an education for me, thank you.

  • Michael | July 13, 2011 1:59 AMReply

    This is the only place I've seen ANY info about the "lost 20 years."

  • Edward Davis | July 13, 2011 1:19 AMReply

    Good ol’ Paul Maher Jr -- the guy who shut down his Malick blog in a huge tantrum because everyone was "stealing from it," meanwhile he was copy and pasting every Malick article online on his blog and never sourcing or crediting. Writing a similar article in PopMatters that also didn't even properly source.

    As the guy who thinks he owns Malick online,I was wondering when you would finally show up and shit on something like this. Gotta say since this article outdoes anything you’ve done, one must question your motivation other than trying to place a link to your own blog.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | July 13, 2011 1:03 AMReply

    Hey Paul, we make no secret of the projects mentioned in Vanity Fair article. It's linked throughout.

    The rest are from a number of different places and we cite each source -- you might want to try actually reading this thing instead of bitterly dismissing it. (There are only two Criterion quotes in the entire piece).

  • Misanthrope | July 12, 2011 11:43 AMReply

    Just need to echo the sentiments of the other commenters. This blog has become a daily stop for me not just for movie news, but the impeccable reviews and essays. I don't know why the people who write for this site aren't getting paid money to do this professionally (or maybe they are?).

  • jon | July 12, 2011 7:43 AMReply

    Great work, dudes.

  • hecarell | July 12, 2011 6:17 AMReply

    fantastic job on this article. you guys produce high-quality work that surpasses your average blog.

  • Virgílio Souza | July 12, 2011 6:16 AMReply


  • stuffy | July 12, 2011 6:13 AMReply

    The Linklater/TM project was shot... Well partly.
    Back when Linklater was attached to FNL the movie.
    He shot an entire season of Bay City, Texas high school football.
    He was going to go back the next year and shoot a dramatization of the kids lives... it was super 16mm... So cheap. Rights issues arose and some other duchebag directed FNL and the project collapsed as he wasnt interested in two football movies going head to head

  • BuntyHoven | July 12, 2011 6:12 AMReply

    Good stuff, guys. These Malick articles have been great over the past few weeks. Nice distillation of all the random facts scattered across the internets.

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