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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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“The English Speaker”
While most people assume that anything Terrence Malick worked on during his infamous 20-year hiatus was in the early ‘80s or late ‘70s and the rest of the time he studied the cloud-filtered light out of his Paris apartment, “The English Speaker” is an unproduced screenplay that comes from the early ‘90s (a 2nd draft dated 1992 was for sale on Ebay in 2010, but was swiftly bought, presumably by Malick’s eagle-eyed team).

1992 seemed to be the year the film industry believed Terrence Malick would be returning (or shortly thereafter); Variety even wrote profiles on his possible return, but of course Malick’s indecisiveness and molasses-like pace meant that “The Thin Red Line” wouldn’t surface to the public until late 1998.

However, “The English Speaker,” known to be a tale of 19th century psychoanalysis, was a project that Malick had been working on even ahead of his ponderous WWII effort. "It's something Terry's been thinking about since before 'Days of Heaven.' But it's new, not one of his old projects," producer Bobby Geisler told Variety in October of 1992 -- Geisler and his partner John Roberdeau of course being the aforementioned producing pair that were notoriously kicked to the curb by Malick after years of nurturing and working with him on “The Thin Red Line.”

According to the herculean 1998 Vanity Fair profile with Geisler and Roberdeau, the project was particularly personal and private and Malick would only let Geisler read it. “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.”

“Studies on Hysteria” was a book published in 1895 by Josef Breuer (co-written by Sigmund Freud) and “The English Speaker” script was based on their 1880s Vienna studies of famous psychoanalysis patient Anna O, an Austrian-Jewish feminist whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim. A hysteric who became a patient of Breuer’s following her father’s death, among her symptoms were "absences" — a change in personality, accompanied by "profoundly melancholy phantasies...sometimes characterized by poetic beauty." She also suffered from a form of aphasia; a language disorder where she was able to understand only German, but spoke English, French or Italian while doing so.

Breuer’s treatment of her various disorders, his “talking cure” -- which involved the revolutionary notion of speaking to one’s patients -- and the accompanying revelation that it could relieve hysterical symptoms, would mark the birth of psychoanalysis, the fundaments of which Freud would make famous (he rightfully credited Breuer's work with Pappenheim as the discipline's true beginnings; Breuer would unfortunately die before he could receive full acclaim).

According to an article in the Museum of the Moving Image, “the title refers to one of Anna's strange ailments in the script: her ability to speak English, seemingly out of nowhere. Eventually, we learn that she uses this as a coping mechanism for the fact that the languages she does speak have become corrupted in her eyes.”

“The English Speaker” would also become a pawn in the power play between Malick and his ‘Thin Red Line’ producers. In the fall of 1996 he demanded the rights to direct "The English Speaker" in perpetuity and if this wish was not granted he would not proceed with “The Thin Red Line, according to the same Vanity Fair profile. Malick had a five-year option on directing the film and at the time, the producers refused to acquiesce to his demands, with even 'Thin Red Line' producer Mike Medavoy agreeing that Malick should buy the rights back or enter into a partnership with them if he wanted it so badly.

It’s still unclear who owns those rights. Considering the major falling out that took place on the “The Thin Red Line” between Malick and the producers -- you’re really going to have to read this full profile if you want that dirt -- if Geisler and Roberdeau do own the project, hell will probably freeze over before Malick directs it (though money can change the mind of any broke person in Hollywood). If Malick owns it himself, well that’s another story....

While “Q” (which morphed into 'Tree of Life') and the Jerry Lee Lewis project (which still may happen one day) illustrate that Terrence Malick doesn’t throw anything away, it could be too late for “The English Speaker” as David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” charts very similar ground (Freud and Jung’s treatment of Sabina Spielrein, a hysteric with similar ailments that the two vexed partners would try and cure). Still, a Terrence Malick project is like no other and we would assume that if Malick ever does dust off this project -- completely plausible given his track record -- emotionally and spiritually it would no doubt venture into different territory.

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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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