During the “lost years” following the grueling production and ultimate success of “Days of Heaven,” (which turned into a 20-year stretch), Malick hid out in Paris and worked on a movie tentatively titled “Q.” According to the lengthy and in-depth Vanity Fair article that came out right before “The Thin Red Line,” the film initially included “a prologue, which dramatized the origins of life.” Except that the segment “became increasingly elaborate and would ultimately take over the rest of the story.” The “origins of life” bit would make the transition to “The Tree of Life,” but otherwise, the visualization of the cosmos would have been strikingly different – “Q” featured a “sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils.” It got fairly far along, with Malick traveling between Paris and Los Angeles where he had installed a small team, mostly comprised of photographers and special effects technicians, until one day, just like the big bang only in reverse, everything just stopped. According to visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor, “One Monday, Terry never showed up. He didn’t call anybody, we couldn’t find him… He just stopped.” Paramount funded Malick’s work on the film to the tune of $1 million -- big money for the late 1970s -- and according to several players in the Malick milieu, became impatient when thousands of dollars and years later, he still had not turned in a script. So they began pressuring him.
As the legend goes, Malick's refusal to rush or to work to anyone’s timetable but his own, was the reason he moved to Paris and took what turned out to be a 20-year vacation from movies. “Q” obviously formed the early, nascent version of the “The Tree of Life,” minus the family story in Texas that gives the film its heart and pulse. And while similar, there are some radically different things about “Q.” It had a section set in the Middle East during World War I, and it also had a Minotaur, “sleeping in the water [dreaming] about the evolution of the universe, seeing the earth change from a sea of magma to the earliest vegetation,” according to Taylor. The script was said to be 250 pages long, which is about 50 pages longer than the epic 198-page 'Tree of Life' script. Considering how much of its “origin of the universe” concept Malick seems to have cannibalized for 'Tree of Life,' it's probably impossible that we’ll ever see this film, but we suppose he could one day utilize some of its other discarded elements.
“The Moviegoer”/“Desert Rose”
With no films coming in the near-two-decades between "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line," Malick had to support himself somehow after his production deal with Paramount ended in 1983. He brought home the bacon by writing scripts for hire, with Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair mentioning an unnamed project for Louis Malle (if only that had come to pass...) and a rewrite on "Countryman," a script by Robert Dillon ("French Connection II," "Waking the Dead") that was never produced. Perhaps the two best known of this era (bar "Great Balls of Fire!," more on which below) were two novel adaptations: "The Moviegoer," based on the classic novel by Walker Percy, and "The Desert Rose" by Larry McMurtry, author of the source material for "Lonesome Dove" and "Terms of Endearment."
It's unclear whether "The Moviegoer" was an assignment or self-generated, but either way, the book, which Time Magazine named one of the 100 greatest of their lifetime in 2005, appears to have been prime Malick territory. The existential tale follows a stockbroker and Korean War veteran in 1950s New Orleans, a man who connects more with film and literature than he does with his own life. It's fascinating to wonder what Malick would have made of it (and surely that script is floating out there somewhere), but if he ever had plans to direct it himself, as it seems he did, they're long gone: one of the many casualties of Hurricane Katrina. Malick told the audience at a rare Q&A in Bartesville (where his next film is mostly shot) around the release of "The New World" that he'd given up on the idea, saying "I don't think the New Orleans of the book exists anymore." Still, it's wormed its way into popular culture regardless: it's a definite influence on "Mad Men."
As for "The Desert Rose," that was a strict paycheck gig: Rob Cohen, of all people, the future director of "The Fast & The Furious" and "xXx," was at the time the head of Taft-Barish Productions and hired Malick to write the script with the intention that Barry Levinson, hot off "Diner" and "The Natural," would direct. The book isn't what you'd think of as obvious Malick material -- it's a Vegas-set tale of a fading showgirl and her daughter, not a million miles away from "Mildred Pierce" -- but again, it would have been fascinating to see him out of his comfort zone. "The Desert Rose" came close to making it to the screen again later, with Nora Ephron being announced in the trades as director, with sister Delia Ephron writing the script for Columbia in 2002, although again, it didn't come to pass.