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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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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.

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More: Feature, Terrence Malick, Features

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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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