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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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“Jerry Lee Lewis/Great Balls of Fire”
Details on this one are a bit thinner and some of it is a little confused, but bear with us. Once again, during those supposed “lost years” of the ‘80s, Terrence Malick was commissioned to write a script about Jerry Lee Lewis. Described in a Los Angeles Magazine profile as being “much darker” than Jim McBride’s “Great Balls of Fire!” released in 1989, Malick's work was not used despite some sources saying he is “uncredited” on the film. Well, Malick has hung on to the script and it still could be a possible project.

Last fall, two decades on from the Dennis Quaid- and Winona Ryder-starring picture, there was some brief new life kicked into the film. Buried in a report over at THR, word emerged that Brad Pitt -- one of the producers of “The Tree of Life” -- was also developing the apparently-still-gestating Jerry Lee Lewis project and that Natalie Portman had been offered a lead role. And, well, that’s about it. There’s not much about what the script contains or what the film centers on, but we’d wager it goes a bit further into the musician’s decline following the scandal surrounding his marriage to his first cousin, that found his pay rate for concerts slashed and his popularity waning. Lewis also suffered the tragic loss of two of his children in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

However, as quickly as news arrived of this project still being alive, it vanished. While there have been talks about a variety of Malick’s upcoming movies (check the outro), word on Jerry Lee Lewis has once again grown quiet.

Before Terrence Malick was a filmmaker, the Rhodes Scholar and Harvard philosophy major briefly toyed with a journalism career, with a brief stint at Newsweek and a gig for Life magazine covering Latin America before moving to the New Yorker, where he had an office from 1968-1969. And it was here that Malick first showed his interest in Che Guevara.

His biggest piece of writing—that, of course, he never finished—was centered on the imprisoned French philosopher Régis Debray who had been working with Che. Paul Lee, a philosophy instructor at Harvard and MIT told GQ, “I have a memory of it piling up to six feet of copy. He got obsessed, and he overwrote, and he went past it. He never finished it.” And though he never finished the article his interest in the subject remained strong.

Fast forward three decades to 1999 -- just after “Traffic” came out -- when Steven Soderbergh, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Bickford began developing their movie, “Che.” Upon finding out about Malick’s aforementioned article and his journeys in Bolivia, they approached the director to helm the project. “I said to him the list of people that I’d be willing to step aside for, to see their version as opposed to mine is pretty short, but you’re at the top of it,” Soderbergh told Film Comment.

Malick’s take on the film was described as “intense,” as his version would’ve solely focused on Che’s 1966–67 Bolivian campaign (or what would comprise "Guerilla," the second half of Soderbergh’s film). But when financing and scheduling failed to connect, Malick bailed, moving on to “The New World” instead and Soderbergh then took on the film more out of necessity than passion. And not only that, he needed to bang out a new script.

“Although I love movies about quixotic journeys, there was no context. It was unreadable.” Soderbergh said. “You couldn’t do the detail, you couldn’t get a sense of the rhythm of what their days were like. And we had a start date approaching. I said we have to stop and think about this. And two weeks later, I said it needs to be two movies. We need to break it in half, and do each movie in the way we feel is appropriate, and by the way, we’ve got to do them in Spanish. For Laura, this is interesting news. We now have two movies so all the deals have to be redone. And Peter [Buchman, the credited screenwriter for both films] and Benicio sat down and started from scratch to do Cuba.”

More recently, producer Bill Pohlad -- who was pitched "The Tree of Life" around the time Malick was on “Che” -- agreed that the script for “Che” was a challenge, telling The Wrap it was a “daunting project, and Terry’s script for ‘Che’ was not an easy read, or a typical read.”

In an incredibly rare public appearance at the 2007 Rome Film Festival, Malick hinted at his past as a reporter for The New Yorker. “Yes,” Malick said. “I was sent to Bolivia to do a piece on Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, but frankly I did not understand what was going on.”

We’re sure in the intervening years -- and given his penchant for research and accuracy -- he got a handle on Che’s Bolivian campaign but it sounds rather like his resulting film might have turned out not unlike “The Thin Red Line,” perhaps similarly ethereal and spiritual, investigating the daily grind of the revolutionary from ground level. We’ll never know (unless someone wants to send us that script) but as far as sudden backup jobs go, Soderbergh did some remarkable work at the last minute on “Che,” which pretty much completely changed direction after Malick bailed.

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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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