“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.