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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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And The Rest:
So, believe it or not, even with all the above, there are even more Terrence Malick projects that have popped up over the years and could still be on the horizon. With “The Tree of Life” now in theaters, fans of the director will remember that at one time it was put forward that the film would be accompanied by a parallel IMAX documentary “Voyage of Time.” Well, that clearly didn’t happen, but it’s still in the works.

“It’s still a strong desire of Terry’s and we’re all kind of working on getting it together… There will be footage that we shot during the course of ‘Tree of Life,' but it won’t be that same footage,” producer Bill Pohlad said at the Hollywood premiere of “The Tree of Life.”

As you might expect, the documentary will be similar to the free-form cosmic narrative in “The Tree of Life,” but Malick is still shooting. “...Again, it’s going to change, too. There’s some new stuff getting shot,” producer Dede Gardner said. Of course, no word on when or if this will ever get done but it’s definitely still moving.

In fact, the suddenly prolific director seems to be juggling a few things at once. He has also told his production team to keep their summer and fall calendars open for another untitled project that apparently would be finished “in a matter of months.” There are no details (of course) but an anonymous commenter said “it's actually about a musician and, like the [other] untitled project, is set in modern times and it's shooting in Austin.” So perhaps a mutation of his Jerry Lee Lewis script?

But what about the stuff that didn’t get made and seems to be buried (for now)? Well, as we mentioned earlier, in the late 1970s, Malick was offered the chance to adapt David Rabe’s play “In The Boom Boom Room” about a young go-go dancer in 1960s Philadelphia and her troubled journey through love and sex. Malick turned down the film. At some point in his career, Malick penned a reworking of Robert Dillon's "Countryman," which he wrote for Ned Tanen at Universal as a kind of modern-day "Grapes of Wrath," but additional info on its existence is scarce. As mentioned, in the 1980s, Malick was said to be working on a script for Louis Malle -- he summered at Malle's country home several times -- but it appears nothing came of it (paging Malle's wife Candice Bergen?).

But in 1991, Malick was attached to produce an adaptation of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock.” Don MacPherson was penning the screenplay with Grant Hill (“The Thin Red Line”) co-producing. Obviously it never came together. But fast forward nearly two decades and the film has hit theaters, but in a completely different form with none of those names involved: Rowan Joffe wound up writing and directing the picture, which was met with lukewarm reviews late last year.

More recently, in 2002, Malick was reported to be producing a “fictional documentary” with Richard Linklater set to direct. The first half of the film was set to be shot that year with a Bay City, Texas high school giving filmmakers approval to film their football team. The following year the production was supposed to follow four of the teammates in their post-high school lives. It seems cameras never rolled.

Also in 2002, “The Thin Red Line” star Jim Caviezel told The Independent that Malick was working on an adaptation of the Middle English poem “Gawain and the Green Knight.” The epic poem chronicles a challenge posed by the titular knight, who says any man may strike him if he agrees to receive a blow in a year and a day. Gawain beheads him, but the Green Knight reattaches his head and makes Gawain promise to meet him again as agreed. It’s certainly the most fantastical of the Malick projects that have been bandied about.

And in what would have been a truly powerhouse team up, Variety reports that in 2003 Malick had yet another producing project in the works with none other than Robert Redford set to star. “Aloft,” based on Alan Tennant's nonfiction book, centers on a personal passion for Malick -- birds. Entertainment Weekly summarized the plot at the time as following two guys in a beat-up Cessna Skyhawk who track peregrine falcons on their long migration from the Arctic to South America. Along the way they get into trouble. " 'Aloft' is a great buddy adventure tale with a unique scientific spin as these two irrepressible characters are chased by the American Army, the Canadian Mounted Police, South American drug lords and Mexican bandits. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and in Alan Tennant's book, it is also a lot of fun," producer Jake Eberts said. Erik Jendresen (“Band of Brothers”) was going to pen the script, and no director was attached; needless to say, it never took flight.

Somewhat randomly in 2007, Powers Boothe revealed he was working with Malick on a television project that nearly got made. “In fact, there was a point where Terry Malick and I were talking seriously about getting a series together,” he told Texas State University. “He was going to do the story for it. We were going to shoot it in Austin. It fell apart at the last minute.”

So how about some scripts for films that did get made? There was “The Gravy Train,” a 1974 film co-written by Malick under the pen name David Whitney, and not only that, he was apparently the original director before getting replaced by Jack Starrett. The film follows small town West Virginia brothers Calvin (Stacy Keach) and Rut Dion (Frederic Forrest) who quit their factory jobs to make their fortunes as armed robbers in Washington D.C. and zaniness ensues. The film, later re-released under the title "The Dion Brothers," is pretty hard to get a handle on, but does have fans in Quentin Tarantino and David Gordon Green, who cited it as an influence on “Pineapple Express” (let's not forget Malick produced Green's "Undertow," one of a brief spate of producing credits in the mid '00s, alongside Vietnamese drama "The Beautiful Country" and Michael Apted's slavery biopic "Amazing Grace"). You can check out more details and stills over at Obscure One Sheet.

Finally, there is the trucking comedy “Deadhead Miles” that was made into a film starring Alan Arkin, Richard Kiel, Hector Elizondo and interestingly enough, Ida Lupino and George Raft as themselves. But directed by Vernon Zimmerman, it was considered so bad Paramount Pictures has never officially released it, though it is streaming on Netflix Instant and if you want to own it, you can snag a bootleg. The film popped up at festivals in the ‘70s and ‘80s but that’s about it. You can check out more info and an official still over at Obscure One Sheet.

If anything, this diversity of lost, dormant or abortive projects reveals a director whose interests are far more wide-reaching -- and in some cases, perhaps populist -- than he typically gets pegged for. While he has a rep for gravitating towards the big questions, he seems equally drawn to smaller-scale stories.

What’s next? Well, there’s a romance picture starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Barry Pepper, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Olga Kurylenko and, apparently, Amanda Peet, rumored to be called “The Burial,” and purported to center on a man obsessed with a deceased lover.

Shot quickly in Oklahoma with a small crew, could this project be a return to his “Badlands”-like years? It’s something that’s been hinted at recently. "He would like to make them smaller or at least he talks about making his films smaller," Jack Fisk said on the 2007 Criterion Collection commentary for “Days of Heaven.” "He misses the intimacy of ‘Badlands’ even though it was a rough experience for him. He does miss it, he likes the smaller aspect, smaller crews for sure." While that sounds a bit like the smaller, family elements of the epic “The Tree of Life,” it also sounds similar to what was done on “The Burial.” Malick has been pushing the envelope of deconstructed narrative with each successive picture and this untitled romance is apparently “even more experimental than 'Tree of Life,’ ” which is a tantalizing thought, considering the picture doesn’t outwardly have Kubrick-ian sci-fi elements. An experimental romantic drama from Terrence Malick possibly centering on death? Hell, yes, please.- Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton

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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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