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'To The Wonder': 10 Actors Cut Out Of Terrence Malick Films & How They Reacted

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by Jessica Kiang
April 10, 2013 3:39 PM
28 Comments
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To The Wonder, Actors Cut From Malick Films

We’ve all been there. Cast as the lead in a meaty, dialogue-heavy role in a surefire masterpiece from one of the most unassailable geniuses of modern filmmaking, only to be reduced to sifting through the finished film on freeze frame occasionally shouting "Look! That’s my shadow on that fern!" or "Hey! That’s the back of my head near that egret!" The one comfort we can take when this inevitability occurs, is that we’re in fine company on the Malick cutting room floor. The only question is, whose lead will we follow in reacting to our role’s excision or drastic reduction?

Terrence Malick has a storied history with actors, one that can only continue to get more thickety as his output increases, and as the casts for his films expand. But it was really only with 1998’s gorgeous hymnal to the brutalizing effect of war on nature and humanity, "The Thin Red Line," that his propensity for entirely removing whole roles and performances found real expression, and since then the mythos of the roulette wheel one spins when accepting a role in a Malick film has only grown. It's a little unfair -- "The Thin Red Line" always had an enormous cast (it's about a war, after all); many of those often referred to as having been cut never actually filmed a scene; and others had roles that were only ever going to be cameos removed. The key factor is that many of the affected actors on that film and since then have been very high profile, but again, Malick seems to attract big names in droves, so in droves they will fall by the wayside.

Malick's latest, "To the Wonder," in theaters and on (sacrilegious!) VOD this Friday, has also made headlines for who's not in it as for who is. So we thought we'd take this chance to run through the list of actors dropped from Malick's films, or those who had their roles greatly curtailed, and the various ways they dealt with the disappointment. Read, and judge for yourselves who did it best -- that way you'll be prepared when that phone call comes to let you know that "Untitled Malick Project" will not, after all your months of shooting in that cornfield, boast your involvement at all.

Mickey Rourke, The Thin Red LIne
Actor: Mickey Rourke
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Excised completely
Bitterness Level: 8/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: On the one hand, it feels like Mickey Rourke has kind of one of the more legitimate beefs. His role wasn't just whittled down, not a single frame made it into the finished film, and his performance, which he called in a 2005 interview "some of the best work I ever did" really only exists for public consumption in a couple of deleted scene extras on the Criterion release. And like so many other actors on this list, he seems to have felt a little betrayed or badly used by Malick -- from that same interview: "I'd gone through a really bad time and Terry knew about it so he incorporated it into the character. It really worked." 

On the other hand, a lot of his reaction seems out of step with what most observers would assume were Malick's actual motives behind the edit. While his track record makes it probable that Rourke was nixed for narrative purposes (Malick famously "finding" the film in the edit), Rourke claimed the reasons were much more personal: "There were political reasons why I was out of the movie. That really upset me... just because of the temperature of me and the industry, my scenes were cut." Even if Malick does not in fact float on a gauzy higher plane above the dirty dealings of Hollywood, it still seems unlikely to us that he'd have gotten rid of Rourke to satisfy someone else's whims, if he'd really loved his performance and felt it fitted within the film.

Adrien Brody,  "The Thin Red Line"
Actor: Adrien Brody
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Was His Role Affected: Dramatically reduced from lead to support, dialogue down to a couple of spoken lines.
Bitterness Level: 7/10 lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Adrien Brody, of course, is still in "The Thin Red Line," but his role was not the lead he expected, performed and read in the script and the book on which the script was based. Malick found his attention wandering from Brody's character in the edit and focusing instead on Jim Caviezel's, to the detriment of the former's screen time. We should remember that, significantly, this was Brody pre-"The Pianist" and it's clear he expected his role here to be his big break. In fact, he mentioned in a 2001 Independent interview (text here) that: "The pressure on that film was that I had to carry the movie with a cast of stars that I truly admired -- Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in particular. You hear horror stories about Sean Penn, that he can be a real bastard if he doesn't admire your work." 

But after a grueling 6-month shoot in "a filthy costume which they wouldn't wash," only disappointment awaited. Again a sense of betrayal comes through: "I was so focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive everything...in terms of witnessing my own work. It was extremely unpleasant because I'd already begun the press for a film that I wasn't really in. Terry obviously changed the entire concept of the film. I had never experienced anything like that..." He went on to suggest that Malick's own status as a filmmaker may be rather inflated: "You know the expression 'Don't believe the hype'? Well, you shouldn't."

Bill Pullman,  The Thin Red Line

Actors: Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Were Their Roles Affected: Excised Completely
Bitterness Level: 0/10 lemons
What Happened & How They Reacted: Along with Rourke, only Bill Pullman and Lukas Haas definitely had filmed roles cut from the movie -- photos of both of them on set exist. However it doesn’t seem like their parts were ever huge, and as supporting players in a cast so stacked with A-listers, perhaps they weren't wholly surprised not to make the final cut. Either way, neither has gone on record in any major way about their disgruntlement, a sign of either class or resignation.

The Thin Red Line
Actor: Billy Bob Thornton
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Was His Role Affected: His voiceover narration track went unused
Bitterness Level: 0/10 auditory lemons
What Happened & How He Reacted: Billy Bob Thornton hasn't made a big deal out of his involvement, or lack thereof, in the finished film. However it is known that he recorded a 3-hour-long narration for the entire film under Malick's supervision. Of course the final film has the poetic, overlapping narration spoken by many actors, sometimes unidentifiably, and so it becomes a much more choral piece than a single voice could have achieved, adding to Malick's throughline about the universality of human experience. Whatever happened, nothing of Thornton's voice remains, and this is one case where we'd hazard that the reason was simply an artistic choice, and the decision was probably the right one.

The Thin Red Line
Actors: Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric
Film: "The Thin Red Line"
How Badly Were Their Roles Affected: Never got to the shooting stage
Bitterness Level: 0/10 imaginary lemons
What Happened & How They Reacted: Gary Oldman never filmed a scene for Malick -- he never even got on a plane to Australia. According to this EW article, a role was written specifically for him, and sent to him. But before photography began, Malick realized he already had too many characters and the shoot was becoming unwieldy (and how right he was -- read all about it here), and Oldman's role was removed at script stage. Similarly, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen and Jason Patric were all mooted at some point, with Patric apparently largely a studio suggestion. The former two definitely participated in readthroughs, and received thank you credits for their pains, but there's nothing to suggest that their involvement or commitment went much further than that, and certainly they themselves aren't anywhere, that we could find, on record as complaining. And in Sheen's case at least, the experience seems not to have tarnished his admiration and gratitude toward Malick for providing him with his breakout role in "Badlands" -- in a 2004 interview he called Malick "a deeply spiritual, bright, articulate man who had a profound influence on me..."

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28 Comments

  • jawsnnn | November 30, 2013 10:55 PMReply

    I don't find Malick's films particularly engaging, and I don't think they are masterpieces. However, they are not trash either. It is a unique vision from a unique person, and while I do not admire it, I understand it. Since he has been in the industry for many many decades now, and has a reputation for cutting roles and irking his crew... anyone grumbling about his ways is being a little petulant.

  • Douglas Urbanski | July 4, 2013 10:34 AMReply

    If there is a nastier person in the film industry, I have yet to meet him or her. Saving it all for my book!

  • Edward Copeland | April 20, 2013 7:34 PMReply

    We really need a way to communicate with the many trees, plants and wildlife not deemed worthy enough to make it into a final Malick cut. How do they feel? Are their leaves not good enough? Though I think it's particularly funny that anyone thinks his or her part got cut for narrative reasons. That would presuppose a Malick film having a narrative in the first place. Why all these actors think it's so prestigious to work with this man who Haskell Wexler describes as "weird" boggles my mind. Outside his cult, with each new film Malick looks more and more like he's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. He needs to make nature documentaries and leave features to storytellers.

  • Dan | April 17, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    Im just puzzled by the amount of actors that queue up to work with him, Bale, Portman, Gosling, Mara, etc. Just wasting their time making a Malick movie, time that could be better spent making better films with better filmmakers. I hope my favorites Joaquin Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams never do a Malick film.

  • d | April 17, 2013 4:21 PM

    It's because they don't consider it wasting their time. And they very likely agree with some of us that he's a great filmmaker. Are you still puzzled?

  • Kevin | April 16, 2013 5:01 PMReply

    Regardless of Malick's talent or lack thereof as a filmmaker, regardless of whether actors know going in their roles could be cut, out of professional courtesy if nothing else he should let them know. If the producer could email one of the actors to let them know, I don't see why Malick gets a pass on doing the same thing.

    That said, all actors considering working with him should take note of Affleck's 'me or the tree' comment as that seems to truly sum up Malick's attitude towards his cast.

  • Beck | April 12, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    I wish someone would re-cut The Thin Red Line. I liked it, but an Adrian Brody/Mickey Rouke version with Bill Pullman and Lukas Haas sounds even better.

  • Bob | April 11, 2013 4:52 PMReply

    This seems like a large waste of money.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | April 11, 2013 11:51 AMReply

    Nick Offerman is in Knight of Cups? Ron Swanson is in a Terrence Malick film? That's made my year.

    Also, great piece, Jess.

  • Jack | April 11, 2013 9:53 AMReply

    Janit Baldwin is most likely the first actor to get cut completely from a Malick film. She played Sissy Spacek's best friend in 'Badlands' but is nowhere to be seen in the finished film.

  • The Stand-Up Guy | April 11, 2013 12:01 AMReply

    Malick is a hack and he's obviously not a very upfront or honest person. Just because he's an artist doesn't mean he can just drag people along for 6 months and put them through hell and just cut them. There's something called being a stand-up person. People like Pt Anderson and Richard Linklater are very upfront and honest with their actors from most accounts. It seems that Malick didn't even tell many of these actors that they could be cut and not just cut but cut completely. Doing that to Adrian Brody is just a crappy thing to do.

    Seriously, Tree of Life was sooo ridiculous. Such pretentious bull it's unbelievable. The exalting the beauty of nature has been done soooooo many times. It's not original! Look at every bad poem out there. "The sun, the moon, the beautiful waves blah blah" we get it. I look out at nature every day here in VT. The guy isn't interested in people. He treats actors like Hitchcock treated actors, like cattle and that's BS.

  • meep | April 12, 2013 3:24 PM

    lo-freaking-l

  • The Stand-Up Guy | April 11, 2013 4:56 PM

    For the record, I'm not an actor.

    Oh yeah and Malick. is. still. way. Overrated.

  • LORD ACTOR MCACTORSON | April 11, 2013 5:01 AM

    HELL YEAH BRO AND THAT HITCHCOCK GUY? FUCKING HACK!! US LOVELY ACTORS MUST BE PUT ON PEDESTAL MADE OF THE FINEST HOMELESS PEOPLE BONES AND BE TREATED LIKE THE GODS THAT WE ARE

  • hank | April 11, 2013 12:45 AM

    all the actors were paid for their time and I'm sure signed a contract that allowed for these things to happen. get. the. fuck. over. it.

  • d | April 11, 2013 12:19 AM

    Holy shit. Worst comment of the month.

  • Jon | April 10, 2013 9:41 PMReply

    Great article. But you forgot a big one: Richard Gere in Days of Heaven. "We shot a much more richly verbal movie, with much more high emotions, much more dramatic. And when I came to loop the movie and I saw that it wasn't that, I clearly was not too happy about that because all of us could have saved a lot of brain cells in the process."

  • yer | April 10, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    Glad to see a filmmaker who sticks to his guns. He creates his vision and no one elses and that's why he still remains one of the most unique directors around.

  • egghead | April 10, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    Lukas Haas was in the final cut, though his part was trimmed immensely. He has no lines, only reaction shots mostly and a short scene of him dying in someones arms.

  • Kyle | April 10, 2013 6:49 PM

    isn't that Nick Stahl?

  • Frank | April 10, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Cue Paul Mahler Jr. to come and add his pretentious farts to this article in 3.. 2...1...

  • Hooter | April 11, 2013 11:33 AM

    Well, I'm sure that the author of this article wouldn't have gotten all the facts he used for it if some of them were not provided by Maher (get his name right, at least) in one way or another. He's done more for the internet community on the study and history of Malick than anyone else.

  • Webster Skyhorse | April 10, 2013 4:09 PMReply

    But Rourke being cut WAS politics -- there's a Nolte documentary out there which includes an anecdote. . . Nolte and Medavoy are lunching with Malick pre-TRL and Rourke walks past. Malick says he wants Rourke in the cast, that he loves Rourke. Medavoy says no way, it won't fly. Compromise: Malick gets Rourke, but then gets bored with the actor's past beefs with execs becoming a factor in the cutting and deciding which elder actors and which newcomers get ultimate focus.

  • DG | April 10, 2013 4:05 PMReply

    I like this writers style. I feel like Penn and Plumer's assessment of Malick's process/style is spot on. I've never read the Tree of Life script but I'd imagine if there was more narrative (as Penn says there was) it couldn't have done anything but help the movie. I mean I love Badlands as much as the next guy but it's kind of crazy that he keeps cutting actors and making really polarizing films (most people seem to either adore his work or find it pretentious to the point of silliness) yet people still line up to work with him. I wonder if that will still be the case in five years if all of his movies keep following in the footsteps of TOL/To the Wonder?

  • Ted | April 10, 2013 3:55 PMReply

    I have zero sympathy for anyone post-The Thin Red Line. It's obvious by now that Malick creates his films in the editing room, that's his style. If you sign up for one of his projects, you should know there is a non-trivial chance you'll be cut or reduced and complaining about it after the fact is just moronic. If you want a film that stays closer to the script, then don't sign up for a Malick project.

  • Peppermint | June 23, 2013 2:50 PM

    @Josh
    Don't worry. He'll never do this. He's so much up his own ass he just can't kneel down.

  • Guy | April 14, 2013 1:57 AM

    Acting is not the same as being on the screen. There's a difference between the Kardashians and people who use their bodies as instruments to create art - and the difference is not determined by which gets more airtime.

  • josh | April 10, 2013 5:15 PM

    Good point ,i'm and aspiring actor myself and just from watching terrence malicks movie "tree of life" .I can see that he uses his actors more as props than anything .One thing i noticed about alot of actors in the film biz.Is there are always raving about working with this director or that one.Alot of it seems to have to do with the fact that the directors are big names and popular .They dont look past that directors actual talents ,just looking at malick s style in film making.I would never work with him ,even if he showed up at my door step dropped to his knees and begged me to .

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