Friday, March 17, 2017

Terrence Malick Q&A: The Meaning of Life and Other Small Things

Okay, well, first of all, I can’t just be all cool guy and publish a blog post about a Terrence Malick Q&A without geeking out a little. I mean, I saw Terrence Malick… in person. At one point, he was 5 feet away from me, smiling graciously to all those who acted as if they were staring at a mythical god.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite living filmmakers. I love every movie he’s made, and so appreciate that he makes movies his own way. Part of his method has been his prior insistence on not speaking publicly. No interviews, no question and answer sessions, no Making-Of docs, no awards acceptance speeches – literally, nothing. But in his later years, Malick seems to be opening up a bit more. He has been spotted at science and history-based Q&As for some of his films (namely The New World and Voyage of Time), but he recently showed up for a lengthy Q&A for his latest film, Song to Song, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

Hell, I hear he’s actually lined up an interview on one of my favorite podcasts later this year. As a die-hard Malick supporter, this is all beyond exciting. And when I caught word that Malick himself was going to participating in a Q&A following a screening of Voyage of Time at Washington D.C.’s Air and Space Museum, I jumped at the chance.

And then there he was. Walking slowly through the lobby of the museum, his arm linked endearingly with Flo Stone, the founder of the Environmental Film Festival. He smiled and nodded at all of us waiting in line. And guess what, when we heard him speak during the Q&A, he sounded like a normal fella. (Because, after all, God-like or not, people are just people.) He answered questions earnestly and at length (who knew Terrence Malick was a rambler?), he smiled, he joked (occasionally at his own expense), he talked with his hands – it was incredible.

Most of the questions were about Malick’s new film, the universe-in-creation marvel, Voyage of Time (read my review here), which led to a more science-based discussion. But Malick did talk briefly about his process and his films, including his latest one, which he’s currently editing. Enjoy!
from Voyage of Time
Physicist Brian Greene: With Voyage of Time, we’re watching things that no one has ever seen. Can you give us a sense of how these images were made, where they came from?

Terrence Malick: Well, most of the best pictures in the film were made by scientists, astrophysicists, astronomers, biologists. The astrophysical images were created with super computers, they weren’t visual images but equations. The first shot of the picture is an example of this. The ending images are too. For a long time we were getting our images from the scientists then supplementing them.

Greene: In the film, you’re bringing to life a huge range of time, where the human part of it is the smallest fraction. When you make a film like this, what does it make you think regarding the meaning and purpose of it all?

Malick: You hope that it will arouse that question. And while you can’t give answers to that, you can give people those images and cause them to wonder and ask: Why is there something then nothing? Where did the laws of the universe come from? Were they created with the universe or by the universe? Why are these laws so favorable to our existence? I’m not competent enough to speculate, but I do marvel. When you realize how miraculous this universe is, it rouses certain feelings. It’s wonder and curiosity and even gratitude.

Greene: I find this film very uplifting. I don’t know if that was by design, but do you think we’re on a downward spiral, or is it uplifting that we’re here at all?

Malick: I’m not competent enough to dispute views of a downward spiral, but I feel very differently than that. I’m amazed at science, generally. There is more and more to astonish rather than less and less. Nature is always beginning. There’s as much beginning now as there was in the first instance of the universe. That process of whatever is driving the universe seems eternal.
from Song to Song
Audience Question: When you’re making a film like Voyage of Time, without the use of a script, how do you create such a rich experience without following the traditional use of a script?

Malick: Well, in this case, there was a script, which was the evolutionally history of the universe [audience laughs]. And lately – I keep insisting, only very lately – have I been working without a script [To the Wonder, Knight of Cups Song to Song
], and I’ve lately repented the idea. The last picture we shot, and we’re now cutting, went back to a script that was very well ordered. There’s a lot of strain when working without a script because you can lose track of where you are. It’s very hard to coordinate with others who are working on the film. Production designers and location managers arrive in the morning and don’t know what we’re going to shoot or where we’re going to shoot. The reason we did it was to try and get moments that are spontaneous and free. As a movie director, you always feel with a script that you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. And with no script, there’s no round hole, there’s just air. But I’m backing away from that style now.

Audience Question: Did you attempt to make Voyage of Time any longer?

Malick: Oh yes, definitely. We did do a 90-minute version, and we probably could’ve done a 900-minute version, and I would’ve been happy to make it, but very few people would’ve sat through it [everyone laughs]. The 90-minute version will be released later on this year. There’s a lot more scientific footage but also some cross cutting to people around the world. We gave people these tiny little Japanese cameras and asked them to shoot their world, so we cross cut these human scenes against the chorological unfolding of the universe.
Greene: Will that one have narration?
Malick: Well, we’re talking about that because I keep wishing for no narration, but every distributor wants narration. The original format of this film was financed by IMAX Corporation and they make all their money from school field trips. Teachers and the insinuations want facts. And I try to maintain to them that these facts are in one ear and out the other; better read than seen. We should get away from the infotainment or edutainment, as they call it. Just let people look at these things and have their own voiceover. There are certain things where you just don’t want to be bothered, like someone is nudging you when you hear voiceover. I like the idea of making it your own experience.

Audience Question: How have you evolved and changed as a person and a director over the length of your 40-year career?

Malick: I understand why you’d ask that question. I think you’re strangely unconscious of change yourself, the way you’re unconscious of your own face. You’re changing but you’re not realizing you’re changing. But you hope that you’re on track with something; that you’ll keep changing. But those early pictures [of mine] feel strange, and five lifetimes ago.

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  1. Wow, you were five-feet away from being in contact with one of the masters of cinema. I'm surprised that he is even doing Q&As and podcasts. I guess he just wanted to kill off that myth of being a recluse just a little bit. I'm still baffled by the fact that he likes to dance to Jason Derulo. I hate Jason Derulo. Yet, the idea of Malick dancing to his stuff is odd but he's a genius. He can get away with that.

    1. haha seriously. Man can get away with damn near anything as far as I'm concerned. It was surreal seeing him in person. He's just a normal fella, you know? But his insights were fascinating. He'd be great to have a conversation with.

  2. Loved his answer to the last question and this "I like the idea of making it your own experience". I think that's better too than having a voiceover. I really admire him too. His films are something else, and knowing about his studies before becoming a filmmaker you can understand why he's interested about all those subjects, that also interest me, and it's great that he's doing those projects. I can't wait to know more about that new film he talked about, and Song to Song. I've read he did a Q&A with Fassbender, can't wait to listen to that.

    Your feeling "meeting" him reminds me of my own experience when I met Francis Ford Coppola. He did a Q&A with the students of the film school I was attending for a 3 weeks course on screenwriting. He was filming Tetro in the same building (it was a film school + film study which has now been shut down... Spain's politicians love to do that: they build something that is very expensive to maintain and then they can't afford it and they just shut it down) so he agreed to do that and talk with the students. It was an amazing experience, he was so funny, and down-to-earth. I loved the way he talked about Brando and his way of working with the actors as they were part of a big family. So bad they shut down that study because thanks to that Ridley Scott came to shoot The Counselor here too. I actually saw Fassbender because he shot some scenes in the main square of Alicante and he waved back at me and a friend and we were like: hell yeah! haha.

    1. A wave from Fassbender is a good damn day! That's so cool that you got to see Coppola speak. I love that these geniuses are just down to Earth people. Makes them so much more human.

      I saw Song to Song last night and am still turning it over in my mind. I just love the way this man makes movies.