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6 Filmmaking Tips From Terrence Malick

By  · Published on October 5th, 2016

Rare bits of publicly shared advice from the very private filmmaker.

We’re all familiar with what a Terrence Malick movie is, enough to spot the real thing or a parody or his clear influence on other filmmakers. He has a distinct style, and he has a very unique way of shooting these days. But we don’t know all the details about his process, nor do we know what sort of direct advice he’d give to film students.

Malick is a private and reclusive artist who doesn’t do interviews or make many public appearances, so even attempting to find informal lessons he’s imparted is extremely difficult. Still, we managed to dig up the usual six tips, some of them old and possibly not relevant to his current process, some by way of his collaborators, all worthy of consideration.

Include Camera Direction in Your Script

Any film student and professional screenwriter knows that putting camera direction in screenplays is highly frowned upon. Especially screenplays being sold or handed off to be directed by someone else. But auteurs like Malick can do it, as they’re the ones who will be taking their own shot suggestions.

Of course, Malick now works off script or even without a script a lot of the time and might consider the following comment, made in a 1974 interview for Filmmakers Newsletter (reprinted in the book “One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick”), to be an ancient thought.

I think it’s a good idea to [include camera moves and angles in your script]. You probably won’t end up using it, but it forces you to visualize the scene. And if you can’t visualize it easily, if you can’t imagine where the camera would go, it’s probably not a good scene.

Here’s a bonus video on another part of Malick’s early scripts where editor Billy Weber talks about voiceover in Badlands and Days of Heaven:

Be Aggressive But Not Antagonistic About Independent Financing

This piece of advice, from the same Filmmakers Newsletter interview, is also surely dated, not just for Malick but for the industry and the nature of independent production. If so, it remains an interesting historical tip, and it’s also notable for how it might now relate to crowdfunding campaigns, only without the return on investment part.

I’d say the hardest part is finding people to approach for money in the first place. But if you’re aggressive about it, they have a way of turning up. You may get rejected at a 20 to 1 rate, but if you keep on trying, you’ll eventually find someone that’s interested.

There’s almost no chance you’ll be successful in getting investments from people in the movie business. You’ve got to approach dentists and lawyers and people in other walks of life. And you’ve got to remember that they will not be judging the picture on the merits of the script (as I first thought), not on location stills or screen tests of the actors, but almost solely on your commitment to the picture. So what you really have to do is assemble is evidence of that commitment.

Thirty years later, another tip from Malick on film financing turned up in a quote from filmmaker Miguel Arteta in a DGA Quarterly article:

I’ve discovered that financiers will give up whatever control issues they have more easily if they are getting respect from the director and if the relationship is not an adversarial one. I remember asking Terence Malick for advice about how to deal with financiers and those who would want to change or control my vision. He told me that if there is any way to resolve an issue without getting antagonistic, take it. Once you both cross that line, the filmmaker is the one who will ultimately lose.

Rules Aren’t Necessary

During a press conference for Malick’s Knight of Cups at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, Natalie Portman shared a tip she learned from the filmmaker before starting production on her feature directorial debut:

Keep Rolling

One of Malick’s more recent lessons comes from a Q&A following a screening of The New World in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 2005 (also reprinted in “One Big Soul”). It’s a brief statement regarding his own process, but it’s also a tip on how to capture everything, documentary-like.

I film quite a bit of footage, then edit. Changes before your eyes, things you can do and things you can’t. My attitude is always let it keep rolling. It took ten months to edit the film. There was a lot to sort through.

Like Portman, other actors who direct or are interested in directing seem to learn a lot from Malick, though details are not always shared, out of respect for his privacy. But in a 2012 GQ interview, Ben Affleck at least shares that he learned how to shoot with natural light and to be [paraphrased by the interviewer] “nimble enough to just jump out of a van and start filming.”

He also describes Malick’s process as being fluid in a way that’s as if he keeps rolling inside of his rolling. It was a lesson in directing if not acting:

It was kind of a wash for me in terms of learning something as an actor, because Terry uses actors in a different way ‐ he’ll [have the camera] on you and then tilt up and go up to a tree, so you think, ’Who’s more important in this ‐ me or the tree?’ But you don’t ask him, because you don’t want to know the answer.

In the video below, Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale have similar stories about the fluidity of Malick from the making of The New World:

Silence is Golden

In the GQ interview, Affleck also discusses Malick’s desire to film most of To the Wonder without dialogue. “Just more and more I’m more interested in silences,” Malick is said to have told Affleck. Barry Pepper, who didn’t make the final cut of To the Wonder and who hasn’t directed anything himself (yet?), shared with us a related bit on Malick’s direction of him in 2010:

One of the things Malick did say to me is, “If what you’re saying doesn’t intersect with what is in your own heart, saying nothing will not be held against you.” To me, that was like getting a love letter. It was such a beautiful thing to be told. From my perspective, I’ve always admired filmmakers that put a lot of trust in their artists and actors, and respect their intuition and their ability with revising the dialog if you don’t find an honesty and authenticity to it. That’s the way he was. He didn’t want you to say anything that wasn’t absolutely pure.

And here’s Olga Kurylenko at the 2012 Venice Film Festival on what Malick would tell the actors while making To the Wonder:

Abandon Authenticity if It’s Not Honest

What’s the difference between authenticity and honesty? Aren’t they both forms of truthfulness? Yes, but Malick makes a distinction between them, recognizing that sometimes authenticity can still come off as artificial. In the below video on the making of To the Wonder, editor Keith Fraase explains.

And that apparently goes for documentary films, as well. Laura Dunn, who made the Malick-produced doc The Unforeseen recently shared a tip she received from him with Women and Hollywood:

[The best advice was from] Terrence Malick who told me not to simply chronicle what happens, but to ask what the forces are behind what’s happening. What are the forces making it so? He also told me not to edit simply in a chronological order but rather to find scenes and material I like and start building scenes there. To edit like a piece of music ‐ allowing little melodies to come in and out.

7 Scenes We Love From ‘Badlands’

What We Learned

In 1973, Malick was interviewed for an American Film Institute newsletter (also reprinted in “One Big Soul”) and said, “I don’t feel yet I have a style or approach to filmmaking. Perhaps when I have 10 films behind me I will have something worth saying.” Ironically, he’s now made a number of movies (still less than 10, however) and has a recognizable style and approach and might have something to say, but he isn’t saying it.

We know a few things he’s uttered in decades past as well as in the last 10 years, and it all adds up to a lesson in being prepared but flexible, and pure and honest but not necessarily authentic, and also open to throwing away all rules of filmmaking when they hinder that flexibility or honesty. If you want to learn anything direct from Malick, though, your best option is to become an actor and get cast in one of his pictures. It doesn’t matter if you make it into the final cut, because the experience will be a masterclass on directing.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.