Backstory: Terrence Malick, the Mysterious Director of ‘The Tree of Life’
Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. But for a lot of hardcore film fans, the big story isn't who's in "The Tree of Life" but who directed it: Terrence Malick.The Cannes Film Festival will premiere "The Tree of Life" on Monday, which stars Brad Pitt,
"The Tree of Life" is only Malick's fifth film. His first, "Badlands," came out in 1973, 38 years ago. In that same span of time, Woody Allen has made 37 movies and Martin Scorsese 23. (Robert Altman made 28, and he died five years ago.) But part of the reason Malick is so worshiped by film lovers is precisely because he releases so few films: Since they happen so rarely, they're treated like major events, the movie equivalent of Halley's Comet.
But just as he doesn't put out a lot of films, so too does he himself stay out of the limelight. The last publicity still anyone has of him is from 1998, when he released "The Thin Red Line," only his third film and his first in 20 years. Additionally, he supposedly didn't allow Fox, which put out "The Thin Red Line," to use his image to promote the movie. And he doesn't do interviews: When he allowed one during the Rome Film Festival in 2007, it was his first in 34 years, and even then he refused to discuss his movies or allow audio or video recording during the interview. (He spent his time talking about Italian films he liked.) None of this keeps people from being interested in him, of course: If anything, it makes him more mysterious and intriguing, earning him the nickname "The J.D. Salinger of Filmmaking."
For such a professional recluse, his upbringing wouldn't necessarily suggest how media-shy he'd become. He played football at his Austin, Texas high school; his dad worked for an oil company as a geologist. But his family life had its traumas. Malick was the oldest of three sons, and the middle child (Chris) was badly burned in a car crash that killed his wife. The youngest son, Larry, is believed to have killed himself over his failure to progress as a guitar player.
When Malick started making films in the 1970s -- "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" -- they were marked by an atmospheric, dreamlike tone but also by Malick's insistence on shooting a lot of footage and piecing the movie together later in the editing room. (Editing on "Days of Heaven" took almost two years.) But the films were embraced for their poetic, almost otherworldly feel.
And then Malick just dropped out of sight. He was hired to work on the occasional script, but he lived in Paris and kept to himself. Above all, he wanted to protect his privacy, as producer Robert Cortes mentioned in a 1999 Vanity Fair piece: