Backstory: Terrence Malick, the Mysterious Director of ‘The Tree of Life’

The ProjectorMay 13, 2011
He's not there. 20th Century Fox
He's not there. 20th Century Fox

The Cannes Film Festival will premiere "The Tree of Life" on Monday, which stars Brad Pitt, 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 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:

"I couldn't communicate with him directly," recalls Cortes. "I would make a phone call to a certain number, leave a message, and then his brother would call me back." Once, Malick and Cortes actually met face-to-face at Universal executive Ned Tanen's home in Santa Monica Canyon. After the meeting, Cortes offered to give him a lift. "He was very cryptic about where to drop him off," Cortes continues. "I let him out at the corner of Wilshire and Seventh or somewhere. He waited for me to drive away, and then he just walked off."

This type of behavior gets you labeled a weirdo if you're a regular person, but if you're an artist -- especially a successful one whose work has a highbrow quality to it -- it only adds to your aura. By the time "The Thin Red Line" came out, Malick seemed larger than life and the movie more like a proclamation from the gods than a meditative antiwar film that starred a lot of big names in very small roles. (There was a whole crop of actors -- including Martin Sheen and Gary Oldman -- who were cut out of it entirely.) People debated the movie's languid qualities -- and that of his next film, 2005's "The New World" -- but Malick refused to talk about them.

Which brings us to Monday and the premiere of "The Tree of Life." The big names, like Pitt and Penn, will most assuredly be walking the red carpet, but it's a pretty good bet that Malick will be nowhere around. That's probably just as well. Love or hate his ambitious, meandering films, part of the reason why they work so well is because their creator is so secretive. At a time when we learn everything about a movie before it even comes out, there's something great about not knowing much about "The Tree of Life" beyond the fact that there will be dinosaurs in it. "The Tree of Life" could be a horribly pretentious pile of mush, but at least it'll be judged entirely on its own terms. How many filmmakers can make that claim?

The Runaway Genius [Vanity Fair]