Terrence Malick Explains His Unconventional Process in Rare SXSW Conversation

Terrence Malick
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Terrence Malick spent 40 days filming his latest drama “Song to Song” throughout Austin, in his trademark style, without a completed script. The days were long — starting in the morning, with only a 30-minute break for lunch. The actors were even shot in the car, moving from one location to the next, just in case it turned into something.

“With new cameras, you can quickly accumulate a lot of footage,” Malick said at a rare public Q&A at SXSW on a rainy Saturday morning. “We had an eight-hour first cut. We thought, ‘Is this a mini-series?’ It really could have been. It took a long time to cut it down to a manageable length.”

Malick, who lives in Austin, started making the movie in 2012. But he finally unveiled the experimental drama as the opening night feature at this year’s SXSW Film Festival on Friday night. Although the reclusive director didn’t sit through the showing, he emerged the next morning with his lead actor Michael Fassbender, in a conversation moderated by Richard Linklater.

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Malick shed some light — in his own way — on his unconventional process. “We keep rolling to keep it spontaneous,” he said of his style. He likes to portray “bits and pieces” of his characters’ lives, as opposed to traditional narratives.

“You never know at the end of the day what you actually got,” Malick said. “The editing takes a longer time than usual. You have to ask the patience of the studio or the financier. Sometimes more than once.”

The original title for “Song to Song” — about a music executive (Fassbender) as he drifts through a series of tortured relationships — was “Weightless,” based on a Virginia Woolf quote. The most specific direction Malick gave Fassbender was to channel Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” At times, he’d yell between takes, telling him not to look like he’s posing.

The rest of the cast, which includes Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, bob in and out. There are cameos from Patti Smith and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Val Kilmer as a rock star. “We shot so much more than we finally used,” Malick said. “We’re very sorry not to use more of his stuff.” (“I wanted to see more of the Val scenes,” Fassbender said, remorsefully.)

Malick also revealed why he doesn’t work with storyboards. “If you try to make things happen, they start to feel presented,” he said. “The action has been premeditated. It starts to feel like theater, which is wonderful in its own right. But you don’t want the movies to be like theater.”

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Malick got in the film business in the ’70s with indie cult classics “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” but before that, he spent a year as a lecturer at MIT. “I quickly realized I wasn’t capable,” he said. “I didn’t understand what I was meant to be teaching. I felt like I had to do something else.”

Fassbender said he was happy to finally appear in a Malick film, after a previous collaboration they had talked about didn’t come together. The best perk was not needing to memorize lines, which usually takes him a long time. “It’s very liberating when you’re not carrying dialogue,” Fassbender said. “You’re actually in the moment.”

But there was a downside to working with a director who improvised so much. “I’ll be acting my socks off over there,” Fassbender said. “The next thing, I look over, and Terry if filming a beetle.”

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  1. Yes,Malik does different,but this one is inept,incoherent,and pretentious.Though it is set in the Austin music scene none of the major characters show any love or respect for music.Especially Malik,who treats the real musicians as boring props.Improvisation is an art form,in which the director has to be in control and inspiring the actors creativity.Otherwise,you get a dreary travelogue with actors muttering dumb things and the director photographing insects.I pray that Mr.Malik will take a hiatus from directing,until he can a least reach the pitiful level of a mumblecore feature.

  2. AllWiledUp says:

    As much as I loved Tree of Life, I hated To the Wonder. The Bale film was also horrible but I’ll give this one a chance.

    Interesting that Malick and Linklater are friends as both of them take a very unconventional approach to narrative.

    • Jane says:

      “To the Wonder” is actually a beautiful film about different forms of love – the love of one self, the love to another human, the love to God etc. – and how we can lose it it & find it again somewhere else. It’s maybe his most abstract film, but I don’t understand people who say ‘It doesn’t make any sense’. Yes, it does, because it’s carefully designed. You just need to dig a little deeper than usual.

      And “Knight of Cups” is a near-masterpiece in my eyes. It’s a little bit too long and has a little too much repetition, but it’s an experience unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. What is it about ? It’s about a man in crisis, who is forced to take a long, hard look at the misery he calls his life. It’s an attractive life on the surface, full of sex, money, cars, drugs, nice clothes – but it’s as empty as the industry products he spends his life creating. The organizing principle of the film are the tarot cards: They are a great symbol for fate – and for choice: You decide every day what kind of life you want to lead. And if your life is wrong, you need to stop and start again. That’s actually the last sentence spoken in the movie: “Start again.” You see? It’s not that difficult to get. Is it a traditional story ? No, but it’s a mood piece that speaks to you in different ways, if you listen up.

      All of Malick’s films since “Tree of Life” have been rather personal, with autobiographical references, but that’s a good thing. It’s called ‘auteur cinema’.

  3. IT--//--IT says:

    The INTEL RUN Hollywood franchıse slum ıs – – –so DONE

    BULLLLLLEH

  4. Jimmy Green says:

    In other words, he just films and films and films until the money runs out. Then he edits, edits, edits until something resembling a travelogue of approximately 1.5 hrs is left. Then he has the gall to charge admission to watch these unfocused, random, and incoherent snippets. Not a director but more like a clueless photographer. Artsy? No just Fartsy.

    • Aaron1968 says:

      No, that is not what Malick does. It is true that he pretty much continually shoots. And it is true that much of it is improvised (what’s wrong with that, I have no idea). And it’s true that there is a ton of editing involved — BTW, Terry if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting for that 5-1/2 hour cut of “Tree of Life. :)

      But to even imply that Malick is “clueless” is silly. He may not make films that you like. Heck, Bergman made films that a lot of people didn’t like. But just because they aren’t your style and are made in a very different way from most filmmakers does not make them shoddy.

      Can I see why his films are certainly not going to appeal to everyone (or even most people)? Absolutely. Then again, does one of my favorite films of all time, Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” appeal to most audiences? At least modern ones? I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess not. But Malick, like Tarkovsky did, makes very different films from most, with different goals in mind and often very different structure. I mean, look at most Comic Book Films — fairly straightforward structure in three acts, with multiple conflicts which culminate in the Big Fight. And that’s not a rip on CBM movies — I own over 20 on disc, and some like “The Dark Knight” are absolute favorites. But imagine if every single movie were made with the same structure, the same posed and very tightly orchestrated direction, etc.? Would you really want that? I wouldn’t.

      For example, I’m a big mumble core fan, because I enjoy the looseness of the entire process, of the acting, of the direction, of the whole thing. Again, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that hardly means it’s inherently bad. If everyone liked the same thing, this world would be even worse than it is now.

    • labarde says:

      Open your mind…he is an artist unlike you.

    • Diego Souza says:

      Well, there’s not only one way to do cinema, he does different, the results are different, some people like it, some don’t.

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