Four years ago I ran a transcript of an odd Terrence Malick phoner that I suddenly found myself doing on a fall morning in 1995. I was unprepared, winging it, trying to keep the chit-chat going and getting nowhere. It was nonetheless historic for the rareness. I’m re-posting it in recognition of Malick’s Tree of Life (Penn, Pitt, dinosaurs) opening later this year. I’ve heard from a money guy that it’s definitely opening before 12.31. I guess I should call Apparition’s Bob Berney and see what’s really what.

Terrence Malick around the time of the shooting of The Thin Red Line.

I’m one of the only journalists to have any kind of conversation with Malick since he went into his Thomas Pynchon-like withdrawal about 20 or 21 years ago (not long after the release of Days of Heaven) and became this gentle phantom-like figure whom journalists couldn’t get to under any circumstance.

In this context speaking to Malick on the phone — which I managed to do on October 25, 1995, around 11:35 am — was like snapping a photo of Bigfoot. It was a half-pleasant, half-awkward, pretty much meaningless conversation, but at least he picked up the phone.

Malick had been staying with producer Mike Medavoy, who wound up producing The Thin Red Line, but Medavoy was leaving for Shanghai and Malick would be staying elsewhere, so I called to get a forwarding number.

A cleaning woman answered and said Medavoy was out, but that Malick was nearby. She asked me to hold…

Malick: Hi.

Me: Hi, Terry. This is Jeffrey Wells speaking…

Malick: Hi.

Me: And uhh…I was just talking to Mike last night and he said, uh, you might be leaving today and I wanted to see if I could speak with you about an article I’m researching. It’s for Los Angeles magazine and my editor…he worked on that piece about ten years ago with David Handleman for California magazine. It was called “Absence of Malick.”

Malick: Yeah.

Me: I don’t know if…did you happen to read it?

Malick: No, I…I…uhnn…

Me: Anyway, I’m doing this piece and trying to sort things through here. About what’s going on with…well, to start with, The Thin Red Line and that rumored BAM stage production of “Sansho the Bailiff” and…I’ve wanted to speak with you about it, and now that I’m speaking with you I feel…well, I feel nervous.

Malick: Don’t be, Jeffrey. It’s not that. I just don’t feel comfortable talking about it yet.

Me: About Red Line, you mean?

Malick: Yeah and…it’s something that has no date, really. It may happen sometime in the indefinite future.

Me: The indefinite future? Uh-huh. So there’s no approximate, long-range…it’s not even on a low flame?

Malick: I…I’m…uhmm.

Me: I was only thinking, you know…heh-heh… ‘indefinite future.’ You could say the same thing about the sun collapsing and the end of the solar system, heh-heh.

Malick: Uhhmm…

Me: I’m only mentioning this because…well, you may have seen that item in Premiere that you said you had this reading of the script with Costner and Lucas Haas and Ethan Hawke.

Malick: We did it just to get a sense of how it flowed.

Me: How did it flow?

Malick: I just don’t feel comfortable talking about it. I appreciate your interest but…

Locust arrival scene in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven

Malick: Mike says you’re on the second or third draft, something…it’s a work that’s been through some development and progression, and…

Malick: I….

Malick: I dont want to grill you, Terry. Mike explained the rules and said that grilling you…’that’s the one thing we don’t do’…and I understand that. I had a hope, though, of just discussing movies in general…ones you’ve seen and been impressed by in recent years.

Malick: Well, I appreciate your interest. I guess I do feel uncomfortable talking right now.

Me: I’m just one of…who knows, hundreds of film journalists around the country who regard you as one of the best ever and have watched your films over and over.

Malick: You’re very kind, Jeffrey. I appreciate it and I feel it and it comes to me as very encouraging. But I feel uncomfortable talking about it. I spoke to my brother Chris and he said that you’re just trying to help. And of course I know you’re just trying to do your job.

Me: I was actually just reading about a new laser disc of Days of Heaven that’s coming out, and it’s really something I’m looking forward to because I’ve never seen a print of that film that equalled the first viewing at the Cinema 1 in New York when they showed a 70mm print with six-channel sound, and having a…are you a laser-disc aficionado?

Malick: I’m, uh…not..uhm…

Me: Are you…you don’t watch TV? Videos? Do you ever catch movies on tape?

Malick: I’d be happy to talk to you at some later point, Jeffrey.

Me: I know. I understand know what the rules are.

Malick: And someone actually is here, Jeffrey, and I do have to keep an appointment. I would love to, later on…we could talk.

Me: I’ll look forward to it. I understand you’re in town for a few more days.

Malick: Yes, but I really do have to go now.

Me: Because if you have a moment later on, I’d like to run some basic points by you and just go over them one by one, for accuracy’s sake.

Me: I can’t really talk about this. I know what you’re trying to do and it’s not…if you’d try to understand. Chris told me you’d written and that you were trying to help.

Me: Well, I hope you have a good stay. I look forward to chatting again on a more…uhm, relaxed basis.

Malick: Okay, thank you.

  • The InSneider

    Interesting convo, Jeff, and I do appreciate you posting it. Still, this exchange kinda cracked me up:

    Wells: I was only thinking, you know…heh-heh… ‘indefinite future.’ You could say the same thing about the sun collapsing and the end of the solar system, heh-heh.

    Malick: Uhhmm…

  • Mowkeka


  • frankbooth

    Malick makes De Niro look like Tarantino.

  • K. Bowen


  • scooterzz

    kudos for, at least, getting him on the phone…that’s more than most are able to do…..

  • QualityGibberish

    J: I . . .

    M: No.

    J: If . . .

    M: Nope.

    J: Some other . . .

    M: Unh uh.

    J: I’m just . . .

    M: Not now.

    J: Maybe . . .

    M: Gotta go.

    Journalism: An army of one.

  • the sordid sentinel

    I had never seen that TRL’s great. I wish Malick was more accessible, but at least he hasn’t piped up creatively. I’m very much looking fwd. to “Tree of Life”.

  • Renfield

    I had the pleasure of speaking to him once through an old job and this doesn’t sound like the same person. I found him very open and willing to expound on some thoughts I had on his films. What a difference a few years and two movies make.

    He had the kind of speaking style that instantly made me think of him sitting on a front porch in a rocking chair, sipping lemonade, while watching the sun set. Good guy.

  • DeeZee

    Anyone up for a Bad Boys threequel?
    Or a Rambo 5?
    Cage wants his own Death Wish-wannabe in 3-d.
    It’s nice to know the same “qualifications” which make you President are the same “qualifications” which make you a news correspondent.

  • Gogocrank

    You know what I don’t get? Writing is a solitary endeavor. Even editing can be done via letters or phone calls or otherwise from some remove. So Salinger or Pynchon, sure – easy to hide. But filmmaking is a massive group undertaking, with dozens of people orbiting the director even before he or she works with the actors. Throw them in the mix – let alone a lot of them, as with the last couple of Malick movies – and it seems downright impossible to hide, per se. Malick can’t simultaneously be a recluse and an orchestrator on a film set, can he? Do cast and crew sign non-disclosure agreements? Does he work through an intermediary? Does he go out to eat with cast members? Just genuinely curious here. Salinger – no one knows nada. Pynchon – he gets out and about to some extent but still keeps it very private. But how does a director, someone whose job entails working with others, hide and work at the same time? It’s fascinating to me.

  • Bilge

    In person Malick is, by all accounts, completely personable and outgoing. And most people who have worked with him have had no problems with his reclusiveness or anything like that (his indecisiveness is another matter). I think he was just being polite to Jeff in basically telling him he didn’t want to talk to him. He doesn’t talk to the press. Certainly not on record.

    Also, Jeff, re: your caption — That’s not Malick in 1979. That’s Malick on the set of THE THIN RED LINE.

  • Cde.

    Gogocrank, Malick’s cast and crew do in fact sign non-disclosure agreements. His contracts also stipulate that no photos are to be taken of him.
    He does go out to eat with cast members, too. A photo of him having lunch with Sean Penn and Joanna Going leaked out recently.
    That photo is now impossible to find. Malick seems to have a very high-quality team assigned to control the flow of information about him. Hours after photos or information are posted on the internet, they vanish.

  • MrTribeca

    I’m sure that’s an earlier version of the TRL poster, as Travolta’s name was later removed from it. I happen to own a copy of the novel released at the time which was immediately withdrawn; the reason given was that it featured this poster on the front cover. When it reappeared, it was minus Travolta’s name. I wonder if he threw a fit seeing his name at the bottom of the list?

  • markj

    Travolta was really crappy in The Thin Red Line, he stood out like a sore thumb.

  • Gogocrank

    Interesting. So he’s not really any more reclusive than, say, Tom Cruise. Just press-averse. In the end it’s the press that writes the story, I suppose, so if they say he’s reclusive, I guess that’s mostly code for “he won’t talk to me.” But by every account Malick is mostly just a polite bird-watching kind of guy.

  • jasctt

    By all accounts, Malick is a VERY personable guy. He just doesn’t care to pontificate for the press, which makes him even more aces in my book.

    Wells: I’ve read this piece before when you posted it on Mr. showbiz or poopshoot. One of the coolest things you’ve written bout.

  • BoshBarnetWonkyDonkey

    I love how that one photo of Malick gets used all the time. It’s like the ubiquitous Nikki Finke solitary headshot.

    This is the only other modern photo I’ve seen of him:

    Seems like he’s at some kind of panel discussion there. Weird.

  • Cde.

    In recent years Malick has eased up in his reclusiveness from public view. To everyone’s shock, he appeared at the after premiere party for The New World, and spoke on a panel discussion about the film after a screening in his hometown. I believe that’s where the photo posted by BoshBarnetWonkyDonkey originated.
    After much persuasion from the organizers, Malick gave an on-stage interview at the Rome Film Festival in 2007. No photography was allowed, but there’s a cell phone video on Youtube that shows the mysterious Malick to be a giant blur.

  • Sir Malick has always confounded me as a filmmaker. It’s kinda funny that his most linear film was his first one, ‘Badlands’. His last three films have been “works of startling art” but keeps you at arms length as well. I remember thinking when I sat in a theatre watching ‘Days of Heaven’, that every frame should/could hang in a museum. But the story moved at it’s own snail pace. Then came ‘The Thin Red Line’. Ummm, ok… a ethereal war movie that made Apocalypse Now seem like a gung-ho John Wayne war epic! But still… one had to admire the way Malick lit the grass and how the wind gently moved the blades and every so often a helmet would come into view then down again like a shark coming to the surface.

    Now about that phone interview… I found it amusing… Jeff kept reminding Malick that he knew the rules of engagement for the interview and that Mike had set it up and all was a go. Then Jeff continues to chip away and Malick won’t have any of it. It’s almost like Jeff was set-up for failure from the get-go.

    Perhaps it went down like this before Jeff’s call…

    Mike: Look Terry, a writer for that L.A. rag will be calling you about an article he’s writing about you. He needs some information so he can make sure his stuff is up to snuff.

    Malick: Uh Huh.

    Mike: Look, take his call. That way we can tell the Press that we do take calls. That we do talk to reporters, etc.

    Malick: ummm, really?

    Mike: Yes.

    Malick: Hmm, a “Catch-22” phone call. Love it.

    And while we are on the subject of mysterious/Salinger or Pynchon type talents… what has ever happened to the “visionary” director of ‘The Stunt Man’, Richard Rush? Heck what about W.D. Richter?

  • JohnCope

    “…what has ever happened to the “visionary” director of ‘The Stunt Man’, Richard Rush?”

    Color of Night happened to him, that’s what (which is meant as no great disparagement on my part as I happen to love Color of Night; but still…).

  • Bilge

    That other photo of Malick is from the DGA ceremony at which he was nominated for TTRL, I believe.

  • BlackCrime

    Wells, this is what… the 3rd time on HE that you’ve posted this in 2009? It’s great, but give it a rest.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Wells to BlackCrime: I ran it four years ago. That would make it…uhm, hold on, get out my calculator, tuck-tuck-tuck…uh, that would make it one previous time I’ve run it on HE.

  • Yer

    Harvard educated Malick showing off his reclusiveness in full force. Amazing. I wonder if it’s easier to break into the Pentagon or find Terrence Malick. Tree of Life will be another masterpiece, but hopefully he slows down a bit, otherwise he wouldn’t be Malick ;).

  • K. Bowen

    When Time Mag visited The Thin Red Line set, the article stated that Malick gave a “generous” off record interview to the reporter, IIRC. Just not on record.

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  • Chris Hodenfield

    Am I the only writer to ever interview Terry Malick? That can’t be. I spent an afternoon with him just as he was finishing “Days of Heaven” and wrote a column about it for Rolling Stone. The ground rule then was that I couldn’t actually “quote” him. I wasn’t crazy about that rule but I leapt at the chance to see him.

    The funny thing is that he worked in journalism in the ’60s, working as a researcher for a few magazines. I’m not sure what led to his mistrust of the journalism process, but maybe he saw what happened in the cannery and never wanted to eat the tuna fish again.

    I found him a delightful guy. We had lunch at Lucy’s and laughed it up. He loves music with a passion. (Afterward I sent him a copy of Leo Kottke’s new album, Burning Lips, because there was a song on it titled “Theme From Terry’s Movie.”) Afterward we drifted around the Paramount lot, and he took me up to see the model ships that were used in old pirate movies. They were rotting away in some rafters.

    He was a very engaging man, curious about everything, cheerful, knowledgeable, with a worldly perspective.
    At the time I didn’t grasp just how hurt he might have been over the cutting of “Days of Heaven.” He allowed that he’d had to cut quite a bit from it. If I’d dug into it more, I might have learned that he had to cut a LOT from the original.
    This experience might have driven him into his shell.
    But I’m just guessing here.

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  • Nice interview, I liked this movie.

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