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