The Man Who Wasn’t There

When Austinite Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” opens in theaters this month, Hollywood’s most famous disappearing act will come to an end. Or will it?

December 1998By Comments

“Boy,” Maggio said as they watched him go. “That guy kin really play a bugle. Whynt he never play? He should ought to be in the Bugle Corps.”

“He was, you jerk,” Andy said scornfully. “He quit. He wouldn’t play in this old Corps.”

—From Here to Eternity, by James Jones

WHEN I MET TERRENCE MALICK, he was in Los Angeles, editing his new movie, The Thin Red Line,  which opens on Christmas Day. The project marks his return to directing after a twenty-year break spent mostly in Austin, his hometown. Unfortunately, when we arranged the meeting, Malick had asked me not to write about it, which places me in a bind. Let me say this much: We had a drink on the patio of a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Red hibiscus trailed down the walls, and its flamboyant beauty mirrored the general feel of the place. The people around us were stunning, and the European cars outside were expensive. I had picked the location. Malick seemed at ease, but his humility told me that this was not his true setting.

I’d read a lot about Malick in the preceding weeks, and almost every story had depicted him as an unfathomable recluse. He’s often compared to writer J. D. Salinger, another genius who won’t share himself with the public. My homework had given me the sense of a ghostly eminence, so it was startling to encounter Malick as a corporeal being. He has a bearish figure, a cropped white beard, a bald dome, and a vertical, Spanish-looking nose. My general impression was that he is the most reserved warm person, or the warmest reserved person, that I can recall ever meeting. The recluse label fits him poorly, as everyone who gets to know Malick finds him gregarious. Still, he remains steadfastly oblique: Even old friends say he rarely asks for personal advice, rarely divulges his deepest feelings. This does not stop them from feeling close to him. “Terry is thoughtful,” says someone who has known him for decades but asks not to be quoted by name for fear of causing a rift with Malick. “He has a seriousness about him that does not suppress his humor but is always there. I think it comes from his appreciation for how philosophical life is, and how tragic. How deeply tragic. That’s what is so endearing about him: He reacts to you with that level of concern.” His charismatic personality inspires an unusual loyalty, demonstrated by the lengths to which friends have gone to further his career and to maintain his privacy when he decided to abandon moviemaking.

With his friends, Malick typically talks about books, birds, and travel. These are the interests of someone engaged with the empirical world, not someone engrossed in Hollywood, a realm dedicated to illusion. Still, he must have a steely side, because Hollywood isn’t the kind of place where an intellectual drifter can accomplish much. In time, I came to appreciate the degree to which Malick needs to feel in control. It explains his struggle with procrastination: As long as he hasn’t made up his mind, he can hold on to all of his options. The closest he came to an answer regarding an on-the-record interview, for example, was several weeks after our meeting, when he called me from his car. “I’m still very shy about this sort of thing, from a wish to lead as normal and simple a life as possible,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you to be under any impression that I’ll change about this. But I’ll continue to think about it.”

I had wanted to meet Malick to learn why he had returned to film, but as it turned out, the answer did not present itself that evening. Eventually I decided that the key to his intermittent moviemaking can be found in the work of the novelist he’s chosen to interpret. The Thin Red Line is based on James Jones’s book about a company of young men who take Guadalcanal. It’s a sequel of sorts to his first novel, From Here to Eternity, whose protagonist is a soldier named Robert E. Lee Prewitt. Proving his stubborn autonomy, Prewitt will not bugle, although he is one of the Army’s greatest buglers. It’s a story of character and institution converging: Jones uses Prewitt to reveal truths about the Army and vice versa.

Like Prewitt, Malick has baffled admirers by refusing to practice an art in which he is preeminent. For anyone trying to puzzle out what motivates him—what led him to Hollywood in the first place, what caused him to quit the movie business, and what has now brought him back—it helps to recall that he arrived at a time when filmmakers possessed an unparalleled measure of freedom. Legend has it that he walked away from it all, but in reality, by the time he vanished, the freedom he had enjoyed was fast disappearing.

The path back to L.A. was a crooked one. Given the degree to which he prefers to abstain, Malick might never have made another movie but for the persistence of two obscure Broadway producers who courted him for a decade. When it became clear he was going to direct again, every male lead in Hollywood scrambled to get a part, drawn by the idea of working with an icon of the seventies film scene. “I told Terry I would carry the hammer box if he wanted me to,” George Clooney told a reporter. Malick cast Clooney, Sean Penn, John Cusack, John Travolta, and Woody Harrelson, among others. This princely lineup of celebrities, combined with Malick’s return, would have been enough to guarantee press attention, but then Steven Spielberg complicated matters by entrancing critics with Saving Private Ryan, which led the media to conclude that this was the year to make a war movie. And so Hollywood’s most retiring director is about to endure a particularly splashy comeback. It’s not how he would have planned it.

“On the set it seems like the sky’s the limit. But it usually comes out as anxiety, because when you see what you’ve done you’re aware of what you could do if you knew how. The hardest thing to accept is that it leaves your control so quickly.”

—Terrence Malick, Women’s Wear Daily, 1974

OF COURSE, MALICK’S FIRST DANCE WITH HOLLYWOOD WAS splashy too—and coincidentally, it also involved Spielberg. Malick moved to L.A. in 1969. That was the year Easy Rider came out, introducing the nation to cocaine, Dennis Hopper’s maniacal side, and a radically different type of film. As Peter Biskind documents in his recently published history of moviemaking in that era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the studios were abandoning conformity out of desperation; it wasn’t selling anymore. Hoping to appeal to a generation weaned on rock music, they created a period of ferment. Hotshot young directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman hired unusual-looking actors, aimed for a grittier realism, and talked about capturing the real America.

Malick made his debut in 1973 with a haunting movie based on the lives of an infamous pair of ne’er-do-wells: serial killer Charlie Starkweather and his fourteen-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. In 1958 they did a bloody two-step across the Midwest that left ten dead. Malick called his movie Badlands, after the countryside they ravaged. On first glance, Badlands looks like a perverse western, or a road movie that took a wrong turn, but under those conventions lies the story of a young girl going astray. In a time given to stories of rebellion, Badlands stood out for its twisted lyricism. “It has the appearance of a fairy tale,” says Bill Scott, who was the movie’s production manager. “It has the ephemeral quality that all of Terry’s work has.” Narrated in a deliberately eccentric manner by Sissy Spacek, who plays the Fugate character, the movie conflates violence with sexual awakening. “I wanted to do a film on what it meant to be fourteen in the Midwest in 1958,” Malick told Women’s Wear Daily in 1974, in his last interview. “I think there are things you’re open to as an adolescent that close up forever afterward. I wanted to show a kind of openness, a vulnerability that disappears later, when you get a little savvier.”

Overnight, at age 29, Malick found his name in every newspaper in the country. His fame stemmed from the sense that he’d produced something fine and also that he was in tune with the zeitgeist. Almost every review considered Badlands in conjunction with the debut of another director, 26-year-old Steven Spielberg, who’d just made The Sugarland Express, also about a couple on the lam. Critics split over which film was better. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby called Badlands “ferociously American” and “profound.” He thought Sugarland was otherwise. But The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael preferred emotional films, and the ironic distance of Badlands disturbed her. Of Spielberg, she wrote, “He could be that rarity among directors, a born entertainer—perhaps a new generation’s Howard Hawks.” Of Malick: “Badlands is an art thing, all right, but I didn’t admire it, I didn’t enjoy it, and I don’t like it.”

Five and a half years later, Malick won the best director award at Cannes for his second movie, Days of Heaven, which tells the story of an itinerant couple whose love affair ends in bloodshed. It was an ordeal to make. People who knew the movie’s history felt it was patched together, but others saw an epic told in a fantastically spare style, as if some offbeat poet had brought to life a Willa Cather novel. “This is a film that tells us, with a narrative restraint and a noble absence of emotion, about the strength of Americanness,” wrote Penelope Gilliatt in The New Yorker. “In what the film leaves unsaid, it is voluble.”

Then, inexplicably, Malick vanished. He refused offers of work, severed his ties to Hollywood, and wandered the world. Over time his disappearing act became the stuff of myth. Filmgoers stirred by the elliptical magic of Badlands and Days of Heaven yearned to see that kind of fluid, surprising work unfold before them again. The fact that he wasn’t around said something to cinephiles in the way that Janis Joplin’s overdose or Bobby Kennedy’s assassination spoke to the country at large. Malick’s films had helped define Hollywood in the seventies; after that colorful period drew to a close, the times that followed were defined instead by the absence of directors like him.

“I guess it’s that old Southern thing—don’t talk about yourself and try to draw the other fellow out.”

—Terrence Malick, Women’s Wear Daily

To understand why Malick left the movie business, it helps to learn how strange it was that he ever got into it in the first place. The eldest of three brothers, Malick, now 55, grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where his father, Emil, worked for Phillips Petroleum. This Midwestern beginning would color all of his work. “He didn’t grow up with asphalt under his feet,” says Bill Scott. “He has a strong sense of land, of sky, of weather.” Malick’s paternal grandparents moved to America from Russia, and his maternal grandparents moved from Ireland—an immigrant background that led screenwriter Jacob Brackman to compare Malick with Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront; America, America). “Terry has that same second-generation sensibility,” says Brackman, who met him in college. “A certain kind of feeling for America and for the West.” When he was eleven, Malick’s parents sent him away to St. Stephen’s, an Episcopal boarding school in Austin. He fashioned the most enduring friendships of his life there, as did many other students. “Our spouses think we’re all crazy,” says Harry Gerhart, a classmate of Malick’s back then. “We tell them, ‘Sign on to the idea that St. Stephen’s is the center of the world, or you can’t marry us.’” Subsequent years took Malick far afield. In 1961 he went to Harvard University. “He was somewhat on the vague side,” recalls classmate William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts. “He spent most of his time drinking coffee, talking about Wittgenstein and Husserl.” As an undergraduate Malick translated a book by German philosopher Martin Heidegger; in the summer he worked as a stringer for Newsweek. From Harvard he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, but he hated it. “It’s a long way from Bartlesville,” Weld observes. “He said trying to talk to the Brits was like trying to talk under water.” After feuding with his adviser, reportedly over his thesis topic, Malick left for London and started writing for Newsweek from there. It seems he found conflict so unpleasant that he was willing to redirect his entire life to avoid it.

When Malick returned to the United States, he worked briefly in the Miami bureau of Life, covering Latin America. In 1967 he left to write a long article for The New Yorker; Brackman was working there at the time and had put in a good word for him, as had another classmate at Oxford, Wallace Shawn, the son of the magazine’s editor. Based on these references, the editor, William Shawn, agreed to let Malick write a profile of Regis Debray, a leftist intellectual who had chronicled the life of Che Guevara. Malick spent several months in Bolivia, watching Debray stand trial before a military tribunal after being captured with a band of guerrillas. The following year, he borrowed an office at The New Yorker and sat down to write.

On April 4 he was interrupted by the news that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot. Both Brackman and Malick had met King, and they teamed up to write about the assassination. Malick drew on the memory of visiting King at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta: “In the course of our conversation, Dr. King told of a recent threat against his life, in Cleveland. ‘It has been given to me to die when the Lord calls me,’ he said, digressing from his narrative. ‘The Lord called me into life, and He will call me into death.’” Malick showed an eye for cinematic detail when he sketched the scene outside: “We remember that a young black girl in a stiff organdie dress was spinning a hubcap on the hot pavement.”

That collaboration was all that Malick published in The New Yorker. Though he spent at least a year on the Debray assignment, he never completed it. He struggled to fit the complexities of Debray’s life into the convenient box of a magazine article, but the life refused to be so neatly circumscribed. Such an early failure, especially with so ambitious a project, was hardly unusual, yet the bitter tang of the disappointment appeared to stay with Malick and to corrode his interest in journalism.

Struggling with his setbacks and his perfectionism, Malick returned to philosophy. He got a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching a seminar on Heidegger. But he was thinking of getting into film. “Terry was feeling discouraged about being a writer because of how much you were cast back on yourself,” Brackman says. “It was such a solitary activity, whereas making a movie was like putting your raft in a river; you could get carried along by all the other people involved.”

“The thirteen years between Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and Heaven’s Gate in 1980 marked the last time it was really exciting to make movies in Hollywood . . .”

—Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind

In 1953, when From Here to Eternity was made into a movie, L.A. was in the rush of the post-war boom. It was the studio era, the height of Old Hollywood. The movie, which starred Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra, won eight Oscars, including the one for best picture. But by 1964, when The Thin Red Line was made into a movie for the first time, Old Hollywood had begun to crumble. Filmed in Spain, the adaptation was a clunker. Presented with the challenge of capturing interior struggles on film, director Andrew Marton opted instead for kinky melodrama—at one point, the cowardly Fife demonstrates his lack of masculinity by cross-dressing. New Hollywood had many originators, but one of the most influential was George Stevens, Jr., whose father had directed Giant. In 1969 Stevens founded the American Film Institute’s center for the advanced study of film. “The kind of person we were looking for was someone who had an interesting sensibility,” he says, “not necessarily someone who knew how to operate an editing machine.” Brackman, who was writing about film, recommended Malick. After Malick sent in a quirky 16mm short, he was called in for an interview. “He was from Oklahoma and Texas, a Rhodes scholar, interested in sports, and teaching philosophy,” Stevens says. “In my view, he was a home run. I felt he wouldn’t make the same pictures everyone had made last year.”

Besides Malick, the first AFI fellows included screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff), and director David Lynch (Blue Velvet). “It was the cream of the crop,” says Bill Scott, who worked as the AFI’s staff production manager. “The idea was, let’s take a bunch of talented people, put equipment at their disposal, and see what happens.” Malick worked diligently at moviemaking, charmed the right people, produced strong work. After agent Mike Medavoy took him on as a client, Malick wrote an entertaining script about a long-distance trucker that was made into an awful road movie called Deadhead Miles. Malick also wrote Pocket Money, about a cowboy looking for easy money; it’s pretty good. Some have suggested that watching his writing become other people’s property inspired him to direct.

Arthur Penn was a figure of great influence to the younger prodigies. In 1967 Penn had helped usher in the new era with Bonnie and Clyde, his reinterpretation of the western—Kael called it “the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate.” Malick’s first wife, Jill Jakes, had once worked as Penn’s assistant, and the two directors became friends. In 1971 Malick set out to make a movie that owed an obvious debt to Penn and to Bonnie and Clyde, as it also told the story of a fugitive couple who attract notoriety for their crimes.

Making Badlands was tough. The $350,000 budget was so small that staff and equipment vendors agreed to be paid after the movie was released. Everyone on the set was green, which caused a series of mishaps. Most were benign, but during the filming of the scene in which the Starkweather character (played by Martin Sheen) burns down his girlfriend’s house,  an assistant lit a match too soon, creating an instant inferno. The lead special effects man was horribly burned. Legend has it that assistants then got into an ugly row over whether there was enough money to fly him to a burn center. “Every movie is hard to make,” says Bill Scott. “I’ve worked on studio movies that were harder. Badlands was hard in the respect that none of us had acquired a professional veneer yet, so you saw everyone’s entire emotional range. You saw them at their best and at their worst.”

As the shoot wrapped up, stories filtered back to L.A. of Malick wandering Colorado, too broke to pay for a crew, shooting images of wildlife by himself. After a year of editing, he emerged with an unconventional picture. It seemed more like a novel, particularly in its use of an unreliable narrator. Producer Ed Pressman sold the film to John Calley at Warner Bros. Calley was known as a director’s executive, but for Badlands, he paid just $1.1 million, a sum that barely covered expenses.

Nobody expected the avalanche of attention that followed. Once he had captured the notice of Kael and Canby, Malick joined the coterie of directors whose work constituted the emerging cinema. This opened doors. On his next movie, he worked with Bert Schneider, a central figure in the New Hollywood. Schneider threw wild parties, wore velvet, funded the Black Panthers, and was revered for having had the chutzpah to produce Easy Rider. Schneider took Days of Heaven to Paramount. For the studio, little risk was involved: At around $2.6 million, the budget was relatively low, and Schneider agreed to be liable for any cost overruns. Production began in 1976.

If Badlands had been grueling, Days of Heaven was torture. Malick may have been dissatisfied with the cast (Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, and Brooke Adams), since he had hoped to work with other actors. Or he may have been dissatisfied with life in general, as he and Jakes were divorcing. Or there may have been problems with the script. When Malick realized things weren’t working, he started to improvise. He shot vistas, sky, and birds. To the hidebound union crew, it looked like he was wasting his time. Old harvesting equipment broke down, delays inflated the budget, and Malick kept fooling around, looking for something monumental in the wheat fields, which spoke to him alone.

Sorting out a story line took more than two years. Much of the dialogue fell flat, so Malick started discarding it, but by the time he was done, nobody could follow the story. He resorted to voice-over—this time out of desperation—and chose sixteen-year-old Linda Manz to narrate. “You had to talk stuff to her and have her say it back to you or get her in a conversation,” recalls Brackman, who coached the young actress. “We would go into the studio for hours and send this stuff back to Terry. Then he would call up and say, ‘This isn’t working. Try to get it to be more mysterious. We need something Huck Finnish for that section on the river.’” There was so much imagery that the movie could be cut in a thousand ways, presenting Malick with countless decisions. Some felt he dithered over every one. His steely side emerged; despite repeated showdowns with Schneider, he wouldn’t back down. “Money was tight, and time is money,” says Brackman. “He had a lot of people screaming at him by the end.” Finally Paramount kicked in another $800,000, which covered what Schneider was obligated to pay.

The movie came out in 1978. As it had been shot mostly in the afternoon, the images were drenched in gold light—Malick had indeed captured the wheat field’s metaphoric bounty. If there was any argument over what he had accomplished visually, it was settled when the movie won the Oscar for best cinematography. Some critics lambasted him for resorting to voice-over again, but others thought the enigmatic commentary was the best thing about the movie. This is the way it would be for Malick: His successes have everything to do with his failures, and his failures necessitate his successes. He would never please everyone.

“I was once like you, my friend, but then I cut the rope, I slipped my anchor, and once I had, how—restful it was.”

—the Hermit’s soliloquy, Sansho the Bailiff, by Terrence Malick

Paramount was run by Charlie Bluhdorn, the chief executive of the studio’s corporate parent, Gulf + Western, and his opinion carried far greater practical effect than any critic’s. Bluhdorn fell for Days of Heaven. He gave Malick carte blanche on his next project—a terrible mistake, as the director was destined to wander far off course if given total freedom. Malick embarked on Q, a rambling enterprise about the beginning of the world. “He was thinking more in terms of symphony, rather than film,” says cinematographer Paul Ryan, who worked on Q. “People said Days of Heaven didn’t have enough story, that it was just imagery. He said, ‘I want to go more in that direction.’” Malick noodled around: He wanted to find out if it was possible to film from space, inside a volcano, at the South Pole, on the ocean floor. Q turned into an endless research project. Later, people in the business assumed that Malick couldn’t finish it—actually, he couldn’t start. Paramount remained accommodating, which was part of the problem. “Terry worked better from the underdog position,” says Ryan. “Suddenly he had all the approval in the world. I think he felt under a magnifying glass.”

When Malick started spending time in Europe, members of the crew realized the film wasn’t happening, so they started leaving to take other jobs. Finally Paramount shut the production office down. Then Bluhdorn died, initiating a power struggle for control of the studio. “At The New Yorker, Mr. Shawn would never say, ‘Where’s that piece?’” Brackman says. “Bluhdorn was that for Terry. When he died, Terry became just like anybody else in the business, and it was too much.” Approaching forty, Malick went into some kind of tailspin. He felt L.A. was making him into a person he didn’t want to become. He moved to Paris, cut off his old ties, went underground.

Meanwhile, L.A. itself changed, as The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws ushered in the era of massive marketing campaigns and wide breaks—when a movie appears in thousands of cinemas at once. Many careers ended prematurely as the New Hollywood faded. Of all the directors who arrived in the seventies, only Spielberg went on to create a string of blockbusters in the eighties. Still, in Malick’s case, there was no scandal, no public failure, no death. Others flamed out, but Malick chose to vanish, and that was far more mysterious. People never forgot him because they never knew why he left. Rumors circulated that he was guru-seeking in Nepal. The longer he stayed away, the more like fable his story became. “He’s one of those people who have become a cult figure because he has done so little,” says film critic Andrew Sarris. “He hasn’t made any other movies, so people can say, ‘Oh, for the days of Badlands and Days of Heaven.’”

To support himself, Malick did a lot of script doctoring, which paid exceedingly well. Once he wrote an entire screenplay—a version of Great Balls of Fire!, about musician Jerry Lee Lewis—but it was deemed too dark, and the movie that was ultimately made was based on a sunnier script. He got married again, to a French woman (they have since divorced). In time, however, Malick grew nostalgic for Texas. When he moved back in the mid-eighties, it felt like a homecoming. Nobody from St. Stephen’s cared much about the movie business, and with a Southern graciousness, they didn’t pry. “My impression was that he thought absolutely unprincipled people were running the industry,” says a longtime friend. “It was like he wanted to shuck off that part of his life. Because of his notoriety, this required that he simply not admit to it. He wouldn’t talk about Hollywood.”

“No one succeeds in film if he’s not hustling. The first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning is, Who can I hustle? and the last thing you think of before you go to bed is, Who can I hustle?”

 —Paul Schrader, from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

That might have been the end of Malick’s career had it not been for the tenacity of two men who wanted desperately to get into the movie business. Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau are not Hollywood insiders, but they certainly know how to hustle. The movie industry is predicated on a hunger for fantasy, something that Geisler acquired as a boy, working at a cinema in San Antonio. The manager was his hero. “He was a showman!” Geisler remembers. “He had this big diamond ring that he would beat on the candy counter. Certainly, by San Antonio standards, here was a Ziegfeld! A Barnum!” In the seventies Geisler moved to L.A. and looked up Malick after seeing Badlands. They had lunch at the Studio Grill. Geisler tried to interest Malick in a screenplay he had optioned, but Malick demurred. Geisler plied him with gifts, and they talked about putting on a traveling roadshow, but somehow Malick slipped through his fingers.

Later, Geisler moved to New York, where he met Roberdeau, who is from Austin. The two men brought Strange Interlude and Aren’t We All? to Broadway, but they longed to translate their stage experience into prestige in Hollywood. In 1988 they tracked Malick down in Austin and asked him to write a screenplay of The White Hotel, by D. M. Thomas. Malick declined but suggested The Thin Red Line. He’d become intrigued with the way James Jones had dealt with courage. After charming Jones’s widow, Gloria, Geisler and Roberdeau secured the rights to the novel.

So began a curious collaboration. Eager to promote themselves, Geisler and Roberdeau now claim responsibility for Malick’s return to film—though apparently Malick came to find them preposterous. His contract on The Thin Red Line stipulated that no one could visit the set without his permission, which he never granted to Geisler and Roberdeau. At the same time, clearly the producers invested a lot of time and effort in the project’s early stages. Without them, it might never have gotten off the ground. “It didn’t take, as we had presumed it would, two or three or even four years for Malick to bubble back up,” says Geisler. “It occupied most of the decade.”

“Bubbling,” Roberdeau chimes in. “Feeding the fire.”

Constant feeding of the fire,” says Geisler.

“Stew doesn’t bubble of its own accord,” says Roberdeau.

Malick completed a first draft in April 1989. In May the three men met in Paris for a script session. They sat in a park; Malick draped a handkerchief over his head because of the sun. “At first, maybe humoring us a little bit, he took out his screenplay and wanted to know what our thoughts were,” remembers Geisler. “We said, ‘That’s not where we begin. Let’s start with the novel.’ On every page, we had isolated some nugget or theme that we felt Terry had erroneously omitted.” It’s hard to believe that Geisler and Roberdeau shaped the script to the degree they imply, but no doubt they made a large number of suggestions. Malick remained unhappy with the screenplay, however, feeling that it lacked a climax, so he put it aside. The two producers then commissioned him to write a play, Sansho the Bailiff, based on the Buddhist legend. “We wanted to keep the machinery moving, because we felt like we were on to something together,” explained Geisler. “If he wasn’t yet ready to direct The Thin Red Line, then, Lord, let’s not let him out of our clutches.”

Eventually, Malick worked alternately on The Thin Red Line, Sansho, and a third project, called The English-Speaker. In total, the producers paid him $1 million, money they had obtained from a wealthy investor named Gerry Rubin. Juggling three projects allowed Malick to pick something up and put it down, which suited his creative process. If a vast gulf separated Geisler and Roberdeau from the Hollywood moguls they longed to become, that must also have appealed to Malick. He could take their checks and never feel he was doing business with the people he had left behind. Perhaps Malick didn’t understand that Geisler and Roberdeau were banking everything on the dream of orchestrating his return to moviemaking.

Malick’s friends believe he told Geisler and Roberdeau that he had no intention of directing The Thin Red Line, but Geisler and Roberdeau maintain that he had in fact pledged to direct it. Perhaps the truth is that Malick answered in language open-ended enough to allow Geisler and Roberdeau to hear whatever they wanted. And so it seems they constantly reassured people that Malick would direct the movie, even though Malick maintains that he never committed to do so. Various parties would despair of him, and the gabby producers would persuade them to wait a little bit longer. After a while, Gloria Jones started calling Malick “Hamlet on the Brazos.” Everything finally unraveled in 1993: Upon learning that Malick was writing an adaptation of The Moviegoer, Rubin pulled out. It seems he thought Malick had promised not to work with anyone else without getting approval, though it’s not clear that Malick made such a vow. At that point, the producers’ financial house of cards fell apart. According to The New York Observer, they proceeded to bounce a number of checks, until an irate caterer they owed $30,000 went to the police. The producers have since made full restitution to the caterer, but other parties still haven’t been paid.

In 1995, needing an infusion of cash, Geisler and Roberdeau decided to move forward with The Thin Red Line. “Quite frankly, it was getting increasingly impractical to be so solicitous of Terry,” says Roberdeau. “So we said, ‘We’re going to go make this movie now, Terry, aren’t we?’” When Geisler and Roberdeau took Malick’s script to L.A., they were smart enough to contact one of the only people in the business that Malick still trusted: his former agent, Mike Medavoy, who was then setting up a company called Phoenix Pictures within Sony Entertainment. “These guys were always living on the edge of extinction—without money,” Medavoy says, “so they asked me for $100,000 to get an option on all their projects.”

At that stage, Geisler and Roberdeau lost control of the project they had nursed for so long: Medavoy brought in George Stevens, Jr., Malick’s original Hollywood mentor, as executive producer, and the Broadway producers were eased out. Malick’s experiences with Geisler and Roberdeau probably made him more comfortable with the idea of working with old friends in Hollywood again. Asked who had persuaded Malick to get behind a camera again, Medavoy says, “I don’t know that anybody persuaded Terry to go back to work. I think it’s pretty hard to persuade Terry to do anything.” Whatever the case, after a twenty-year hiatus, Malick agreed to direct a movie that was going to cost $52 million—about fifteen times more than any other film he’d made.

L.A. values celebrity over life itself, and by a strange alchemy, Malick’s refusal to court fame (thereby attracting attention) made him, in the lingo, hot. Actors clamored to meet with him. Just before production was scheduled to begin, however, the project almost foundered: Incoming Sony chief John Calley declined to give the studio’s approval, probably because he thought it imprudent to entrust so much money to a director who hadn’t worked in two decades. Given that Calley had bought Badlands, his decision came as a surprise. The project was saved, however, when Twentieth Century Fox picked it up.

By all rights, making The Thin Red Line should have been a disaster: Malick has never had an easy time on the set, and his long break should have made him rusty. Shooting an epic war film is a thorny undertaking even in the best of circumstances. Yet apparently all went smoothly. “I would have thought there would be incredible anxiety, but I’ve heard he has been centered and relaxed,” says Brackman. “Maybe Terry’s years of prayer and meditation have brought him to a different level.”

With this project, Malick’s career takes a turn toward the conventional, at least in subject matter. His career began with a film about anti-authoritarian mayhem. Then he told the story of a love triangle that ended in murder, also a violation of the compacts that hold people together. War, on the other hand, is an arena where violence is sanctified, since it is committed by individuals who kill because their country asks them to. As it happens, several other directors approaching middle age have also been working on World War II movies, suggesting a generational preoccupation. Spielberg’s Private Ryan has been the biggest box-office smash. Curiously, this has ensured that Malick’s career will be examined beside Spielberg’s again. Coming back at all was a risk, but returning while critics are extolling Spielberg’s war movie—well, that ups the ante. “That’s exactly what I worry about: that people are going to try to compare it to Saving Private Ryan,” says Medavoy. “It’s not Private Ryan. It’s Malick’s version of the subject—it’s that mixture of poetry and prose.”

If this movie shares the strengths of Malick’s earlier works, it seems that it shares their weaknesses as well: Late in the game the director added a voice-over. Spielberg, a classic melodramatist, rarely needs help conveying his points—if anything, his characters and their motivations are too conveniently drawn. In fact, there may be no better foil than Spielberg to reveal exactly who Malick is and why his films are worth watching. “You see in Malick’s work a sense of land, a rural sensibility,” says Bill Scott, “whereas Spielberg has a West Coast sensibility that is much more interested in plot line.” Spielberg is a great technician, but he doesn’t have nearly as much to say as Malick does. If, that is, you’re willing to read between the lines.

The evening we met in L.A., Malick had seemed comfortable, even serene. His calm manner wasn’t what I had expected, given the pressure he must be under to live up to past accomplishments. On the other hand, perhaps Malick has found that the real L.A. isn’t quite as awful as the L.A. of his imagination. And in one sense, his return must be easier than his arrival was, as he is already schooled in the vagaries of fame and what it does to the ego. Finally, I came to see that Malick’s silence is an integral part of who he is. If he ever came to feel he deserved the attention that reporters are always trying to bestow on him, he would no longer be himself.

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