Terrence Malick’s emergence as a major American film director (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) followed a trajectory as unlikely as any in cinema history. Paul Maher Jr., who has published an oral history of Terrence Malick, explores the early years of the director when he studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, visited Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest, arrived a day late to meet Che Guevara (who had been killed the day before) and grieved the loss of a brother to suicide before plunging himself into film.
In early 1966, twenty-two-year-old Terrence Malick left Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was attending Harvard University and went to the Black Forest in Germany to visit philosopher Martin Heidegger. Malick was equipped with only a rudimentary knowledge of German, just enough to interact with Heidegger who had consented to an interview. Malick came away from the encounter with the aging Existentialist philosopher’s autograph and the answers to a handful of questions that informed his Harvard undergraduate thesis, fulfilling his requirements for a bachelor’s degree in philosopy.
The future film director’s dissertation was entitled The Concept of Horizon In Husserl and Heidegger, the details from which are beyond the pale of this writer’s rudimentary comprehension of phenomenology. However, the experience served as the bridge Malick built between this dissertation and the filming of his first feature-length film, Badlands (1973).
That same spring, the prestigious Rhodes Committee selected ten Harvard scholars out of 32 worldwide. Terrence Frederick Malick was awarded an annual $2,500.00 stipend to attend Oxford’s Magdalena College to write his thesis for a doctorate in philosophy. He was appointed an advisor, British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, the author of The Concept of Mind (1949)—Ryle theorized the relation of mind and brain as the “ghost in a machine.” Ryle offered Malick little help, but he may not have wanted any. He was still deep into his Heidegger burrow, intending to translate one of Heidegger’s 1929 lectures, “vom Wesen des Grundes” (“The Essence of Reason”). Malick informed Ryle that he wanted to write his thesis on Heidegger’s concept of “Being-in-the World.” Ryle denied Malick his choice of thesis; it wasn’t “philosophical” enough. Malick refused to compromise and turned his back on Oxford.
As the Vietnam War continued to rage, the draft—Malick told an interviewer—began to “breathe down my neck.” To thwart this threat, he taught philosophy at M.I.T. in Cambridge, a teaching gig he fell into after auditing a course taught by Ed Pincus. Pincus, who had also studied philosophy and photography at Harvard, had begun making films in 1964, having developed a direct cinematic approach to politico/social issues of the time. Pincus, who founded MIT’s film program with cinéma vérité legend Richard Leacock, recalled Malick: “Terry was teaching philosophy. He was strongly influenced by Heidegger at a time that Heidegger was dismissed by the Anglo-Saxon world of philosophy. He was one of a number of faculty who took those early courses. There was a tremendous amount of creative energy at that time and in those courses.”
Malick had an innate storytelling flair. He found that he quite enjoyed movies, particularly silent films, watching several in Harvard Square. Afterwards, he discussed them with his classmates, his mentor Stanley Cavell and Ed Pincus.
He began writing short vignettes, some of which he tried his hand at filming.
Pincus recalled, “I think Terry ended classes, and I imagine would have edited his films in Central Square and shown them to the class for critiques. But I have no specific memories. I do remember walking through Harvard Square and saying what a disappointment the Square was compared to what we expected. [Malick] said when he came out of the T stop (subway) into the Square, as a boy from Oklahoma, he had expected a lot more. Harvard Square in the ‘60s was pretty funky.”
Pincus remembers three short films by Malick. One shot without sound and edited to a piece of music. The others involved syncing sound with an emphasis on direct cinema documentary filmmaking. Shooting was done in 16mm and editing on an upright Moviola. Malick borrowed a camera from Richard Leacock. Ultimately, the filming had an objective. That is, he wanted to apply for a seat at the brand-new American Film Institute in California. To apply, he needed to submit a short film with his application.
Harvard classmate Andreas Teuber helped Malick at this endeavor. “Terry was going to apply to the AFI for a fellowship in the AFI’s First Annual Competition,” Teuber recalls. “He needed to submit along with his application a sample of his work. But there was no sample. So we had to create and produce it.”
Terry came up with lines and we improvised around them. If you think about it, once you know you’re a deaf-mute gas station attendant being held up by someone who is also deaf, you pretty much know what to do.”
Using Leacock’s equipment—the camera, tripod and sound recorder—they tested the equipment only to discover that the sound recorder worked erratically. Thus, Malick decided to make his film about two deaf mutes who hold up a deaf mute gas station attendant. Teuber played one of the two deaf mutes and Jack Womack, who had just finished a book on Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, was asked to play the other. Womack was a member of Harvard’s history department, and a friend of Malick’s. He was older than both of them and born in Norman, Oklahoma, not far from where Malick lived and grew up. Womack later had a bit part in Badlands when he was handcuffed to Martin Sheen. Womack was a brilliant historian and fellow Rhodes Scholar years before Malick was nominated and was at Oxford before him. What are the odds of two Oklahoma kids going to Harvard and winning Rhodes Scholarships?
Malick volunteered to play the deaf-mute hold-up guy. They drove around Cambridge looking for a gas station where they might film and found an abandoned one on upper Massachusetts Avenue. Without permits or permissions they began to shoot.
Teuber recalls, “Terry directed as well as acted. I do not recall a script, but then there may have been one. What I remember is Terry came up with lines and we improvised around them. If you think about it, once you know you’re a deaf-mute gas station attendant being held up by someone who is also deaf, you pretty much know what to do.”
Womack was less confident of the filming and thought the entire process was taking too long. In the middle of the afternoon of the first day of shooting, he quit. He told Malick that he’d had enough and returned to his office.
“So there we were,” Teuber recalled more than 40 years later, “Terry and I, with little to show for one day’s work, but he was not easily defeated. He looked at me and I looked at him as Jack disappeared down the street and Terry said, ‘Okay, let’s make a film about a guy who climbs tall buildings during his lunch-break. You climb the buildings’.” Malick pointed at Teuber to be the building climber. He volunteered to continue shooting the film.
They loaded the equipment into the trunk of the car and headed into Boston. “Where are we going?” Teuber asked.
“The New England Telephone Building,” Malick replied, as he kept his eye on the road. “It has a tower on top of it.”
On the way into Boston, Malick spotted a huge pale-blue gas tank in the distance and said “that, look at that.” He took one hand off the wheel and pointed. “Let’s go there. You can climb that.” From a distance one can now see from Route 93 the small staircase snaking around the drum. It creeps higher and higher all the way to the top. (The oil tank now boasts a painting by artist, Corita Kent).
At the tank they found a barrier and a locked gate preventing trespassers from getting up and onto the stairs. However, Malick thought that they might be able to easily climb up and over both barrier and gate and climb the stairs. He set the camera up and fastened it to its wooden tripod. He took out a light meter, checked the light and signaled for Teuber to go.
Teuber climbed up and over the barrier and gate and climbed the stairs. Malick waved his arm to let Teuber know to keep going. He kept on going higher. Higher! HIGHER!
“Of course,” says Teuber, “Terry was safe. He had both feet on the ground. If anyone was at risk, it was me, although I should say it never really occurred to me. We were making a movie, trying to get something done in time to submit to the AFI before deadline.”
They did not get to the New England Telephone Tower and Building that day. The sun had set. The next day they returned. Malick stayed on the street below behind the camera filming while Teuber climbed the tower at the top of the building. The New England Telephone Tower presented a far greater climbing challenge than the pale-blue gas tank, but he did manage to get part of the way up it before he encountered several transformers that seemed to power much of Boston. He decided it might be best to turn around and climb down.
In Bolivia, Malick hitched a ride with former Chanel model and journalist Michele Ray who had experienced a scandal-plagued disruptive visit to Vietnam. Her mission at that time was to acquire Che Guevara’s diary for a New York publisher. They arrived the day after Che was killed.
They filmed in and around Boston for three days. There was no sound, so there were no lines for the lead character to deliver. But there was a story-line. The plot was simple enough. Here was a guy who worked as an accountant. His job was tedious. Nothing much happened. There were the accounts, and he ploddingly and methodically did them. His life was uneventful.
“Given the tedium of his job and its uneventfulness,” said Teuber, “he took it upon himself to bring more life into it by climbing tall buildings during his lunch-break, allowing his lunch-break to acquire a meaning it did not otherwise have while he was ‘on the job’. High up above the street, walking along a steel girder of a skyscraper, say, in downtown Boston, his life was in balance. If he leaned too far to the left or too far to the right, it made a difference, a difference of life or death; whereas on the job doing the accounts, leaning too far one way or another made next to no difference at all. If I remember rightly, we shot scenes in the office, scenes in which the character decided which building or tower to climb at lunch, scenes of his walking to the tower or building and scenes of his climbing.”
All of the highwire stuff in the film was done without permits or permissions. It was – more than likely – illegal. They were in and out so quickly wherever they went that people failed to notice them.
In many scenes the main character was too far away to record with the equipment they had borrowed and, as stated, the sound recorder was too erratic. Once they were done with that phase of the filmmaking, Malick put the pieces together and edited them. When they viewed the footage, it made no sense. Without access to a story-line or explanation, it was incomprehensible. Malick decided it needed a soundtrack.
Teuber: “Terry wrote a voiceover of what was going through the CPA’s head wherein he complained about the dull life he led on the job and how he thought to rectify his predicament by climbing tall buildings during his lunch-break where his life was on edge and where whatever step he took, whether he stepped this way or that made a difference. I read the voiceover. We did several takes, recording each. Then we watched it again and when it was over there was a moment of silence. We looked at one another and Terry said, ‘it needs an ending.’ He thought it might end at the airport. ‘with the guy running across the tarmac with the loose change from his pockets spilling out onto the runway, saying the line, over and over again, “my change, my change, I’m losing my change.”
“Let’s go,” Malick said.
They piled into the car with the equipment, tripod and camera loaded in the trunk and drove to Logan Airport. When they arrived, they unloaded the camera equipment and took it to a door that opened out onto the runway. They were stopped by airport security who told that that they could not go onto the runway. They pointed to the red lettering on the door: “For Official Use Only.”
Teuber recalls, “We had gone to the United Airlines, to Terminal C, and Terry suggested since we were there that I simply run down the road leading away from the Terminal, down its slope.” Malick set the camera and suggested that Teuber stay to the side of the road so as not to get hit by a car as he ran. They had brought “extra” change with them. Teuber filled his pockets with change and ran down the road, “coins spilling out of my pockets.” Shooting was complete. The last lines of the film: “my change, my change, I’m losing my change!” were recorded in voice-over and edited in. Malick submitted the film along with the AFI application and was accepted.
Back in Cambridge, Malick’s teaching experience to avoid the draft did not go as planned. Professor Hubert Dreyfus, then teaching a course on Heidegger at MIT, recalls one instance of Malick teaching a class: “When he got to the part on anxiety and discovered he wasn’t experiencing anxiety, he couldn’t talk about anything. He just stared off into space for about ten minutes, making the class and me as his auditor at that point very nervous. So he gave up teaching that day and became a movie director because he felt that to teach Heidegger you had to actually be experiencing what Heidegger was talking about if you’re going to do the phenomenology right and that’s more than he could do and certainly more than what I could do.”
Another MIT philosophy student, Ted Goranson, met Malick in 1968: “One can really see this early MIT exposure in The Thin Red Line. He was struggling, really struggling with the inadequate ‘logic of layers’ available to reason about this sort of thing. He spoke of French Objectivism and was clearly bothered by how the notation and language constrained the ideas.”
Malick told an interviewer following the release of Badlands in 1973, that he was not a “good teacher” and that he didn’t “have the sort of edge one should have on the students, so I decided to do something else. I’d always liked movies in a kind of naive way. They seemed no less improbable a career than anything. As a kid I never knew the difference between a producer or a director. I enjoyed movies but none of them made an impression on me until I saw East of Eden, and right after that I saw Giant. I was very impressed with James Dean. Later, when I was in college, I saw America, America. I found that to be an extraordinary experience. It wasn’t until later that I connected: Elia Kazan had directed both East of Eden and America, America. Perhaps unconsciously the seed was planted in my head.”
It was clear that he did not want to pursue a stifling career an academia. He flirted with journalism in the spring of 1968 but found even that too restricting for what he wanted to communicate. He wrote for the New Yorker with only a single by-line to his credit. “I finally quit,” Malick recalled, “and went to work for Life magazine in Miami, as their South American stringer. Though I was technically a correspondent, I knew that in actuality I was the lowest man on the totem pole. I also worked for Newsweek traveling around to various countries. I was sent to Bolivia to do a piece on Ernesto “Che” Guevara, but frankly I did not understand what was going on.”
In Bolivia, Malick hitched a ride with former Chanel model and journalist Michele Ray who had experienced a scandal-plagued disruptive visit to Vietnam. Her mission at that time was to acquire Che Guevara’s diary for a New York publisher. They arrived the day after Che was killed. Malick’s assignment was also shifted to cover Guevara’s death. However, Malick’s notes made it difficult to untangle an ever-unwinding volley of facts into a comprehensible essay acceptable to New Yorker. Hardly able to grasp Bolivia’s vast political complications following Che’s death, Malick tried instead to write his personal impressions.
He worked according to his own timeline, not journalistic deadlines. He found it difficult to organize a standard workday. By 1969, his career in journalism was over. Philosophy instructor Paul Lee recalls, “When I talked to him, he told me that he had been working on this article for a while, and that the copy was piling up on his desk. Page after page, draft after draft. I think the issue was that he couldn’t arrive to a thesis that he didn’t know how or what to say, or what audience to address, other than writing it for himself.”
Around this time, on September 24, 1968, the Los Angeles Times reported that Malick’s father, Emil Malick received a job promotion. The senior Malick had been head of Phillips Petroleum Corporation’s rocket fuel division; only ten years earlier, he had been the master of ceremonies at a Roosevelt Hall ballroom luncheon observing the first launched satellite that could be seen moving over the Texas night sky like a traveling star. Now his career had swiftly progressed to president of Phillips subsidiary, Provesta.
Earlier that month, on September 10, Emil received a telegram at his Bartlesville, Oklahoma home informing him that his son, Larry, had died two days earlier at the Hotel Carlton in Alicante, Spain. Larry had shown promise as a flamenco guitarist. He had published regular ads offering guitar lessons in Austin and had decided to bring his talents to the master level by enrolling in master classes given by revered classical guitarist Andres Segovia at the Música en Compostela in Santiago de Compostela.
The circumstances behind Larry Malick’s breakdown are clouded with conjecture. Segovia’s teaching methods at this time were indeed questionable and controversial. Some, like flamenco master John Williams, opined that Segovia instilled an element of abusive fear into his teaching strategy. It was perhaps this challenging environment that was partially responsible for Larry Malick’s deterioration. Under duress, Larry contacted his brother, Terry. When that wasn’t enough to calm him, he broke the fingers of his playing hand before committing suicide in a hotel room. To curtail scandal, Larry’s death certificate states the cause as an “embolism caused by cardiac collapse.”
Emil went to Spain to retrieve his son’s personal belongings. Larry’s body stayed behind in the Almudena Cemetery of Madrid, Spain. How its effect shaped Terrence Malick’s life becomes evident in The Tree of Life (2011). In December 2010, while editing The Tree of Life, Terry’s youngest brother, Chris, also committed suicide in the midst of a long-term illness.
There were those, like childhood friend Charles Floren, who remembered things differently about Malick’s crucial formative years. He took exception with a Vanity Fair article that was published around the time of The Thin Red Line’s festival release in 1997. He states, “I have to point out a glaring factual inaccuracy in Peter Biskind’s piece (Vanity Fair, “The Runaway Genius”) – an inaccuracy which I believe shows the author’s statement, ‘The Malicks were a family of secrets, marked by tragedy’ to be slanting the characterization of Terry and the entire Malick family in the direction of something which borders on sinister and is at the very least seriously neurotic, possibly psychotic. Not so blatant that I would come right out and call it a smear, but it sure seems to me to be headed in that direction. Certainly the author carries that theme of neurotic, almost pathological secretiveness throughout the entire piece in all his accounts of the words spoken and actions taken by Terry Malick. To me, that theme and those accounts, rather than shining a light, cast a dark, looming shadow upon this incredibly talented, intelligent and sensitive man as well as upon his tragedy-stricken family. To lose a child at any age is every parent’s worst nightmare. It is a nightmare which has now visited the Malicks not just once but twice. As a parent who has lost a child, I can say with complete confidence that this is the kind of loss that no parent or sibling can ever ‘get over.’ After all, that’s just not the way life is supposed to work; family and life transitions are properly supposed to be experienced on a FIFO basis. What’s more, I believe that grieving this kind of loss is not something that a person ‘gets better at with practice.’ Indeed, the penalty of paying attention to the ‘experience of our experience’ is that such losses are more likely to have a cumulative than a lessening effect. Unfortunately, there are no referees in this game to throw a flag on the play for emotional and cosmic ‘piling on’.”
For Terry Malick, academics and journalism were both washes. It had to be film. He told Paul Lee that he had lost interest even in philosophy. “I did not know how to respond to that remark,” says Lee, “having become interested in philosophy partly due to his influence. Still, I think it is no coincidence that one of the great directors of my generation studied with and was friends with Stanley Cavell. When Terry told me he was going to go into film (on a street in Cambridge almost to the spot where we met), I had the impulse to hit him. I told him. “You want to forsake a career in philosophy for film? You translated Heidegger! Are you fucking crazy?’ But who was I to stand in the way of greatness?”
Some wondered, why choose film?
Artist and friend, Jim Romberg wondered, “Especially with his propensity for isolation, why choose an art form that requires the participation of so many? Once when Terry was at AFI I visited him for an evening. At that time, he was involved with the daughter of a prominent film director. Terry was carrying on about the politics and so on of the film world. I arrived shortly before dinner which she had prepared for us both and left in the oven to burn. Terry quickly scraped that dinner into the trash, left the dirty dishes in the sink and said, ‘let’s go get something at Wendy’s,’ which we did. There he did talk about all the complications of doing something in film. So why has he continued that as his art form? Is he desirous of reaching many? I don’t think that money is the issue or he would be producing a different type of film. One cannot but wonder, why film? In light of Marcel Proust and James Joyce, both in some ways private visions that have affected us, why Terry didn’t choose a more private medium? Has Terry become enamored with his own vision? Certainly the accolades already received have the potential to inflate the ego. I guess I am posing these questions because of the importance of Terry’s inquiry. Can we see it as that? Or does it have to be some sort of fait accompli? I don’t think current cinema is sufficiently indulgent to allow of such.”
Malick told an interviewer in 1974 that though he had an intense interest in the cinematic experience, he was not enamored with it technically. After publishing his Heidegger translation (The Essence of Reason) in 1969, he abandoned the field completely and focused on his studies at the American Film Institute.
That 91-page book would have assured Malick’s career as an academic. However, it merely served as closure to that part of his life and opened a door to the next.
Note: Terrence Malick is executive producing A Wonder Wild, Paul Maher Jr.’s film based on writings of Henry David Thoreau.