Terrence Malick: Inverting the Storytelling Process

Every film must be premeditated. This is what makes them possible. Since the point of films is to imitate life, this is also what makes them imperfect.

Every film is contingent upon the actors ability to render an emotional state, as well as it is the director’s ability to render the story from that emotional state. If there is a mistake in this process, the story will feel incoherent, and even though the viewer will know as a matter of fact that one character broke the other’s heart, they will not feel that that is what happened. They will just know.

This is how movies fail: if they fail to institute certain emotional realities then those emotional realities will fail to pay off. They will be impossible to build on, and the film itself will venture into incoherence. The viewer will be left groping for a new emotional anchor where there is none.

By the end of the movie the viewer will get up and not necessarily feel offended by the movie, not necessarily hurt or violated, nor will they feel inspired or moved. What they will feel is nothing in particular. Does that mean that nothing happened in the movie? No. It is just that those things that happened didn’t seem to really happen.

What is the difference between an event that happens and one that doesn’t? It is simple: what matters in fiction is not the facts, but the things that are communicated by the facts. The reason we tell fictional stories is not because they have pertinent information, but because they have human value. What matters is not what happens on the screen. What matters is what happens within the people on the screen.

Why take time to explicate the way a movie effects people when only talking about one director? Because this director, Terrence Malick, recently started to make movies backwards: stories without scripts, and stories whose events were not premeditated. These are stories whose action happened for the first and the last time, in front of the camera. He does this because he feels that it is more important for something to truly happen, than it is for it to just look like it happens. He does this because he feels that the internal events of each character are so important that one needs nothing else to make a movie. He does this because he realized that if you craft the story out of the actors instead of the actors out of the story, you will end up with a movie that is in some sense impeccable; a movie that is true.

He gives his actors books to read, instead of scripts. He gives them pages of his own thoughts. He will talk to them for hours, and over the course of shooting, months. He will buy a whole neighborhood for his actors to walk around in, being their characters, doing nothing in particular. He, with his camera man, will follow them around, steeping in the moment, and going where he sees something happening.

Brad Pitt: “He’d often throw in a dog or send in one of the kids, or just do something surprising to change the tenor of a scene. Then he’d laugh and laugh.”
This allegiance to the story is not an allegiance to his actors: it is an allegiance to the truth of the moment. The truth, as he sees it–the absolutely authentic–will not necessarily belong to the actor in any given moment. The purpose of turning the actor into a person instead of a parrot is to recreate life completely. It is to allow everything to be as it is, so that he can walk around it like a five year old philosopher in a candy store. So, what he shoots is not necessarily the actors, but the thing that incapsulates, in that moment, what he is telling the story about.

When an actor is saying his or her lines, Malick might see a lizard on the ground that he likes. He might film that lizard. He might film a bird while it is flying. He might film a fledgling that has fallen from its nest and is dying.

Colin Ferrel on Malick filming birds instead of actors: https://youtu.be/m1mTvPh_HEc?t=54s

In the times before he made movies that were blatantly unscripted, he could not help but let the primacy of this authenticity take hold. He could not help, even with a script, but form the story out of what he found rather than what he set out to find. There are a handful of actors that will not work with him again. They were hired for leading roles, and by the end of the shooting and editing were either no longer in the movie, or were so insignificant in it that they might as well have not been in it at all.

Christopher Plummer and George Clooney on Malick cutting leads out in the editing process: https://youtu.be/xw08GQw0hBl

If it is true that a film would fail if it failed to communicate what is in an actor, then is Terrence Malick solving the problem by building the movie out of nothing but what is in his actors? Absolutely not. More people are left befuddled by Terrence Malick films than any other. Because while other movies may fail to describe the plot with the emotional events of the character, his movies, so deeply invested the internal, emotional events of the character, have no plot. They have events: broad, lucid, amorphous events. But they have no plot.

Richard Gere: “In the end Terry was as interested in watching the ducks in the water as he was in us walking down the road.”

To communicate with film, balance is needed. The filmmaker needs to communicate what is happening on screen insofar as it is relevant to the future of the movie: nothing more and nothing less. While not using a script may seem like a good way of conquering the problem of inauthenticity, it discovers a new problem, on the opposite pole. Nothing is tangible. The internal events are not substantiated. So much is happening inside the characters that nothing is happening outside them.

A common shot in a Malick movie is one of the characters walking or standing alone, with no other action. It is a shot where the only thing he might be filming is their mind:


While a person gets up after a poorly made movie and does not care about what happened, that same person gets up after a Terrence Malick movie and is pretty sure that nothing happened at all.

If a normal movie is about bank that was robbed a few blocks away while you were eating lunch, a Terrence Malick movie is about the people walking by you on the street. Is there less of a story in the lives of those people walking by than the people who are being held hostage by bank robbers? Those hostages are feeling fear. Fear is easily understandable and easily relatable. Many movies have been made about fear. What is everyone else feeling?

Are the feelings of Terrence Malick’s characters less important because they are harder to see, and if not, could that mean that they are more important? While it is impossible not to resonate with the fear a person feels while having a gun held in their face, what might you be feeling if you resonate with someone who is simply standing, blank faced, and thinking? His movies are like a canvas for their viewership, and no one is lukewarm in their opinion on them.

Because there are different ways to watch movies, and different movies to watch, these are not criticisms or compliments. They are facts; acknowledgments that what Terrence Malick’s movies revolve around is different than what other movies revolve around. The only sure thing is that there is nothing else like Terrence Malick movie.


– Jonathan Booker


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