There is perhaps no working filmmaker today whose body of work is as divisive as that of Terrence Malick’s. Without a doubt, Malick’s masterful manipulation of filmic reality — from the ethereal magic-hour landscapes in “Days of Heaven” to the introspective voiceovers in “The Thin Red Line” to the mysterious light in the Palme d’Or-winning “The Tree of Life”— is ingrained in the tapestry of American cinema. Despite the critical acclaim they receive, his films usually have low commercial appeal — understandably so, considering their bladder-trying running lengths and narrative fluidity.
On the surface, Malick’s latest release, “Knight of Cups,” is classic Malick. Yet it marks a turning point in the filmmaker’s artistry, as he continues to delve into autobiographical territory, following up on the deeply personal “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder.” Starring an ensemble cast featuring Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto and many others, “Knight of Cups” follows the quasi-mythological journey of a screenwriter (Bale) in Hollywood, as he navigates a libertine lifestyle and a series of troubled relationships.
Thematically reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s “8 ½” and “La Dolce Vita,” “Knight of Cups” shines light on Malick’s own perspective as an outsider in Hollywood. Perhaps Malick’s films will be the only portal through which we can understand more about his life; the reclusive, Salinger-esque filmmaker is known to shy away from media attention and press interviews entirely.
The Hoya participated in a conference call Tuesday with the film’s producers — Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green and Ken Kao — to learn more about Malick’s vision behind “Knight of Cups,” his creative process and the importance of audience interpretation.
What’s it like behind the scenes of a Malick film?
GONDA: What really distinguishes Terry is that one could answer that question in so many different ways depending on they are. If you’re the first-time [production assistant] who’s never experienced a film set before, or someone who’s worked with Terry on every single movie, I think that it’s usually a singular experience. Every single film has been such a memorable experience. The extraordinary people that he attracts know to approach every day with every ounce of vigor that they have. When you walk out of a Terrence Malick film, a lot of people say it’s like watching a ballet. Because you see a group of people operate so well together, and they’re ready to approach every day with such agility.
What were some interesting surprises you encountered while making this film?
GONDA: Generally, as a producer, you have to be prepared for anything. That’s a big part of the job. In this regard, in terms of specific surprises, I think it’s tough to point to any in particular. It’s inherent to the producer’s job to react to that. We were also so fortunate to have such an incredible group of actors, and [production designer] Jack Fisk, [cinematographer] Chivo Lubezki, [costume designer] Jackie West, people who are able to harness surprises and turn something that could have slowed us down into something that speeds us up.
GREEN: The thunderstorm on the day we were counting on natural light, which was pretty much every day. … That comes up on every set, it’s kind of a given. Suddenly, there’s a troop of paparazzi that descends on you, and you quickly make time for them and come up with an agreement about where they can be, and we keep working, and they get their shot. … Those things can happen every day.
What was Mr. Malick’s creative process throughout the production of the film?
GREEN: He was very consistent. It’s an interesting thing in the way that he works — the idea remains the same. Terry is telling a particular story with a very specific theme that we all understand before we go into it. That remains: the characters, the theme, the story itself. How any particular moment unfolds can vary.
Much of the film is very organic and freeform. How much of what we see is improvisational?
KAO: One of our goals, especially for this shoot, was to have a very small footprint, to be ready for anything. As far as the cast and the actor-director relationships go, what you see is a lot of organic realism between Terry’s interactions and the actors. I think with each actor having their own style, and Terry sometimes giving them lines that were not scripted, to me, it’s really a unique collaboration.
What was the most rewarding thing that you got from the film personally?
GREEN: I think, in a way, we’re all quite similar in our producing style. We have an ongoing relationship already with Terry, and we’re excited about the work he’s doing. The first time we heard about this, it was still pretty early on. He was still making “The Tree of Life.” We got very excited about doing something so modern, something so contemporary, in a town as full of possibilities as Los Angeles. The experience was going to be very different; it’s going to feel very different. Every time I wrap myself into one of Terry’s ideas and work through the process of making the film, I can’t help but relate it to my own life, and I start looking at where the meaning in my life is, about the work I’m doing. One of the exciting things about Terry’s films is that it speaks to most of the people, wherever they are in their lives, and encourages you to look inside, and I find that very exciting.
Is there anything you regret not having been able to do?
GONDA: That’s one of the great aspects of working with Terry and this incredible crew that he attracts, is that you feel very fulfilled, especially at the end of production. We have an enormous amount of material, and then it gets to the process of chipping away at that to create a theatrical experience. It’s usually much more as opposed to much less.
What is the total amount of footage filmed for “Knight of Cups”?
GREEN: I would say in the millions in feet, but I don’t know how many seconds that is. But there’s a lot of film there.
GONDA: One of the great things about “Knight of Cups,” as technology has emerged, whereas for “The Tree of Life,” we shot the vast majority of that on film —which was obviously wonderful, and Terry has held onto film as long as possible — but also, now, we’re doing digital format. On “Knight of Cups,” we shot with GoPro … and obviously, still the traditional film camera. It’s new ground for Terry, not only breaking digital, but also exploring and experimenting with digital.
What do you think the effect of the imagery and symbolism in the film is?
GONDA: That’s one of the most remarkable things about Terry’s films that’s remarkable to this day, and I expect for years and years, and possibly decades to come, we’ll have people come up to us and talk about Terry’s films in ways that we would’ve never imagined, and that’s because Terry does provide that room where people can apply for their own experiences, whether that’s through the relationships that they’ve had, the lens that they see the world through.
What is your advice for people who can’t access the film or find it frustrating?
GONDA: Some of the best advice that I think Sarah said years ago, is to watch the movie with your heart. I think a lot of times, audiences are trained to watch movies with their minds, and try to analyze and always try to see immediate meaning through literal representations. In Terry’s films, it’s really important for the audience to be as much of a character in the film as the leading actors. Through that, I want to encourage you to experience the film emotionally, to not feel as though if you’re not being given everything in one moment, that you’re falling behind, that you’re not getting it. It’s like experiencing nature, like listening to a beautiful song and not necessarily having to understand every lyric.
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