Note: this is an academic paper that I wrote for a “U.S. Film Industry” class at the University of Oregon.
Days of Hell: Terrence Malick and the creation of The Thin Red Line
The two decades that spanned Terrence Malick’s absence from directing between his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), and his third, The Thin Red Line (1998), were a period of considerable institutional change in Hollywood. Malick began his career as a writer-director during the 1970s, when studios were eager to define themselves based on auteurist productions (Michaels 6). During his hiatus, the film industry had undergone intense deregulation; the market had transformed from a bevy of studios to a few multinational corporations that absorbed the smaller studios and created an oligopolistic, more restrictive landscape. The prolonged development, laborious production, and split reception of Line illustrates the high-risk investment in a single auteur’s vision, and why contemporary film studios are loath to indulge in it. The story behind Line’s creation is emblematic of how a visionary filmmaker of the New Hollywood movement can collide with a major film studio when he returns to work in the 1990s.
The source material for The Thin Red Line is a 510-page war novel by James Jones, which was originally published in 1962 (Michaels 51–2). Although the book is largely fictionalized, it is based on Jones’s experience during the 1942 Guadalcanal Campaign (Patterson 22). This battle was integral to ending World War II, but combat in Line is almost beside the point. In 1964, it was adapted into an earnest, conventional war movie directed by Andrew Marton and released by Allied Arts (Michaels 52). Malick’s version would be the second adaptation of Jones’s novel (Michaels 51). The arduous effort to bring Jones’s novel back to the big screen reportedly began in 1988; while Malick was living in Paris, he offered to producer Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau to adapt Jones’s novel (Abramowitz). The producers paid Malick $250,000 for the script (Young). Before Malick turned in the first draft, which was 300 pages long, they supplied him with ample inspiration for his research at his behest: a book about the reptiles and amphibians native to Australia, information on Navajo code talkers, and even helped support the mortgage for Malick and his wife Michele’s apartment in Paris (Abramowitz). Malick reportedly “agonized about every deviation from Jones’s novel, no matter how trivial” and sought consent with Jones’s widow (who also lived in Paris) to make any changes to the story (Abramowitz). A few years passed as Malick pursued and abandoned other projects. In early 1995, the producers finally told Malick to pick a film and complete it (Young). Mike Medavoy, Malick’s former agent who was establishing his own production company, Phoenix Pictures, gave Geisler and Roberdeau $100,000 to back Line (Biskind). Medavoy later made a deal to produce this film with Sony Pictures.
Geisler reportedly talked up Malick’s vision: Guadalcanal “would be a Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison, as Terry used to call it, of war.” He also noted that much of the violence would not be present on screen, and rather than seeing a bloody injury, he said, “we see a tree explode, the shredded vegetation, and a gorgeous bird with a broken wing flying out of a tree” (Biskind). Three months before filming began in northern Australia, Sony dropped out of the deal; a studio executive doubted Malick could fulfill his ambitious feature with a $52 million budget (Biskind). Malick and Medavoy pitched the project to various studios; ultimately, 20th Century Fox offered $39 million, but requested that five A-list actors needed to be cast. The Japanese company Pioneer Films put up $8 million and Phoenix contributed $3 million (Patterson 121). When casting began, many prestigious actors eager to work with Malick had inundated him with requests. This led to meetings with Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, Edward Norton, Gary Oldman, Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nicolas Cage, and Leonardo DiCaprio (Biskind). Many actors offered to take a substantial pay cut to be in the movie. Others took a pause from filming other movies to meet with Malick. Sean Penn, who was cast, told Malick: “Give me a dollar and tell me where to be” (Winter). Johnny Depp reportedly said something similar: “Let’s sign this napkin; you tell me where to show up, when, what to play.” (Biskind).
Despite the caveat from Fox, casting director Dianne Crittenden said that Malick “didn’t want to work with stars; his way was to make it as real as possible and to do that was to use people you didn’t recognize” [“Making The Thin Red Line,” Criterion Collection].
Although Line was already a highly anticipated comeback for Malick, doubts surfaced early on in its production. The six months of filming in Australia, the Solomon Islands, and the U.S. started in June 1997. [“Making The Thin Red Line,” Criterion Collection]. Malick allegedly did not want to make a war movie [“Making The Thin Red Line,” Criterion Collection]. “I remember him wondering why he was [making] the movie,” said the film’s editor Leslie Jones. “He doesn’t like war. He’s not an action director; he would say, ‘I don’t know how to direct a battle scene, what am I doing?’” [“Making The Thin Red Line,” Criterion Collection]. Co-editor Saar Klein said that Malick suggested it’d be great to get another director to direct the combat scenes. “I don’t think [the war sequences] were his favorite part,” Klein said. Actor Ben Chaplin told Entertainment Weekly in a 1999 interview: “[Malick] never expected it to be this big thing with loads of men and machines. He had written this film about people and nature, and he got here and there was this war going on” (Young). In one scene, Malick instructed actor Kirk Acevedo with this: “You’re calling out into the abyss! And that’s what your motivation is” (Perez). Production designer Jack Fisk said that working with Malick is “exhausting” (Abramowitz). “Sometimes he’ll talk in metaphors,” said Fisk. “Sometimes he’ll show me a photograph or a painting. Sometimes he’ll just make a literary reference or talk about a piece of music” (Perez). Composer Hans Zimmer, as well, remarked that Line was the “hardest” movie of his career to score (“The Inside Film Interview with Hans Zimmer, Music Composer”). Malick wanted Zimmer to compose music before filming began. “I threw all my previous knowledge out the window. I wrote for nine months without a day off,” said Zimmer. “We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about colors, and these sorts of things. Most of the time we were having impractical, unpragmatic, philosophical conversations.” [“Making The Thin Red Line,” Criterion Collection] Zimmer reportedly wrote six hours of original music, a small percentage of which is in the final cut (Perez).
John Cusack told EW, “[Malick] wrote a script based on the novel, and he’s making a film based on the script, but he’s not shooting the script. He’s shooting the essence of the script, and he’s also shooting the movie that’s up there on the hill. He’s trying to transcend the book and the script and himself” (Young). He added: “I don’t know if this will make sense the way a normal film does” (Young).
John C. Reilly recalled one incident on a convoluted set at an army base, which included tents, trucks, hundreds of extras, and vintage airplanes taking off. While everyone was preparing to film an important shot, Terry spotted a red-tailed hawk and excitedly told cinematographer John Toll to get the camera. Reilly recalled, “We sat there for five or ten minutes while he got different angles of this bird flying through the sky” (Maher). Steadicam operator Brad Shield noted that Malick promised him a bottle of champagne if he got a shot of a specific eagle, an agreement that both men fulfilled, although Shield griped that Malick’s gift of Australian champagne is subpar to the French version (Maher). In the same interview, Shield said, “Terry wanted it to feel as though the audience has stumbled into the middle of a war” (Young).
On-set drama also unfolded between Malick and his two producers, Geisler and Roberdeau. Unbeknownst to them, Malick included a clause in his contract that they were barred from visiting the set (Young). As an EW writer investigated this story, he received an unsigned letter that called the two producers “imposters and confidence men who have no connection with Mr. Malick” (Young). Malick threatened to remove their names from the credits; eventually, Geisler and Roberdeau were banned from the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony (Michaels 58; Biskind). Geisler, himself, told EW: “I didn’t think [Malick] was capable of a betrayal of this magnitude” (Young).
During post-production, the raw cut was five hours long (Kiang). The editing process, in all, took 13 months, and an additional four months to mix (Kiang). Billy Bob Thornton recorded three hours of voiceover narration, all of which was scrapped and replaced with a collage of 8 narrators (Young). The ruthless editing process trimmed many major roles — such as those of Adrien Brody, George Clooney, and John Travolta — into momentary cameos. Brody elaborated on his dismay in an interview with The Independent: “I was so focused and professional, I gave everything to it, and then to not receive everything … in terms of witnessing my own work. It was extremely pleasant because I’d already begun the press for a film that I wasn’t really in” (Kiang). Other actors — Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, and Lucas Haas — were scrubbed out from the film entirely (Kiang). Earlier during production, characters were written for Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Jason Patric, and Viggo Mortensen, but these were all deleted before photography began (Kiang). Malick aimed to dramatically reduce the dialogue and replace it with voiceovers; during editing, he reviewed each reel without sound, and listened to a Green Day CD, says editor Leslie Jones (Maher). “I don’t think he was capable of seeing the movie as a whole during the process,” said Jones. “That was a big adjustment” [“Making The Thin Red Line,” Criterion Collection]. As Reilly noted, “Although we shot the script and we shot the story, the movie didn’t really resemble the script by the time he finished editing it.” (Maher). The final feature-length edit clocked in at 2 hours and 50 minutes (“The Thin Red Line (1998)” IMDb).
The timing for Line coincided with two other World War II releases of the same year: Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation,” a retrospective book composed of interviews with veterans that became a bestseller, and Steven Spielberg’s war epic Saving Private Ryan, which was released five months before Malick’s film [“Saving Private Ryan (1998)”]. While these other works are more reverent and journalistic, this made it awkward and a tough sell for studios like Fox 2000 to market Malick’s film — an Emersonian treatise on human identity, God, war, and the barbarity inherent to nature, as inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers (Flanagan 127). In contrast to Paramount’s Ryan, Line was too esoteric, introspective, and unfocused. “Fox’s promotional campaign comprehensively failed to locate Line within public discourse surrounding WWII, something that Ryan had achieved with notable success,” writes Martin Flanagan, who adds that Fox opted “to separate [Line] from other artistic and public discourses concerning the war” (Patterson 127–8). This means that Line was pitched as an intellectual, albeit cerebral, substitute to the more historical, genuine films about the war.
The film was a joint production by Geisler-Roberdeau (the two initial producers who approached Malick), Fox 2000 Pictures (who picked up the film after Sony dropped out), and Phoenix Pictures (an LA-based independent studio that had just formed in 1995) (Biskind). Author Lloyd Michaels argues that culturally, it’s possible that America simply was not ready for a nonconformist war picture. “The economy was booming and the Soviet Union had recently imploded. America … had moved beyond the critical introspection and doubt of the Watergate era to a period of renewed national self-confidence in patriotism. Malick’s film, no matter how eagerly anticipated by connoisseurs of American cinema … hardly had a chance against Spielberg’s latest epic” (Michaels 59). In contrast to Ryan, a commercially more successful production, Line’s financial earnings were not as impressive.
The film received a limited release in five theatres on December 25, 1998, where its opening weekend gross was $282,534 (Box Office Mojo). Its wide release on January 15, 1999 screened the film in 1,528 theatres, where it grossed $9.7 million in its opening weekend (Box Office Mojo). Its domestic gross was $36,400,491 and internationally it grossed $61,726,074 (Box Office Mojo). It was distributed in 46 countries across six continents during February and March 1999 (“The Thin Red Line — Release Info”). The movie came out on DVD and VHS on November 2, 1999 (“The Thin Red Line — Release Info”). The Criterion Collection restored and re-released it on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2010 (“The Thin Red Line”).
Gene Siskel deemed the film to be “the finest contemporary war film I’ve seen,” and added that it’s superior to Oliver Stone’s Platoon and even Spielberg’s Ryan (Siskel & Ebert). Roger Ebert was less enthused and noted, “This film has no firm idea of what it is about, but that doesn’t make it bad. It is, in fact, sort of fascinating” (Ebert). Martin Scorsese called it his second-favorite film of the decade (Ebert). Owen Gleiberman with EW gave the movie a B- and said it could be “too paralyzingly high-minded to connect with audiences” (Gleiberman). Perhaps the most telling review of Line is from Jonathan Romney at The Guardian, who — perplexed by the film’s endless barrage of metaphysical questions — rated the film not with the standard stars, but with a row of question marks (Romney). The film garnered seven nominations at the 1999 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing for an Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (“The Thin Red Line — Awards”). It won none (“The Thin Red Line — Awards”). Malick did win the Golden Bear (the highest-possible award) at the Berlin International Film Festival; and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards gave John Toll the accolade for Best Cinematographer and Malick for Best Director (“The Thin Red Line — Awards”).
If the production of The Thin Red Line and the return of Malick to the big screen were heralded as a potential return to the New Hollywood style of filmmaking — an era of boundless creativity, novel storytelling, and innovative techniques pushed by auteurs — the reality turned out to be a convoluted, nuanced affair. The production, if anything, had the opposite effect; studios in the modern era have become risk-averse, more concerned about the financial bottom line and reluctant to take chances on auteurs. Line’s development illustrates the limitations of freedom that a studio permitted to a visionary, and how one’s megalomania and abrasive hubris attempted to break those barriers. Line is indicative of why studios do not regularly subscribe to the auteur theory; by closely evaluating of the entire trajectory of Line, it becomes clear that Malick and his experimental methods do not always succeed in the contemporary film industry.
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