Minute But Powerful Moments
Nick Nolte prepared a voluminous amount of research in order to play Colonel Tall. Nolte was the very symbol of passion and devotion, enduring take after take in order to realize the notion of an officer that hasn’t had “his war” yet, and will not pass this opportunity by. He embodies the engine of war willing to eat up lives in order to accomplish its singular goal of victory. One interviewer picked up on Nolte’s capacity for ferocity in 1999: “Ferocity? That’s fairly easy for me to access,” said the 57-year-old. “I’ve been delving into rage for quite some time.” During one scene, as howitzers rained on the terrain around him, Tall is yelling orders to his disobedient captain. Malick told Nolte that in order to be effective, he had to be more powerful than the howitzers. “Of course I chose not to wear earplugs, so I couldn’t hear for several weeks afterward.” (“Actor Nick Nolte finds his range in rage roles”, Daily Herald, 2 January 1999)
On set, under the equatorial suns of Northern Queensland, Malick directed from a script perpetually in flux. David Harrod, hired to play the muscled Corporal Queen, bulked up on ice cream intermittently with bouts of weightlifting. In this scene he was to beat on a Japanese soldier captured by the company. Malick shoots take after take until Harrod’s blood starts dripping from his neck. He shouted, ‘Wipe the blood from the nape of your neck! Vigously!” Though the scene made the final cut, it was without the theatrics of Harrod’s dripping blood. Harrod remembered that Malick favored improvisation, no matter how extreme.
The whole of the script was filmed and its results brought to the cutting board of film editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber. Enough footage was photographed to eke out a monumental five-hour edit (by Weber’s estimate, 6,000 feet roughly equals an hour of footage. The million-and-a-half feet of film shot brought the total to 250 hours of film).
However, this was nothing more than a rough assemblage only resembling the finished script. The cries of Malickphiles eager to watch this cut would see less of a trace of Malick’s hands on it, than they would see a traditional war film with a linear plot, monumental battle scenes and miles of charred landscape and tropical canopies with light filtering the ever-present smoke. Malick’s reticence to sit and view this cut is telling. Though Weber threatened to stop work on the film if Malick didn’t watch the full five hours (he did, once), Malick already had other ideas.
The Thin Red Line’s first assemblage, according to Leslie Jones, was “chipped away” at first, before anything else was added. “His main objective,” Jones explains on Criterion’s featured interviews, “was to lose the dialogue and create voiceover paths.” The five hours were trimmed; numerous scenes, significant or minor, were sliced away. Malick agreed to spend time in the screening room only viewing one reel at a time, and he watched each without sound. As the editors conformed the reels, they passed each to Malick. Playing CDs (“I think he was listening to Green Day at the time,” reveals Jones), Malick silently reviewed each reel. If there was any dialogue “that he didn’t care that he didn’t understand, we’d take it out. If he missed understanding it, we’d keep that in.” It was all about, in the end, creating long sections of the film in order to add voiceovers.
Most unusual to Jones was that for this film, they hardly watched the film as a whole. Once the editing team finally did, Malick was not present. His sole interest was the “feeling” each editor had for the finished assemblage. “I don’t think,” Jones explains, “he was capable of seeing the movie as a whole during the process. That was a big adjustment.”
Editor Saar Klein believes that Malick’s process wasn’t in viewing the movie as a whole, because there really wasn’t a goal. “There was an exploration when you work with him, you don’t know what the scene about and he doesn’t know what the scenes about until he sort of plays around with it and finds out what it’s about. It’s forever changing. He has a script, and the script isn’t necessarily what he shoots. Once he gets on the set, it’s just whatever inspires him.”
Most heartbreaking to the process was eliminating astounding scenes of John Toll’s beautiful photography. Before hiring Toll, Malick had already interviewed (with producer Grant Hill) several cinematographers . He phoned Toll and immediately “hit it off”. Though Toll was familiar with Malick’s previous films, he had no idea of Malick’s personality. Toll thought, “Well, it would be great to work with a director like that, because he’s obviously interested in making films, as opposed to just commercial product.”
Toll met Malick in Austin and ably detected Malick’s collaborative nature. Malick, he felt, had no direct vision. He thought in non-linear patterns [John Dee Smith calls Malick a “walking sentence fragment.”] He did sense that Malick’s nature was based on intuition, a process of knowing, eventually, where he wanted to go with all of the footage that was being shot. Scenes that were shot in the morning were also shot in bright afternoon light, and a third time during “magic hour”, a period of time as the sun sets and the light diffused as through a polarizing filter. That way, as he told actor Thomas Jane, he could place the scene anywhere he needed to without worrying about matching the sky.
Toll also sensed that Malick liked to find things along the way, groping through direction until what he wanted was clearly defined. Malick had no use for over-preparation. To him, it was pointless to create a framework to perfection until the objective of what he was trying to achieve was within sight.
“Terry,” Jack Fisk explains in Criterion’s film commentary, “loves grass.” To take full advantage of this, Toll designed a way for a camera to sweep through the grass with running soldiers using an Akela crane and no movie lights (except for the occasional use of muslin to bounce sunlight under the actor’s helmets). Of paramount importance was the use of Steadicam. Steadicam operator Brad Shield remembers:
“There was a lot of Steadicam in the film and the action pieces we got to do without extensive use of CGI were fantastic to be involved in.The attack on the Japanese camp, for instance.
Terry got some terrific Japanese actors and that sequence we shot over a few days . We would follow different actors into the camp, e.g.; Sean Penn from one angle, Jim Caviezel on a different take. Terry and John Toll would have trees burning, explosions going off (all very safe),and the Japanese actors were incredible, some on their knees showing bullets to the Americans, some fighting, some acting crazy. You would run in and think, ‘OK, this shot will be over in a minute,’ but Terry would keep rolling until we ran out of film. I am sure some of the best footage came out of that .The actors would really have to find stuff to do and I was basically just shooting what was in front of me almost documentary-style because none of it was set up after the first 30 seconds.”
Sometimes Shield used the assistance of the actors to find the best shots during the attack on the Japanese bivouac: “I had a terrific young actor Dash Mishok as my “go-to” guy, I said to him, If I am looking like I have nothing to shoot, take my camera on a journey, wipe the lens and find me some action.” He would come past me with his pistol out and search the camp site, or take me to where a fire was burning or some prisoners were being rounded up. Of course I had John Toll over my shoulder giving me great support and a great grip Mick Vivian and focus puller Brett Mathews, both who ran probably three or four miles keeping me on my feet (except one time I fell over a prisoner) and the whole thing staying in focus. That sequence still thrills me for the power, emotion and fear it invokes.”
For other sequences, filming required radical experimentation ultimately finding its rhythm and pacing in the confines of an Avid editing room. Says Shield: “There is a scene where Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel have a chat in a burnt-out colonial style house. The dialogue was different between takes with each actor ad-libbing his lines. Malick’s direction for the camera was basically to stay on Jim sometimes, then move to Sean and sometimes follow both of them. We shot this scene over a course of five to six hours. The camera starts on a birdcage, rises to the burnt-out timbers and then finds the actors who have moved on to different rooms. It has a very disquiet feeling and certainly does not feel set up in anyway.”
Other cast and crew members attest to Malick’s love of nature and his willingness to put to a stop any scenes already in progress or that were about to roll. “Terry offered me a bottle of champagne,” said Shield, “if I could shoot a particular eagle for him. I got it twice and sure enough he paid up, although the second one must not have been a very good eagle as he gave me Australian Champagne, a very poor second cousin to the French version.” Finding animals on-set meant that they would be filmed, and if so, it led to moments in Malick’s films, minute but powerful, that crystallized the Malickian essence.
Bead Kills a Japanese Soldier (still courtesy of Criterion)