Pacific Hell Amid Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line'

PopMatters' Paul Maher speaks with cast and crew about what went into Terrence Malick's million-and-a-half feet of film (250 hours) that would become The Thin Red Line (re-released on DVD by Criterion, 28 September).

Paul Maher interviewed the following cast and crew from The Thin Red Line for this essay: John C. Reilly (Sergeant Storm), John Dee Smith (Private Train), Claude Lettesier (Ethnomusicologist) and Brad Shield (Steadicam operator)

There is a note placed at the beginning of Criterion’s excellent re-release of The Thin Red Line (1999): "Director Terrence Malick advises The Thin Red Line to be played loud." This is interesting. A highly-reticent auteur, with the mountains of knowledge behind his aesthetic should choose as his one statement this one and only piece of advice passed on to the people of Criterion.

Malick knows loud; he engaged the services of Francesco Lupica and his Cosmic Beam to blow the roof off the mother on a Fox soundstage in order to achieve the metallic clang and boom one hears dropped into key sequences of the film, when doom and chaos becomes imminent. “The Beam idea,” explains film editor Saar Klein, “came a little bit later in the picture when we were looking for something to capture, sort of like the fear of war. He remembered a guy from Venice Beach back in the seventies, and tracked him down. That was actually found and worked incredibly well.”

In happenstance, most look back on the making of The Thin Red Line as a peculiar highlight in their careers. In retrospect, The Thin Red Line is now a cult classic and Terry Malick’s vision endured. Blessed with the foresight of longevity and not immediate gains, Malick has placed himself in the front ranks of American film directors.

DVD: The Thin Red Line

Film: The Thin Red Line

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody

Release Date: 2010-09-28

Distributor: Criterion

Image: Thin Red Line’s premiere in December 1999, at long last, came after 100 days of filming in Queensland, Australia; 20 more days in Guadalcanal, and filming stateside for several days off of Catalina Island (with Nick Nolte and John Travolta) and on a military base close to San Pedro, California (with Ben Chaplin and Miranda Otto). Following principal shooting, the film languished an additional year-and-a-half in post-production. It was indeed a long time coming, perhaps matching Stanley Kubrick in its lengthy production. For some of the cast and crew, The Thin Red Line was an endurance test and frustrating to the point where many in the studio and alongside the director questioned his seeming lack of direction. Also, Malick could never make up his mind about anything, a fact that even he admitted.

There were exceedingly high expectations for the film’s premier by Malick's peers, the studio, the critics and the public -- for there were some that had been waiting since the closing credits of Days of Heaven to see another film by this gifted visionary. However, this public spectacle was, for Malick, the most daunting of the directorial process. He already had it written into his contract that he would provide no interviews, nor would he consent to being photographed (one invited press member on the Australian set did manage to snap a photo of a smiling Malick, which he despised ever since). The prospects of walking the red carpet was for him comparable to running a gauntlet replete with clubs hammering blows -- not on his body, but his psyche.

Malick sent his assistant to bring actor John Dee Smith (sitting with Adrien Brody, who was about to get the surprise of a lifetime when he saw how much he was not in the film) from the theatre to him. Smith, after receiving assurance from the theatre usher that he could gain re-admittance, found Malick sitting, alone, in his tuxedo. “He was in there, waiting for the after-party, or something. He wanted to tell me to never live in Los Angeles, and stay as far away from it as I could. The city, he felt, drained the soul and sucked the life force from you.”

John Dee Smith’s first experiences on set, having come from a theatre background, were frustrating. Malick’s process was to hire actors for their look, and not necessarily their acting skills (“Terry wanted to hire people, not actors.”). Malick told Jack Fisk that he would wait and see which of those “people” would rise to the surface. Two had, for very different reasons: Smith and Jim Caviezel, the future lead actor of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Smith remembers: “First day on the set I messed up my first scene. It had to be filmed four times in order to get my two lines right which eventually became a waste of mortars and gun blasts. I was with Adrien Brody in a trench and I messed up my mark badly [the scene is in the script; Smith’s Private Train character witnesses the wounding of Brody’s character, Fife]. I was embarrassed and apologized to Terry. I went back to my room. Adrien was mad at me too, and I ended up packing my stuff because I was only supposed to be there for two weeks. I then got a note slipped under my hotel room door by one of Malick’s assistants. I was to have dinner with Terry.”

“I went to the hotel dining room and was pointed the way to Terry. There we talked about life, about how I came out of poverty and my parents were killed and onward until I went to college before being cast in The Thin Red Line. Terry told me of his own faith and of his life in Texas. I ended up staying on the set and he used me for scenes where he could draw from my personal experiences and use it as dialogue. So there you have me talking about sleeping in the chicken coop a “whole lot of nights,” all true stories, and being beaten by a block. Terry prompted me through these scenes, saying stuff like [Smith does a great Terrence Malick-impression], “Tell more stories about the South.”

In the finished film, Smith appears in the first 15-minutes as a frightened private revealing to Penn, “I can’t help how scared I am Sarge.” In the film’s closing minutes, Smith reveals that because he has experienced life as bad as it can get, then it can only change for the better. Smith’s voiceover then closes the film:

“Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

One of the constants of The Thin Red Line’s production was the artistic freedom Malick invested in his film crew and actors. Though he maintained a tight reign over the production with the scrutiny of a stoic perfectionist, there were moments when Malick’s pursuit of truth, the “glimmer of gold in the stream”, meant to some that he was merely chasing Fool’s gold. Though there was a script, Malick, an obsessive writer, added to and dropped dialogue from the script, or peeled out lines of vivid prose to embellish the moody sentiment he wanted to juxtapose against the battle-worn soldiers crawling through the hills.

The screenplay for The Thin Red Line had its origins almost ten years previous, when producer Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau found investors willing to pay Malick a fee to adapt James Jones' book of the same title for the screen. The flimsy goal was to have Malick ultimately direct it, which was not a sure thing.

This project, among others, including an adaptation of Sancho the Bailiff, kept Malick occupied, by and large, for most of the early- to mid-'90s. Simultaneously, Malick tampered with a long-gestating dream project titled Q, a proto-version of Malick’s The Tree of Life. Malick’s investors gave him as long as he needed, which allowed him to remain in Paris close to Gloria Jones, the widow of The Thin Red Line’s author. Ultimately, Malick developed a script faithful to the novel which is by all accounts, a thick, profuse piece of literature exceeding 200 manuscript pages.

Malick’s “disappearance”, then, is really no mystery. After Days of Heaven, after folding up pre-production of Q, Malick was commissioned to write other scripts for various film industry figures. This kept his toes in Hollywood, so to speak, but he could remain away from the city he despised so much. The completed script eventually served Malick as a template. Film editor Billy Weber observed: “The script was extremely long and it was sort of all over the place and it was while Terry was shooting that he was able to refine it and create those situations between those characters. We had a couple of others (character relationships) that we ended up not using. [Sean Penn’s] Welsh also had a relationship with Fife, and which... we had too much going on. There wasn't enough focus and we really needed that. We felt that when you were watching the movie, we needed to focus on Witt's character, on Jim Caviezel, he seemed to be the one. He's the one that's gonna' get killed, and he's the one that we really needed to focus on.”

Jim Caviezel was cast by Diane Crittendon, who saw in him Malick’s desire to have actors that looked like they came from the '40s. However, there was more to Caviezel that Malick picked up on immediately. “Caviezel was a mystery to Terry,” remembers Smith in his conversation with me (July 2010). The lanky, handsome dark-haired man that had only appeared in minor roles up until then, turned out to be an embodiment of the spiritual center Caviezel recalls, “There are moments in that film where I felt absolutely filled with the Holy Spirit, tremendously. Terry said, "Look over here at the people, at the men that are dying." I kept looking around and I began to weep, and it was right before I was ever in that scene. It was a miracle after miracle.” (source: featurette in Criterion disc, an interview with casting director Diane Crittendon)

Of special importance were scenes with Sean Penn, the film’s cynic embodied in Sergeant Welsh [Penn also plays a similar role in The Tree of Life as Jack, a “lost man in a modern world”]. Caviezel: “Terry said to me, "What do you think of Sean Penn?" I said, "He's like a rock. One day you can go up and talk to him, and there's some days he doesn't know who you are. That's Sean Penn.” When we were shooting that scene, Terry says, "Tell him that, tell him what you told me.” On many days Sean and I would go out and run and work out together, and I kind of talked to him a lot about where I came from, my faith, and so on. Once Penn asked me, ‘What makes you tick?’”

"Do you really want to know?"


"Jesus Christ."

Then he goes, "Well, I don't not believe in him," like that. I said, "You asked me what makes me tick and I'm telling you. I wouldn't put that on you.”

“When I came on the set, Penn [as Welsh] said "You still seeing the big ole' light?" I think I said, "I still see a spark in you. I know he's in you, I know there's something going on."

Penn recalls of his scenes with Caviezel: “I think some of it was just there, you know, between Jim and I. We were very different people, and I think that he could speak to this in some ways better than I could, because he's got a... he's a person of a particular faith. I think that we were not wildly far off of who each character was anyways. A lot of it was just there.”

Penn was one of the few veteran actors on the set (besides Nick Nolte), and many times he was a mentor of a sort to the younger upstarts Malick brought in to bulk up his forces. “I think I had a very different experience than the rest because I was the old man there. I mean we had a couple of guys like Clooney who came up for a day, you know, or Woody [Harrelson] was around for a little bit, but even those guys are younger than I am, so I felt like I'm the old man with my family and all these young guys having the experiences that I had had twenty years ago, for many of them it was a first film, and I can imagine that from their point of view that it was really a magical time.”

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