(Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, is now out in select theaters. See early reviews of the Palme d’Or winning film or read my review of the film for Christianity Today).
There is so little magic left in cinema, and so few figures characters who loom large enough to inspire the kind of bigger-than-life mythos formerly reserved for the likes of Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Kubrick. Terrence Malick is one of them. He’s a rare breed—a iconoclastic, shadowy figure who guards his privacy so fiercely (and in the process, bolsters his mythical stature) that he doesn’t even appear at the Cannes world premiere of a film he’s spent 30 years planning. (Although—wait—he was there, hiding in the back like an entertained angel unaware).
Whether or not Malick takes pride in his J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon-esque reputation (doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t let any camera near his face), as opposed to him just being “very shy” (the official explanation), is beside the point. It’s part of his process, integral to his art. He wants his films to be experienced on their own terms—phenomenological confrontations with truth and beauty, unencumbered by silly things like “director’s commentary” or other such explanatory tools for “understanding.” Malick’s films aren’t to be understood. They’re to be experienced, embraced, surrendered to.
As such, Malick’s biography is hardly germane. Or is it? As an auteurist to the core (i.e. a follower of directors and their recurring cinematic preoccupations), I have to believe that Malick the man informs Malick “the oeuvre.” Certainly Malick’s biography plays a big role in The Tree of Life. And so, for the sake of understanding perhaps a little more of what makes Malick tick, here are 39 random facts (some substantiated, some only of plucked from a single, negligible Internet source) about the venerable artist:
- Malick was born on November 30, 1943 in Ottawa, Illinois.
- He grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, the son of Emil (an oil geologist originally from Lebanon) and Irene (who grew up on a farm in Illinois).
- “Terry” was the oldest of three boys.
- His brother Chris (the middle son) was badly burned in a car crash that killed his wife. Youngest brother Larry went to Spain to study guitar, but committed suicide in 1968.
- Malick went to high school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Westlake, Texas, where he played on the football team.
- He went to Harvard as an undergraduate, starting in 1961 as a philosophy major, studying under respected film theorist Stanley Cavell, who provoked Malick’s interest in German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
- Following his junior year at Harvard, he traveled to Germany, met Martin Heidegger and translated The Essence of Reasons.
- In 1965 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard.
- In 1969, Malick published The Essence of Reasons as part of the prestigious Northwestern University Press series, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. This “marked a substantial contribution to American Heidegger scholarship,” notes Martin Woessner in Heidegger in America.
- During summers in college, Malick worked as a farmhand or on the oil fields.
- Following Harvard, Malick went to England as a Rhodes Scholar, studying philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford.
- He had a disagreement with his advisor, Gilbert Ryle, over his thesis on the concept of the world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, and ultimately left Oxford without taking a doctorate.
- In 1968, he was appointed to be a lecturer in philosophy for one year at MIT, though he admits he “was not a good teacher.”
- In the late 60s, Malick wrote for Life Magazine and The New Yorker, which sent him to Bolivia to do a piece on Che Guevera.
- Malick contributed to the obituaries for Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in The New Yorker.
- In the fall of 1969 he came to Los Angeles to study film at AFI, where he was in the same class as David Lynch and Paul Schrader.
- In 1971, Malick wrote, produced & directed his thesis film, the 18-minute long Lanton Mills (starring himself, Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton).
- His first wife was Jill Jakes, an assistant to the director Arthur Penn. They divorced in 1978.
- In his early career, Malick did script rewrites on film like Dirty Harry.
- He wrote an early version of the Great Balls of Fire script as well as script adaptations of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose.
- At the end of his second year at AFI, Malick began work on Badlands, which was influenced by his love of books like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn—“all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head.”
- Malick appears in a cameo in Badlands, only because the intended actor didn’t show up on the day the scene was shot.
- Malick is knows the Bible well and is an Episcopalian.
- Following his second film, Days of Heaven, Moved to Paris (in the summer of 1978) and began work on a project called Q, which dramatized the origins of life (this eventually became The Tree of Life). Paramount poured $1 million into the development of Q, but it went nowhere.
- For 20 years, Malick dropped off the Hollywood radar, returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line.
- During this time, Malick traveled the world and indulged his love of nature. He explored the ancient caves of Nepal, climbed in the Alps, embarked on long excursions in Greece, Nova Scotia and the south of France.
- During his “sabbatical,” home base was an apartment in Paris and later two apartments (one for living, one for writing) in a prefabricated building in Austin, Texas.
- In the early 80s, Malick fell in love with Michèle, a Parisienne who lived in his same building in Paris and had a daughter, Alex. After a few years the three of them moved to Austin, Texas
- Malick married Michèle in 1985, but they divorced in 1998.
- Malick married Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace in 1998 (his rumored high school sweetheart from his days at St. Stephen’s). They are still married and currently reside in Austin, Texas.
- Ecky Wallace is the mother of actor Will Wallace, who appears in The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life.
- Ecky’s father was an Episcopalian priest in Houston, and Ecky herself is very devout. She attended seminary at the Seminary of the Southwest and received a master’s degree in 1997.
- Terrence and Ecky attend an Episcopal church in Austin, possibly the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.
- Malick loves classical music, Italian cinema, bird watching, astronomy, ornithology, German philosophy, French philosophy, English literature, among other things.
- Zoolander is one of Malick’s all time favorite films.
- Starting with The New World, Malick has instituted “rules” in his filmmaking, including using only natural light, no cranes, no big rigs, and handheld cameras only.
- He speaks French fluently.
- Malick was (relatively) active as a producer in the 2000s, producing such films as David Gordon Green’s Undertow, Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, and documentaries The Endurance and The Unforeseen.
- He recently finished filming his 6th film in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (where he lived as a boy). The film stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem and Rachel Weisz.
Malick has had an interesting life. I took a degree in philosophy also.
And do Blues using existentialism as “a musical tool”.
Peace Love and Blues
mighty mo rodgers
Malick is knows the Bible well and is an Episcopalian
Correction: remove the first ‘is’.
The Beautiful Country is another he produced, a few years back, about a young Vietnamese man who goes to America to find his dad, a soldier during the Vietnam War. I really enjoyed it.
A person is always more than we suspect: We “can know a person and not really know him at the same time.” (Badlands)
I want to recommend you a site by Ashley (assumedly fictitious name), a writer that in the end of 2006 published some curious literature: conversations between father and son, poems about trees and forbidden fruits, dinosaurs, the love for the ocean, a woman that suffers alone in silence beside her husband, about life, death, and everything else, as the author says. I choose to quote When I was Young:
Once when I was young
I went for a ride on a plane
And I stopped believing.
For where else can Heaven be
If not on the tops of clouds?
A kingdom that vast,
Cannot be invisible.
Angels are not cruel enough to hide.
Where did the castle made of clouds
And miracles go?
Was it ever even there?
RL: Tell us a story from before we can remember.
MOTHER: I went for a ride in a plane once. It was a graduation present.
For those less attentive spectators of The Tree of Life, there are two porcelain angels in the dead son’s room, by the window. In the architect’s dream, we see something filmed against the sky that could be called the disappeared house, but I believe it would also be properly named the castle made of clouds. It even has something in the front that remembers a drawbridge. And one more thing: Holly and Kit go on the plane as prisioners. And what is the last shot of “Badlands”? The tops of the clouds.
Curious poem, no? I think you should consider adding writing poetry to your list.
For an interpretation of those writings by “Ashley”:
Larry was the middle child. Chris was the youngest.
I am amazed!
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I LOVE that his favorite film is Zoolander
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Hi! Where did you find all of these great facts?!
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I loved Thin Red Line.
There is no way in hell that his favorite film is Zoolander!!! I am with Sarah George: ” where did you find all these great facts?” By the way, Mallick is the only director today holding the candle of cinema and maintaining it alive since Tarkovsky died.