Twenty years into a world-class disappearing act, Terrence Malick had come to be known as the J.D. Salinger of the movie business. After writing and directing two of the more enduring films of the ’70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, the abrasively brilliant filmmaker dropped out of sight, leaving an aura of mystery that rapidly transformed him into a good old-fashioned Hollywood legend — the genius in absentia. John Milius, cowriter of Apocalypse Now and director of Conan the Barbarian and TNT’s recent Rough Riders, calls Malick ”a very talented director, if not the most talented of my generation.” That generation, by the way, includes Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese. Now, nearly 21 years after he yelled ”Cut!” for the last time on Days of Heaven, Hollywood is witnessing the second coming of Terrence Malick.
Witnesses are few, though, because the 53-year-old director is shooting his comeback movie, his own adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel The Thin Red Line, in the jungle near Port Douglas in Queensland, Australia. Told against the backdrop of a cataclysmic battle — America’s bloody defeat of the Japanese at Guadalcanal — the film explores the raw human dynamics of a rifle company in combat. Filming began June 23 and continues until November, with release scheduled for late 1998.
If pedigree counts for anything, this $50 million drama will deliver: A-list actors who’ve enlisted in Malick’s ”C for Charlie” company include Sean Penn, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Gary Oldman, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, John Cusack, Bill Pullman, John Savage, Lukas Haas, and Ben Chaplin; and The Thin Red Line, hailed as one of the most realistic war novels ever, is a sequel to Jones’ From Here to Eternity, the basis for the 1953 film starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra that won eight Oscars.
Malick’s return was nurtured for nine years by two New York-based producers, Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau, whose credits include Robert Altman’s 1983 adaptation of David Rabe’s play Streamers. Geisler, 45, and Roberdeau, 44, wooed Malick with charm and patience. When he was primed, the duo called on Mike Medavoy, Malick’s first agent, who now runs Phoenix Pictures, to find the money. ”Our main accomplishment,” Geisler explains, ”is that we didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” That it all finally came together is, says Jones’ widow, Gloria, ”almost a miracle.”
Malick, who hasn’t given a formal interview since 1974 and has to date refused to do any press to promote The Thin Red Line, was an anomaly from the day he arrived in Los Angeles in the late ’60s with a string of life experiences that people in Tinseltown call interesting back story. He grew up in Waco, Tex., working the oil fields and driving cement trucks before going to Harvard, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He was teaching philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when his application to the American Film Institute was accepted by George Stevens Jr., son of the legendary director and now the executive producer of The Thin Red Line. ”I always liked the movies in a kind of naive way,” Malick said at the time. ”They seemed no less improbable a career than anything else.”