Fall 2019


Malick's Mystique

A rare glimpse into the reclusive director's process by the 1st and 2nd ADs of his most recent film, A Hidden Life.

By Steve Chagollan

August Diehl plays an Austrian conscientious objector during WWII in A Hidden Life. (Photo: Reiner Bajo/Fox Searchlight)

Terrence Malick works in mysterious ways. Dating back to the '70s—when his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, signaled the arrival of a visionary talent—the director has not submitted to a formal interview. There has been the occasional public appearance, however, such as at this past Cannes Film Festival, where he received a standing ovation for his latest feature, A Hidden Life.

The movie is his first that's not rooted in the American experience. The story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis during WWII, A Hidden Life presents Malick's stylistic trademarks: the floating camera, breathtaking imagery, contemplative voiceover. It's also distinguished by an almost biblical spirituality, with the Jägerstätters, simple farmers, living in a symbolic Eden before the fall.

The director's 1st AD and 2nd AD on the picture, Scott Kirby and Dennis Becker, respectively, departed from their usual routines to conform to Malick's highly unorthodox methods. Fresh pages of dialogue delivered the morning of a shoot took the form of "little poems or writings on a typewriter," says Becker, "nothing written like a screenplay."

Adds Kirby: "[Malick's] not somebody who does the traditional shooting breakdown with a shot list. Terry likes to be inspired from day to day by what the actors and the locations have to offer. He works like a photographer; he's the first one to say it's kind of like a glorified photo shoot. He is finding the best light and then it unfolds from there. We sometimes had takes that went up to 40 minutes."

Rather than work with his regular DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, the director recruited Jörg Widmer, who operated the camera for Lubezki on previous Malick features, and performed double duty on A Hidden Life.

"[Widmer] was always operating," says Kirby. "We only had one camera. We didn't have any B camera or any second unit. We would sometimes go out on Saturdays with a mini unit, just basically Terry, Jörg, myself and maybe two of the actors, and go put them in a landscape—just find things. It's always this process of discovery."

2nd AD Dennis Becker and 1st AD Scott Kirby on location for A Hidden Life. (Photo: Courtesy of Dennis Becker)

The bulk of the pastoral settings were shot in South Tyrol, in the north of Italy. "The Jägerstätter family lived in a relatively flat area in the north of Austria, not far from the German border," explains Kirby. "Terry decided to move away from that kind of flat reality and pieced the landscape together in a more mountainous region to give it more personal and physical drama."

According to Kirby, it's a process that Malick calls "cubizing," like a cubist painter—"You kind of take one scene and you break it up into a lot of different locations so this gives you the opportunity later in the cutting room to build something unique."

For example, certain settings wouldactually be comprised of five locations but made to look like one, such as the farmhouse where the Jägerstätters lived. "That was part of the philosophy," says Kirby, "creating a unique space, not one that exists, [but] created through the process of filming it."

One of Becker's primary duties was culling newsreel footage of the period to place the story in sociopolitical context. "It was all propaganda," explains Becker. "There were a lot of phone calls, research on the internet."

At the end of the day, whatever nervousness the actors or crew had about Malick's fluid approach was assuaged by his openness to suggestion. "He is not some kind of mad genius who everyone kind of drank the Kool-Aid [for] and just does what he says," notes Scott. "He doesn't dictate. He knows how to tickle things along and use everybody's strengths in a kind of a jujitsu way."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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