How to Write the Way Terrence Malick Makes Movies


You can watch some behind the scenes extras of Terrence Malick’s upcoming film To The Wonder. The rumor is that Ben Affleck hardly has any lines and that the scenes and story lines from 4 different talented and popular actors were all cut during editing. We sometimes tell ourselves to kill our darlings, but 4 actors all snipped! 

Why have those story lines? Why sign them just to cut them?

I’ll let the movie’s Editor, Keith Fraase, explain why:

Terry [Terrence Malick] is more about reacting to what he’s seeing on screen, so he’s not, “This character needs to be doing this in this scene.” It’s more about seeing what’s there and whether it’s what Terry calls “honest or not.” And if there’s any hint of falsity or theatricality then we abandon that, even if it’s more accurate for what the scene is we’ll go into a completely different direction to try and get those honest moments.

That’s such a hard discipline to adhere to. First, it requires over-creating, knowing all the while that anything could get cut. But in the over-creating, there’s the never ending pursuit for honesty. The next challenge comes in the editing process, when you have to make the decisions on what to snip. It’s hard to do when you cherish every word you’ve written or every scene you’ve shot. 

Terrence Malick works on another level when it comes to what he’s trying to create. He remains true to his vision and in that vision is the ever-present, ruthless honesty every moment must contain. 

I can’t imagine what that’s like as an actor.  Everything you do has to be so fierce and yet so natural, which is an accurate description of the writing I like.

(link via Image Journal)

As I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought: Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done?


The Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama Bin Laden is staying anonymous, but speaking out in a recent Esquire article (“The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden… Is Screwed) about how he’s unemployed and afraid for his wife and children’s lives.

About killing Bin Laden, he says:

And I remember as I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought: Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done? This is real and that’s him.

If you’ve watched the recent film Zero Dark Thirty then you already have a picture in your head about how this killing went down. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s about how they found Bin Laden and how they killed him.

The movie ends with a similar sentiment as The Shooter’s above quote. In the last scene of ZD30, Jessica Chastain, who plays Mya the CIA agent who’s spent the last 12 years and her entire CIA career hunting down Bin Laden, boards an empty plane. In the last few moments before the movie ends something interesting happens.

After Mya sits down in the empty plane, she cries. It’s possible she’s finally shedding happy tears, or mourning the friends she lost in the war, or she’s simply having a cathartic moment. But I want to suggest an alternative interpretation to the moment, to the movie, and to the real life story that’s closely aligned to the questions of The Shooter.

I believe Mya is doubting whether it was all worth it. The years, the lives lost, the resources expended, and the eventual anti-climatic feeling of elation mixed with disgust.

Hunting down a man in order to kill him, regardless of his crimes, I think, will always force one to question the purpose of the particular/personal death, especially when the hunt comes at a great worldly cost.

Was this the best thing to ever happen to Mya? Or the worst?

I think the movie and the real life story want us to wrestle with the latter. In real life, Mya’s character did cry when she saw Bin Laden’s body. I think I would too if finding him was my life’s work.

This is not a question of whether or not a mastermind behind mass-murder should be brought to justice, that goes without saying. But the collateral damage becomes something more than ever imagined. It’s fair we ask the question. And then ask more questions…

Violence, in its many forms, raises for us questions about evil in our world that we would rather avoid asking. If we believe in a God, why does our God allow such evil to exist? If we believe in peace, when is it proper to resort to the violence of war? If we believe in a state of social equilibrium called justice, how do we restore it after violence has created chaos? (Tom Palaima, Higher Education)

As the Esquire article narrates, how does a Navy SEAL create a civilian/family life after war? As Zero Dark Thirty suggests, what’s a worthy life goal besides hunting down a man? And what we must consider about our own world, how do we restore it?

The Wealth-Fantasy Lies About the Reality of Justice

Popular movies take pleasure in portraying wealthy characters.

The movie The Big Year, which I viewed with my wife last night, reminded me of this. Jack Black plays a 36-year-old divorced bird watcher with a full-time job. He relies on his parents to fund his year of breaking a bird watching record. He’s befriended by Steve Martin’s character, who plays a successful businessman desiring to retire with his wife to a Colorado cabin she designed. He spends most of his time bird watching. Although Steve Martin’s character flies coach and sleeps in the cheap hotels, without him and his wealth (he does have a jet), the two character’s would be unable to view some of the rare birds on their list. One such bird they view in the mountains only by flying on a helicopter. Without his money the story faces an insurmountable obstacle and the reality of failure. Money provides more opportunities for success.

Stories (and movies) can do whatever they want. I’m not here to critique them or their characters or the income levels displayed. (The Big Year is a good movie.) But realistic poor people stories don’t offer wormholes with money because there isn’t any money (I’m not talking about rags to riches stories which are success based on materialism).

I wonder what kind of characters Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne become without a garage full of expensive sports cars and superhuman hero suits. I’m comparing realism to a form of wealth-fantasy (an entertaining-sometimes-dramatic-sometimes-comedic form of fantasy that is sometimes super fun to watch) that robs characters of humanity. It’s a subtle robbery, but one which sets us in a garage full of Lamborghinis rather than a meth-addict’s kitchen. Our humanity and immortality are implied in the meth-addict’s kitchen (maybe even amplified), while being softly nudged aside in the warehouse of state-of-the-art weaponry.

The societal status and income level of our characters matter. I’m of course using movie-character’s for the purpose of analyzing our fictional characters. What can we buy with fictional money? What new/exciting experience can be conjured through a thick wallet? Stories steeped in realism will have to ask these questions. What kind of scenes can we create in the absence of wealth? What’s unique when illuminating the poor?

Working with low-income characters might feel like a constraint after viewing so many Hollywood films. But it’s also an opportunity to return the reader to the concreteness of our earthy reality. While the pangs of hunger and unpaid bills feel can be made into a Goodwill-suit-type-cliche, it also offers a rich world of feeling and subtlety and unseen particularity pregnant with tension on the very basis of its poverty.

We fantasize about the luxuries of a billionaire’s jet and avoid the meth-addict’s kitchen. While both provide a glimpse into an unseen world the former is more inclusive than the latter. It’s easier to economically move down than it is to move up. It’s easier to simply walk into a meth addict’s kitchen (not recommended) than it is to wander into a billionaire’s jet (if you do send me pics).

Here’s a scene that requires little money, just some chemicals, a barrel, and some fancy know how. This is unique and easily accessible:

This is unique and exclusive:

The jet scene will serve its purpose, but only with the access of money (unless the jet is stolen). But anyone, rich or poor can walk across an open field and view barrels shooting into the air.

If Cinderella feeds young girls the lie of the prince who sweeps you off your feet and saves you, then the wealth-fantasy lies about the reality of justice. Justice does not come from a microchip-kevlar-caped suit, but rather through interpersonal conflict based and set (and needed) among the least of us, the neediest of us, the most vulnerable of us.

The real example of justice in Batman, The Dark Knight, is of the prisoner who chooses not to detonate the bomb on the other ferry in order to save himself. Batman can’t be Batman without Bruce Wayne’s wealth, but a prisoner can fight for justice with only lint in his pockets and a jumpsuit on his back. The scene, however, was used as a side-note to Bruce Wayne’s belief in the goodness of common people.

This is the allure of the movie Winter’s Bone, where Ree Dolly, a young girl providing for and protecting her poor family in the Ozark Mountain community, is neither glitzed nor glammed nor monetarily able to reach her end goal of finding her father to save the foreclosure of her family’s home.

Her bravery is real, deeper felt, accessible.

Materialism used for good entertains us, but I’ll put stock into the bravery of the poor man or woman fighting for justice. That’s a story needing to be told. Super heroes, not in capes and suits and money-bought protection, but heroes in open fields and meth-addict’s kitchens, penniless and persevering.

Stories of barreling justice.

This is Madness

One of my favorite parts of the movie 300 is at the beginning when the Persian messenger rides into Sparta asking for “Earth and water,” representing their submission to the god-king Xerxes. When Leonidas pulls a sword on the messenger, the Persian yells, “This is madness,” to which Leonidas states, “This is Sparta!” and then pushes him into a random, large pit in the ground.

It was madness. Which is why my fists were clenched when I watched the scene.

I finished watching There Will Be Blood the other day and that phrase kept running through my head. This is madness. The crazy bachelor with his deaf son obsessed with oil and money. The young preacher obsessed with a large church and money. And finally in the last scene when the oil man has coerced the preacher into exclaiming at the top of his lungs that, “I am a false prophet and God is a superstition!” and subsequently kills him with a bowling pen in the bowling alley in his large mansion. This is madness. Which is why it won a couple of Oscars. Because I think to be good, to be interesting, to be original you have to be a little mad.

Which brings us to the Checkov quote from Clavdia that explains why he felt he was crazy to be so obsessed with writing.

If you saw The Dark Night this weekend I think you’d all agree that the Joker’s madness is what made him so exciting and evocative. Do you think Heath will win an Oscar?

Friday is For Writers, Readers, and Everyone Else

• How having a blog can be a dangerous thing (here).

• A list of fictional movies referred to in Seinfeld. (here via kottke)

• Even England is being swept up by The Shack‘s success, reports the Guardian.

Here are some stories and poems from PEN’s annual Prison Writing Competition.

• The US just named a new Poet Laureate. (here and here)

• An interesting conversation between an Evangelical and a Jew (here).

I Once Had A Dog

When I was a kid we had a black lab named Coach whom I wanted to be a sled dog because I’d just watched the Disney movie Iron Will for the 30th time. He never became a sled dog because it never snowed and because The Pound came and took him away and sent him to heaven. He was chasing cattle. I guess that’s a big deal or something. 

Update: My father told me chasing cattle in that county is a capital offense.