Terrence Malick: Understanding The Enigmatic Filmmaking Master

Terrence Malick, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Voyage of Time, Weightless

Terrence Malick: The Enigmatic Filmmaking Master

Legendary film director Terrence Malick’s films have been branded as radical re-evaluations of the current concepts of cinema like sound, image, narrative and character. Malick’s films happen to be intensely visual, unorthodox, and flourishing with natural scenery.

Born in Ottawa Illinois, Terrence Malick’s parents were Irene and Emil A. Malick who was a geologist. His grandparents from the paternal side were Assyrian Christian immigrants from Lebanon and Syria. While his family resided in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Terrence Malick attended St. Stephen’s Episcopal School situated in Austin, Texas. Malick was the eldest of three children and had two younger brothers Larry and Chris.

Larry Malick was a guitarist and had gone off to study in Spain with Andres Segovia in the late 60s. Due to the pressure of studies, Larry intentionally broke his hands in 1968. Emil, their father, went to Spain to help his son, but Larry died shortly after committing suicide apparently.

Malick was the eldest of three children and had two younger brothers Larry and Chris. Larry Malick was a guitarist and had gone off to study in Spain with Andres Segovia in the late 60s. Due to the pressure of studies, Larry intentionally broke his hands in 1968. Emil, their father, went to Spain to help his son, but Larry died shortly after committing suicide apparently.

The death of his younger brother at such an early age has been explored in his films like The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups (2015). Terrence Malick received his A.B in philosophy from Harvard College and graduating Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude in the year 1965. Malick did his graduate work at the Magdalen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Later on after a disagreement over his thesis on the concept of the world in Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger with his tutor Gilbert Ryle, he left without his degree from Oxford. The Northwestern University Press published the Malick’s translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes as The Essence of Reasons in 1969.


Upon his return to the United States, Terrence Malick taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while freelancing as a journalist too. Terence Malick wrote articles for Newsweek, Life, and Newsweek.

Terrence Malick began his career as a part of the filmmaking wave of the New Hollywood with the movie Badlands (1973) which was critically acclaimed. Badlands was an independent film that starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek which is a young couple on a crime spree set in the Midwest in the 1950s.

Although having a problematic production with most of the crew members leaving half-way of the shoot, Badlands managed to draw raves at the New York Film Festival which premiered it which lead to Warner Bros. purchasing the distribution rights three times of its actual budget.

Malick himself managed to raise money for the movie by approaching figures out of the industry like dentists and doctors which resulted in half of the budget, and the other half was raised by the executive producer Edward Pressman as well as an extra amount of $25,000 from his personal savings. Badlands was influenced by the crimes of a convicted teenage spree killer Charles Starkweather.

Terrence Malick’s second film was Days of Heaven was produced by Paramount Pictures. The plot revolved around a love triangle which blossoms in the farm country of Texas Panhandle set in the early 20th century. It narrates the story of Bill and Abby who travel to Texas to harvest crops for a productive and prosperous farmer.

The film was shot in 1976 in Alberta, Canada and mostly in natural light. Similar to his first feature, this movie also faced a lengthy and troubled production as some production crew members quit before the shoot has finished. Crew disagreements broke out due to the unusual directorial style. Billy Weber and

Terrence Malick spent two years on the editing during which they also toyed with unconventional editing as well as voice over techniques after the realization that the picture they wanted to make might not pan out the way they wanted it to be. Releasing in 1978, Days of Heaven won Academy Award for Best Cinematography and also earned the Best Director at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

Similar to his first feature, this movie also faced a lengthy and troubled production as some production crew members quit before the shoot has finished. Crew disagreements broke out due to the unusual directorial style.

Billy Weber and Terrence Malick spent two years on the editing during which they also toyed with unconventional editing as well as voice over techniques after the realization that the picture they wanted to make might not pan out the way they wanted it to be. Releasing in 1978, Days of Heaven won Academy Award for Best Cinematography and also earned the Best Director at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

Soon after the release of Days of Heaven, Malick commenced the developing for a Paramount Project which was titled Q, exploring the origins of life on planet earth. During the pre-production period, he suddenly vanished from the public view for the year and moved to Paris.

In the course of his time in Paris, Terrence Malick wrote several screenplays which included The English Speaker which was the analysis of Anna O by Josef Breuer, adaptations of the novels of Larry McMurtry’s Desert Rose and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. He also worked on the stage adaptation of Sansho the Bailiff, directed by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda.

The work that Terrence Malick did on Q, gradually became the foundation for the films he made in future like The Tree of Life and Voyage of Time. Jack Fisk who happens to be Malick’s longtime production designer for his films told that Malick was shooting films during this period as well.

After an extended period of twelve years since Days of Heaven, Malick came back to directing with The Thin Red Line (1998) which happened to be a loose adaptation of a World War II novel of the same name by James Jones.

Filming on the movie took place in the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland and the Solomon Islands. The film received critical acclaim and was nominated for seven Academy Awards as well as earning the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival.

Next up for Terrence Malick was The New World (2005), which was a script that Malick began writing in the 1970s. The New World featured a romantic version of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas in the Virginia Colony. Nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, The New World earned mixed reviews during its theatrical run.

The Tree of Life was Malick’s fifth feature film and was filmed in Smithville, Texas. It starred Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn. The Tree of Life was a family drama which spanned various time periods and centers on the struggle of an individual to reconcile love, beauty, and mercy with the presence of illness suffering and death.

The Tree of Life premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival winning the Palme d’Or. It won the FIPRESCI Award for the Best Film of the Year. It was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 84th Academy Awards. According to the BBC Culture’s 2015 poll, it was voted as the 79th greatest American film of all time.

To the Wonder (2012), was Malick’s sixth feature film most of which was mostly shot in Oklahoma and bits of it in Paris. Premiered at the 69th Venice International Film Festival it was described as the exploration of love in its many forms, it was nominated for Golden Lion Award and won SIGNIS Award at the same.

Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem and Olga Kurylenko this romantic drama chronicles the life of a couple who fell in love in Paris and how they are struggling to keep their relation from falling apart after their move to the U.S.

Filmnation Entertainment announced the international sales for Terrence Malick’s next two upcoming projects in the November of 2011. Lawless (now called Weightless (2017) and Knight of Cups (2015). Both of these films feature a large cast, and both were shot back to back in 2012.

Weightless was primarily shot in Austin, Texas, and Knight of Cups in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In the year 2015, Knight of Cups was released and was considered more disruptive than The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. It’s also known as the most experimental film of Malick to date. Scheduled to be released in March of 2017 by Board Green Pictures, it has been described as a shot of adrenaline by Nicholas Gonda.

In the course of post-production period of these two films, Terrence Malick was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in 2012. Simultaneously with these two films, Malick is also working on an IMAX documentary Voyage of Time, which was described as…

“the celebration of Earth displaying the whole of time from the universe’s birth to its final collapse”

…by the Hollywood Reporter. VFX Legends Douglas Trumball (2001) and Dan Glass (The Matrix) designed the high-end visual effects in the film.

The screening for the investors took place at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Wild Bunch picked the sales rights. The Voyage of Time will be released in two versions. A 40-minute IMAX version narrated by Brad Pitt called the Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience and a 90-minute feature length version Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey which is to be narrated by Cate Blanchett.

June of 2016 brought about the new of Malick’s next feature, Radegund which is based on the life of an Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter during World War II and was put to death at the age of 36 for destabilizing of military actions. He was later declared a martyr and consecrated by the Catholic Church. August Diehl will play the role of Jagerstatter and Valerie Pachner is set to play the role of his wife, Franziska Jagerstatter.

Below is Terrence Malick’s filmography. Definitely take a look, you won’t be sorry.



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    Terrence Malick is really a fantastic film director. His films have been branded as radical re-evaluations of the current concepts of cinema like sound, image, narrative and character. Terrence Malick’s second film was Days of Heaven was produced by Paramount Pictures.