What I’ve Learnt From Terrence Malick

What I’ve Learnt From Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick: What I’ve Learnt – By Tomas Gold.

Terrence Malick. His career has spanned more than forty-five years, directing ten feature films, winning multiple awards and earning praise & adulation from critics, audiences and filmmakers around the world. This has cemented his reputation as one of the most celebrated and revered directors in the history of cinema. 

Since the early 1970s, Terrence Malick has directed a wide range of feature films, including Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The Tree of Life (2011). Throughout his career, he has sought to tell stories that push the boundaries of filmmaking and to explore alternative cinematic techniques. In making To The Wonder (2012), for instance, this meant forgoing a formal script: In A Hidden Life (2019), he used only wide-angle lenses to film. These are just a few examples of how Malick has been able to create a distinctive body of work, often receiving considerable praise for its beguiling cinematography, philosophical themes and poignant, introspective voiceover narration. These approaches explain my own adoration for Malick’s films. 

I also admire his creative approach. As a filmmaker myself, I have been inspired by Malick’s eagerness to experiment with traditional narrative structure, the way he encourages actors to improvise & follow their own ideas, and his determination not to be restricted by the “rules” of filmmaking. Malick is by no means the first director to diverge from a conventional filmmaking process, however there is something about my experience of watching his films that leaves me captivated, enthralled and feeling I have gained a deeper understanding of the world around me, in a way that other films do not. They are philosophical, poetic journeys, filled with life, energy and beauty, that I do no try to fully understand objectively, I question what they mean to me, how it makes me feel, what my interpretation of the work is. 

He is a maverick, ready to make films that go beyond  conventional expectations, on his own terms. This has influenced how I approach my own work. One of the most important aspects of filmmaking that I feel I have learnt from Malick’s approach is to not hold onto your pre-conceptions of how a film should be made, from pre-production, filming, and to post-production. If you are not beholden to those pre-conceptions, your creativity can flourish because you are not limiting yourself, you are able to explore new ideas and angles.

In a rare public appearance at the 2017 South By Southwest festival, Malick mentions “I find it very hard to execute anything that is too pre-conceived, or storyboards, I’ve never been able to work from a storyboard.[]He goes on to explain that to him “You always have a little feeling that you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.” For me, what I take from this is that sometimes if you plan with too much detail, mapping out exactly how the finished film will be made, you can in fact arrive at the opposite conclusion. In this situation, you start filming and when things aren’t going in the direction you hoped it would, although they seemed great during pre-production, it becomes apparent that certain aspects are ultimately not suited to the realisation of your project.

You are constantly attempting to replicate very specific visions and details (which can leave you with very limited options if unsuccessful), whereas if you approach an idea with the expectation that on the filming days you may diverge from the script or shooting schedule, and focus on capturing the essence or feeling of that idea, you can do what feels right on the day, follow your instincts and work with the cast & crew to embody that direction. 

This method of course does not work with everyone or every type of production, but what I want to emphasise is that from my perspective, Malick has taught me that there are many possibilities & directions when making a film, and that they should be explored as much as possible, because you may find something wonderful that you wouldn’t have planned for. Don’t stifle creativity based on a formal understanding of the work, be free to create your own path.

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