(I wrote this post after attending the interview at the Rome Film Festival on October 24th, 2007.)
“Terrence Malick is extremely shy and you must not attempt to make direct contact with him. You must pretend you are eavesdropping on a private conversation.”
I am sitting in the middle of the front row in the “Petrassi” hall of the Auditorium in Rome, Italy, where Terrence Malick is about to give an interview as part of the Rome Film Festival – his first interview since 1973, and in all likelihood a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for film lovers the world over. Terrence Malick has dazzled the world with four movies of exceptional cinematic splendor and sensitivity, and yet has always refused to be interviewed or photographed, which only heightened his legendary reputation.
The two hosts brief us before Terrence Malick’s entrance on stage.
“It took me a long time to persuade Terrence Malick to give this interview, and he finally agreed on condition that we would not discuss his movies, but would focus on his favorite Italian films instead,” one of the hosts said.
Having given a stern warning that no video or audio recording is allowed, and that stringent anti-piracy invigilation will be carried out during the interview, the hosts disappear behind the curtains.
The air is thick with anticipation; the impact of Terrence Malick’s movies is matched by his reluctance to appear in public and be filmed.
The silence is broken when the two hosts escort Terrence Malick onto the stage – one on each side. Terrence Malick is wearing a dark coat, still buttoned up. The auditorium breaks into a rapturous applause. Malick seems disoriented and unsure of where he is, taking cautious steps towards his seat on the stage, perhaps thinking this interview wasn’t such a good idea after all. The ovation shows now signs of abating and Malick taps his heart in appreciation.
Malick is here for one reason: to show us clips from his favorite Italian movies, and to tell us why he finds them inspiring.
The first clip is played – a scene from a movie by Totò. An experienced thief, played by Totò, is attempting to teach the art of safe-breaking to some young acolytes. The lights go up and the interview begins in earnest.
“This was the first Totò film to reach the United States ,” Malick tells us. “I am a big fan of Totò – his face irradiates a special love, gladness, and happiness, just like Roberto Benigni. Benigni is the true heir of artists like Totò and Charlie Chaplin.”
The next clip is from a film by Pietro Germi. An old-fashioned Italian father decides to lock his daughter up for not complying with his marriage plans; the scene’s tone blends drama with comedy.
What does Malick like so much about this movie? “It’s the gladness, the innocent quality it exudes…its humor is a celebration of innocence, of the type we don’t really see anymore.”
Next up is a scene from Federico Fellini’s “The White Sheik”: a provincial girl comes to town looking for the so-called white sheik – a local charlatan who likes to dress up in fancy exotic clothes. The slick fraudster wraps the clueless girl around his little finger in a scene that mixes humor with surrealism, in vintage Fellini style.
“Again, the warm sense of humor and the sheer innocence of the scene greatly appeal to me…I feel for the provincial girl, the innocent character who is expertly swindled by the fraudster who calls himself the white sheik.”
The scene takes place in a gorgeous Italian pine-and-scrub forest not too dissimilar from the wilderness of Southern California, and Fellini’s camera lovingly dwells on the trees and vegetation that frame the scene. One cannot help comparing the scene to the abiding affection for nature displayed in Malick’s movies, especially “The Thin Red Line.”
The analogy is not lost on the hosts, who bring up the subject. “Absolutely,” Malick replies. “The ultra-realistic way in which nature is presented in that scene, with so many trees and birds, really appeals to me. It adds even more innocence to the scene and effectively symbolizes the purity of the girl and of her perception of the world, which has not been tarnished yet. The hyper-romantic natural setting symbolizes the hopes that provincial people have when they move to a large city.”
The white sheik is played by Alberto Sordi, king of Italian comedy between the fifties and eighties. “He was great,” Malick volunteers. “His face glowed with joy and innocence, just like Chaplin, Benigni, and Totò…he makes you become a child again.”
A unifying theme begins to emerge with clarity: Terrence Malick loves innocence and anything that celebrates it. Innocence is a theme that Malick will continue to mention repeatedly in the interview.
By this point Malick has unbuttoned his coat and is completely at ease. The truth is that we are all anxious for him to comment on at least one clip from his movies, and luckily this is part of the program after all: we are shown a clip from “Badlands” and one from “The New World.”
The scene from “Badlands” is the one in which Martin Sheen’s character kills Sissy Spacek’s father. It involves the clever use of a mirror. “It took ages to set up that shot and make sure the mirror’s placement was exactly right,” Malick tells us. “There’s no way I would spend so much time on it if I were to shoot it now.”
Malick also tells us that “Badlands” features his one and only appearance as an actor. “This actor was supposed to show up at 9:30 in the morning for a small scene. We waited, the hours passed, and he didn’t show up. In the end we couldn’t afford to keep waiting, so I put on the cowboy’s hat and performed the part myself.”
“I prefer working behind the camera,” he added with a smile.
We are all having a lot of fun listening to Terrence Malick. He is just like the movies he makes: warm, clever and extremely articulate.
The final clip is from his latest movie, “The New World,” starring Colin Farrell. The scene is the one in which the British colonizers meet the locals, in what is nothing less than a meeting between two worlds. The scene features Steadicam shots gliding over tall grass – a strong reminder of similar shots in “The Thin Red Line.”
“Original music had been written for this scene, but in the end I opted for a piano piece by Mozart, which had the right kind of innocence for the scene.”
One of the hosts delves into Malick’s early career. “Is it true that you worked for The New Yorker before starting your filmmaking career?”
“Yes. I was sent to Bolivia to do a piece on Ernesto “Che” Guevara, but frankly I did not understand what was going on.” He laughs.
Terrence Malick will now attend a screening of Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild,” being shown as part of the festival in another screening hall. He gets up and is escorted off the stage as quickly as he appeared. The few people who try and get an autograph are politely turned away by the hosts, and as promised at the beginning, no one gets to ask any questions. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear to us that attending this interview is a one-off opportunity – a true singularity.
It is equally clear to me that although Terrence Malick may seem cloistered from the world, there is no question that he is also deeply in love with it.