For over 40 years, director Terrence Malick has been one of the most genius and elusive talents in the movie business. His films can best be described as esoteric fever dreams portraying a person's exploration of life, from adolescence in Tree of Life to enduring the madness of war in The Thin Red Line.
What makes him and his work even more mysterious is that he refuses to do interviews and shies away from public events. In fact, when he’s been nominated for Oscars, he hasn’t shown up to the ceremony. When asked, the publicist for his latest film, Knight of Cups (out Friday), told Business Insider there's no photo of the filmmaker available for this story.
Given Malick's enigmatic persona, it would be fascinating to know if his filmmaking method is as unorthodox as his finished product. As it turns out, Malick's process is even stranger than his movies.
We found out when we talked to actor Thomas Lennon, who has a brief cameo in Malick's Knight of Cups playing a friend of the main character (Christian Bale) as they walk around a Hollywood party. (Others in the scene include Antonio Banderas, Jason Clarke, Ryan O’Neal, Nick Kroll, and Joe Manganiello.)
Lennon is known for his comedic work, like Reno 911!, CBS’ The Odd Couple, or his scene-stealing in movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Balls of Fury, and I Love You, Man.
So he's not exactly the kind of actor you'd expect in a Malick film. In fact, the actor told Business Insider he had never seen a Malick film when he got the offer to be in Knight of Cups in April of 2012 (the movie has spent two-plus years in post-production, not uncommon for a Malick film).
“I got a call from my agent and he said, ‘Do you know Terrence Malick?’ And I decided I would try to be a smarty-pants and I said, ‘Of course,’ but I had never seen any of his films,” Lennon told BI. “I was aware of his name like you’re aware of names like Atom Egoyan or Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, artsy-fartsy films unlike the things I’m in or write.”
But Lennon agreed to the role, without being given any details about who he was playing or what the movie was about. And six weeks before the scheduled shoot, Lennon still hadn’t received anything and was starting to get anxious.
“I started making phone calls to people—‘Could you please find out what role I’m playing? Is there a wardrobe fitting?’ And the answer I would get back from everyone is, ‘No one knows anything about the movie,’” Lennon said.
Three days before the shoot, Lennon was finally told some information: The scene is at a Hollywood party, so he should be dressed as if he were going to a party in the Hollywood Hills.
“That’s all I was told,” Lennon said.
Lennon arrived to the set, a mansion in swanky Bel Air. By this point, he'd Googled Malick's picture. Lennon worked his way through the estate and found Christian Bale sitting with Malick by the pool.
“I could only assume it was Terrence Malick because he was the most eccentric-looking person there,” Lennon said. “He’s in this sort of straw hat, slightly dirty khaki pants, and a real loose, floppy shirt.”
They exchanged pleasantries, and then Lennon’s good friend, actor Joe Lo Truglio, showed up to also be in the scene.
“We’re all standing there and Malick hands out these pieces of paper to all of us,” Lennon said. “And the one he gave me said, ‘There’s no such thing as a fireproof wall.’ And I ask, ‘Is this something I’m supposed to say in the scene?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Lennon learned, after talking to the director, that there was no script, just a phrase that might inspire him when cameras started rolling.
“And then Malick goes, ‘Would you like some more? Because I have a whole stack of these.’ And I was like, ‘I think I’m good,’” Lennon said.
Lennon later asked Bale while Malick was away:
Lennon: “Is this how it goes?
Lennon: “Every day?”
Lennon: “How long have you been doing this?”
Bale: “This is, like, day 25.”
When Malick came back, Lennon asked him what the scene was about. Malick started off by saying that in the movie, Bale plays a Hollywood screenwriter, and Lennon didn't need to hear anything else—he suddenly knew why he was there.
“I was cast as Christian [Bale]’s douchey Hollywood Hills friend. I realized if his character was a shallow Hollywood screenwriter, two of his really good friends probably would be Joe Lo Truglio and me,” Lennon said. “Terrence Malick actually is a genius.”
But it would take time for Lennon to grasp what the director wanted. He, Truglio, and Bale began walking around the mansion, improvising their lines. For 11 full hours. Keep in mind the party scene, in the finished film, lasts about five minutes, and Lennon has at most a minute of screen time.
“Sometimes we would go outside, where the party was growing with more people,” Lennon said. “Sometimes Malick would stop and introduce a new cinematographer: ‘Guys, this is Marta, she’s an up-and-coming DP from Mexico City and she’s going to film the scene for a while.’ And sometimes Christian would take a GoPro and shoot something.”
The actors were also strictly instructed, according to Lennon, to make it as difficult as possible for the camera operator to shoot them, never standing in a way that they were squared up with the camera.
At one point, Lennon says, Malick halted the scene and brought in a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon to star alongside them.
Lennon admits that for the first few hours, he was “unbelievably distressed.”
“I would ask, ‘Like that Terrence?’ and he would be like, ‘Great, it’s all great.’”
Then things got even weirder.
During a lunch break, Lennon was speaking to his wife over the phone offset. Since the shoot would likely last a full day, Lennon had to change plans with his family. He and his wife got into an argument over the phone.
“We were basically yelling at each other,” Lennon said. “And at that point Malick himself came up to me with a camera with a stubby lens and got, I’m not kidding, eight inches away from my face, filming me having this totally real fight with my wife. At first I felt it was kind of an invasion of privacy and then I was like, ‘Fuck it, this is the realest thing that has happened all day.’”
Eventually Lennon finally got comfortable with the whole shoot, and it turned out to be, he said, “The single most fun day I’ve ever had on a movie set ever.
“What I realized was, Malick loves to be on his feet and just making movies,” Lennon said. “I don’t mean the editing, just the location, shooting a scene, and letting things happen. I mean, it was honestly an absolutely batshit crazy day. But I would have instantly come back and done it another day if the opportunity came up.”
Lennon said he got a big hug from Malick when the day wrapped. He still has no idea exactly why he was called for the part or if Malick has even seen his own work. Three years after shooting, he'll finally see himself in Knight of Cups when it's out this week.
“I’ll be honest, until they asked me to do some press, I had no idea I was in the film at all,” Lennon said with a laugh.