To many, Terrence F. Malick ’65 is an enigma. The three-time-Oscar-nominated director, screenwriter, and producer—known for films Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life released in 1973, 1998, and 2011, respectively—maintains a notoriously protected private life, routinely declining requests for interviews and eschewing the Hollywood bubble.
However, Malick’s interests during his time at the College did not foreshadow what would become an accomplished cinematic career. Concentrating in philosophy, Malick did not participate in any extracurriculars other than a one-time run as Malvolio in an Adams House production of Twelfth Night, according to close friend Jacob R. Brackman ’65.
In the end, though, Malick’s relatively late start to film and appearingly unrelated knack for philosophy at the College contributed to his cinematic style and success.
HOOKED ON HEIDEGGER
Francis W. Metcalf ’65, Malick’s freshman year roommate, recalled an instance when Malick asked for Metcalf’s thoughts on a paper Malick had recently received back.
“The title was ‘Ontology and Heidegger’ or something like that, and there was a straight A. Maybe an A+,” Metcalf said. “The comment was from the grader: ‘Could I please have this paper back after you look over my comments because I’ve never seen such a good treatment of this difficult topic.’ Right then and there, the bells went off in my head.”
Malick’s academic interest in philosophy only grew stronger as the years went on, and under Philosophy professor Stanley L. Cavell, Malick graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a Rhodes Scholarship.
“He was unbelievably intelligent,” fellow Rhodes Scholar Curtis A. Hessler ’66 said. “He was renowned as probably the most brilliant student of philosophy at that time.”
Following graduation, Malick headed to Oxford University’s Magdalen College with the aim of writing a dissertation on German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which was a “no go from the start,” according to fellow Rhodes Scholar Jonathan D. Culler ’66.
“These were the days [when] Oxford was analytical philosophy,” Culler said. “The last thing anyone at the philosophy department there was supervise a dissertation on Heidegger. So he kept on hitting a blank wall.”
Culler remembered Malick at Oxford as “sardonic, funny, but distant,” as well as “somebody who knew his own mind and not easily influenced by instinct.” Malick eventually left Oxford after he “gave up in disgust” over disputes on his dissertation topic, according to Culler.
THE WANDERING YEARS
Following his departure from Oxford, Malick briefly lectured on philosophy at MIT, leaving to then pursue a short-term stint as a traveling freelance journalist, writing for Life, Newsweek, and the New Yorker.
“I think the years after college he was in sixes and sevens about what he wanted to do,” Hessler said. “He didn’t want to be an academic. He found it kind of stifling. He toyed with journalism because it was kind of adventurous... He was trying to bust out of stereotypes.”
When Brackman was hired to consult on the admissions board of the new Center for Advanced Film Studies in Beverly Hills in the summer of 1969, he urged Malick to apply. Malick agreed and earned a MFA from the institution for directing the short film Lanton Mills.
“When Terry's application came in, I told George [Stevens, Director of the American Film Institute] that whatever Terry wound up doing, of all the people I'd met in my years at Harvard, he was most likely to succeed,” Brackman wrote in an email. “Thirty years later, elderly George served as one of Terry's producers on The Thin Red Line.”
Following his graduation from the AFI Conservatory, Malick continued to pursue film, deciding to direct and write his own works following a disagreement with Paramount Pictures over Deadhead Miles. His first work, Badlands, starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and gained acclaim at the New York Film Festival. His filmography since then has manifested itself in short, prolific bursts: following 1978’s Days of Heaven, he took a 20-year hiatus, working on a number of screenplays before returning with The Thin Red Line in 1998 and a small stream of short films leading up to the 2011 release of Tree of Life, his first contemporary film.
Notably, his films maintain an “immediately recognizable” aesthetic that reflects his interest in philosophy, his relative lack of lengthy formal training, and his experiences birdwatching with enthusiast Victor Emanuel, according to Brackman.
“His ignorance about normal filmmaking compared to most people who get to be directors…something that would have been his weakness…produced an extremely original style,” Brackman said. “Most people who are making films are riding for the brand: pleasing the studio, pleasing the producer, submitting to some kind of committee that is making suggestions to them. Nobody makes any suggestions to Terry. Terry is, by Hollywood standards, a total maverick.”
Throughout his unusual career path, Malick has remained driven, according to Brackman.
“Whatever he was doing—this was true of the piece he was working on for the New Yorker for maybe a year about Che Guevara and Regis Debray—he was extremely ambitious,” Brackman said. “If he was going to be making a film, he wanted to hit the ball out of the park. He was very conscious of that… He wanted to do something that was very big.”
Malick’s work has not gone unnoticed. The Thin Red Line won a Golden Bear award at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival, and Tree of Life earned him a Palme D’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. He has won numerous awards for best director, including for Days of Heaven at Cannes and for The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life at the Chicago Film Critics Association.
Despite the acclaim, Malick has remained largely elusive, except for a few select occasions. Hessler remembered an instance in which Malick brought Hessler’s wife to the Academy Awards.
“The only time I know of where he went to the Academy Awards…I was doing governmental things and my wife was alone here and he knew that and called her up and said he said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to the Oscars!’” Hessler said.
Hessler also described Malick beyond the thoughtful deliberateness he brings to his cinematic work.
“He has the best sense of humor of anybody I’ve ever heard…He’s endlessly absurd and makes connections constantly,” Hessler said. “I’d love to see him make a comedy. None of us would survive it.”
—Staff writer Melanie Y. Fu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelanieYFu.