Terrence Malick, writer and director of "The New World," so shuns media attention that reporters rarely, if ever, get to ask him questions. Instead, we poke and prod those who work with him for clues about the man who took degrees from Harvard and the American Film Institute, then chose to hide out and emerge every so often for a film that people either love or hate.
Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. (New Line)
After making "Days of Heaven" in 1978, Malick left filmmaking for 20 years, finally returning with the World War II drama "The Thin Red Line" in 1998. Now, seven years later, he's turned up again with "The New World," which lyrically explores the relationships among Pocahontas, John Smith and John Rolfe during and after the founding of Jamestown in 1607.
Malick, as is his custom, has done no publicity for the film from New Line Cinema. Producer Sarah Green and actors Christian Bale, Wes Studi and Q'Orianka Kilcher appeared in his stead for religion reporters in Los Angeles in mid December.
While producer Green and actors Bale and Kilcher applauded Malick's style and working methods, Studi minced few words in criticizing the Texan filmmaker.
Studi, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation and plays tribe member Opechancanough in the movie, said Malick cut more of the tribal languages from the film than he was expecting.
Studi, who has appeared in dozens of films including "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Dances With Wolves," is scheduled to show the film to the Indigenous Language Institute of Santa Fe in January.
"I have to tell you that I'm not looking forward to that having seen what I've seen," said the 58-year-old actor. "I'm not looking forward to the American Indian response to this picture in that it has been touted as being very much influenced by Indian consultants for this and Indian consultants for that."
Studi said Blair Rudes, an Algonquin language expert, was recruited to recreate a language based on current scholarship and knowledge. The language was spoken by actors on set, and while a few of the scenes made it to final cut, those that did have hardly any subtitles.
Studi said the language aspect of the film intrigued him from the beginning, and it was unfortunate to see it all but missing from the final product.
He then proceeded to subtly criticize the movie.
"It's a wonderfully shot love story that happens in the waving grass," he said, waving his arms gently about as if they were blowing in the wind. Shots of waving grass, flocking birds and flowing water frequently appear throughout the almost meditative film.
"It's really not my cup of tea, this particular film," he said, "but it's a beautifully done cinematic wonder."
When reporters suggested to Studi that his comments probably wouldn't sit well with Malick, he responded, "I won't work for Terrence again, probably."
When asked what it was like to work with Malick, Studi thought for a moment and then said, "I heard the word 'cut' maybe three times."
Studi was referring to the fact that some shots lingered, even in the final cut, lasting much longer than most directors would allow.
"What we began to call it was roll-out," he said, meaning the only thing that would stop one of Malick's takes was the film running out.
Producer Green said Malick shot roughly 1 million feet of footage—about four times the normal amount. Four editors at a time worked on different parts of the movie, which clocks in at 150 minutes. A DVD cut is expected to be even longer.
"He has the potential probably to cut together a nine-hour-long movie from the footage that he has," said Christian Bale, who plays John Rolfe in the film. "Then through the editing, he may change things greatly around, so what you see in the movie is not what I had structured in my head."
Bale made his big theatrical debut in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" in 1987. He most recently played Bruce Wayne/Batman in this summer's "Batman Begins."
Bale, 31, was much more complimentary than Studi of Malick, calling the filmmaker "a very enjoyable personality and soul to be around."
Bale did allow, however, that Malick's filmmaking approach is certainly unique and provides surprises even for actors who've read the script and worked extensively on set.
"There were many times when we would shoot scenes and we had no idea where it would end up in the movie," said Bale. "It was just something that you give to Terry and he'll use it or not use it however he wishes."
"So actually sitting down and watching this movie, even though I knew that I wouldn't be able to be cut from it entirely—because it is linear and Rolfe does become a pivotal role in the end—I wasn't surprised whether I had been in there for 45 minutes or two minutes," Bale continued. "I think that's just part of what you accept when you're dealing with Terry and the way that he works. And I love the way that he works."
Bale said "The New World" is "a truly wonderful movie" and that he would work with Malick again. For the record, Bale doesn't appear in the movie for roughly the first hour.
Q'Orianka Kilcher, the 15-year-old actress who plays Pocahontas, appears virtually non-stop in the film. She called Malick "a really wonderful director" and added that actors on his set had to be ready for anything.
"If he saw the wind blowing in the grass in a certain way, he would all of a sudden start filming it," said Kilcher. Such shots obviously made it to final cut more than Studi would have liked.
In the end, however, producer Green said Malick isn't interested in predictable storytelling.
"Terry is not big on convention," said Green, who also produced "Frida" and "State and Main," among other films. Hence Malick's frequent use of the jump cuts, flash forwards and symbolic cutaways that obviously aggravated Studi.
"He's big on what has an impact on him in the moment," said Green. "So his choices I think were, 'Do I want to just jump ahead right now? Do I want to linger on this moment?' It was so interesting."
Green said she essentially had to learn, again, how to produce a movie because Malick works completely differently from other directors she's worked with.
"It was fascinating," she said of the process. "I do believe he's one of the more true artists."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie's official Web site is here.