After masterpieces Badlands and Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick took a 20-year hiatus before coming back with arguably his best film, The Thin Red Line. He took another 7 years before The New World, and then six until The Tree of Life in 2011. Ever since, Malick has found his mojo (in terms of frequency, not necessarily quality), so much so that he has two films coming out this year, the ensemble music-themed drama Song to Song and the documentary Voyage of Time, a heady exploration of our planetary past and possible place in the future.
We spoke with producers Grant Hill and Sophokles Tasioulis at the Venice Film Festival, where they came to represent the film’s premiere in place of the infamously reclusive Malick.
Can we just say how this project started?
Grant Hill: It started a long time ago, and I think that it had a bit of evolution before that, which we’re still finding out, but basically, to me, in 1998, just after Thin Red Line, Terrence said, ‘hey, there’s this project I’ve been working on it.’ And we spent a lot of time going through all these materials he’s collected, he didn’t have a name, it just was an idea, but it was an idea that took five or six file boxes, just grabs of things, music, philosophy quotes, photographs, postcards, all stuck together, and the idea as described was an examination of the history of the universe. And then it went along, it would go dormant for a while, there were a lot of technical problems back then, we didn’t feel we could achieve, certainly not what we’d been able to this time around, and as visual effects became more effective, high definition cameras came into light, the pieces started to come together, and as that happened, people started to come into the project, and it went on for a sixteen-year period.
And what was your involvement in the project?
Sophokles Tasioulis: I am the newest member of the family so to say. I was approached four or five years ago by the producers, and was asked if I would be interested in joining, because in my past I have done big documentaries with the BBC, all the complex stuff, where we took years and years, so I have had experience, and some of the cameramen who also worked on the Voyage of Time also worked on the things I have produced, so there was a relationship. And I also knew the market for these sorts of films. It’s not something many people do, you need to be crazy enough to spend six, seven, eight, ten years on a project. I was introduced to Terry, I saw some of the material he had collected over all these years, and I was probably one of the few people who were not shocked by the amount of material we had; for me it’s normal to have so many hours and hours and hours of material, which is very unusual in a normal movie. So that’s how I got involved, and I helped find distributors around the world, and it culminated where we all put our efforts together to finish it. And, also to contain Terry, because he would still be working on; you need to stop him at some point.
GH: That’s a tag team job, you go in and get thrown out, somebody else comes in… But it’s a great experience, and he’s a wonderful person to work with, but it’s just like working with a lot of very experienced directors.
It’s 90 minutes, and there’s also a 45 minute version [screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival], but could there also be, for example, a three hour version?
GH: I think that the 90-minute version and the 45 minute version, or the IMAX version, hit the mark, because those two formats I think work perfectly. My personal feeling is it’s taken us a long time to get to the point where we decide to do those formats, I think it’s where it should be.
ST: I also think it helped us to have two versions, in the sense that it was liberating for Terry. Documentaries on the big screen always have a battle to fight in the sense of finding the right balance between the emotional side and the entertaining side I don’t think we go to the cinema to learn something, we buy a ticket to make an emotional journey, not to be bombarded by facts and numbers. So, that’s always a challenge in a documentary, to find an elegant way to combine both. So, having the IMAX version, where you have an audience which is much more education driven, which is much more information driven, they’re used to that sort of film, so all of that was put into the IMAX version. It’s still not a Nat Geo documentary, it remains a Terrence Malick film, but I would say, for Terry’s film, it explains a lot more than he’s ever done, so that freed him to do the ninety minute version, which is much more emotional. It still conveys information, or asks the important questions, which make you think about the facts, in a way which is very unfiltered. He’s there to ask the questions we don’t ask. Our children may come up with a question like this, but we would censor ourselves. But they’re very, important questions to ask.
GH: Historically, science hasn’t been the most sexy thing to make films about, it has been incorporated into films, going back into the early 1900s. But it’s struggled a little bit to be able to combine science with natural history, and make it into a theatrical experience, and it’s something that Terry’s been interested in; you blur the lines between theatrical and documentary, or any other type of film.
Many questions that are asked in this documentary are also in his fiction work.
GH: Terry is constantly questioning people; there are a lot of things out there that we don’t know the answers to – we know the answers to a few more than we did in the past, but it’s an evolving thing, and so I think from a historical view, a factual view, it’s a constant examination. By being an examination, it can have its own story, the story of how you examine it. Our film does pose a lot of questions, it shows a lot of facts, it entertains, but we were growing in the same way as the technology was growing, it’s an entity.
Tree of Life has a twenty minute segment that feels very apt to this; did the work on this film feed into that?
GH: Definitely, the bigger subject has occupied Terry for a long time. And when Tree of Life came up, we realised, that there was that element needed to frame what we’re trying to do. It wasn’t about that, and it didn’t start like that, but that was one of the elements it gave it, sort of its power, it was a resonance in the background; no matter how you look at the complexities, and the problems of very human people on screen – and I think we wanted to put that into an overall perspective without going too far into it – look at where we’ve come from and where we are, and put the personal human experiences in some sort of relativity. Putting that in there, and having that element in Tree of Life definitely gave him more impetus and more confidence; certainly, gave him more confidence in the technology.
The IMAX version is not in 3D, right?
ST: Terry is not a big fan of 3D, to be honest. Recently he just told me, ‘you can’t argue with a headache’. And that’s part of why he doesn’t like to do things in 3D, because he doesn’t think they’re good enough to express his creative vision.
How is it for you to produce this particular movie? Does the fact that there are two versions, and Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, does that help? Does that make you more confident?
GH: I think we all feel like we’ve achieved what we set out to do. If you look at Brad’s involvement on the IMAX version and Cate’s involvement on the long version, they’re doing the same job, but it’s got a totally different tone, and you have to adjust to fit the formats, and fit the reality that they’re not, in a way, the same film. They’re versions, or extracts, of the material. So, I think that Cate and Brad is very helpful, in terms of people watching it, certainly people seem to like their involvement, but it’s really about what’s compatible, and helps the formats work.
ST: I think, as a producer, their involvement was also very inspiring. We work in a very privileged job, people buy a ticket and give us their fantasy, their attention, their hopes, their dreams, whatever. And along with it comes a big responsibility, we can fill that 90 minutes with empty entertainment, popcorn cinema, which is like going to a fast food chain, and eating something, and half an hour later you’re hungry again. But if we do our job right, it’s like going to this exquisite restaurant, and you talk about it for days, and months after, you still feel satisfied, having eaten this food, and that’s kind of what we hope to achieve with Voyage, because yes, we do entertain the audience, that’s what cinema is supposed to be, but also you give them something to think about, you inspire them, you hopefully make them fall in love with the planet, and that makes them care about it more.
GH: I think where Brad and Cate are concerned, I think it’s a funny industry; if you’re not careful it can get very out of balance. To me it’s very reassuring when you get people that have Brad and Cate’s stature, who turn up at the gates and go, ‘we want to be involved, we want to do it, where do we go to start working?’
You both know Terry very well, has he ever expressed any interest in stepping out and promoting the film?
GH: I think there will be a time in the future where he does. Terry is seen as a recluse, but in himself he’s not, he’s the funniest, most interesting person…
ST: Also, when you talk to him about it, he says he doesn’t want to take himself so importantly, and the minute he does this sort of promotional, public appearance, he realises the attention, the pressure, and he doesn’t want that on him. He wants his film to stand there, not him as a person.
GH: I would like nothing better than to get him into a place where he can – he’s never going to go out and be doing the rounds, but even just get him out there talking to just three or four people, in depth, would do.
ST: Well, last year he was in Switzerland, part of a workshop for film students, so you would go there as a film student, and Terrence Malick would be there, teaching you, which was quite a surprise. He enjoys that actually, to have that sort of interaction, and he likes to work with young people a lot. If you’re in the edit room and you’re over twenty-five, he’ll kick you out. He uses a lot of young people from Austin Film School to source his inspiration, and it’s a nice exchange and interaction when he does that. What he doesn’t want to do is be part of a circus, that is part of our industry as well, because he doesn’t think that’s necessary.
What do you think happened after this long break he took, because a new film comes up every year now?
GH: I think that he’s come to a realisation that he’s had a lot of ideas, particularly reflecting back on fifteen or eighteen years that he was out of the business, I guess he found a lot of things that he’s interested in that he’d like to do.
ST: Also, I think he now has a network of people, and the circumstance where he feels comfortable with, to do this, so I think that is also helping the process.
GH: He’s a lot more fluid now. I think it was hard being away for eighteen years, and then coming back, a revival is very hard to do, but after he did something totally different to anything he’d ever done, and that doorway gave him exposure to a different sort of moviemaking.
What about all these A-list actors wanting to work with him?
ST: I think part of the fascination is that he treats A list cast in a very normal way. When we go to see Terry in Austin, he frequents the same restaurant, which is not a particularly good restaurant, but it’s the running joke within the production – he’ll invite you out to dinner, ‘oh yeah Terry, Mexican again?’ And then you end up in this very normal mediocre place, which is in the parking lot of the mall. One time I was there for ten days, and I was fed up after the fifth or sixth Mexican dinner, ‘like Terry, I don’t want to eat Mexican anymore.’
GH: You’d be fine if it was good food, but this is absolutely not good food.
ST: And I am like, what do you do when Cate comes over, when Brad comes over, what do you do? ‘Oh, I take them here’, he doesn’t care!