Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven (Directed by Terrence Malick)
One-of-a-kind filmmaker-philosopher Terrence Malick has created some of the most visually arresting films of the twentieth century, and his glorious period tragedy ‘Days of Heaven’, featuring Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros, stands out among them. In 1910, a Chicago steelworker (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his supervisor, and he, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams), and his little sister (Linda Manz) flee to the Texas panhandle, where they find work harvesting wheat in the fields of a stoic farmer (Sam Shepard). A love triangle, a swarm of locusts, a hellish fire — Malick captures it all with dreamlike authenticity, creating a timeless American idyll that is also a gritty evocation of turn-of-the-century labor. (via criterion.com).
In May 1979, Terrence Malick candidly explained the origin of his ideas for Days of Heaven and how he went about making it happen. This interview was originally published in French and is sourced from the book Quinze Hommes Splendides by Yvonne Baby. 

It was in Austin, Texas that I had the idea for Days of Heaven. I found myself alone for a summer in the town I had left when I was a high school student. There were those green, undulating hills, and the very beautiful Colorado river. The place is inspired. It is inspiring, and there the film came to me all together.

I had not liked working at harvest time, I have a very good memory of it, of wheat, and the comings and goings in the fields, and of all the people I met. They were mostly petty criminals who were on their way to Phoenix, Arizona or Las Vegas for the rest of the year.


Like those of the film, these were not people of the soil, but urban dwellers who had abandoned their city, their factories. Rather than criminals, it would be fairer to say they lived on the margins of crime, fed by elusive hopes. At the time of the film, those who worked the seasons hated their jobs and the farmers did not trust them. They could not touch the machinery: if something was breaking, they had to signal by raising their hat on a stick. To distinguish themselves, they were always putting on their best clothes. I had noticed that myself when I was a teenager. To the farmers they were bringing – and this is still true – a piece of their homeland and of new horizons. And farmers sat down to listen – charmed – to hear the story of these workers. Already the farmers were almost nothing more than businessmen and they felt nostalgia for those days of yesteryear where they were themselves caretakers of their earthly riches. Workers and farmers were embodying people whose hopes were being destroyed, some more than others, by opulence or poverty. All were full of desires, dreams, and appetites, which I hope permeates the film. For these people, happiness comes and goes, they are fleeting moments. Why? They don’t know, just as they don’t know how to achieve happiness. If they see before them another season, another harvest, they feel unable to build a life.


Though this is familiar to a European, it may seem puzzling for Americans. Americans feel entitled to happiness, and once they manage to find it, they feel as if they own it. If they are deprived of it, they feel cheated. If they feel it has been taken away from them, they imagine they have been done wrong. This guilt I have felt from everyone I've known. It's a bit like a Dylan song: they have held the world in their hands and let it slip through their fingers.

As for the title, it is a feeling that a place exists that is within reach and where we will be safe. It is a place where a house will not rest on the sand, where you will not become crazier by fighting again and again against the impossible.

Linda [Manz], the teenage girl, is the heart of the film. She was a sort of street child we had discovered in a laundromat. For the role, she should have been younger, but as soon as I spoke to her, I found in her the maturity of a forty-year old woman. Non-judgmental and left to her own imagination, she had her own ideas [for the role] giving the impression of having actually lived this life instead of having to invent and play within another.


At first it was a bit frustrating to work with her. She couldn’t remember her lines, couldn’t be interrupted, and was difficult to photograph. Despite this, I started to love her and I believed in her more than anything else. She transformed the role. I am glad that she’s the narrator. Her personality shines through the film’s objectivity. Every time I gave her new lines, she interpreted it in her own way; when she refers to heaven and hell, she says that everyone is bursting into flames. It was her response to the film on the day when she saw the rushes. That comment was included in the final version. Linda said so many things that I despaired being unable to keep them… I feel like I have not been able to grasp a fraction of who she really is.

With Nestor Almendros, we decided to film without any artificial light. It wasn’t possible in the houses at night, but outside, we shot with natural light or with the fire. When the American team was saying, ‘This is not how we should proceed,’ Nestor Almendros, very courageously insisted. As we filmed, the team discovered that it was technically easier, and I was able to capture absolute reality. That was my wish: to prevent the appearance of any technique, and that the photography was to be processed to be visually beautiful and to ensure this beauty existed within the world I was trying to show, suggesting that which was lost, or what we were now losing. Because he is also a filmmaker, Nestor Almendros understood Days of Heaven in every way.


I wanted the omnipresence of sound, so I used the Dolby system. Dolby purifies sound and is able to record multiple audio tracks (e.g. wind, the rustle of corn stalks, the pulse of crickets). I wanted to remove any distance from the public. It was my secret intention; to make the film experience more concrete, more direct. And, for the audience, I am tempted to say, experience it like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature. That’s what I wanted, that is how the Dolby and technological developments improved our work.

It would be difficult for me to make a film about contemporary America today. We live in such dark times and we have gradually lost our open spaces. We always had hope, the illusion that there was a place where we could live, where one could emigrate and go even further. Wilderness, this is the place where everything seems possible, where solidarity exists – and justice – where the virtues are somehow linked to this justice. In the region where I grew up, everyone felt it in a very strong way. This sense of space disappearing, we nevertheless can find it in cinema, which will pass it on to us. There is so much to do: it’s as if we were on the Mississippi Territory, in the eighteenth century. For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more. And even an old movie in poor and beaten condition and can give us that. What else is there to ask for?


– An interview for Le Monde with Terrence Malick from 1979, translated by Hugues Fournier and Paul Maher Jr., from the book by Yvonne Baby, Quinze Hommes Splendides. Article available on Justin Wiemer’s blog here.