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Actors, producers know different sides of Terrence Malick

Elusive director seen differently by those who know him

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

When Terrence Malick declined to meet the press or even show up to accept his Palme d'Or for "The Tree of Life" at last month's Cannes Film Festival, media around the world described him as "reclusive," "extremely shy" and the "J.D. Salinger of the movies."

But the director's life in Austin has not been as reclusive as portrayed. He doesn't talk to the press, but he has plenty of work associates and friends.

"I would never call him a hermit or a recluse or anything like that," says Jessica Chastain, who co-stars with Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life," which opens in Austin today.

"He's warm and open and welcoming, and he puts all the attention on you when you're with him," she says. "It's just that he doesn't want to do press or have his photo taken. His job is behind the camera, and that's where he wants to stay."

On the night of the premiere of "Tree" in Cannes, Chastain says that a "very nervous" Malick, who was dressed in a tuxedo, met her before she walked the red carpet and said that he wouldn't accompany her. "And when I saw what the red carpet was like, with everyone screaming at you so that they could get a photo, I realized that Terry was probably right to skip it."

Malick did, however, show up Tuesday night at the Belmont restaurant, where he greeted members of the cast and crew — but not the public or the press — after an Austin screening of "Tree." His wife, Alexandra, walked the red carpet at the Paramount and greeted the public as well as the press. As she did in Smithville, where most of the movie was filmed in 2008, she functioned as a gracious host who smiled and chatted with anyone who approached her.

Terrence Malick has built a loyal following in the Austin movie industry, many of whom work with him regularly. And he certainly charmed the town of Smithville, about 30 miles east of Austin.

Smithville Area Chamber of Commerce president Adena Lewis offers effusive praise and admiration.

"Terry Malick is an amazing individual. I just loved having him as a citizen of Smithville for that length of time," Lewis said, referring to the several months he lived in town while filming. "He was just so thoughtful, so amazingly kind to everybody. He remembers the smallest of details about the people who are involved in any way on any of his projects, I'm sure, because he would ask me about my daughter or something in my life that I'm thinking, 'How in the world does he remember that detail when he has all of this going on in his amazing brain?' "

Lewis says the director did not hide while in Smithville. "He ate in our local restaurants often. Walking around on the streets, I think he experienced Smithville as much as we experienced him," she says. "He didn't ask for any kind of special treatment or any kind of special compensation for him as an individual. In fact, I think he gave much more back personally than he ever took from our community."

Despite the media's frustration with the Austin director, Malick has his reasons for being press-shy. He's widely regarded as one of the world's greatest auteurs, but he doesn't want to be in the spotlight, associates say. He prefers to have his movies speak for themselves.

Terry and Ecky

Malick and Alexandra, whose nickname is "Ecky," live in West Lake Hills, and for a well-known director, his home is relatively modest, appraised at less than $700,000 and purchased in 2002. The Malicks love dogs, and they adopted two Labrador puppies while filming "Tree" in Smithville.

The Malicks met when they were 14 years old and were boarding students at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, Ecky Malick says. Terrence Malick was an honor student and excelled at athletics as well as academics. By many accounts, he was smitten by some of his teachers, including Anne Guerin, the drama coach who cast him in several plays.

Ecky Malick, who grew up in Houston before coming to St. Stephen's, is the daughter of Charles Wyatt-Brown, the former rector of Houston's Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, which is across the street from Rice University. In 1971, her father founded the famed Palmer Drug Abuse Program, one of the first to focus on helping teens recover from substance abuse.

She is also the niece of Bertram Wyatt-Brown, the noted Southern history scholar and author of such books as "Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South." A University of Texas graduate who completed her master's degree from the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, Ecky Malick has six children from her second marriage to John Wallace.

The Malicks' 1998 marriage was the third for Ecky and Terrence Malick, who both attend services at a local Episcopal church. Kelly Koonce, the Episcopal priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Tarrytown, plays the clergyman in "The Tree of Life."

The path to movies

Malick's path to becoming a director was circuitous and has become the stuff of legend, in part because of his intense desire for privacy.

Despite numerous reports that Malick is a Waco native, he was actually born near Chicago in November 1943. He's the son of an oil company executive of Assyrian descent. His grandparents Nanajan and Avilmelk Malick emigrated to the United States from Urmia, in what is now part of Iran, in the 1930s.

His family, which moved back and forth between Oklahoma and Texas, lived in Waco during his childhood in the early 1950s.

He came to Austin in the late 1950s to attend St. Stephen's as a boarding student, while his family lived in Bartlesville, Okla. As the oldest of three sons, he was, by all accounts, precocious. And the family, which moved frequently because of Emil Malick's job, wanted him to have the best education possible.

After graduating from St. Stephen's in 1961, Malick attended Harvard, where he earned a degree in philosophy. He then was a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen College at Oxford, but didn't complete his doctorate.

He then moved back to the States, did freelance writing and taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he gradually migrated to the film world, enrolling in one of the early classes at the newly formed American Film Institute in Los Angeles in the late 1960s.

His first movie, "Badlands," a story of a young couple that goes on a cross-country murdering spree, was released in 1973. The film, which starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, is now considered a classic.

But during this period, Malick's private life was marked by tragedy and upheaval — and possibly became the source for some of the personal material in "The Tree of Life."

While working on "Badlands," Malick learned that his youngest brother, Larry, had committed suicide in Spain. The brother went to Spain to study guitar with the legendary Andrés Segovia, according to film historian Peter Biskind, who wrote about Malick's travails in Vanity Fair in 1999. Much of this history also has been documented at www.terrencemalick.org, a website run by Paul Maher Jr., an author who says he hopes eventually to write a book about Malick.

During the "Badlands" period, Malick was having a tumultuous relationship with his producers, specifically Lou Stroller.

In the most recent issue of GQ magazine, Sheen says that Stroller raised Malick's ire when he made a comment that was perceived as derogatory about Malick's first wife, Jill Jakes.

"Terry was not having it, and beat the hell out of him," Sheen says. "In true Texas style — he was so Texas. Didn't even hesitate, just started swinging. They were down like two buffalo — they were big guys — and they were on the ground, rolling around, and Terry just whupped him. Oh, I acted outraged — 'What a breakdown of discipline, this fighting on the set!' — but I couldn't have been prouder of him. Can you imagine? If more directors would beat up their producers, we'd have a lot more artistic freedom."

Two years after "Badlands," Malick went through his first divorce while working on his next movie, "Days of Heaven," which was eventually released in 1978.

He also went through another series of troubles with his producers, including the brothers Bert and Harold Schneider, on the set of "Heaven."

As with "Badlands," critics consider "Days of Heaven" a classic today. But the experience partly led Malick to move to Paris, where he focused on his writing and began a relationship with Michele Morette, whom he married in 1985.

The later films

After a filmmaking hiatus that stretched 20 years — an absence that reinforced the image of Malick as a recluse — the director returned with the star-studded 1998 war film "The Thin Red Line." The movie, Malick's greatest commercial achievement to date, received critical praise, was nominated for seven Oscars and earned almost $100 million internationally.

But Malick's troubles with producers resurfaced. After working with producing partners Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau for almost a decade, Malick had a falling out with them. When discussing Malick today, Geisler still smarts from what he saw as a betrayal by Malick.

"I'm sure he's got legitimate complaints about the way I behaved," Geisler says. "But I was his devoted servant, and I certainly didn't go out of the way to do anything badly or wrong and think that I really did devote the best of myself and maybe the best years of my life to him."

Like many, Geisler says, he was initially won over by Malick's magnetic personality and understands why so many people speak so glowingly about the artist. But his affection for the filmmaker was exhausted by Malick's singular drive.

"Being Terry's friend makes you feel good and feel important," Geisler says. "And one can define one's self by virtue of your friendship with Terry, and you don't see the clay feet \u2026 I think at the end of the day he will do whatever he needs to to get what he thinks is better and right and good for him as an artist."

Despite their history, Geisler says he would love to speak with Malick, whom he considers a genius.

"He is curious and contemplative about the biggest issues," Geisler says. "That's what makes it wonderful to work with him. I never thought in developing 'The Thin Red Line' that I wouldn't work with him on all of his movies. I think Michele (Morette) thought we were partners for life, that I was bringing him back to the movies and making no few sacrifices to do it."

Malick's troubles with producing partners might now be a thing of the past. Austin Film Society board member Sarah Green has helped produce Malick's last two movies ("The New World" and "The Tree of Life") and is producing his forthcoming untitled feature that stars Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams . Green joins a cast of regular Malick collaborators, including cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki and production designer Jack Fiske, who has worked on every movie Malick has made. The new film was shot in Oklahoma.

Whether out of respect for his privacy or due to contractual stipulations, most people who have worked with Malick in recent years choose not to speak on the record about the director. But almost without exception, they all praise his vision and speak in lofty terms about the enigmatic Austin auteur, who might be a mystery to much of the press, and by extension to the public.

And that's the way Malick wants it to stay.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect release date for the movie "Badlands." The movie was released in 1973.