Why Austin director Terrence Malick is on a roll

12:00 a.m. Saturday, March 12, 2016 Movies & TV

By any reckoning, Austin director Terrence Malick has been highly productive over the last few years.

Since 2011’s Oscar-nominated “The Tree of Life,” Malick has made four more feature-length films, the latest of which, “Knight of Cups,” arrives Friday in Austin.

It’s the third in a visually experimental series of films that began with “Tree of Life” and continued through 2012’s “To the Wonder.” And two more movies — the Austin-based music drama “Weightless” and the documentary “Voyage of Time” — are tentatively scheduled to open this year.

Compare that with the 20-year wait between 1978’s “Days of Heaven” and Malick’s next movie, 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” and you get an idea of how unusual the director’s productivity has been.

The media-averse Malick isn’t talking about his creative burst, but his producers give Malick full credit and say he has been overflowing with ideas. It’s also clear, however, that Malick feels far more comfortable in making movies than he ever has since exploding onto the scene with 1973’s critically acclaimed “Badlands.”

So, beyond Malick’s having a very fertile mind, is something else going on?

Yes.

Malick has the good fortune of having a team of people around him who help make things work. They include three producers — Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda and Ken Kao. But there’s also Jack Fisk, the production designer who has been working with Malick since “Badlands” and is married to that movie’s star, Sissy Spacek. (In an interesting tidbit, Fisk recently told The Associated Press that he and Spacek, who have lived for decades on a Virginia farm, have bought a home in Austin, where their two daughters live.)

But perhaps most importantly, since 2005’s “The New World,” Malick has been working with one of the greatest cinematographers of our time, Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won three Oscars in a row for “The Revenant,” “Birdman” and “Gravity.”

“The New World,” in fact, seems to be a turning point for Malick, who started collaborating with Green as the producer and Lubezki as the cinematographer with that movie.

In an interview with the American-Statesman, Green says she was introduced to Malick by Michael Barker, the co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics and a University of Texas graduate. The director and producer apparently clicked, and Green says she marvels at the “creative burst” of Malick in recent years, calling her producer role an “all-encompassing experience.”

She and Gonda, who also talked with the American-Statesman and started working with Malick during post-production on “The New World,” handle all sorts of duties for Malick, from being sounding boards for the director’s ideas to putting together the filmmaking team, to helping handle the actors — an all-star group that in recent years has included Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Christian Bale, Sean Penn and Cate Blanchett.

“Terry has been so inspired by his friends, by the people who have been working with him,” Gonda says. “We’re there from the beginning, from putting the financing together, to working with the crew and getting it made every step of the way, through distribution.”

When asked to describe “Knight of Cups,” Gonda has all sorts of caveats — as well he should, since the movie was shot without a script and he sees Malick’s movies as open to interpretation. “But with that being said,” Gonda adds, “it deals with a screenwriter at the pinnacle of success, and there’s an outward journey that’s turning inward because he’s feeling empty.”

Green adds that Malick “is responding to the current film culture of L.A. And if you look at Rick (the screenwriter played by Bale), he is unaware of the journey he’s on for the first part of the film.”

The press notes have a bit to add, saying that the film follows Rick “on an odyssey through the playgrounds of Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a search for love and self. … Rick moves in a daze through a strange and overwhelming dreamscape — but can he wake up to the beauty, humanity and rhythms of life around him? The deeper he searches, the more the journey becomes his destination.”

The film has many of the same themes that Malick explored in “The Tree of Life,” including alienation, a search for light amid the haunting death of a brother and a seeking of reconciliation with family.

Green says it’s important to note the framing device that Malick establishes at the beginning of the film: a voiceover that includes a passage from John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World to that Which Is to Come.” And it’s rather clear that Rick is the pilgrim who’s trying to save his soul.

Regardless of how people interpret “Knight of Cups,” Green makes it clear that Malick is trying to do something very different in his movies: “He’s exploring film languages in an organic visual way.” Or as actor Brian Dennehy says in a short documentary about “Knight”: He’s making movies the way he wants to, “and that’s as it should be.”

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