In Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, tension brews when a wealthy, dying farmer is deceived into marrying a young woman at the behest of her lover. It’s a film with little dialogue and subdued performances but one best remembered for its stunning cinematography.
The film is set in the rural wheatfields of 1916 Texas but was filmed in Alberta, Canada. Its spectral quality is imparted by natural lighting and softly washed colors, achieved by Malick and his director of photography Néstor Almendros, who developed a close partnership in the face of an often hostile crew.
It was, in fact, the goings-on of the Days of Heaven set that would establish Malick’s idiosyncratic filmmaking style, which preceded him in the 20 years between the 1978 film and his next, 1998’s The Thin Red Line. A number of factors contributed to this difficult shoot: conflict on set, disruptive union laws, and a discarded script. And, as the film’s lead, Richard Gere, revealed in an interview for the film’s Criterion release, Almendros had a worsening visual impairment.
“Néstor was an extraordinary guy,” Gere reminisced. “But as I recall, his English wasn’t perfect and he was also almost blind, which was not an advantage for a [director of photography].” As Hollywood lore tells it, and according to critic Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Almendros would instruct an assistant to take Polaroid photos of a scene, which he would then examine through “very strong glasses” before setting up the shot.
What’s more is that when it came time to film, Almendros was not allowed to use the cameras. “I had several camera operators in Days of Heaven because union regulations did not allow me to operate the camera myself, which is not the case in Europe,” he wrote in his memoir, A Man With a Camera (the chapter in question is available through the Criterion edition). To work around this, he and Malick would map out the camera movements before calling action, and Almendros would flit from camera to camera to direct his operators.
If it seems unbelievable that one of American cinema’s most stunning pictures was filmed this way, there were plenty of other barriers which made the shoot long and difficult. Malick abandoned his script at the beginning of production and encouraged his actors to improvise — but much of what they came up with was cut during a long two years in the editing room, and Gere has since expressed frustration at the way the film turned out. The Days of Heaven crew, being mostly from the Hollywood old guard, were also unhappy with Malick’s improvisational approach.
Sometimes, this approach mingled with danger. The film’s fire scene is a haunting part of its legacy; the wheatfield surrounding the mansion where the main characters live is lit up in flames and workers swarm frantically, their silhouettes darting across the bright inferno, an iconic shot from a film with many. But there were a few close calls while working in proximity to the fire. “Several times we were alarmed because the fire spread too rapidly,” Almendros wrote, describing instances when he and the crew were nearly engulfed in the smoky blaze. “It was a dangerous adventure that might have ended in a serious accident, but this was a blessed film.”
Days of Heaven came together eventually, but not before a few disgruntled crewmembers left the production. Almendros had to leave early as well, due to a prior commitment, and he was replaced by Haskell Wexler (credited with “additional photography”), whose more straightforward work ethic was met with some relief during the last few weeks of filming. Almendros was eventually awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and Malick would go on his infamous two-decade hiatus from filmmaking.
The chaos that gripped the Days of Heaven set is fascinating, and perhaps apt for a film that backdrops its own chaotic story — albeit one of cunning, murder, and raging distrust — against a portrait as serene as those big, empty wheatfields.