What We Learned from Terrence Malick’s SXSW Appearance

The media-shy director provides rare insights into his process and philosophy.

Photo: Ben Porter/Broad Green Pictures

In a surprising but characteristically nonchalant turn, media-shy filmosopher Terrence Malick appeared on a panel with Richard Linklater and Michael Fassbender at SXSW last week. The Q&A session, moderated with reverence and easygoing charm by Linklater, occurred after the festival premiere of Malick’s Austin music-scene romance Song to Song, in which Fassbender stars with Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, and Natalie Portman. No mention was made (at least in the 30-minute bootleg that made it to YouTube) of the obvious elephant in the room: Malick has essentially never done an interview to promote one of his films, let alone subjected himself to the unscripted questions of an eager audience. Though the mysterious auteur behind Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life has upped his output in recent years, his public silence remained largely unbroken – until this dialogue. Fassbender and Linklater did much of the talking, presumably to protect Malick from having to speak at uncomfortable length, but the filmmaker did shed a rare light on his process and, crucially, the psychology behind it. Here’s what we learned:

1. Working with Actors

Malick has long been known for his unconventional approach to working with actors, which is based in heavy improvisation and impressionistic details rather than constructed scenes. Some actors love this approach, citing the freedom and pure creativity it fosters, while others find it maddening. On the panel, Malick defended his approach, explaining that he’s trying to avoid the presentational style of theatre acting in favor of something spontaneous. “If you try to make things happen,” Malick explains, “they start to feel presented. They start to feel premeditated.”

Instead of working toward a preconceived performance, Malick favors exploration. This leaves actors failing much of the time – as Fassbender puts it, “you’re just trying to survive” – but Malick strives to create an environment in which such failure is not only tolerated but encouraged. What directions he does give (such as telling Fassbender to embody Satan in “Paradise Lost”) are sufficiently loose as to allow the actors to continue searching. It’s about “giving flavors as opposed to direct commands,” Fassbender explains.

2. Music

Malick’s recent films have set themselves apart from his earlier work in their use of varied and unpredictable music cues. Given its setting amid the Austin music scene, Song to Song features blues and rockabilly tunes alongside Malick’s trademark classical pieces. One confused SXSW audience member even recognized a Polish prayer on the soundtrack. As with imagery and voiceover, Malick weaves bits of music in and out of the film in ways that defy cinematic convention.

First, he collects an array of different pieces “over the years” and puts them into Avid editing software (Malick calls it the “editing machine”). Then, over the course of a lengthy editing process, he will fit bits of music to different emotional beats (the above-mentioned Polish prayer comes at a scene in which Fassbender’s character realizes he is responsible for the death of his wife). But unlike other filmmakers who strive to create a sense of generic unity across musical choices, Malick is concerned only with emotional resonance. This makes even his contemporary films feel timeless.

3. Locations

In the absence of a clear narrative, Malick’s films use locations more for their poetic and expressive qualities than any practical concern. Characters wander in nature or through cityscapes, directionless, interacting spontaneously with the environment. In Song to Song, music festivals and mansions become embodiments of chaos and excess; they’re not so much “settings” as provocations for the actors.

Describing a sequence in the film that takes place in Mexico, Malick explains that he wanted to change the environment to introduce his characters to a place “where life was more out in the open. Kind of a simpler life that they all could feel woke something up in them.” The effect of traveling to the Yucatán (Malick pronounces it yuck-a-tan) was not merely for the characters: much of Malick’s crew (including cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki) were Mexican, and given how organic Malick’s process is, the energy they found in their home locale found its way onto the screen.

4. Writing (Or Lack Thereof)

One of the reasons Malick’s films are so shrouded in mystery is that what little writing there is gets constantly revised throughout the process of making the film. Starting with a rough sense of setting and character, as well as a wealth of emotional and thematic ideas, Malick allows his films to come into being organically. As with his approach to working with actors, Malick’s writing (such as it is) eschews dramatic structure in favor of what he calls “bits and pieces” – fragments of his characters’ inner and outer lives.

Though not a few critics and fans have called this style self-indulgent, it has deep philosophical roots for Malick. It is the elusive flow of consciousness, impermanent and elemental, that Malick strives to recreate in his films. In his time as a philosophy student at Harvard, Malick became fascinated with the work of Martin Heidegger, a 20th-century German philosopher who dealt with questions of time and phenomenology (that is, the study of conscious experience). In many ways, Malick’s films represent a continuation of that exploration.

The title of Song to Song provides a clue not only to Malick’s filmography but his bizarre and particular way of life. It comes from a line Rooney Mara says in the film, in which she describes living “moment to moment, song to song, kiss to kiss, mood to mood.” Malick goes even further in the Q&A, saying that the film’s style (and, we presume, Malick’s life) is an attempt to explore what it might be like to live as “an eager will living from one desire to the next.” Fitting for a man who once went AWOL from a film project, only to tell a producer he was walking from Texas to Oklahoma “looking at birds.” But this approach to life also means living, in Malick’s words, “without a self” – a goal that is at once dangerous and liberating. Perhaps Malick’s reluctance to contribute the public conversation about him stems from this desire to avoid constructing a self. In any case, we’ll take what we can get.