With ‘Badlands,’ Terrence Malick made a directorial debut most filmmakers can only dream of

With Badlands, Terrence Malick made a directorial debut most filmmakers can only dream of. The road to such success, however, was paved with nothing but problems. In order to finance it, Malick managed to gather only 250.000 dollars, a tenth of which came from his own pockets. The filming went way over its schedule, causing a part of the crew to give up and proclaim the director lost his sanity. Malick had to fight his producer, demanded more from the crew they could possibly deliver, creating in the process “a million feet of footage.” But when the film premiered at the New York Film Festival, everything was suddenly worth it. Some say it even overshadowed Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The story of a wild, dark-natured greaser who takes an infatuated, baton-whirling teenager on a bloody road trip, loosely based on Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate’s 1958 Nebraskan killing spree, transferred to the screen as a dark love story, a blood-trenched fairy tale, ruthless and shocking but enriched with transcendental moments of poetic beauty. TV actor Martin Sheen and quite anonymous Sissy Spacek were launched towards stardom, assistant editor Billy Webber jumpstarted his editing career and paved his way to future collaboration with Malick, Tim Burton and Tony Scott, and the world got to know one of rare true poets of the cinema. Terrence Malick was suddenly a force to be reckoned with.

I was not a good teacher; I didn’t have the sort of edge one should have on the students, so I decided to do something else. I’d always liked movies in a kind of naive way. They seemed no less improbable a career than anything else. I came to Los Angeles in the fall of 1969 to study at AFI. At the end of my second year in Los Angeles, I began work on Badlands. My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn—all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head. I wanted the picture to be set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island.Terrence Malick

The beauty of screenwriting; a monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Terrence Malick’s screenplay for Badlands [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Terrence Malick, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

In Search of Terrence Malick explores the career of Terrence Malick from his first feature film, Badlands, to his second made five years later, Days of Heaven. In this 15 minute viewing, we learn a lot about what goes behind a Malick film. With the cinematographer gone, Malick himself shot the well known Badlands scene of Martin Sheen with his arms hanging over his rifle across his back, the full moon bright against a darkening sky. It is capturing these moments, the transience nature of life, that makes Malick’s films astonishing, and even the process carries this weight. In Search of Terrence Malick is a necessary watch for those interested in the mysterious filmmaker. Through actors Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, art director Jack Fisk, film editor Billy Weber, and Professor Dreyfus we discover more about Malick’s directing style and the command he holds on his films. As Martin Sheen says, ‘He’s a screen poet, there was no other way to describe it.’” —Edwin Adrian Nieves, A-BitterSweet-Life

“On July 10, 1972, in La Junta, Colorado, a twenty-eight-year-old ex-MIT philosophy instructor named Terrence Malick began filming Badlands, a script based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, teenage lovers whose 1958 murder spree across the Nebraska plains made national headlines. To finance the picture, Malick had raised $250,000—a pittance even by the standards of the day—and to play the leads he had hired a journeyman TV actor, Martin Sheen, and an unknown, untrained actress and onetime folk singer, Sissy Spacek.” —Badlands: An Oral History

Making Badlands.

“Confessional mode is atypical around here, but I must admit that, upon reading this interview with Terrence Malick, from 1974, that appeared then in a small journal called Filmmakers Newsletter, tears came to my eyes. Literally. And I know exactly why. In this fascinatingly nuts-and-bolts interview about the making of Badlands, Malick makes clear what the movie’s Hollywood connections obscure: that it was made as an independent film. (“It was financed like a Broadway play—that is, on a limited partnership arrangement with a lot of investors who didn’t know one another each coming in for a small piece, anywhere from $1000 to $50,000… There was no completion guarantee… Nor was there any guarantee of distribution.”) He goes into some extraordinarily revealing details about how he got it made, and what he describes is pretty much the image of independent filmmaking, seventies-style. In other words, what he describes is the material substrate (albeit at the high end—when asked about his budget, he answered, “Under a half a million dollars, I’ve been advised to say”) of the world of independent filmmaking that, as a newly minted college graduate in 1980, I put my toe ever-so-tentatively into and that lots of people I knew were hazarding, too.” —Richard Brody

You can read the full interview with Malick, from 1974, by clicking the preview here. Don’t forget to buy your copy of One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick—3rd Edition  by Paul Maher Jr. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

Terrence Malick on Badlands, Sight and Sound, 1975. Here’s the scanned article via chained and perfumed.

At the 2011 Virginia Film Festival, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the Library of Congress cosponsored a screening of director Terrence Malick’s first film, Badlands, which starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. After the film was shown, Spacek and her husband, Jack Fisk, joined TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz on stage at the historic Paramount Theater to discuss the making of Badlands and how it affected their later careers. (Fisk was the production designer on that film and on Malick’s subsequent projects, as well).

A distinctive trait of the films of Terrence Malick is the artful way they employ narration. Sometimes the voice-over is dreamy (Sissy Spacek’s in Badlands), sometimes it’s disarmingly concrete (Linda Manz’s in Days of Heaven), sometimes it comprises audacious, poetic philosophical musings (that of all the soldiers in The Thin Red Line)—but it’s always there, a character in its own right. In this clip from an interview included in Criterion’s new editions of Badlands, editor Billy Weber describes how the voice-over in Malick’s first film came to be, how it was influenced by Truffaut, and how the collaborators’ process evolved when they worked together again on Days of Heaven.

Rare Terrence Malick photos after the screening of Badlands in York, Nebraska at a nearby hotel. From left to right: Terrence Malick, Patsy McArthur, Caril Ann Fugate, Martin Sheen, James McArthur, and John McArthur. The photos below, courtesy of Jeff McArthur, have remained unpublished since they were first taken in 1973. Mr. McArthur’s book is available on Amazon. Thanks to Paul Maher Jr.’s All Things Shining…

An ongoing film journal by filmmaker Cameron Beyl, ‘Crimes of Passion,’ is the first chapter of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and career of director Terrence Malick, covering his pair of early mythic works: Badlands (1976) and Days of Heaven (1978).

On the set of Badlands photographed by Ira M. Resnick © Warner Bros., Pressman-Williams, Jill Jakes Production, Badlands Company. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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