Terrence Malick’s ‘Days of Heaven’ is one of the most stunning films ever to be featured on the silver screen

 
By Sven Mikulec

It was in Austin, Texas that I had the idea for ‘Days of Heaven.’ I found myself alone for a summer in the town I had left when I was a high school student. There were those green, undulating hills, and the very beautiful Colorado river. The place is inspired. It is inspiring, and there the film came to me all together. It would be difficult for me to make a film about contemporary America today. We live in such dark times and we have gradually lost our open spaces. We always had hope, the illusion that there was a place where we could live, where one could emigrate and go even further. Wilderness, this is the place where everything seems possible, where solidarity exists—and justice—where the virtues are somehow linked to this justice. In the region where I grew up, everyone felt it in a very strong way. This sense of space disappearing, we nevertheless can find it in cinema, which will pass it on to us There is so much to do: it’s as if we were on the Mississippi Territory, in the eighteenth century. For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more. And even an old movie in poor and beaten condition and can give us that. What else is there to ask for?Terrence Malick

It took a gigantic amount of effort for Terrence Malick to finish Days of Heaven, a project he deeply wanted to do. A part of his crew gave up on the project, judging Malick for being too distant, unable to understand his vision and stubborn insistence on natural lighting that posed problems for their schedules. The film went considerably over its budget, prompting patient producer Bert Schneider to allegedly mortgage his own home to meet the film’s financial demands. Furthermore, cinematographer Néstor Almendros had to leave half-way through the process and a replacement had to be called, which immediately put the film’s visual consistency into question. Finally, after principal photography was finished, it took two years for Malick to wrap up the editing, even though he could count on the services of the great editor Billy Weber. But all the hard labor finally paid off, as Days of Heaven turned out to be one the most beautiful films ever to be featured on the silver screen, earning Malick the highest recognition in Cannes. Almendros caught Malick’s eye with his work on The Wild Child, and the two of them created a unique albeit extremely demanding visual identity of the project, drawing inspiration from painters like Vermeer, Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, hoping to mimic the style of photographers from the beginning of the 20th century.

Almendros’ replacement Haskell Wexler continued his predecessor’s work, himself being a highly respected cinematographer, while Patricia Norris did a marvellous job with her period costumes designs. The decision to shoot most of the film immediately after sunset, while the night is still too young to be dark, gave the story an almost magical touch. Days of Heaven is fascinating because it tells its story mostly through images, although it would be unfair to discredit Malick’s subtle, somewhat elliptic screenplay’s ability to mesmerize the viewers. But relying on visuality enabled Malick to somehow intensify the experience, by using the beauty and fierce intimidation of nature he succeeded in telling so much with actually saying very little, and the way he gave significance to the charm of desolate Texas prairie is a text-book example of making the most of a story’s geographical setting. Days of Heaven is an essay on loneliness, a melancholy poem on loss and love, a daring experiment in storytelling and nothing less than a powerful declaration of devotion to art itself.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Terrence Malick’s screenplay for Days of Heaven [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The following video is an excerpt from an interview with John Bailey, a camera operator for Days of Heaven, who reveals Malick’s use of natural light and little artificial light to create the look of the film. It is well-known that Malick made great use of the “magic hour,” however the details that Bailey provides are eye-opening. “The look of the film (the emphasis on fading light) came from Malick, and it is perfectly integrated with the work’s ‘content.’ This is what makes these various shots more than just ‘pretty’ images.” —Shooting Days of Heaven with Terrence Malick


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“A wonderful Q&A session after the screening of Days of Heaven at Ebertfest 2013 with Haskell Wexler and Matt Zoller Seitz follows to provide an awesome overview of the work behind the film. Wexler took over director of photography duties for Néstor Almendros, who won the Best Cinematography Oscar with the film, for the last three weeks of shooting due to Almendros’ commitment to François Truffaut for The Man Who Loved Women. He was informed to continue the method of using only available light and not using diffusion in order to maintain the imagery established by Terrence Malick. Although the final cut of Days of Heaven contained much of Wexler’s work, the cinematographer affirms that his touch on the film was a continuation of what had already been accomplished. When watching the film, it is amazing to see how it flows seamlessly without the exchange of roles affecting the visual storytelling, and when watching this Q&A, it is amazing how much we get to learn about Days of Heaven and Terrence Malick.” —Edwin Adrian Nieves


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30-minute interview with Haskell Wexler, ASC on the film Days of Heaven.

 
Sam Shepard talks about working with Malick on Days of Heaven. Bottle this wisdom.


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TERRENCE MALICK ON MAKING ‘DAYS OF HEAVEN’

In May 1979, Terrence Malick candidly explained the origin of his ideas for Days of Heaven and how he went about making it happen. This interview was originally published in French and is sourced from the book Quinze Hommes Splendides by Yvonne Baby.

 

It was in Austin, Texas that I had the idea for ‘Days of Heaven.’ I found myself alone for a summer in the town I had left when I was a high school student. There were those green, undulating hills, and the very beautiful Colorado river. The place is inspired. It is inspiring, and there the film came to me all together. I had not liked working at harvest time, I have a very good memory of it, of wheat, and the comings and goings in the fields, and of all the people I met. They were mostly petty criminals who were on their way to Phoenix, Arizona or Las Vegas for the rest of the year.
Like those of the film, these were not people of the soil, but urban dwellers who had abandoned their city, their factories. Rather than criminals, it would be fairer to say they lived on the margins of crime, fed by elusive hopes. At the time of the film, those who worked the seasons hated their jobs and the farmers did not trust them. They could not touch the machinery: if something was breaking, they had to signal by raising their hat on a stick. To distinguish themselves, they were always putting on their best clothes. I had noticed that myself when I was a teenager. To the farmers they were bringing—and this is still true—a piece of their homeland and of new horizons. And farmers sat down to listen—charmed—to hear the story of these workers. Already the farmers were almost nothing more than businessmen and they felt nostalgia for those days of yesteryear where they were themselves caretakers of their earthly riches. Workers and farmers were embodying people whose hopes were being destroyed, some more than others, by opulence or poverty. All were full of desires, dreams, and appetites, which I hope permeates the film. For these people, happiness comes and goes, they are fleeting moments. Why? They don’t know, just as they don’t know how to achieve happiness. If they see before them another season, another harvest, they feel unable to build a life. Though this is familiar to a European, it may seem puzzling for Americans. Americans feel entitled to happiness, and once they manage to find it, they feel as if they own it. If they are deprived of it, they feel cheated. If they feel it has been taken away from them, they imagine they have been done wrong. This guilt I have felt from everyone I’ve known. It’s a bit like a Dylan song: they have held the world in their hands and let it slip through their fingers.
As for the title, it is a feeling that a place exists that is within reach and where we will be safe. It is a place where a house will not rest on the sand, where you will not become crazier by fighting again and again against the impossible.
Linda, the teenage girl, is the heart of the film. She was a sort of street child we had discovered in a laundromat. For the role, she should have been younger, but as soon as I spoke to her, I found in her the maturity of a forty-year old woman. Non-judgmental and left to her own imagination, she had her own ideas [for the role] giving the impression of having actually lived this life instead of having to invent and play within another. At first it was a bit frustrating to work with her. She couldn’t remember her lines, couldn’t be interrupted, and was difficult to photograph. Despite this, I started to love her and I believed in her more than anything else. She transformed the role. I am glad that she’s the narrator. Her personality shines through the film’s objectivity. Every time I gave her new lines, she interpreted it in her own way; when she refers to heaven and hell, she says that everyone is bursting into flames. It was her response to the film on the day when she saw the rushes. That comment was included in the final version. Linda said so many things that I despaired being unable to keep them… I feel like I have not been able to grasp a fraction of who she really is.
With Néstor Almendros, we decided to film without any artificial light. It wasn’t possible in the houses at night, but outside, we shot with natural light or with the fire. When the American team was saying, “This is not how we should proceed,” Néstor Almendros, very courageously insisted. As we filmed, the team discovered that it was technically easier, and I was able to capture absolute reality. That was my wish: to prevent the appearance of any technique, and that the photography was to be processed to be visually beautiful and to ensure this beauty existed within the world I was trying to show, suggesting that which was lost, or what we were now losing because he is also a filmmaker, Néstor Almendros understood ‘Days of Heaven’ in every way.
I wanted the omnipresence of sound, so I used the Dolby system. Dolby purifies sound and is able to record multiple audio tracks (e.g. wind, the rustle of corn stalks, the pulse of crickets). I wanted to remove any distance from the public. It was my secret intention; to make the film experience more concrete, more direct. And, for the audience, I am tempted to say, experience it like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature. That’s what I wanted, that is how the Dolby and technological developments improved our work.
It would be difficult for me to make a film about contemporary America today. We live in such dark times and we have gradually lost our open spaces. We always had hope, the illusion that there was a place where we could live, where one could emigrate and go even further. Wilderness, this is the place where everything seems possible, where solidarity exists—and justice—where the virtues are somehow linked to this justice. In the region where I grew up, everyone felt it in a very strong way. This sense of space disappearing, we nevertheless can find it in cinema, which will pass it on to us There is so much to do: it’s as if we were on the Mississippi Territory, in the eighteenth century. For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more. And even an old movie in poor and beaten condition and can give us that. What else is there to ask for?

 
“In the filmmaking process, the communication between a director and a cameraman is often ambiguous and confused because the majority of directors don’t understand the technical details required in cinematography. With Terry, there was never any miscommunication. He always understood exactly my cinematographic preferences and explanations. And not only did he allow me to do what I had always wanted to do which was to use less artificial light in a period movie than is conventionally used (many times I used none at all)—but he actually pushed me in that direction. Such creative support was personally exciting and directly enhanced the work I was doing.” —Photographing Days of Heaven by Néstor Almendros

 
John Bailey and Néstor Almendros making Days of Heaven. Photo by Michael Gershman.

 
John Bailey was the camera operator on the film.

 
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).

 
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