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behind the scenes

Radiant Zigzag Becoming: How Terrence Malick and His Team Constructed To the Wonder

Terrence Malick’s films have always been divisive, and To the Wonder, which hit theaters and video on demand last weekend, is proving more divisive than most. (Our own David Edelstein, for one, was not a fan.) The film is a lyrical, moody tale about a couple (played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) who find themselves increasingly alienated from each other when they move from Paris to Oklahoma, where the man reconnects romantically with a woman from his past (Rachel McAdams). Built out of fragmentary moments, glimpses of memories, and occasionally even visions, overlaid with quietly ruminating voice-over, the film has struck some as a particularly Malick-y Terrence Malick film.

But regardless of the opinion on any of his individual works, there remains a fascination and curiosity about Malick’s filmmaking process, which has in recent years become even more distinct and unorthodox. Over the course of his career, Malick has put together a team of creative allies — including cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, production designer Jack Fisk, costume designer Jacqui West, and first assistant cameraman Erik Brown — who have been able to embrace a very organic style of filmmaking, one that’s often improvisatory in a way most filmmakers try to avoid. “When we sat down at first to discuss this film,” says producer Nicolas Gonda, “we didn’t talk about a script, but rather a way of working.”

While Lubezki himself notes, in this recent American Cinematographer interview, that he did insist on seeing a script, the producers and the actors were content to work mostly from Malick’s treatment and his own descriptions of the story. Malick wrote voraciously throughout preproduction, filming, and postproduction. Usually these pages consisted simply of characters’ internal thoughts. “At first, Terrence just told me the story,” says Kurylenko, who plays Marina. “Once we started shooting, I’d get ten or fifteen pages every morning describing the mood of my character.” Different actors would get different pages, each describing their own internal thoughts. “You never really walk through a scene with Terry. He wants everything to be spontaneous, without you having any time to overthink it.”

Nowhere in To the Wonder was this approach more evident than in the film’s early scenes in Paris and the island of Mont Saint-Michel (whose nickname, “le merveille,” French for “the wonder,” gives the film its title), off the northwest coast of France. Working in France with a reduced crew of about eight people and a shoot schedule of just a couple of days, Malick’s style was quicker and more impulsive than ever. Ever since they first worked together on 2005’s The New World, he and Lubezki have put together a set of unwritten “rules” that allow them to shoot quickly and freely; among them is the fact that they almost exclusively use natural or available light. They also often shoot handheld or with a Steadicam. (Lubezki was unable to accompany the crew to France, so he gave instructions to cameraman and Steadicam operator Joerg Widmer for these scenes.) “At this point, watching [Lubezski], Joerg, and Terry, it’s actually kind of funny, because even their body language is the same now,” says producer Sarah Green, whose collaboration with Malick also dates back to The New World. “They’re like a band that’s been playing together for years. The camera has to move and the focus puller has to adjust without Terry necessarily having to tell them what to frame — but they know what he will respond to.”

The scenes in France depict the early, happier times in the relationship between Marina and Neil (Affleck), before they head to the American Midwest and things fall apart. “In France, the mood we had to convey was one of euphoria, of two people being very much in love,” says Kurylenko. Shooting with Malick was a process of constant movement, more of a dance performance then traditional acting. “What he always said was, ‘Keep moving, keep moving. Don’t stop.’ If I ever stopped, he’d poke me to keep going.” And the camera moved with the actors: One of Malick and Lubezki’s unwritten rules is that the camera should always be “in the eye of the hurricane” — in the middle of a scene, constantly interacting with the characters.

Mont Saint-Michel was a location Malick knew well and had always had in mind for the France section of the film. (The filmmaker lived in France during the eighties, and while cast and crew are understandably respectful of the publicity-shy filmmaker’s privacy, the story of To the Wonder, much like that of The Tree of Life, appears to be very loosely autobiographical.) The spot is famous not just for its medieval monastery, with its impressive spires that rise above the tiny island, but also for the tide that quickly rolls in and out on the flats that connect it to the mainland. In the film, after reaching the top of the monastery, Affleck and Kurylenko’s characters frolic along the quicksand of the tidal flats, as the sea comes in. “Standing there, suddenly you’ll be knee-deep in water,” says producer Gonda, adding that the site is actually quite dangerous. “We actually had to be there with a professional, their equivalent of a park ranger.” In the editing room, that incoming tide — somehow both lovely and ominous — presented itself very quickly as a metaphor for the pain lying in wait for the couple in America.

The flats also made for a poignant contrast with the scene immediately preceding, which takes place at the monastery. Initially, the crew shot a signficant amount of footage, going through every level of the building, and gradually working their way up through the balconies of the sacred space. But later, Malick and his editors focused primarily on the scenes at the very top of the monastery, where Neil and Marina share a quiet, contented embrace — Mont Saint-Michel as another of Malick’s lost, romantic Edens, a motif that occurs in pretty much all of his films.

Although many of the actors never saw a script for To the Wonder, there was still a lot of dialogue shot for the film — much of it taken off Malick’s daily pages for the cast. “We wouldn’t have to read the lines literally,” Kurylenko says. “Terry leaves you free to say the lines or to not say them.” This, too, is a style of working the director has perfected over the years: He gives his actors dialogue to get them thinking about certain things, but then shoots the scene in a variety of ways, doing some takes without the dialogue or cutting it out in post. There were numerous arguments full of shouting and wounding dialogue filmed between Neil and Marina in the film’s Oklahoma scenes, most of which only exist in spectral fashion in the finished work — seen as glimpses and fragments. “The scenes in Oklahoma were incredibly dark,” Kurylenko says. “A lot darker than what was in the final film.” In editing, however, Malick discovered that such dialogue often had the effect of making the characters seem small, whereas he was going for something more elemental, almost mythic. In casting, producer Sarah Green recalls that Malick looked for actors who “really could stand in for the male and female of the species — who seemed iconic in that way.” 

As prompts for the actors, Malick shared representative works of art and literature. For Affleck, he suggested Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. (Affleck read Martin Heidegger on his own, having known that Malick had translated one of the German philosopher’s works as a grad student.) For Kurylenko, he also recommended Tolstoy and Dostoevsky — specifically, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. “Those books were, in a way, his script,” she says. But he did more than give the actors the books; he suggested ways to approach the texts and characters to focus on. So, for example, he recommended that Kurylenko read The Idiot with a particular eye on two characters: the young and prideful Aglaya Yepanchin, and the fallen, tragic Nastassya Filippovna. “He wanted me to combine their influences — the romantic and innocent side, with the insolent and daring side. ‘For some reason, you only ever see that combination in Russian characters,’ he said to me.”

In fact, Malick will use existing works of art and literature as touch-points with virtually all of his cast and crew. “It enables them to have a common vernacular on set that’s not about technique, but emotion — a shared memory,” Gonda says. For example, with the producers, the director often referenced paintings. With camera operator Widmer, who is also an accomplished musician, the references were often musical. With his editing team, Malick often passed out books such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. But he would also reference other films: Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, with its heavy and unique use of voice-over, was a constant reference point. (At one point, the score for Truffaut’s film was used as part of a temp soundtrack.) Malick is also a huge fan of Jean-Luc Godard and often referenced Godard films such as Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, and Vivre Sa Vie, for their elliptical narrative and editing styles.

One odd but telling reference point Malick gave his editors was Margaret A. Doody’s introduction to the Penguin Books edition of Samuel Richardson’s revolutionary 1740 novel Pamela. In the intro, Doody discusses the fact that Richardson’s novel, which unfolds as a series of letters, presents an internalized narrative that appears, on the surface, to lack any and all artifice. “He loves the formless, the radiant zigzag becoming,” Doody writes, and the phrase “radiant zigzag becoming” soon became an unofficial motto for the film, representing its constant sense of movement and the fact that the characters’ relationships seem to always be in flux.

That state of constant flux could also apply to the way Malick edited the film. There are five credited editors on To the Wonder, as there were on Tree of Life, but the process was a bit different this time. While on Tree, different editors came in at different times to cut the film, this time the editors mostly worked simultaneously, on different elements — one person, for example, focused on the enormous amount of documentary-style footage shot with Javier Bardem, who plays a priest in Oklahoma, while another focused on voice-over.

For all of that voice-over, Malick sat down early with the footage and wrote down narration inspired by it — again, much of it detailing characters’ thoughts, sometimes working as counterpoint to what was happening onscreen. Once the voice-over went in, however, it would inspire new changes in the cut, which would then result in further changes to the narration. “I would get pages of voice-over wherever I was — France, Ukraine, the U.K., America,” Kurylenko says. “They’d call me and say they’d booked a studio on a certain date, and I would go there and do 30 pages of voice-over. A couple of weeks later, I’d get another call, and I’d read another 30 pages. I probably read something like 400 pages of voice-over,” she laughs. (The vast majority of this, of course, was not used. Indeed, To the Wonder probably has less voice-over than most other Malick films.)

The music was also constantly in flux. A huge amount of music had already been uploaded onto the editing system from the postproduction of Tree of Life — this was, essentially, Malick’s own listening library — and from day one, the editors experimented with different musical pieces, cutting footage to one piece, then replacing it with another to see how a scene flowed. Composer Hanan Townshend would then listen to the classical pieces on the soundtrack and then riff on a melody or a theme for an original composition. It was an ever-changing, almost symbiotic process of trial and error — a unique way of filmmaking that characterized the entire production of To the Wonder.

Photo: Redbud Pictures