Christian Bale and Natalie Portman on ‘Embracing the Unknown’ in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

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Christian Bale and Natalie Portman at the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Terrence Malick’s heady, vaguely tarot inspired Knight of Cups premiered Sunday at the Berlin Film Festival, treating everyone to one visual orgasm after another: vertiginous camerawork; eye-popping color; hedonistic rich-people parties shot in dreamy slow-mo; and Christian Bale, either in full-on brood mode or chasing gorgeous, frisky sylphs around swimming pools and hotel rooms. (Check out the high-octane trailer for an idea of what to expect.)

So what’s the film, which is in competition for this year’s Golden Bear, even about? Ostensibly, it centers on a successful L.A. screenwriter “who has the fame, the invites to the right parties and access to the right people, whose dreams and desires have been fulfilled — but who feels a great void in himself,” explained Bale. “And then he finds himself on a journey, a search for he knows not what.” Still, the protagonist is so diffuse that Bale has a hard time even remembering the character’s name. (It’s “Rick.”)

Bale, three of the film’s producers, and co-star Natalie Portman — who’s also in town with The Seventh Fire, a doc she produced about Native American gangs — gathered to discuss Knight of Cups. Absent, of course, was Malick (which didn’t stop members of the audience from posing questions to him anyway). Though he wasn’t around, we were able to get a sense of his process and goals in making the film. Here’s what we learned:

A shoot with Malick is an exercise in controlled chaos.
“One has to be light on one’s feet,” explained producer Sarah Green, who’s been working with the director for 15 years. “Planning and organization don’t serve his style. We look like a student film: a couple of vans, people running around, very much in the moment. We’ve learned to keep a team around that’s worked with Terry before, who appreciate his strong yet loose vision.” Also, Malick’s camera team “understands his aesthetic so completely, it’s like they’re one person,” said Green.

Malick rolls the cameras while the actors are still figuring things out.
“Our mantra on set was ‘Start before you’re ready,’” explained Bale. “Terry liked to call it ‘torpedoing’ us. I never knew what I was going to be doing — he was just going to push me out and then it was just, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ You get a lot of happy accidents that way.” Portman added that it was about “embracing the unknown, embracing chance. It’s not just a script that you’re just executing.”

In fact, there wasn’t really a script at all.
Instead of sending Portman a script before the shoot, Malick sent her books and movies, and the two exchanged a number of letters. “It was quite a lot of discussion, considering how little I worked on the film,” she said. (Her scenes were shot within four or five days.) Once on set, “we’d receive like 30 pages a day with suggested ideas for dialogue." They were then free to choose what resonated with them.

“I never had any lines to learn, but I would see other people coming [to set] and they’d have pages,” said Bale. “I would try to look over their shoulders to see what I was going to be being told that day, because I never knew at all.” Overall, this approach actually made it easier. “If it had been script with a character who doesn’t say very much, that would have been very challenging.”

The actors got to do some of the filming.
Malick frequently distributed GoPros — those lightweight, wearable cameras often used in extreme sports — to the cast, instructing them to hop in a car and drive around or go running off into the ocean. “Then we’d hand back the GoPro and see if it ended up in the film,” said Bale. Although “there was an awful lot of footage we didn’t use,” the tactic fostered trust and allowed for spontaneity.

Los Angeles plays an important role in the film.
Malick makes the City of Angels looks like an intoxicating kind of hell: deserted Hollywood backlots, parties atop glass towers and inside monolithic mansions, and an ominous gray sky that feels like it could break into a thunderstorm at any moment. (There’s even an earthquake thrown into the mix.) “Los Angeles is this great goldfish bowl and a very colorful backdrop,” explained Bale. “There are superficial, decaying, and ugly elements, but within that, you get great beauty and an awful lot of substance. There’s spirituality where you would not expect to find it.”

All those naked women serve a deeper purpose.
Bale’s character certainly has his pick of babes: In addition to Portman, there’s Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, Katia Winter, and plenty more, all in various states of undress. He also gets intimate with Portman’s toes, which he tenderly sucks on during one of their lusty onscreen moments. (“Very nice,” he remarked when asked about the taste of her little piggies.)

So what was behind all this T&A? “We had such incredibly soulful and intelligent actresses playing these roles,” said Bale. “Women were clearly, um, Rick’s primary source of life.” Explained Portman, “Rick’s journey reflects the great diversity of the types of people — male and female — you find in Los Angeles, from the superficiality at a Hollywood party, and how women are treated there, to Cate Blanchett’s character, who has soul, generosity, and humanity,” said Portman. “The city can encompass both those extremes.”

Malick taught Portman that it’s okay to break the rules and embrace the unknown.
Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is currently in postproduction — and the shoot with Malick was a powerful influence. “He reminded me that you can allow the mistakes and welcome the problems, which he saw as opportunities. It starts raining, you shoot in the rain. You don’t change the schedule. Every day is a search for something beautiful, which is a great way to go into a conventional shoot.” Knight of Cups also marked Portman’s first return to acting since giving birth: “It was quite an intense story to play after having a kid.”

Darren Aronofsky is this year’s Jury President, but that doesn’t mean Knight of Cups has an edge on the competition.
Aronofsky directed Black Swan, for which Portman won an Oscar, and produced The Fighter, which earned Bale one as well. Despite this, Bale’s not convinced he has any leverage. And Portman? “I would never tamper with the — I’m sure — very, very, very unbiased choices of the jury,” she explained cagily. “I will have a drink with him and not talk about the movie.”