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Knight of Cups Star Christian Bale on the Wonders of Working With Terrence Malick and Without a Script

There are a few things you know you’ll get in a new Terrence Malick film: gorgeous, dynamic images courtesy of Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki; impassioned, physical performances; voice-over. But beyond that, it’s a mystery, and that’s what’s wonderful. Forty years into his eccentric career, Malick is firmly in his own realm, making movies that no other director could make — though certainly some have tried.

With his seventh project, Knight of Cups — the (loose) story of a lost screenwriter trying to find himself in hedonism, beauty, and six different women — Malick has gone as far as ever into the filmmaking of feeling and emotion, directly rebuking the plotted, paced technique of the Los Angeles movie-industrial complex, where Knight of Cups is set. Vulture caught up with the movie’s star, Christian Bale, who talked working without a script, what it takes to be in a “Terry film,” and why there aren’t more directors like Malick.

When you first talked to Malick about Knight of Cups, what was the idea that he presented? There wasn’t a proper script, right?
No, there was no script. A good man in search of something other, that was what it stemmed from. I think Terry’s had this idea for years and years and years. I’ve known him since The New World, and with that there was a script, but most of the time, he threw the script aside. And then through our conversations over the years, he came to me, and he said, “Look, how about we make a film that has no script whatsoever? I just want to give you a character description, a character history, and then I’m going to just send you out and we’ll see what happens.” I said, “Great, all right, let’s try that.”

How closely does this even resemble more conventional filmmaking?
It’s more akin to a piece of music or literature, where you’re not being told as much how to feel — it’s the interpretation that’s the important thing. So you and I could have very different feelings from watching Knight of Cups, in the same way that one piece of music can resonate to me and mean nothing to you. That’s how I feel about it — it’s what I said to Terry when I saw the film. It’s a personal conversation each viewer is having with this film, because so much is relatable, but in significant and different ways to each and every person.

And let me tell you, there must be three or four films on the cutting-room floor that he could have made, because we always said, let’s start before we’re ready. That was the point of this — there was a real embracing of accidents and mistakes. When he did give lines to anybody, it was if they feel like saying them, no demands on that at all. He delights in observing humans and human nature, and then he finds the story within what we film.

So when you’re entering a scene, what are you focusing on? What’s your approach?
Nothing. No intentions whatsoever. Let me give you an example:

There was one day when Terry was just kind of riffing, talking about stuff, and we were chatting, and we just started recording. We weren’t filming, we were just recording. And Terry was feeding me ideas for lines, like, “Okay, think about this idea and give me some things, Christian,” or, “Specifically say these lines, try these.” Then he said, “Just take it wherever you want.” I was used to that by then, I would just say whatever was on my mind, a stream of consciousness kind of thing, and it could be poignant or it could be absolutely mundane. On that particular day, I just said, “Nah, I’m not doing it. I don’t care. I’ve got nothing left. I’ve got no ideas, and I don’t give a shit, Terry, I just don’t care anymore.” I was having a bad day. And he just went, “Perfect. That was wonderful.”

Because what he wants is sincerity. He may come back to a more conventional style of filmmaking and be absolutely brilliant at doing it, but his whole point was that he doesn’t want to be striving toward an emotional goal because that’s not what we do in life. It happens to us. We’re not trying to be emotional, unless we’re complete frauds. That’s what he’s going for, so even a rejection of wanting to film or work with him at all that day is something that he goes, “Delightful, that’s what I needed. Fantastic. Go with that.”

What was that process like on this set, which appears to have been pretty freewheeling?
It was always see what happens, walk around. He called it torpedoing: People would come up to me and just start talking. I had no idea who they were, half the time I didn’t know if they were actors or they were real people. It was a mix throughout: There was this pimp in Vegas, he was fantastic, we had the most wonderful conversation, and very little of it ended up in the film. It was always an adventure, a discovery. My character is very much a man of words, with his screenwriting and all that, but has just completely lost any love or use for them. So, primarily listening, observing, responding in some ways, but never too much, because if I responded too much, Terry tended to say, “All right, you got that out of your system — now listen a little bit more.”

That’s great.
I just ended up in these fascinating conversations. To me, it represented all the ugliness of Los Angeles and the apparent glamour and beauty, which is absolutely vacant. But there’s an awful lot of soulfulness as well, and sincerity to it. For myself, it’s a real love story to Los Angeles, because I’ve gone through all— if not exactly [my character] Rick’s experiences, then things which I can relate to them.

It’s a hatred of Los Angeles and an absolute love of it as well, successes and failures and finding success in ways I’ve never expected but then equally feeling like, well, I haven’t changed, and I still have this emptiness. It’s the search, the eternal search, and with Rick it’s definitely something that he knows that he had: He knew that when he was younger, there was just an instinct, and he’s lost that, and now he’s trying to get back to that, but with a sense of being able to articulate what that is.

Sounds like it’s less a plot than it is an emotional state.
For people, for any kind of viewers, it’s a film which you should go see if you’re adventurous in your film viewing. It’s not something you would usually get at your Cineplex. It’s a different kind of a film experience. Me, I want to have that. Music and literature have always meant more to me than film, and I love the fact that this movie actually resonates in the same way that music and literature does.

It feels like Malick is so rare now in that he’s not only a distinctive and original filmmaker, but he’s one of the very few distinctive and original filmmakers allowed to exist — you don’t ever really get the sense that anyone is trying to push against him.
There are probably many others who haven’t been given any funding — they did one film and then were blackballed. Even in an industry where the whole point of making a movie is to be inventive and creative, people still want to cling to a formula. And the formula works, don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely beautiful films that have been filmed in a more traditional way. I’ve made them: I’ve made some that are bloody awful and some where, oh, bloody hell, that managed to break through and actually achieve something.

But human nature is habitual, and so even with people approaching a Terry film — hey, look, come on, who are we kidding? As an actor, you know you’re going into a Terry film, and it might end up that you’re not in it. Certainly you might be shooting a scene and having a moment which on any other film people would be going Oh my god, what a performance! afterwards and all that, and on Terry’s film it turns out they’re not even filming you for that bit.

So the entire reward system changes when you’re working with him — what you’re looking to get out of the experience.
It’s got to be people who really love the process, and the reward is out of your hands. Hey, look, it’s a director’s medium anyways, so no matter what film you’re making, it’s in the director’s and editor’s hands. But I don’t think Terry, at this point, enjoys having a particular goal that he has to adhere to. He wants to be able to maneuver and change and be more lifelike. People who like that will love working with Terry, and he has these newcomers who he loves to have around all the time, people who have never made films before, on the set, combined with the likes of Chivo and Jack Fisk, who are incredible. You can’t get more of an experience than that.

Christian Bale on Making Malick’s Knight of Cups