Terrence Malick was born in Ottawa, Illinois. His family subsequently lived in Oklahoma and he went to school in Austin, Texas. He did his undergraduate work at Harvard, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in philosophy in 1965.
A member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, he attended Magdalen College, Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, but did not finish his thesis on Martin Heidegger, allegedly because of a disagreement with his advisor. Returning to the States, he taught philosophy at M.I.T. and published a translation of Heidegger’s “Vom Wesen des Grundes” as “The Essence of Reasons”. Malick did not get his PhD in philosophy: Instead, he attended the American Film Institute Conservatory in its inaugural year (1969), taking a Masters of Fine Arts degree in film-making. His masters thesis was the seventeen-minute comedy short Lanton Mills (1969), which starred Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton. Malick himself acted in the short.
At A.F.I., Malick made a lasting association with Jack Fisk, who would establish himself as an Oscar-nominated art director and production designer and serve as art director on all of Malick’s films. He also picked up Mike Medavoy as an agent, who got Malick work doctoring scripts and marketed his original ones. He wrote the screenplay for the 1972 Alan Arkin trucker movie Deadhead Miles (1972), which was many miles from Harvard let along Oxford, and for the 1972 Paul Newman-Lee Marvin contemporary oater Pocket Money (1972), another departure from fields of academia. “Deadhead Miles” was dumped by Paramount as unreleasable and “Pocket Money”, despite being headlined by two Top Ten Box Office stars, flopped. It was an inauspicious start to a legendary career, but it influenced Malick to begin directing his own scripts.
His first two films were the now critically acclaimed Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). He then took a self-imposed retirement of nearly two decades from film-making before lensing his 1998 adaptation of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line (1998), which was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including nods for Malick for directing and adapted screenplay.
Adopting a Kubrickian pace of movie-making, he directed The New World (2005) and the autobiographical The Tree of Life (2011) with gaps of only seven and six years, respectively, between release. However, he reportedly was working on ideas for “The Tree of Life” since the late 70s, including exposing footage that found its way into his finished film.
In an unprecedented burst of productivity, he shot his next four films, To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), an as-yet unnamed drama and the cosmic documentary Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (2016) back-to-back during and immediately after completing the long editing process of “Tree of Life”. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick usually takes well over a year to edit his films. All three are highly anticipated by cineastes the world over.
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