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Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 where Michael Madsen’s Budd lays down the sword rhetoric: “If you’re gonna compared a sword made by Hattori Hanzo, you compare it to every other sword ever made, that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” I’d like to augment that slightly in the case of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and say, “If you’re gonna compare The Thin Red Line, you compare it to every other war movie ever made that *isn’t* The Thin Red Line.” That’s not to say its better than all the rest or on any kind of quality pedestal, it’s just simply unlike every other war film out there, and that differentiation makes it an incredibly special picture. Why, you ask? Because it takes a ponderous, meditative approach to a very hectic horrific period in history, and takes the time to explore the effects of conflict on both humanity and nature, as well as how all those forces go hand in hand. What other war film does that? Malick uses a poets eye and a lyricist’s approach to show the Guadalcanal siege, a horrific battle in which lives were lost on both sides and the countryside ravaged by the fires of war. To say that this film is an ensemble piece would be an understatement; practically all of Hollywood and their mother have parts in this, from the front and centre players right down to cameos and even a few appearances that never made it into the final cut (which I’m still bitter about). The two central performances come from Jim Caviesel and Sean Penn as Pvt. Welsh and Sgt. Witt. Welsh is a compassionate, thoughtful man who seems primally uncomfortable in a soldiers uniform, and shirks the materialistic horror and industrialist grind of war to seek something more esoteric, a reason for being amongst the horror. Witt is a hard, cold man who sees no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel and does his job with grim resolve, scarcely pausing to contemplate anything but the next plan of action. These two are archetypes, different forces that play in each of us and, variations of which, are how we deal with something as incomparable as a world war. Around them swirl an endless sea of famous faces and other characters doing the best they can in the chaos, or simply getting lost in it. Nick Nolte as a gloomy Colonel displays fire and brimstone externally, but his inner monologue (a constant with Malick) shows us a roiling torment. A captain under his command (Elias Koteas) has an emotional crisis and disobeys orders to send his men to their death when thunderously pressured by Nolte. Koteas vividly shows us the heartbreak and confusion of a man who is ready to break, and gives arguably the best performance of the film. Woody Harrelson accidentally blows a chunk of his ass off with a grenade, John Cusack climbs the military rank with his tactics, John Savage wanders around in a daze as a sadly shell shocked soldier, Ben Chaplin pines for his lost love (Miranda Otto) and the jaw dropping supporting cast includes (deep breath now) Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok, Michael Mcgrady, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Mark Boone Jr, Don Harvey, Arie Verveen, Donal Logue, John Travolta and a brief George Clooney. There’s a whole bunch who were inexplicably cut from scenes too including Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s scene can be found, in pieces, on YouTube and it’s worth a search to see him play a haunted sniper. Hans Zimmer doles out musical genius as usual, with a mournfully angelic score that laments the process of war, particularly in scenes where Caviesel connects with the natives in the region, as well as a soul shattering ambush on the Japanese encampment that is not a sequence that ten year old Nate has been able to forget since I saw it and the hairs on my neck stood up. This is a diversion from most war films; Malick always has a dreamy filter over every story he weaves: exposition is scant, atmosphere matters above all else and the forces of music and visual direction almost always supersede dialogue, excepting inner thoughts from the characters. If you take that very specific yet loose and ethereal aesthetic and plug it into the machinations of a war picture, the result is as disturbing as it is breathtakingly beautiful, because you are seeing these events through a lens not usually brandished in the genre, and the consequences of war seem somehow more urgent and cataclysmic. Malick knows this, and keeps that tempo up for the entire near three hour runtime, giving us nothing short of a classic.

-Nate Hill

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“We’ve got some unique time constraints.” : Remembering Déjà Vu with Bill Marsilii by Kent Hill

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Initially I felt the same way about Déjà Vu as I did Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Both of the inaugural screenings I attended were sullied by external forces which greatly influenced my mood during the viewings and thus, my opinion of the films.

But time, it was once said, is the ultimate critic. Under different circumstances I watched both films again, and, this time around, my feelings toward both movies were drastically adjusted.

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In several books on the art of screenwriting it is often put about that, if you cannot sum up the film you are writing in a single sentence, then you may want to rethink the plot. There is a great moment on the commentary track of this film in which the late, great Tony Scott admits that even he struggled to distill Déjà Vu into the logline form.

It’s a science-fiction/action/thriller/time-travel/romance in which the hero, Denzel Washington, meets the girl he will eventually fall in love with on the slab – dead as disco. Unbeknownst to him, he will eventually join a team that will, along with the help of a device that can see into the past, aid him in bringing her killer to justice. And it was from this humble yet intriguing premise that my guest, Bill Marsilii and his co-writer Terry Rossio constructed this rich, multi-layered tale which deserves more applause than some would proffer for its inventiveness and compelling real-world take on the age old time machine story.

 

But what I uncovered as I spoke to Bill was far more than a series of behind the scenes anecdotes and your typical boy meets idea, boy turns idea into a screenplay, screenplay sells for big dollars, boy lives happily and successfully ever after in Hollywood kind of scenario.

And yes, while it is true that Déjà Vu is the highest earning spec script thus far, beating out other entries like Basic Instinct, Panic Room and The Last Boy Scout, the story of how Bill came to, not only the concept, but how the writing and selling of the script changed his life is just as compelling as anything Jerry Bruckheimer and Co. managed to get onto the screen.

 

This interview, at least for me, proved also to be somewhat of a masterclass in, not only screenwriting, but the ever painful and soul-crushing journey the writer must endure to actually sell the script. It’s about the luck, timing, persistence and internal fortitude that you must have sufficient quantities to survive the gauntlet that exists between the page and the screen.

Bill’s heart-warming, inspirational adventure to make it in the realm where dreams are brought to life with that strange blending of art, science and commerce – that ultimately no one can tell you how, when a film is successful, it all comes together in the perfect proportions to ensure success is on the menu – is a conversation that could have gone on and on.

I hope you’ll will enjoy some extended insights into Déjà Vu, but more than that, I hope you, if you are one of those dreamers still out there trying to write your own ticket to cinematic glory, that Bill’s wisdom you’ll take onboard and continue pounding away on those keys until fortune smiles and your efforts will be coming soon, to a theater near us…

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Bill Marsilii . . .

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