About 20 years ago, Terrence Malick did what almost everyone in Hollywood has fantasized about doing but with the gusto most only dream of. After writing and directing two of the more stunning films of the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, he expatriated to Paris and became a semi-recluse. People in the movie business delighted in adding the coup de grâce, saying how, in 1980, Malick was advanced more than $1 million by Paramount for a script he never turned in.
As the years passed, Malick's reputation grew to near-mythic proportions. His past was tailor-made for the lore: He grew up in Texas, where he spent summers working on oil wells and driving cement mixers; he translated Heidegger while working as a log jammer; he attended Harvard, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and won a Rhodes scholarship; and he was teaching philosophy at MIT when he was accepted into the American Film Institute's inaugural class in 1969.
During Malick's absence, his name popped up every now and again when producers would tell stories of him calling from phone booths while walking from Oklahoma to Texas, birdwatching. His disappearing act became one of the great Hollywood mysteries: Why did Malick, at the height of his powers, walk away from filmmaking?
''That's easy,'' John Travolta says. ''He hired me for Heaven, I couldn't do it, it broke his heart, and he never wanted to do a movie again. It was the most romantic notion I'd ever heard.''
Travolta tells the story of the afternoon in 1978 that Malick swore off filmmaking. After protracted negotiations, Welcome Back, Kotter producer David L. Wolper had refused to give Travolta enough time off to shoot Days of Heaven. (Instead, Malick cast a then unknown Richard Gere.) Travolta and Malick were on a park bench commiserating when Malick burst into tears. ''He cried and cried,'' Travolta recalls. ''I looked at him and thought, 'Well, I feel bad, but I'm going to get over this. He's claiming he'll never get over this. He will. It's a matter of time.'''
Each time Travolta saw Malick, he revisited the issue. ''If I asked him once, I asked him five times, 'Was it really that?''' Travolta says. ''Terry always said, 'Yep. There was something about how Hollywood worked that [casting issue] that made me feel unsafe about doing movies.' He marches to his own drum. I'm still not sure what drum it is, but I like it.''
In 1988, two little-known Texas-raised, New York-based producers, Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau, set about building a cocoon where Malick could work outside the Hollywood system and build the confidence to direct again. The producers tracked down Malick in Paris and asked him to write and direct a film based on D.M. Thomas' 1981 novel The White Hotel. Malick declined but gave them a choice of two projects, a modern-day version of Moliére's Tartuffe or The Thin Red Line. ''More than anything, the theme of fate interested Terry,'' Geisler says.