Geisler and Roberdeau forged strong creative and personal bonds with Malick by catering to his every whim. They found obscure research materials about flora and fauna and reptiles and amphibians that Malick would incorporate into the finished film. They often made his travel plans, and they even helped him and Michele get a mortgage for an apartment in Paris. Over a six-year period, the producers, who had only Robert Altman's Streamers and one other movie on their film resumes, spent more than $2 million on Malick-related projects, about half of which was paid to Malick for writing. By January 1995, they were flat broke. They had spent liberally developing projects with Malick and had left behind a host of angry creditors.
That month, the producers asked Mike Medavoy to option The Thin Red Line for $100,000 for the new production company he was setting up, Phoenix Pictures (which had a deal with Sony). Medavoy was chosen because Malick trusted him. In the '70s Medavoy had been Malick's agent, and in the '80s Medavoy had hired him to write two scripts. While Medavoy was interested, he had just been through an expensive divorce and he wasn't convinced that Malick would ever direct the film. So Medavoy hedged his bet by loaning the producers the $100,000, which they used to continue funding development.
When word got out that Malick was recruiting for The Thin Red Line's C-for-Charlie company, every actor wanted to join. Geisler and Roberdeau paid for Malick to stage a reading at Medavoy's house in the spring of 1995 with Lukas Haas, Kevin Costner, Martin Sheen, Ethan Hawke, and Dermot Mulroney. Edward Norton, Matthew McConaughey, William Baldwin, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Edward Burns all flew to Austin to meet with the director. Before casting was finalized, Malick had serious conversations with Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon. He even called Hanks, who politely declined because of Saving Private Ryan.
Despite all the stars orbiting the project, Sony chairman John Calley was skeptical that the film could be made for $52 million, its projected budget. In the spring of 1997, three months before shooting was to begin, Calley dropped the project. Malick returned to L.A. from Australia, where preproduction was under way, to pitch the project to Fox. The studio agreed to back the film, provided Malick signed 5 stars from a list of 10 who were interested. To keep the budget down, each star would be paid $50,000 per week with a cap of $1 million. Penn would be the only actor to receive a piece of the back end.
Malick had to make compromises to satisfy Fox's requirements. Penn, who had run into Malick during his sabbatical and said, ''Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up,'' was the only star committed. Fox suggested Jason Patric. Penn called Harrison Ford, who declined. Malick got back in touch with McConaughey and Pitt to gauge their interest. Scripts went out to Clooney, Harrelson, Cusack, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, even Tom Cruise. When Malick cast Clooney in the tiny role of Captain Bosche, Geisler says the director called the decision ''a Faustian bargain'' and ''a big mistake.'' ''Terry was worried that having a big star like Clooney play a character who enters the film near the end would be distracting,'' Geisler says.
Malick also called Travolta and insisted they meet. ''We had a five- or six-hour dinner, and he went into this long explanation about what he needed me to do,'' Travolta recalls. ''I kept saying 'Whatever you want, Terry.' I couldn't have gone through what we went through and not accepted his proposition.'' Malick wrote a special part for Travolta ironically, it was a cameo.
Malick's casting choices were followed by other, more radical decisions on who was in and who was out. He decided his girlfriend, Alexandra ''Ecky'' Wallace, would be with him on location. (In the film's credits, she's listed under ''continuity'' as Alexandra W.B. Malick.) Her sons Todd and Will acted in the film, and her daughter Merie was the still photographer. Weeks before filming began, Malick phoned his wife, Michele, and asked for a divorce. The couple had been married since 1985, though in recent years he had lived in Austin and she in Paris. It offered a striking parallel to the eve of production on Days of Heaven 20 years earlier, when Malick had completed a divorce from his first wife, Jill Jakes, from the film's location.