Malick’s Return to Bartlesville

by Jeff Martin


Rumors are swirling that reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick will be shooting his next film in Bartlesville.

Stars including Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Christian Bale have been visiting in recent months and it’s probably safe to say that they’re not just visiting for the Price Tower and OK Mozart.

Malick has long been my favorite filmmaker. I remember so vividly watching Badlands for the first time, the scratchy VHS tape lending something to the overall effect. Having made only 4 films in the last 40 years, I’ve come to love the repeated viewings that take place every few months. I don’t necessarily crave new work from Malick, but I am always so pleasantly surprised when it arrives.

Like Stanley Kubrick (number 2 on my list), Malick takes his time between projects. And when I say he takes time, I mean he takes forever. Nearly 20 years passed between his second film Days of Heaven and his third, The Thin Red Line. My love for all things Malick was firmly cemented well before I realized he had Okie roots.

I had no idea he grew up in Bartlesville. No clue that his parents lived there and do to this day. I’d be lying if I said this geographical kinship doesn’t make me even more of a fan. It was right before Christmas in 2005 when the whole Malick/Bartlesville connection came to my attention. His fourth film, the Pocahontas/John Smith epic, The New World was to be released in early 2006. I’d seen previews and read a bit about it. In short, I was excited.

I don’t even remember how I first caught wind of the news, but somehow I heard that a special screening was taking place in Bartlesville on the day after Christmas. And none other than Terrence Malick himself would be in attendance. I immediately called Theater Bartlesville, the group responsible for putting on the show, and secured two ridiculously-cheap tickets. I called up my father and invited him to join me. It was he, after all, who first introduced me to Malick’s work as a kid.

Christmas day came and went like any other. Late in the afternoon on December 26th, my father and I loaded up in his white dodge truck and head north on 75. We stopped for dinner at a great little Italian place and headed over to the second run movie house that was selected for this prestigious event. We were seated and the film was just about to roll when Malick arrived, wearing a long black coat. He said nothing and took his seat. His wife Alexandra did all the talking. The next two and a half hours were pure joy.

The film wasn’t completely finished. There were some sections that needed trimming, some pacing that needed tweaking, but all in all it was all that I was expecting. From the always-amazing visuals to the music and muted dialogue, this was Malick staying true to himself. Had I left the theater and gone straight home, it still would have been a marvelous experience. But our night wasn’t over. My father and I and a few dozen guests from the screening attended a reception where there was to be Q&A with the young actress who portrayed Pocahontas and yes, finally, Mr. Malick.

The reception began much like the film, with Malick’s wife handling the discussion. But eventually she handed it over and I heard his voice for the first time. Nasally and sweetly reminiscent of Kermit the Frog, Malick’s quite voice was obviously one of a man outside his comfort zone. People asked questions about the film, his life, his work and he took them all in stride. When my turn came, I asked if Malick was still planning to make a film of the classic Walker Percy novel, The Moviegoer. It is a book we both share a large amount of affection for and I had read that he had been considering it for many years. But this was December 2005. A few months earlier, New Orleans, the setting for the book, was destroyed by Katrina. “No” he said. “I don’t think the New Orleans of the book exists anymore.”

After the formal reception was over and guests began filing out, I had a few minutes of one-on-one time with Malick and we talked even more about Walker Percy. My father, a socially shy man in his own right, stood in the distance, willingly living vicariously through his son, happier than I have ever seen him. Malick’s fifth film, Tree of Life, is coming soon. I know very little about it and I prefer it that way. If he really is prepping to shoot his sixth film in Bartlesville, it would not only be wonderful for the state economically, it is almost certain that when finally put on film, our state will look more stunning than ever.

Photo: still from Days of Heaven (1978)