Editing Days Of Heaven Was A Massive Undertaking For Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick first arrived on the scene as part of the New Hollywood movement in the 1970s with his directorial debut "Badlands" and its 1978 follow-up "Days of Heaven," and both are now listed in the National Film Registry for their historic significance. After making "Days of Heaven," however, Malick disappeared from show business for two full decades. It was only in 1998 that he finally returned to the big screen with his Oscar-nominated World War II movie, "The Thin Red Line."

That two-decade absence may have been partially rooted in Malick's experience on "Days of Heaven," which was a particularly daunting film for him and Billy Weber to edit. In an oral history of "Badlands" for GQ, Weber recalled that they spent two years editing "Days of Heaven" — an inordinately long time for a film to be in post-production. Paul Lee, a philosophy instructor at Harvard College and MIT, also recalled how Malick was a philosophy major and Rhodes Scholar, "one of the brightest students at Harvard," who nonetheless had a tendency to get obsessed and overwrite. According to Lee, Malick had an essay he was writing on Che Guevara for The New Yorker that he let pile up to "six feet of copy."

Something similar happened with the footage Malick shot for "Days of Heaven." Lee explained:

"After 'Badlands,' Terry could do anything he wanted. I think 'Days of Heaven' was a little bit like the Che Guevara essay he couldn't finish. I remember I saw him in the midst of it, and he was totally seized up. He was trying to make 'Gone with the Wind' all over again; it was on that kind of scale. I remember trying to massage his shoulders, and it was like he had been turned into iron."

Ask the cleaning lady?

Special-effects consultant Richard Taylor recalled how Malick got to the point where he was consulting the cleaning lady while he was editing "Days of Heaven." Taylor was originally supposed to work with Malick on his immediate follow-up to the film, a project called "Q," which "dramatized the origins of life," according to Vanity Fair. Like the Che Guevara essay, this ambitious project would soon balloon into something too big and unwieldy to finish, with Malick only later salvaging some of the material for his films "The Tree of Life" and "Voyage of Time." Taylor told GQ:

"In 1979, after 'Days of Heaven,' Terry hired me to work up the special effects for his next movie. It was going to be the whole evolution of the earth in a time-lapse way, all the way up to human beings falling in love. He had the idea that the evolution of the earth and the cosmos was like the dream of a god. The camera was gonna pan down into the water and there was gonna be a creature sleeping there, like a minotaur. As it breathes, fluorescent fish go in the nostrils and come back out."

Needless to say, these ideas of an underwater minotaur and fluorescent fish fell by the wayside, not unlike some of the famous actors, such as Adrien Brody, who have had their parts cut down in Malick's films (or completely cut out).

"The Tree of Life" was as much an editing challenge as "Days of Heaven," as it saw Malick and his team of five editors (including Weber) working with hundreds of hours of footage. Though Malick's process seems to involve wading through a lot of excess material, it was worth it in the end and he ultimately found two masterpieces buried underneath.