In the Terrence Malick canon, is reportedly one of his lower-budgeted films, with a net production cost in the high single digits. That’s significantly below the $32 million net cost of his 2011 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Tree of Life, which starred Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and a fresh-faced Jessica Chastain.
That’s remarkable considering Malick’s reputation for lengthy productions and improvised on-the-fly shooting, and A Hidden Life, about Austrian farmer-turned-WWII conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis, is reportedly the director’s longest production ever from pre-production to final cut. The majority of that time was spent in the editing room.
As riveting as Malick’s E.E. Cummings visual cinematic movies are, so too are their commercial prospects risky. For the most part, his movies don’t make money, even if they have stars like Natalie Portman, Christian Bale or Ben Affleck in them (like in the helmer’s last three movies Knight of Cups, Song to Song and To the Wonder, which made a combined $1.6M at the domestic B.O.). Some indie companies have gone out of business after being involved with Malick titles, i.e., Bill Pohlad and Bob Berney’s Apparition had to sell Tree of Life to Fox Searchlight after the latter partner departed, and Broad Green Pictures counted Knight of Cups and Song to Song among a slew of their misfires. Woody Allen films can rely on robust box office from European territories, which is not always the case with a Malick movie.
Essentially, if you’re a financier in business with Malick, you’re in it for the sake of art and heart. Fox Searchlight’s $12M-$14M acquisition of A Hidden Life earlier this week puts the reclusive auteur back in business with the specialty label that delivered a Palme d’Or for him on Tree of Life as well as three Oscar noms including Best Picture and Best Director. In addition, Searchlight made Tree of Life the helmer’s second highest-grossing movie of all time at $13.3M domestic (its widest point at 235 theaters) and $54.3M worldwide (after his 1998 star-studded ensemble WWII comeback movie The Thin Red Line, which made $36.4M and $98.1M, respectively). As Disney’s new pipeline for awards-season bait, Searchlight is even more powerful with Mickey Mouse moolah, and with great reviews out of Cannes and possible prizes here at the fest, A Hidden Life could be primed for promising run at the art house B.O. Mr. Smith handled foreign sales.
Fox Searchlight has yet to announce a date for the film, but a Palme d’Or win alone coupled with a respectable major studio P&A spend could truly raise the pic’s profile. Netflix in a reported $20M awards campaign spend turned Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white Spanish-language Roma into a three-time Oscar winner including a Best Director trophy.
Malick is well known for his experimental shooting style, i.e., ignoring a call sheet’s shooting script schedule in favor of having his actors improvise, or directing his crew to capture Mother Nature in action (like the snakes in the swamp on New World or butterflies in the alleys on Tree of Life). That said, producer Grant Hill, who has worked with Malick across four titles including Thin Red Line, Tree of Life, The Voyage of Time and this film, as well as on ambitious epics from the Wachowskis and James Cameron, says Malick was very responsible when it came to managing his vision on A Hidden Life with the budget.
“He’s very aware of his limits and he’s an honorable person. Without speaking for him, if people put in money and that gets a film made, then he is amazingly thankful,” Hill says.
There were a variety of factors that kept A Hidden Life‘s costs low. The film was shot in a limited number of contained production locations including Italy’s South Tyrol and the Austrian countryside as well as Studio Babelsburg outside Berlin, which resulted in a German tax rebate. The shooting crew numbered around 30. Similar to the visual template Emmanuel Lubezki established in Malick’s 2005 film The New World, A Hidden Life cinematographer Jorg Widmer shot in natural light. “We had two car batteries and lights. We had a gaffer, but no electrician,” explains Hill. Pre-production lasted 10 weeks, followed by an eight-week shoot, with the rest of the time in Malick’s post facility in Austin.
Why so long in the editing suite? Is Malick’s post-production process similar to that of a big studio animation feature, which entails making a movie several times before a final cut is rushed? Hill says that’s not the case. “The love story was always there in A Hidden Life, it came out more and more as we went on,” says the producer. Essentially, editing is a big puzzle for Malick as he pulls and exchanges different sequences constantly.
During the long-gestation of A Hidden Life in post-production, there was the unfortunate passing of two cast members: Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, who died of lung cancer at 56 in June 2017, and Swiss legend Bruno Ganz, who died of colon cancer this February at age 77. Neither death impacted A Hidden Life‘s production pace in any fashion (Ganz only did a day’s worth of shooting back in 2016), but it underscores Malick’s dedication to perfection in spite of time, a factor that most studio filmmakers are up against especially when release dates are held above their heads.
Hill was involved in raising the money on A Hidden Life, a task, with Malick’s help, the producer says “wasn’t easy.” Unlike Malick’s previous movies that tapped into marquee talent, A Hidden Life stars Berlin actor August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds) as Jägerstätter and Austrian actress Valerie Pachner as his wife Franziska.
Hill found most of the pic’s funding in four private equity investors whose names do not appear in the credits. When asked by Deadline whether these financiers understand the risks involved in putting their money behind a Malick feature, that awards and box office are gambles, and for the large part they are supporting an artistic passion, Hill answered “They do.”
“They are usually people who are to some degree fans or familiar with his work, and they enjoy the fact of being part of it,” says Hill.
“It was extremely hard. If you told anyone what you were doing, they’d say it’s not going to happen,” Hill adds about the challenges with funding. “You got halfway through (with funding), and it was hard to get people in, hard to keep it all together.”
At 2 hours and 53 minutes, A Hidden Life is Malick’s longest film, and we hear he won’t be shedding any minutes from it. What Searchlight saw is what they get. A plus? The movie is in English with very few subtitles.
The genesis of A Hidden Life dates back to when Hill met Malick during The Thin Red Line 30-plus years ago. “He isn’t someone who has a pile of scripts, he has folders with writing, journals really. Both A Hidden Life and Tree of Life were in different forms,” the producer recalls.
What was key before Malick began shooting A Hidden World in 2016 was meeting with the surviving daughters of Jägerstätter, now in their 80s. “There wasn’t going to be a film unless they were on board,” says Hill.
“The daughters took a long time to get out of under all of this,” says the producer. As seen in the movie, the farming environment turned against Jägerstätter’s wife and young kids when he didn’t side with the Nazis.
“In order to be honest to the story, there was no way of doing it, unless there was an understanding of what they went through,” says Hill, “When the movie was finished, Valerie took a cut of the film to the family and watched it at their house with another producer Josh Jeter,” says Hill.
Critics have been quick to respond to the pic’s themes about questioning authority, especially with the current right-wing attitudes sweeping Europe — underscored of course by President Donald Trump’s acerbic rhetoric in the U.S. in which he blasts mainstream media as “fake news.”
The film’s moral of speaking truth to power also struck Diehl, who said at the Cannes press conference, “The person who says ‘no’, this is getting more rare and rare in our whole world. We’re all jumping on one train and we’re all saying ‘yes’ — that’s the world now.”
“Someone who says ‘No, I’m not doing this’ and not judging the others, if there would be more people like this, especially right now in Europe with all the political development, it might be a solution that might be the bridge to our days,” he added.
Hills says Malick isn’t one to paint politics onscreen. “I don’t think he could do that,” says Hill, “The idea is really about personal responsibility. It’s not a film that’s pointing at anybody or institutions.”
But it’s a testament to the reclusive director’s power as a storyteller. He’s never one to take interviews and deconstruct and explain his own work to placate moviegoers. Malick makes the movie, and it’s our job to feel and conceive our own takeaways.
Says Hill, “Everyone sees a bit of themselves as they watch the movie.”