When George Lucas received a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 2005, he wryly noted that, “If you count Star Wars as one movie…I’m now, with my three movies, one ahead of Terry Malick for getting the most praise for the least body of work.” Whilst certainly true then, Malick has now in fact overtaken Lucas, having made two films afterwards whereas the latter’s output has completely stalled since Revenge of the Sith. However, while there is certainly no lack of money or an audience, there must be something that is limiting the cinematic yield of these acclaimed filmmakers.
Always leave them wanting more perhaps? This may well be the case for directors such as Lucas or Peter Jackson, who have undoubtedly found their niche with their kinds of self-contained franchises that seem to get endless mileage at the box office. It is quite uncommon to see a director that only emerges from the cutting room once in a blue moon and still enjoys this much renown, especially if they have a reputation where success with critics and audiences is guaranteed. Examples of such cinematic auteurs are as sparse as they are enigmatic; that being relative to the frequency with which the majority of contemporary cinema’s premiere directors release their films. Take a gander at the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese and Eastwood and you’ll see that they produce high quality cinema on virtually a yearly basis. Eastwood in particular, given his octogenarian status, has strung together an extraordinarily high number of excellent films during the last decade e.g. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima, Gran Torino and Changeling. Spielberg and Scorsese too produce, like clockwork, cinema of an inevitably high quality, with over 80 films between them in the last 40 years.
It seems rather curious then that the aforementioned elusive filmmaker can emerge after sabbaticals of the most gargantuan nature with yet another masterpiece. More often than not, those large gaps between release dates are down to the fact that the given filmmaker is either unbelievably picky or unable to gain major financial backing, or both. Someone like Peter Weir, who migrated to Hollywood from Australian cinema following the success that he gained with films such as Picnic At Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to make unique, almost anti-Hollywood films while working within the system itself, due to demanding uncompromising creative control over every facet of his projects. When directors are allowed this much freedom — and they rarely are — groundbreaking results often occur. Weir has managed this on several occasions, most prominently in breaking the moulds of two of the most typecast comedy actors of our time, Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society) and Jim Carrey (The Truman Show), from whom he drew two incredibly touching performances that they have seldom matched since. It is also interesting to note that Weir’s exceptional 1985 film, Witness, gained Harrison Ford his only Academy Award nomination to date. The fact that since The Truman Show in 1998 Weir has only made two more films (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Way Back) shows just how selective such a filmmaker can be and in turn how rare the rewards of such a wait are.
If Stanley Kubrick were alive today, he might say that Peter Weir’s CV of 10 films in 30 years shows too much proliferation. If we start at Spartacus in 1960 (he made 4 films during the 50s) then in the 39 years up to his death, Kubrick only made 9 films. Clint Eastwood on the other hand, has averaged a film a year since 2000, and still remains infamous for his meticulous attention to detail and perfectionism. Still, given that nearly all of Kubrick’s films are seminal works within their genre (Dr Strangelove, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey) such extreme cases of slow burner filmmaking can only be good for cinema.
To briefly return to George Lucas’ opening quote, it’s safe to say that Terrance Malick is the new Stanley Kubrick, which in fact seems bizarre given that Malick’s debut feature Badlands came out in 1973, 2 years after Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But that said, Malick has taken sabbaticals from filmmaking that would make even Kubrick fidget; the release of this year’s The Tree of Life takes Malick’s tally to 5 films in 38 years. I assume he’s not bothered about a pension.