Bilge Ebiri offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how Terrence Malick made To the Wonder, including these details about how the director used art and literature to inspire cast and crew:
As prompts for the actors, Malick shared representative works of art and literature. For Affleck, he suggested Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. (Affleck read Martin Heidegger on his own, having known that Malick had translated one of the German philosopher’s works as a grad student.) For Kurylenko, he also recommended Tolstoy and Dostoevsky — specifically, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. “Those books were, in a way, his script,” she says. But he did more than give the actors the books; he suggested ways to approach the texts and characters to focus on. So, for example, he recommended that Kurylenko read The Idiot with a particular eye on two characters: the young and prideful Aglaya Yepanchin, and the fallen, tragic Nastassya Filippovna. “He wanted me to combine their influences — the romantic and innocent side, with the insolent and daring side. ‘For some reason, you only ever see that combination in Russian characters,’ he said to me.”
In fact, Malick will use existing works of art and literature as touch-points with virtually all of his cast and crew. “It enables them to have a common vernacular on set that’s not about technique, but emotion — a shared memory,” Gonda says. For example, with the producers, the director often referenced paintings. With camera operator Widmer, who is also an accomplished musician, the references were often musical. With his editing team, Malick often passed out books such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. But he would also reference other films: Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, with its heavy and unique use of voice-over, was a constant reference point. (At one point, the score for Truffaut’s film was used as part of a temp soundtrack.) Malick is also a huge fan of Jean-Luc Godard and often referenced Godard films such as Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, and Vivre Sa Vie, for their elliptical narrative and editing styles.
(Photo of Mont Saint-Michel, featured prominently in To the Wonder, via Wikimedia Commons)