Oscar Directors: Malick, Terrence–Background, Career, Awards (Cum Advantage; Fest Awards)

Terrence Malick Career Summation

Occupational Inheritance:

Social Class: upper-middle; father geologist



Formal Education: Harvard College, philosophy, 1965; aged 22; Oxford, dropped out

Training: journalist

First Film: Badlands, 1973; age 30

Breakthrough: Days of Heaven, 1978; age 35

Career Signature: No films for 20 years

First Oscar Nomination: Thin Red Line, 1998; aged 55

Other Nominations: Tree of Life, 2011; age 68

Oscar Awards: Berlin Fest; Cannes Palme d’Or, 2011

Nominations Span: 1998-2011; 13 years

Genre (specialties):

Collaborators: production designer, Jack Fiske

Last Film:


Career Output: 11 films

Career Span: 1973-present

Marriage: several


Death: NA

Terrence Frederick Malick (born November 30, 1943), the American film director, screenwriter, and producer, began his career as part of the New Hollywood film-making wave with the films Badlands (1973), about a murderous couple on the run in 1950s American Midwest, and Days of Heaven (1978), about the love-triangle between two laborers and a wealthy farmer during the First World War, before a lengthy hiatus.

His return to directing after twenty years with The Thin Red Line (1998) was awarded the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin Film Festival, followed by The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), which received the Palme d’Or at the 64th Cannes Film Fest.

Malick’s films have explored themes such as transcendence, nature, and conflicts between reason and instinct. They are typically marked by broad philosophical and spiritual overtones, as well as the use of meditative voice-overs from individual characters. The stylistic elements of the director’s work have inspired divided opinions among film scholars and audiences; some praised his films for their aesthetics, while others found them lacking in plot and characterization. His first five films have nonetheless ranked highly in retrospective decade-end and all-time polls.

Malick was born in Ottawa, Illinois.  He is the son of Irene (née Thompson; 1912–2011) and Emil A. Malick (1917–2013), a geologist. His paternal grandparents were of Lebanese and Assyrian descent.

Malick attended St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, while his family lived in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Malick had two younger brothers: Chris and Larry. Larry Malick was a guitarist who went to study in Spain with Andrés Segovia in the late 1960s. In 1968, Larry intentionally broke his own hands due to pressure over musical studies. Their father went to Spain to help, but his son died shortly after, apparently by suicide. The early death of Malick’s brother has been explored and referenced in The Tree of Life (2011) and Knight of Cups (2015).

Malick received a B.A. in philosophy from Harvard College, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965. He started a BPhil in philosophy (a two-year master’s degree) at Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. After disagreement with his advisor, Gilbert Ryle, over his thesis on the concept of world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, Malick left Oxford without a degree. In 1969, Northwestern University Press published Malick’s translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes as The Essence of Reasons.

After returning to the US, Malick taught philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology while freelancing as a journalist. He wrote articles for Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Life.

Malick started his film career after earning an MFA from the brand-new AFI Conservatory in 1969, directing the short film Lanton Mills. At the AFI, he established contacts with actor Jack Nicholson, longtime collaborator Jack Fisk, and agent Mike Medavoy, who procured for Malick freelance work revising scripts. He wrote early uncredited drafts of Dirty Harry (1971) and Drive, He Said (1971), and is credited with the screenplay for Pocket Money (1972). Malick was also co-writer of The Gravy Train (1974), pseudonym David Whitney. After Deadhead Miles was made into what Paramount believed was an unreleasable film, Malick decided to direct his own scripts.

Malick’s first feature as a director was Badlands, an independent film starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree in the 1950s Midwest. It was influenced by the crimes of convicted teenage spree killer Charles Starkweather. Malick raised half of the budget by approaching people outside of the industry, including doctors and dentists, and using $25,000 from personal savings. The rest was raised by executive producer Edward R. Pressman. After  troubled production that included crew members leaving during the shoot, Badlands drew raves upon its premiere at the New York Film Fest. Warner Bros. bought distribution rights for three times its budget.

Malick’s second film was the Paramount-produced Days of Heaven, about a love triangle that develops in the farm country of the Texas Panhandle in the early 20th century. Production began in the fall of 1976 in Alberta, Canada. The film was mostly shot during the golden hour, with primarily natural light. Days of Heaven had a lengthy and troubled production, with crew quitting before shooting was finished, due to disagreements over Malick’s idiosyncratic directorial style. The film had a troubled post-production phase, as Billy Weber and Malick spent two years editing, during which they experimented with unconventional editing and voice-over techniques once they realized the original picture would not fully work.

Days of Heaven was released in 1978 to mostly positive responses from critics. Its cinematography was widely praised, although some found its story lackluster. In NYTimes, Harold C. Schonberg wrote that it “is full of elegant and striking photography; and it is an intolerably artsy, artificial film.” However, it later won Best Cinematography Oscar and Best Director at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. Days of Heaven has since grown in stature, voted one of the 50 greatest American films ever made in a 2015 critics’ poll published by BBC.

Following Days of Heaven, Malick began developing a project for Paramount, titled Q, that explored the origins of life on earth. During pre-production, he suddenly moved to Paris and disappeared from public view for years. During this time, he wrote screenplays, including The English Speaker, about Josef Breuer’s analysis of Anna O.; adaptations of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer and Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose; a script about Jerry Lee Lewis; a stage adaptation of the Japanese film Sansho the Bailiff which was to be directed by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, in addition to continuing work on the Q script. Although Q has never been made, Malick’s work for the project provided material for his later film The Tree of Life and eventually became the basis for Voyage of Time. Jack Fisk, a longtime production designer on the director’s films, said that Malick was shooting film during this time as well.

Malick returned to directing in 1997 with The Thin Red Line, a work released two decades after his previous film. A loose adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel, it features a large ensemble cast including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Woody Harrelson and George Clooney. Filming took place predominantly in the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia, and the Solomon Islands.

The film received critical acclaim, was nominated for 7 Oscar Awards, and won the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin Film Fest. The Thin Red Line has since been ranked among the best films of the 1990s.

After learning of Malick’s work on an article about Che Guevara during the 1960s, Soderbergh offered Malick the chance to write and direct a film about Guevara that he had been developing with Benicio del Toro. Malick accepted and produced a screenplay focused on Guevara’s failed revolution in Bolivia. After a year and a half, the financing had not come together, and Malick was given the opportunity to direct The New World, a script he had begun developing in the 1970s. He left the Guevara project in March 2004, and Soderbergh took over as director, leading to the film Che (2008). The New World, which featured a romantic interpretation of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas in the Virginia Colony, was released in 2005. Three different cuts of varying lengths were released.

While the film was nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar, critical reception was divided; many praised its visuals and acting while finding its narrative unfocused. However, The New World was later named by five critics as one of the best films of its decade, and appeared in 39th place on a 2016 BBC poll of the greatest films since 2000.

Malick’s fifth feature, The Tree of Life, was filmed in Smithville, Texas, and elsewhere during 2008. Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn, it’s a family drama spanning multiple time periods; it focuses on an individual’s struggle to reconcile love, mercy and beauty with the existence of illness, suffering and death. It premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or. It later won the FIPRESCI Award for the Best Film of the Year. It was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Malick, and Best Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki. A limited theatrical release in the US began on May 27, 2011.

Malick scholars Christopher B. Barnett and Clark J. Elliston wrote that it became “arguably [Malick’s] most acclaimed work”. It was voted the 79th greatest American film of all time in a 2015 BBC Culture poll of 62 international film critics. The work was also ranked the seventh-greatest film since 2000 in a worldwide critics’ poll by BBC.

Malick’s sixth feature, To the Wonder, was shot predominantly in Bartlesville, Oklahoma; a few scenes were filmed in Pawhuska, Oklahoma and at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. The film stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, and Javier Bardem.

To the Wonder had its world premiere at the Venice Film Fest on September 2, 2012, and opened theatrically in the US on April 12, 2013. Critical response was markedly divided, and the work has been described as “arguably [Malick’s] most derided”.

On November 1, 2011, Filmnation Entertainment announced international sales for Malick’s next two projects: Lawless (now titled Song to Song) and Knight of Cups. Both films feature large ensemble casts, with many of the actors crossing over into both films. The films were shot back-to-back in 2012, with Song to Song shot in Austin, Texas, and Knight of Cups in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

During the weekend of September 16, 2011, Malick and a small crew were seen filming Christian Bale and Haley Bennett at the Austin City Limits Music Festival as part of preliminary shooting for Song to Song. Malick was also seen directing Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara at the Fun Fun Fun Fest on November 4, 2011.

Knight of Cups had its world premiere at the 2015 Berlin Film Fest, and was met with mixed reactions. It was released in the US on March 4, 2016 by Broad Green Pictures.

Song to Song had its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 10, 2017, before being released theatrically in the US on March 17, 2017, by Broad Green Pictures, and has been met with mixed reactions.

Malick continued work on an IMAX documentary that examines the birth and death of the known universe, titled Voyage of Time. The Hollywood Reporter described it as “a celebration of the Earth, displaying the whole of time, from the birth of the universe to its final collapse.” The film is the culmination of a project that Malick has been working on for over forty years, and has been described by Malick himself as “one of my greatest dreams”. The film features footage shot by Malick and collaborators over the years, and expands on the footage that special effects Douglas Trumbull (2001) and Dan Glass (The Matrix) created for The Tree of Life.

The film was released in two versions: a 40-minute IMAX version (Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience) with narration by Brad Pitt, and a 90-minute feature-length version (Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey) with narration by Cate Blanchett. The feature-length version had its world premiere on September 7, 2016 at the Venice Film Fest. The IMAX version of the film was released in IMAX on October 7, 2016.

On June 23, 2016, reports emerged that Malick’s next film, A Hidden Life, would depict the life of Austria’s Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector during World War II who was put to death at the age of 36 for undermining military actions, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. Starring in the film as Jägerstätter is August Diehl, with Valerie Pachner as his wife Franziska Jägerstätter.

The film was shot in Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, Germany, in the summer of 2016, and in parts of northern Italy, such as Brixen, South Tyrol, and the small mountain village of Sappada. Speaking about the film in a Q&A in Princeton, Malick said that, compared with recent films, with A Hidden Life he had “repented and gone back to working with a much tighter script.”

In August[76] and/or September 2016, Malick directed a commercial, “Notes of a Woman” and released on February 26, 2017, for the Mon Guerlain perfume. Starring Angelina Jolie, it was shot at her and Brad Pitt’s Château Miraval estate in Correns and photographed by Austrian Christian Berger.

On October 31, 2018, it was announced he would be executive producing a documentary about rapper Lil Peep. The film premiered at SXSW on March 10, 2019 under the title Everybody’s Everything and was later released in theaters on November 12, 2019.

On June 7, 2019, Malick reportedly started shooting his next film, The Last Planet, near Rome, Italy. The film will tell the story of Jesus Christ’s life through a series of parables. On September 8, the cast was revealed to include Géza Röhrig as Christ, Matthias Schoenaerts as Saint Peter, and Mark Rylance as four versions of Satan.

Themes and style
Malick’s films have been noted for their philosophical themes. According to scholar Lloyd Michaels, the director’s primary themes include “the isolated individual’s desire for transcendence amidst established social institutions, the grandeur and untouched beauty of nature, the competing claims of instinct and reason, and the lure of the open road”.[85] He named Days of Heaven as one in a group of acclaimed films from the 1970s that were intended to revolutionize the American film epic. Like The Godfather films, 1975’s Nashville, and The Deer Hunter (1978), Michaels argued that the movie delves into “certain national myths” as an idiosyncratic type of Western, “particularly the migration westward, the dream of personal success, and the clash of agrarian and industrial economies”.

Ebert: A unifying common theme: “Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world.” Malick is among the few remaining directors who yearn “to make no less than a masterpiece”.

In reviewing The Tree of Life, New York Times critic A. O. Scott compared the director to innovative “homegrown romantics” such as the writers Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, James Agee, and Herman Melville, in the sense that their “definitive writings” also “did not sit comfortably or find universal favor in their own time” but nonetheless “leaned perpetually into the future, pushing their readers forward toward a new horizon of understanding.”

Malick’s body of work has had polarizing opinions. According to Michaels, “few American directors have inspired such adulation and rejection with each successive film” as Malick. Michaels said that in all of American cinema, Malick is the filmmaker most frequently “granted genius status after creating such a discontinuous and limited body of work”.[86] Malick makes use of broad philosophical and spiritual overtones, such as in the form of meditative voice-overs from individual characters. Some critics felt these elements made the films engaging and unique while others found them pretentious and gratuitous, particularly in his post-hiatus work.[90] Michaels believed the opinions Days of Heaven continues to elicit among scholars and film enthusiasts is exemplary of this: “The debate continues to revolve around what to make of ‘its extremeties of beauty’, whether the exquisite lighting, painterly compositions, dreamy dissolves, and fluid camera movements, combined with the epic grandeur and elegiac tone, sufficiently compensate for the thinness of the tale, the two-dimensionality of the characters, and the resulting emotional detachment of the audience.”[86] Reverse Shot journalist Chris Wisniewski regarded both Days of Heaven and The New World not as “literary nor theatrical” but “principally cinematic” in their aesthetic, intimating narrative, emotional, and conceptual themes through the use of “image and sound” instead of “foregrounding dialogue, events or characters”. He highlighted Malick’s use of “rambling philosophical voiceovers; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the stunning cinematography, often achieved with natural light; the striking use of music”.

While the common conception of Malick as a recluse is inaccurate, he is famously protective of his private life. His contracts stipulate that his likeness may not be used for promotional purposes, and he declines requests for interviews.

From 1970 to 1976, Malick was married to Jill Jakes. His companion afterward in the late 1970s was director and screenwriter Michie Gleason. In 1985 in France, he married Michèle Marie Morette, whom he met in Paris in 1980; in 1996, Malick asked for a divorce, which was granted. Afterward he married Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace, his high-school sweetheart.

Malick’s semi-autobiographic film To the Wonder was inspired by his relationships with Morette and Wallace.

Malick lives in Austin, Texas.


1973 Badlands Warner Bros.
1978 Days of Heaven Paramount Pictures
1998 The Thin Red Line 20th Century Fox
2005 The New World New Line Cinema
2011 The Tree of Life Fox Searchlight Pictures
2012 To the Wonder Magnolia Pictures
2015 Knight of Cups Broad Green Pictures
2016 Voyage of Time Broad Green Pictures / IMAX Corporation
2017 Song to Song Broad Green Pictures
2019 A Hidden Life Fox Searchlight Pictures

TBA The Last Planet

Awards and nominations

Malick has received 3 Oscar nominations; two for Best Director, for The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, and a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for the former film. He was awarded the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin Film Festival for The Thin Red Line, and the Palme d’Or at the 64th Cannes Film Fest for The Tree of Life.