Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, mindful of its weird and floating narrative, rare in its concept and execution, and all-around brilliant and impressive in its capturing of the tiny moments we all experience but can’t put into words. I was therefore naturally curious about his latest film Knight of Cups, and now, after hearing about Tom Lennon’s time on set, I’m beyond intrigued.
Lennon was a curious addition to the Malick flick, given that most audiences know him best as Lieutenant Jim Dangle, the promiscuously dressed leader of the Reno 911! gang, from back in the day. Recently, he recounted the story of his on-set experience to Business Insider and it sounds so, so bonkers, like Hollywood legend, really, and exactly how I hope a Malick film would be made.
“I got a call from my agent and he said, ‘Do you know Terrence Malick?’ And I decided I would try to be a smarty-pants and I said, ‘Of course,’ but I had never seen any of his films. I was aware of his name like you’re aware of names like Atom Egoyan or Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, artsy-fartsy films unlike the things I’m in or write.”
But even a few weeks before shooting, Lennon still had nothing to go off.
“I started making phone calls to people — ‘Could you please find out what role I’m playing? Is there a wardrobe fitting?’ And the answer I would get back from everyone is, ‘No one knows anything about the movie.’”
Finally, three days before the shoot, he was told the scene would be a party in the Hollywood Hills. That was at least something. So he showed up in a suit, still unsure what the scene or script was.
“We’re all standing there and Malick hands out these pieces of paper to all of us. And the one he gave me said, ‘There’s no such thing as a fireproof wall.’ And I ask, ‘Is this something I’m supposed to say in the scene?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ And then Malick goes, ‘Would you like some more? Because I have a whole stack of these.’ And I was like, ‘I think I’m good.’”
Then, upon learning that the movie’s star, Christian Bale, plays a screenwriter indulging his vices and trying to make sense of his changing world, Lennon caught an idea of why he was in the movie.
“I was cast as Christian [Bale]’s douchey Hollywood Hills friend. I realized if his character was a shallow Hollywood screenwriter, two of his really good friends probably would be Joe Lo Truglio and me. Terrence Malick actually is a genius.”
But he had to ask about the vibe, this whole strange, almost impossibly arthouse approach to the story. So he asked Christian Bale.
Lennon: “Is this how it goes?
Lennon: “Every day?”
Lennon: “How long have you been doing this?”
Bale: “This is, like, day 25.”
And that still wasn’t the most bizarre part of the day. The weirdest moment came when Lennon had to change plans he had for later in the day, because the shoot was taking 11 hours (ultimately for a single minute of screen time). So he called his wife and the two got into a very real, very heated argument.
“We were basically yelling at each other. And at that point Malick himself came up to me with a camera with a stubby lens and got, I’m not kidding, eight inches away from my face, filming me having this totally real fight with my wife. At first I felt it was kind of an invasion of privacy and then I was like, ‘F— it, this is the realest thing that has happened all day.’”
And that is how a Terrence Malick movie is made.