Interview: The Producers of “Knight of Cups”
Posted on March 7, 2016 at 3:17 pm
Director Terrence Malick makes films that are visually stunning and — depending on who you ask — either narratively challenging or frustratingly obscure. It was a pleasure to speak to three producers of his latest film, “Knight of Cups,” starring Christian Bale as Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, and inspired in part by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green, and Ken Kao described how they work with Malick. Gonda began, “We are a group that really works from soup to nuts, so from the earlier stages of being able to collaborate with Terry to understand the nuances of the story, to be able to put that into a production plan, obviously working to reassemble a lot of the recurring crewmembers and build out that crew as well as the cast obviously throughout production and postproduction and then through now at distribution strategy and marketing, we’re front and center as producers throughout that entire course.” Green added that they all work on everything together rather than compartmentalizing. “We actually overlap pretty consistently because we all have a practice side, we all have the business side and we all have a very strong creative side so it actually works really well because we kind of tag team. We’re all there in the important moments when things ought to be moving quickly like in production and then we just stay in constant touch with each other and we sort of trade-off whatever needs doing or managing in the moment. Some people really split it up in a much more distinct way but I don’t think that’s how any of us have worked together. We really kind of meshed. I think what makes it work is that we’re always in close touch and we always keep each other informed with whatever we might know that the other one doesn’t, it really helps. There’s a lot of texts and emails.” “We all have a real sympatico,” Kao said, “and at the same time we also have our own language with Terry and we have our own ways of contributing to the project. So I think it’s a good plan, we work well together.
Malick’s films always have a loving portrayal of the natural world, and while that is the case in this one it also has more of an urban setting and more densely populated moments than we have seen from him before. There is a Hollywood party scene with some real celebrities like Antonio Banderas, Nick Kroll, and Fabio playing versions of themselves. I asked about the challenges of creating this complex section of the film. Gonda said, “We were able to secure a phenomenal location as you could see in the film and then we were there for several days and had a plan where you can see a menagerie of phenomenal actors from different backgrounds. It was able to essentially act as this fish pool where inside this contained setting we were able to have all of these different types of experiences so Christian and the other actors were able to react to some things that they didn’t even know were coming up. And so we had everything from the more familiar faces to different types of dogs and all different types of experiences that created this chemical reaction. So it was definitely some of the most fun that we all had throughout the production.”
Green said, “I wouldn’t say that anyone was playing themselves; they were definitely there because of what they brought to the table but Terry would talk to each of them and tell them what their character is and how he wanted them to interact with the Christian character, Rick. So each of them had a part to play and they had fun with it. We never know exactly what Terry told Christian but he was surprised a few times.”
All three producers spoke of the way Malick trusts the audience and encourages each viewer to explore the interpretation or interpretations that resonate with his or her individual perceptions and experience. Gonda said, “Part of the beauty of Terry’s films is that there is really room for the audience to apply their own thoughts and experiences. So really the construct is there and these relationships are there but like ‘Tree of Life’ and several of his other films a lot of people were able to project their own experiences and their own relationships on that. I think that’s really what we’re hoping people would do. Here we were fortunate to work with such tremendous actors so Brian Dennehy and Wes Bentley brought so much of these performances and they are very important to Rick’s journey and obviously a big part of why he went on the journey that he did is to re-discover these relationships and assign greater meanings. But in terms of getting into the granularities of that meaning I think that is what we really hope audiences will join us in doing. Terry has an enormous amount of trust in the audience and I think that that is something that audiences really appreciate. We’ve been so delighted by the response that we always get to Terry’s films where audiences appreciate being involved in a way where the film is almost interactive. A lot of people compared Terry’s films to almost like a VR experience because you are immersed in this atmosphere much more so than other films. So I think trust in the audience and really acknowledging the audience as as much of a character is very much is something that really distinguishes him.”
I asked about the women in Rick’s life, who each represent a different outlook and kind of relationship. Green put it this way: “Terry doesn’t tell us how to interpret the film any more than he tells anyone else so and for me those women are very much guides. They all have something very specific to show him or teach him, whether it’s by example or what they say. I look at my life and sometimes it is hard for me to recognize what I might be learning from someone but after-the-fact I can kind of get that and I think when I look at this film I see these people as teachers.”
Kao summed up their view. “In an age where so many of the films have become so spoon-fed Terry really allows for each filmgoer to have their own experience. I don’t know if I’m reaching really when I say it can be a meditative experience. Just as people learn how to meditate through instruction, we all have our own unique experiences on our own after that. And I think that’s really the beauty of what Terry’s filmmaking provides for you.”