Berlinale 2015: Christian Bale & Natalie Portman Discuss Knight of Cups

Watching Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups, set in a glowing, static Los Angeles, was reminiscent of the summation of my father’s arguments against me going to college there — there’s just no there, there. Rick (Christian Bale), a peaking screenwriter, wondering how he arrived exactly where he wanted to be, wanders the city and the nearby desert, passing through condos and mansions and decadent fêtes. This metaphorical prince — he is such because the narration at the beginning of the movie tells us so — is terribly unhappy, quietly staring out of condo windows and into gunite depths at Hollywood pool parties, trailed by endless, oft-nude beauties.

Rick doesn’t say much; apparently Malick gave Bale no lines at all. The array of women who serve as a foil to whatever he’s feeling were given dialogue, and narration comes and goes, mostly driving home the point that sad Rick is in the throes of a terrible existential crisis. Whether the star-filled parties, model hookups, and variety of lovely girlfriends are the cause or the cure isn’t clear.

Besides driving around in a convertible and standing very still on the sets of his movies, Rick also works to deal with his volatile younger brother (Wes Bentley), the death of another younger brother, and as is typical of Malick, faces a stern, unyielding father figure (Brian Dennehy). Also typical of Malick, the director wasn’t on hand for the press conference, leaving Christian Bale and Natalie Portman (on screen briefly as a married girlfriend to Rick) to deal with responses to questions that were better suited to him (literally, a couple times, journalists tried to call on the director while Bale explained he was not there). Here are some of the highlights.

What is the film about?

This was the very first question asked at the press conference after the film’s Berlinale premiere. “The nice and very interesting thing in Terry’s work is that he didn’t tell us what it was about,” Bale said. “He really just gave me the character.” And “it’s abut somebody whose dreams and desires have been fulfilled, but who feels a great void.” And “it’s somebody who knows the right people and all of that.” And “I never knew what I was going to be doing that day.”

What was the process of making this unconventional film? How did you prepare?

One of the hallmarks of Knight of Cups is its ongoing if fragmented narration. For Bale’s bits, “we’d do it on the side of the street” and “sometimes I’d drive in my pickup and sit in the back and they’d record me.” Bale also noted, “I never had any lines to learn, but I’d see other people coming in and they had pages, and I tried to look over their shoulders to see what I was going to be told that day.” He also admitted that “Sometimes [Malick] would hand me a Go-Pro and say go shoot a scene.”

What did you think of the depression in the film?

“I think he’s somebody who didn’t realize he needed help,” Bale pointed out about his character. “He has all the acclaim and all the invites to the right parties and the access and contact with the right people, everything that people think of as being successful. He finds, in seeing the top of the mountain and being very close to that, It’s just going to be a continual repetition rather than a genuine, soulful feeling of satisfaction and wholeness. So you get this man who starts on a journey for something else. He doesn’t know what it is, but it’s something he’s looking forward to, and backwards to, as well.” Discussing her character, who is increasingly desperate in her short balancing act between Rick and an unseen husband, Portman, pointed to the experience of coming back to work after having had a child in real life (Knight of Cups was her first time back on set, post-baby).

Rick is experiencing a void. Have you felt that void?

“I don’t like to compare myself to the characters that I play. Bud-dum-boom-chah.”

What did you think of the portrayal of women in the film and what function does it serve?

It didn’t seem fair that Portman and Bale had to stand in for Malick to field this one, though they certainly tried. From threesomes in a car to threesomes in a hotel room to being married to a serious doctor who just doesn’t want him to leave (Cate Blanchett), plus a few relationships with curiously giddy, skipping model types (Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots), Rick is the silent center around which these women spin. “I felt as though…um, women were clearly Rick’s primary source of life, after his family and writing. And that’s why he revisits so many in considering how important they were, and whether he was a good man, whether he was a bad man, in dealing with them. I felt that we had such incredibly soulful and intelligent actresses who were playing those roles, you know it was clear that these were the most important people in his life,” Bale said. Portman tried to explain, “I feel like Christian’s character Rick experiences his journey sort of reflected through his different relationships with these women. Part of that is reflecting the great diversity of the types of people both male and female, that you find in Los Angeles, everything from the superficiality that you might find at a Hollywood party and the way women might be treated there, as opposed to Cate Blanchett’s character, who has great soul and generosity and humanity. And you see that through suggested gesture more than anything, but the city can encompass both extremes and he’s trying to find his path in a world peopled by those extremes, both male and female.”

What is it like to work with Malick? What have you learned?

Apparently the film was as amorphous behind the scenes as it ended up being on screen. “I think he reminded me that the rules of filmmaking are not necessary,” Portman responded, “that the way we do things, the rituals we have aren’t necessary and you can find your own way and to allow the mistakes, to welcome the problems. We would look at something as a problem, and Terry would look at it as an opportunity.” There was a general look-and-see approach. Bale said “There weren’t any demands from Terry because he enjoyed discovering what would happen. We always would say ‘start before we’re ready and see what happens.’” Sarah Green, a producer, further explained that “to work with Terry is to be light on one’s feet. All the planning and organization that one might normally do doesn’t actually serve this style. This style is, we look like a student film. There’s a couple vans and people running around and hitting the moment so that we’re very much in the moment, to capture what might happen.”


Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.