TO THE WONDER, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is a romantic drama centered on Neil, a man who is torn between two loves: Marina, the European woman who came to United States to be with him, and Jane, the old flame he reconnects with from his hometown. In TO THE WONDER, Malick explores how love and its many phases and seasons – passion, sympathy, obligation, sorrow, indecision – can transform, destroy, and reinvent lives.
As TO THE WONDER opens, Neil and Marina are together on the French island of Mont St. Michel – known in France as The Wonder of the Western World (Merveille de l’Occident) – and invigorated by feelings of being newly in love. Neil, an aspiring writer, has left the United States in search of a better life, leaving behind a string of unhappy affairs. Looking into Marina’s eyes as the Abbey looms in the distance, Neil is certain he has finally found the one woman he can love with commitment. He makes a vow to be true to this woman alone.
Marina, quiet and beautiful, with flashes of a mischievous humor, is divorced and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana. At 16, Marina left the Ukraine for Paris without a cent to her name. There, she married a Frenchman who abandoned her after just two years, leaving her alone with Tatiana in a studio apartment. Marina was forced to work a variety of temporary jobs to make her way. Having nearly given up hope, Marina is overcome with joy to be in love with Neil, her salvation from an unhappy future.
Two years later, Neil and Marina are living in a small town in Oklahoma, close to where Neil grew up. Neil, having given up his hopes of becoming a writer, has taken a job as an environmental inspector. Neil is happy with his work, but his love for Marina cools as she, for her part, is frustrated by the holding pattern she feels she is in with Neil. She fears her youth – and happiness – are slipping away. In spite of her anxieties about Neil, Marina initially feels at home in Oklahoma, embraced by the open space and sky, and soothed by the sounds that come from the wind harp that animates breezes into songs.
Seeking advice, Marina turns to another exile in the community, a Catholic priest named Quintana. We learn that Father Quintana has come to grapple with his own dilemmas, as he harbors doubts about his vocation. He no longer feels the ardor he knew in the first days of his faith, and wonders if he ever will again.
Professional life throws Neil into conflict as well, when he discovers that a smelting operation in town is polluting the soil and water and threatening the health of future generations. His concerns fail to persuade his neighbors, who depend on the smelter for their livelihoods. Under pressure to keep quiet, Neil must once again weigh the consequences of his actions.
Neil’s doubts about Marina intensify. This, coupled with the fact that Marina’s visa is soon to expire, leads her to return to France with her daughter. In her absence, Neil reconnects with Jane, an old friend. As the two of them fall deeply in love, Neil finds this new relationship far less complicated. Yet when word comes to him that Marina has fallen on hard times and her daughter has gone to live with her father and refuses to have anything more to do with her, he finds himself gripped by a sense of responsibility for her wellbeing, and arranges for her return to the United States.
Neil’s entanglements with the two women in his life, and Father Quintana’s struggle with his faith, force them both to consider different kinds of love. Should the commitment they each made be undertaken as a duty, sometimes full of effort? Or should we accept that love often changes, and doesn’t always last? Can sorrow bind lovers more tightly than joy?
About the Production
Academy Award nominated Director Terrence Malick is renowned for making brilliant and unique films using unconventional methods, and TO THE WONDER, his latest film, is no different. The film presents to the audience something more than a story; a journey that conveys the emotional and spiritual depth of its characters as they change and grow. In TO THE WONDER, he urged his cast and crew to embrace spontaneity and remain open to improvisation. The actors who make up TO THE WONDER’s stellar cast researched the hidden emotional lives of their characters in order to render them with even greater depth and authenticity.
The filmmakers chose the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to provide the main backdrop for this story of love, longing and spiritual questioning. Much of the town’s character remains intact thanks to the largely preserved buildings erected in the early 20th century, including the famous Price Tower designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956 . “Terry is a philosopher, so a lot of his imagery has to do with his ideas, and I think he found something important in the starkness of those homes,” says Academy Award nominated production designer Jack Fisk. “The city became a character in the story,” explains producer Nick Gonda. “Through the hospitality of the people of Bartlesville, Terry was able to interact with his surroundings much like he works with actors, letting its inherent qualities emerge. As a result of that, we were able to work in the way that Terry has dreamt of working for many, many years.” Beyond the town’s limits, the open spaces and natural beauty of the American West act as a reminder of the rhythms and cycles amid which our human struggles and aspirations may appear only as mere details on a vast canvas. “The color palette is just great,” says John Patterson, location manager, of the Oklahoma countryside. “It almost seems like it’s made for this film. It’s made up of browns and yellows and beautiful sky and the clear open spaces.” The small town feel in Oklahoma is intensified by the contrasting Old World (and otherworldly) setting on Mont St. Michel, an island off the coast of Normandy, France. As the story opens, Neil and Marina are at the height of their romance, basking in the sun on a beautiful, rocky beach on Mont St. Michel, which is known in France as the Merveille, or “Wonder.” Merveille, a top destination of pilgrims and tourists, is best known for its abbey and cloisters. Monks have lived on the island in search of solitude since the sixth century. The dramatic cloisters that rise up to the sky suggest a place somewhere between heaven and earth, reality and fantasy—an apt place to begin Marina and Neil’s story.
“The film feels to me like more a memory of a life than a literal story in real time of someone’s life, the way movies more commonly are,” says Ben Affleck, who plays TO THE WONDER’s central character, Neil. “This pastiche of impressionistic moments, skipping across the character’s life and moving in a nonlinear way, mirror, in my mind, the way one remembers one’s life. It’s a little hypnotic and you’re a little bit in a daze — it’s more fluid than real life is.” To achieve this quality, Affleck and his fellow cast members immersed themselves in Malick’s imagined world. The director guided them toward classic works of fiction, art, music and cinema to foster the mindset and understanding of their character. Many didn’t know what the film would ultimately be about or how the final product would turn out, as Malick leaves himself room to accentuate the movie’s core themes during post-production. Malick’s cast members say they will miss the experience when they move on to more traditional projects. “He’s always giving leeway and room for you to make up your own mind, which is really lovely,” says Rachel McAdams, who plays the role of Jane, a woman who tempts Neil with the promise of a different kind of love.
Malick and his lead actor Affleck have known each other for many years, and Affleck says Malick has been spinning the story that ultimately became TO THE WONDER for more than a decade. Affleck has often sought advice and mentoring from the more experienced filmmaker, including recently when both were in post-production on their own projects. Affleck was pleased when Malick asked him to join the cast of TO THE WONDER. “I’m a great admirer of Terry, like everyone else,” he said. Affleck had planned to take time off to spend with his family after finishing his own film, but he couldn’t turn down a chance to work with Malick.
“I’ve learned more in the seven weeks so far on this movie than I’ve learned in my entire life working with other directors,” Affleck says. “[Malick] really understands something that I realize now from working with him is the most important thing to understand, which is that not only can you challenge conventional wisdom, you have to make it interesting. And you have to break through your preconceived notions and what you think others’ expectations are in order to make something that’s unique and interesting.”
To prepare, Affleck read works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also watched movies starring Gary Cooper to shape the character of the earnest and thoughtful Neil, whom Affleck describes as the “silent center” of TO THE WONDER.
“The wonderful thing about talking about a movie with Terry is that he has such a rich, full mind, and so many frames of reference, that the conversation weaves in and out of a lot of different areas, like music and philosophy and religion and art and other drama, history and other movies, novels in particular, literature,” Affleck says. “This is a guy who’s orienting his approach to filmmaking in the deepest tradition of the arts.”
For Affleck, the character also has resonances with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as his inability to decide on a course of action threatens to cause his undoing. In Affleck’s view, TO THE WONDER depicts Neil as he discovers his true self, and the film asks viewers to consider the obligations they have to each other and to the world that go beyond selfish interests. “In many ways this story contemplates and explores the aspects of love that I really haven’t seen explored on film before. It’s not just those high highs and those low lows, but those moments in between that are so honest and true,” says producer Nicolas Gonda. Says Affleck, “What I find resonant thematically in the movie, has to do with a character who is changed, grappling with change and principle and living with the consequences of that change. Good and bad. Somebody who is trying to negotiate the space between the pain you can cause others versus the importance of caring for them. How much do you owe another person at the cost of yourself? How much of yourself is one meant to give to ones’ principles? I think that’s really interesting.”
“You can love some people more than others, and the ones that you love more, maybe you can’t live with them,” says Olga Kurylenko, who plays the role of Neil’s conflicted love, Marina.
TO THE WONDER also required some cast members to transcend their usual acting methods by blurring fiction and reality. Javier Bardem plays a priest who is struggling to live up to the high expectations of his own commitment. To prepare him, Malick teamed him with respected photojournalist Eugene Richards to talk with prisoners, actual priests and Bartlesville residents, some of whom shared troubling life stories. “These stories, the way they talked to me, was amazingly powerful,” Bardem says.
This process was incredibly moving for all concerned. “We got to know so many extraordinary people while shooting this film,” says producer Sarah Green. “A former meth addict took the opportunity to tell his story in front of his son. A woman facing death spoke about her concern for her child’s future. Inmates shared their histories. We all came away profoundly changed.”
Though such experiences were often trying, Bardem, like many of his fellow actors, says that working on TO THE WONDER was an electrifying and eye-opening experience that he will treasure for years to come. “It’s going to be hard for me to get back to the normal, orthodox set,” Bardem says. “It’s chaotic in a good way because you are alive all the time, like you are really discovering the world, discovering the other through your eyes because you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and that’s beautiful. It’s one of the main goals of performing.”