Christian Bale: From Dark Knight to Lost Knight
Terence Malick's latest movie, Knight of Cups, sees Christian Bale play Rick, a Hollywood writer who finds himself spiritually lost and questioning himself at the peak of his success. Recollections of the past are provided by Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Freida Pinto, who play women who have been significant in his life.
A three-time Oscar nominee, Malick is famous for his multiple narrations and stream of consciousness film-making, as well as his improvisations on set - so much so that Sean Penn, one of the stars of Malick's 2011 film Tree of Life, confessed he had never been quite sure what he was doing.
However, Rick's crisis, and the women he's loved, are as much as Bale got in terms of a script, as according to the actor, "the nice thing about Terry is that he doesn't tell you what it's about, really".
Bale, the star of the Dark Knight franchise, as well as earning his own third Oscar nomination this year for financial drama The Big Short, worked with Malick a decade ago on the film The New World, and says they had discussed doing this project for some time.
"I think he had a 10-year period of gestating this character," he says. "But I wasn't given a conventional script. I worked on the character a great deal, worked out his back story.
"I never had lines to learn, but I would see other actors on set and sometimes they had pages of notes, and I'd try and sneak a look at them.
"Terry calls it 'torpedoing' the protagonist. What would happen is that other actors and even non-actors in the film would know to present me with different scenarios and I would just give a real response, based on knowledge of the character.
"I had no nerves about improvisation at all. Terry has this motto: 'Start before we're ready and see what happens.' We just discovered what was going on as the film developed."
Knight of Cups was made over a few weeks in Los Angeles in 2012, and Natalie Portman, who has a small part in the film, says that she felt "blessed" to have collaborated with Malick before directing her own first film last year, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
"Terry just tears up the rules of film-making and throws them away," she says. "He allows you to make mistakes, and what most directors would see as a problem, he just embraces the opportunity. There was no sense of executing a script at all."
"Knight of Cups" refers to a parable of a young prince on a quest to find a pearl - but is given a sleeping draught by his subjects, and "forgot that he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl, and fell into a deep sleep".
The film shows, with a dreamlike quality, an endless round of Hollywood meetings and parties, including one over-the-top lavish affair hosted by Antonio Banderas, making a cameo appearance. Rick appears to be sleepwalking through the experience.
Bale refers to "a spiritual sense of sleeping" in the film, but doesn't believe it only applies to the entertainment industry.
"In the goldfish bowl of Los Angeles, that kind of emptiness is all too obvious," he observes.
"But I don't think it's any different from any other walk of life.
"It refers to anyone who's seen all the acclaim, knows all the right people, has all the right party invitations - but they can still have a great void within themselves."
The actor says he himself is "lucky and fortunate in my family", but in the past has spoken out about the pressures of becoming a child star so young - he was a teenager when his first film, Empire of the Sun, was released in 1987.
"You can reach a peak, the top of the mountain," he says.
"You realise when you're living it, it's not as you imagined. That's what the film explores and I think a lot of people can relate to that.
"There may have been an awful lot of laughs along the way, but there's still a silence when you are left by yourself, wondering, 'is that it?' There's a cycle of good times, but never anything truly joyous at the end. It's not satisfaction or wholeness."
After starring as Moses in Ridley Scott's 2014 biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Bale says he relates to Malick's "broader brush of spirituality - one with less doctrine, less organisation, something that's innate to every single person and that doesn't need to be taught.
"This story is very much about the search for something the character has within himself all along but he's somehow missed and neglected. He's on a quest for something, but he's not sure what it is, even though the world would say, 'you've achieved'."
The film's reclusive director, who rarely gives interviews, continues to attract star names to his projects - he has previously worked with Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, and both Bale and Portman have since worked with Malick on the forthcoming Weightless.
Bale thinks it's "the guerrilla style of film-making that keeps attracting me to him [Malick]," describing how he would stop to record a narration for Knight of Cups "just on the side of the road, sitting in my pick up truck, just doing it as we went along".
"Sometimes he would just hand me a go-pro camera and say 'go into the ocean and shoot a scene' and at the end of the day I would give all the footage back to Terry, and perhaps it would end up in the film. And perhaps it wouldn't.
"Ultimately nobody else is doing what he is doing and has his experience. The sense of trust we all have in him is overwhelming."
Knight of Cups is released in the UK on 6 May.