Los Angeles Plays a Starring Role in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—who just won his third Oscar in a row—and production designer Jack Fisk take us on a quick tour of the film’s locations

From Days of Heaven to The Thin Red Line to The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick’s films are as much about the images as they are the storytelling. His latest, Knight of Cups, is no exception. The movie follows Christian Bale as a melancholy screenwriter in Los Angeles—that’s about it for plot—but it’s the city around him that plays the leading role. In a new feature for Los Angeles that we’re calling “Imagining L.A.,” we chose eight shots in this cinematic poem to our town and asked the people responsible for them to explain their backstory: Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Production Designer Jack Fisk. Lubezki, known by his nickname Chivo, earlier this week won his third Oscar in a row, this time for The Revenant (he won for Gravity in 2014 and Birdman in 2015). Fisk has been working with Malick since the director’s acclaimed feature debut, 1974’s Badlands.


kc5“When you see a plane, there’s a bit of hope, of wondering: Where are those people going?” says cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki of this shot beneath an LAX flight path.


kc6“The Warner Bros. backlot is a reflection of real, everyday life,” says Lubezki. “These buildings are facades, and we are all performers.”


KC3“Christian Bale’s character is trying to regain contact with nature, with something bigger,” says Lubezki. “On the grass at Venice Beach, he has found some peace.”


kc8“The girl on the bike just happened” on Vermont Avenue, says production designer Jack Fisk. “Malick’s advantage is he can move his camera quickly. Everything is Steadicam or handheld. He catches it all.”


KC1“We looked for locations that would light themselves,” says Fisk about this freeway interchange. “Shooting everything backlit simplifies your image with a cleanness and starkness.”


kc7“Terry [Malick] wanted me to shoot it like a documentary,” says Lubezki. “When we shot near skid row, downtown is almost like a temple of indifference in the distance.”


KC2“We wanted to put together a film that didn’t look like every other film and TV show that’s shot in L.A.,” says Fisk of the many parking garages in the film.


Kc4“The theme in these places is the isolation of the individual in the city,” says Lubezki. “Even that beautiful Hollywood Hills house [Case Study House No. 22], at this time of day, is seen as a reflection of those themes.”