It was no surprise when the famously private filmmaker Terrence Malick ("Tree of Life," "To The Wonder," "Knight of Cups") was a no-show to the world premiere of his latest drama, "Song to Song," the star-studded opening night film of the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Instead, his A-list cast took the stage Friday night in Austin, Texas, to describe what it's like to work with the iconoclastic director: "rewarding," "painful" and, yes, even "fun."
"It's interesting, it's challenging, it's rewarding, it's fun, it's scary," said Michael Fassbender, who co-stars in the very Malickian picture set against the backdrop of the Austin music scene. "He never stops writing."
"We all wanted to have this experience of working with Terrence Malick," added Ryan Gosling, addressing a sold-out house at Austin's Paramount Theatre alongside castmates Fassbender, Rooney Mara and Berenice Marlohe. "It's like nothing else. He's one of the few filmmakers where you could watch a few seconds of his movies and you know that he made it."
That's certainly true of "Song to Song," a torrid interrogation of love, longing, relationships and betrayal centered around a young musician, Faye (Mara), involved with two men — the successful and manipulative record exec Cook (Fassbender) and struggling songwriter BV (Gosling).
The film opens on an evocative montage of scenes — tangled lovers' limbs, sun-glistened waterways — accompanied by the first of many voice-overs.
Filming his famous stars on the fly throughout Austin hot spots and at music festivals like Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun Fest, Malick works real musicians and mosh pit carnage into the free-flowing narrative, grounding his tortured love triangle in a quasi-verite world of backstage passes, obnoxious pool parties and the occasional cameo from the likes of Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, Big Freedia and a chainsaw-wielding Val Kilmer.
Which is how, even as Malick favorites like "Knight of Cups" star Christian Bale ended up on the cutting-room floor, one of punk rock's grand dames came to appear in "Song to Song," sharing a moving scene with Mara.
"Every day was different," Gosling said. "Suddenly, Patti Smith was there, and she's with you for a few days and you get to hang out with her and watch her work."
"Song to Song" also features appearances by Natalie Portman, who plays a kindergarten school teacher-turned-waitress pulled into Fassbender's orbit; Holly Hunter, who plays her mother, and both Cate Blanchett and musician Lykke Li as women involved with Gosling's character. (Portman sent a message with producers Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green and Ken Kao explaining that she couldn't attend the Austin premiere because of the recent birth of her daughter.)
"I enjoyed the freedom of it," said Marlohe, who gives a magnetic performance as a Parisian who becomes involved with Faye. "Just to be able to do things, and try things and just be alive."
Ultimately, the ensemble film firmly belongs to Mara. The two-time Oscar nominee infuses her conflicted character with a searching existential torture shared with the heroes of several recent Malick films, whether she's keeping secrets from a lover or staring plaintively at steaks in the meat section of a Costco.
"It was really challenging and painful at times, but also really fun at times," said Mara, who shot the film so long ago — some concert footage was shot as far back as 2011 — she joked that it was hard to recall what the experience felt like.
"I remember the whole time being really aware that it's special to be making something this way."
The SXSW Film Festival continues through March 18.
More scenes from the “Song to Song” premiere at SXSW . . .