On July 10, 1972, in La Junta, Colorado, a twenty-eight-year-old ex-MIT philosophy instructor named Terrence Malick began filming Badlands, a script based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, teenage lovers whose 1958 murder spree across the Nebraska plains made national headlines. To finance the picture, Malick had raised $250,000—a pittance even by the standards of the day—and to play the leads he had hired a journeyman TV actor, Martin Sheen, and an unknown, untrained actress and onetime folk singer, Sissy Spacek.
Badlands tells a classic lovers-on-the-lam story. In a shabby South Dakota suburb, garbage man Kit Carruthers meets thirteen-year-old Holly Sargis as she twirls her baton in her front yard. They fall in love, but after Holly's father deems Kit unsuitable, Kit shoots him dead in the Sargis living room. Kit and Holly flee across the vast, empty badlands of South Dakota, killing anyone who gets in their way.
The action behind the scenes was hardly less turbulent. The mild-mannered Malick brawled with his producer, brutalized his crew (which turned over at least twice), and saw a special-effects man gravely burned in a terrible accident. As the shoot ran on and on—twice as long as it was supposed to—crew members quit en masse. Back home, they would tell their friends Malick had gone crazy. That he had amassed more than a million feet of footage. That he just wouldn't stop shooting. A movie that had begun production in 100-degree heat wrapped amid snow flurries.
Malick's belief in his picture never faltered, though, and after ten months in the editing room he emerged with what critic David Thomson has called "one of the most assured debuts in all of American film." Badlandslaunched not only his own career but also those of Sheen and Spacek, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, producer Edward R. Pressman, art director Jack Fisk, and many others.