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12 Things You Need To Know About The Making Of Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree Of Life’

12 Things You Need To Know About The Making Of Terrence Malick's 'The Tree Of Life'

Terrence Malick‘s long-awaited “The Tree of Life,” opening today in select cities, is the kind of movie that is designed to be talked about, chewed on, and poured over. It’s a movie that demands you grasp at the unknowable, is challenging and gorgeous in some very deep and profound levels and asks big questions about who we are and where we came from, not just on a human level but on a grander, “how does life exist” scale. (On the same token, its complete lack of an identifiable narrative/dramatic structure and emotional aloofness might drive you batty.) Looking into “The Tree of Life” (and beyond), though, you’ll find even more tantalizing questions, possibilities, and dead-ends. The fact that most of us are still as intrigued, befuddled, and mystified by the film after we’ve seen it is a testament to its singular, oddball power. So we now present to you 10 things we’ve learned about ‘Tree of Life’ that maybe you never knew. This feature is probably best enjoyed after you’ve seen the film, but we give proper warning when discussing plot (if that’s the right word) specifics.

01. “The Tree of Life” Started Out Life As Something Very, Very Different
During the “lost years” following the grueling production and ultimate success of “Days of Heaven,” (which turned into a 20 year stretch), Malick hid out in Paris and worked on a movie tentatively titled “Q.” According to a lengthy and in-depth Vanity Fair article that came out right before his poetic war movie “The Thin Red Line” (“The Runaway Genius,” August 1998) the film initially included “a prologue, which dramatized the origins of life.” Except that the segment “became increasingly elaborate and would ultimately take over the rest of the story.” The “origins of life” bit would make the transition to “The Tree of Life,” but otherwise, the visualization of the cosmos would have been strikingly different – “Q” featured (again, according to the Vanity Fair piece) a “sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as florescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils.” Um. Okay. The movie got fairly far along, with Malick traveling between Paris and Los Angeles, where he had instilled a small team, mostly comprised of photographers and special effects technicians, until one day, just like the big bang, things just stopped. According to a visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor, “One Monday, Terry never showed up. He didn’t call anybody, we couldn’t find him… He just stopped.”

02. Wait, Tell Me More About “Q”
Okay! According to a January 2006 issue of British film magazine Total Film, in an article hilariously (and appropriately) entitled “Who the Hell is Terrence Malick?” (it’s not online unfortunately), Charles Bludhorn, chairman of Gulf + Western (which, at the time of “Days of Heaven,” owned Paramount), “took the unprecedented step of establishing a trust fund for Malick: it was worth $1 million, paid out in installments of around $100,000 on the condition that he would bring his next project to Paramount.” So what did Malick do with that stipend? He sent cameramen to the Great Barrier Reef to “shoot micro jellyfish,” to Mount Edna to shoot volcanoes violently erupting, and Antarctica to see sheets of ice slide off of the polar ice caps. The script was less a script and more “pages of poetry,” which he would deliver to the powers that be at Paramount in 30-page increments, until they eventually lost their patience, became frustrated and demanded “a script that starts with page one and at the end says, ‘The End.'” While many of the ideas he toyed with in this period would make their ways into “The Tree of Life” (except for the sleepy giant space god), much more recently it was conceived as its own film.

03. Goodbye “Q,” Hello “Voyage of Time”
Apparently, the birth of the universe sections of “The Tree of Life” weren’t enough for Malick, and rumors began circulating in early 2009 that a parallel project was underway called “The Voyage of Time.” Supposedly, around this time, reshoots were taking place for both ‘Tree’ and ‘Voyage’ with Nigel Ashcroft, a U.K.-based natural history program producer, sporting a bio (since removed) that claimed he was working on “2 major projects with legendary film director Terrence Malick… As well as producing an extensive natural history segment for his latest feature film, ‘The Tree of Life’… they are making an IMAX film entitled ‘The Voyage of Time.'”

The bio erroneously made the claim that both would be out in 2009, which was of course, a pipe dream. More recently it was confirmed that Malick shot parts of ‘Tree’ in IMAX, and that ‘Voyage of Time’ would have been released simultaneously on IMAX screens alongside ‘Tree of Life’ in traditional theaters. “It was important not to cannibalize ‘Tree of Life,'” producer Bill Pohlad said to website Coming Soon. While ‘Voyage’ will have Brad Pitt providing the narration, it’s still a ways off. Pohlad said among the topics addressed in ‘Voyage’ were “the first signs of life, bacteria, cellular pioneers, first love, consciousness, the ascent of humanity, life and death and the end of the universe.” You know, the little stuff. And while it appears to be more of a straight documentary, the producer was cagey: “It’s going to change. There’s some new stuff getting shot.” It wouldn’t surprise us if ‘Voyage of Time’ is more explicitly tied into ‘Tree of Life’ than originally thought, and that the spacey stuff is all new footage (or at the very least different footage).

04. Malick Pitched “The Tree of Life” To Producer Bill Pohlad While He Was Working on “Che” (Yes, That “Che”)
Pohlad, who most will remember as the idealistic leading force behind Apparition, a distribution outfit born from his River Road Entertainment production company (they produced “Into the Wild” and “Brokeback Mountain” among others) that shuttered recently, was pitched the idea of “The Tree of Life” while Malick was working on “Che.” Yes, the “Che” that would go on to become Steven Soderbergh‘s magnum opus/the bane of his existence. In a 2009 interview with Variety, Pohlad said “he pitched me an idea that I thought was crazy, and it turned out to be ‘Tree of Life,’ which we’re doing together now.” (Apparition was always scheduled to release ‘Tree of Life’ before it imploded.)

More recently Pohlad described Malick’s script for “Che” to The Wrap as a “daunting project, and Terry’s script for ‘Che’ was not an easy read, or a typical read.” In an incredibly rare public appearance at the 2007 Rome Film Festival where Malick forbade interviewers from videotaping, recording, or even asking questions about his films (he was there to talk about “his favorite Italian films” instead), he hinted at his past as a reporter for The New Yorker. “Yes,” Malick said. “I was sent to Bolivia to do a piece on Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, but frankly I did not understand what was going on.” That might explain why the “Che” project ultimately passed on to Soderbergh, and while we love what Soderbergh did with the difficult and embattled political figure, we can’t help but feel like Malick’s version would have been, well, revolutionary, though god knows if it would have retained any political ideas at all.

05. The Original Cast Was Very Different
Any movie that has as long a gestation period as “The Tree of Life” (particularly if you fold in the years spent on “Q”) is going to go through some changes. One of the bigger changes had to do with the cast, which according to a 2006 Bombay Times report (riffing on material printed that we believe started in the Hollywood Reporter the year before), it was originally going to star none other than Mel Gibson and Colin Farrell. The Farrell report makes sense, as the Irish star reportedly got along well with the prickly Malick on the set of their historical drama, “The New World,” while the Gibson report seems fishier (even though the article describes the two as “close friends”). For one, the Bombay Times reports that Shailendra Singh was co-producing the movie, which you won’t find in the press notes or on the film’s IMDb page (maybe they were thinking of associate producer Sandhya Shardanand?). Then there’s the fact that the article repeatedly misspells Malick’s name. What the actors would have been shooting in India is something of a mystery too (Singh, quoted, said “15% of the film” would shoot there) – having seen the film, we can only imagine that he would have been grabbing images for the elliptical finale, in which folds of time and space wrinkle together, visualized by, well, we won’t ruin that here.

But a recently published Total Film article says that at one point “Q” was “set in the Middle East during World War I” and that, in the Farrell/Gibson configuration, “Indian production company Percept Picture Company would finance the film, which would be mostly shot in India.” So maybe that Bombay Times report wasn’t complete fiction, though it sounds like a rather different version of the movie that eventually hit screens, and not just because the cast changed.

06. The Pitt Role Was Concretely Cast With a Different Actor
This much is a certainty: Heath Ledger was originally supposed to play the role of Jack, the domineering patriarch at the center of “The Tree of Life,” a role that would later go to Brad Pitt (who had already signed on as a co-producer, probably much to the movie’s benefit). In an interview with Stephen Schaefer from December 2007, Ledger laid out his future plays: he would start shooting “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” with Terry Gilliam soon (which would ultimately be his last film), followed closely by ‘Tree of Life’ (backed up by a Hollywood Reporter note that Ledger and Sean Penn would star). But it wasn’t Ledger’s untimely death that would lead to his lack of involvement in ‘Tree of Life,’ but rather the star’s exhaustion – after working on so many movies back-to-back (this was right after his grueling shoot on Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” we need to keep in mind), he just wasn’t up to it (plus “he pulled out at the time for family reasons,” Pitt said). But he wasn’t the only actor unsure of himself.

During the Cannes press conference for ‘Tree of Life,’ Pitt admitted that he was a little concerned about taking on the role initially. Still, good sense won out. “I was a little hesitant about playing the oppressive father, but I felt the story was so important and for me it was really about the kids’ journey,” he said, adding: “And I think about everything I do now, my kids are going to see when they grow up, and (I think) about how they are going to feel. They know me as a dad and I hope they’ll just think I’m a pretty damn good actor.”

07. This Is Malick’s Most Revealingly Autobiographical Film to Date
All of Terrence Malick’s films, it can be argued, are deeply personal works – displaying a clear frame of mind and an array of personal, philosophical, and political fixations. But none of them are explicitly autobiographical – “Badlands” is essentially a crime movie, based loosely on the spree killings of Charles Starkweather; “Days of Heaven” and “The New World” are historical epics (dissimilar, for sure, but easily categorized); and “The Thin Red Line” is, on its most rudimentary level, a war movie. “The Tree of Life,” however, sees Malick tapping into the real life pain of his childhood and upbringing. We should probably issue a spoiler warning now, if you don’t want to know plot specifics or if you’d like to keep the mythical figure of Terrence Malick as some illusory demigod unchallenged. There are many superficial similarities – Terry’s father was an oil geologist, while the Pitt character can be seen toiling away on blueprints of unspecified origin; Terry was the oldest of three boys, who was, like the Jack character in ‘Tree of Life’ (played in the grown-up scenes by Sean Penn), deeply devoted to his mother. (According to the pre-‘Thin Red Line’ Vanity Fair piece, which contains a fair amount of this biographical detail, he wouldn’t let her read the script to “The Thin Red Line” for years because he was worried she would be offended by the amount of swearing.)

But digging deeper, you see the real parallels between Malick’s upbringing and the story of ‘Tree of Life’ – Terry had a tempestuous relationship with his father, who adored taking photos (which, one can guess, has led to his complete aversion to being photographed). Chris, the middle Malick brother, had been involved in a car crash which left his wife dead and Chris badly injured, which seems to be dreamily dramatized in the film in a sequence when some neighborhood boys are setting off fireworks. More telling: Larry, the youngest brother, was a guitar phenomenon who went to Spain to study with a master guitarist and who later broke his own hands when upset about his lack of proficiency. When Malick’s father went to Spain to check on Larry, he returned with Larry’s body. The brother had committed suicide, and Terry felt, according to the Vanity Fair piece, “a heavy burden of irrational guilt.” The death of one of the brothers (the guitar-playing artistic one) is at the center of ‘Tree of Life,’ or at least one of its branches, and in a lot of ways is the impetus for much of the film’s ruminations – both cosmic and domestic. (Coupled with Terry’s love since childhood of spirituality and religion. He can quote the bible freely.) What the Vanity Fair piece reveals, also, is that Malick seems to have grown up to be a man very much like his father – rigid, compulsive, unwavering, temperamental and occasionally cruel. He seems to be working through some of his issues, from inside “The Tree of Life” out, even though he repeatedly told his partner at the time (Michele Morette, they separated for good in 1998): “I want my personal life to be completely separate from the movies.” Except when the movie is his personal life.

08. Yes, Malick Did Appear At Cannes After All… Quietly
While a Malick-free press conference gave us some dynamite quotes from both Brad Pitt (“[Terry] sees himself as building a house, he doesn’t want to focus on selling the real estate”) and a wonderfully snippy producer Dede Gardner (who leveled some potent zings at uncooperative moderator Henri Behar) he was not, as it turned out, absent from the festival (where “The Tree of Life” would ultimately take top honors). Luminous ‘Tree’ star Jessica Chastain told USA Today that, “I looked over and in walked Terry. The festival of course knew, but it was a last minute thing.” Cameras reportedly darted towards the ground to avoid capturing the press shy Malick, and Playlist Cannes writer Kevin Jagernauth also scored a brief glimpse at him with his own eyes — unfortunately no photo was snapped. So while he might not have shown up for the press conference, he was at the festival and here’s photographic evidence.

09. No Matter How Weird You Think “The Tree of Life” Is, His Next One Is Going to Be Weirder
The cinematic syntax that Malick has been developing since his debut “Badlands” — emphasizing moments and emotional clarity over narrative coherence and concrete story beats — seems to have reached its pinnacle with “The Tree of Life” with its occasionally stirring, occasionally alienating structure that has a small town drama interspersed with moments that document the formation of life as we know it, as well as an overlay of spirituality in which memory, and the barriers of the past, present and future, crumble and fade. In other words: it’s not “The Hangover Part II.” “I’m very proud of the film, and I think it’s am important film and I want as many people as possible to see it. But I would also tell my friends who aren’t big film buffs or film aficionados that this isn’t a normal movie,” producer Bill Pohlad said recently. “But it’s a powerful movie, and a moving movie.”

The fact that Fox Searchlight is releasing this on Memorial Day weekend, usually a place reserved for Tom Cruise vehicles and superhero sequels, is a bold move that will leave many audiences bewildered. But apparently, to paraphrase the song, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Malick’s next movie, which is still untitled but has been speculatively called “The Burial,” stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, Javier Bardem, Olga Kurylenko and Barry Pepper, and early descriptions of the plot had it as a small town drama (Bardem plays a priest – we only know this based on on-set photography). The Los Angeles Times movie blog 24 Frames, however, in a piece about “The Voyage of Time,” states that Malick’s next narrative feature could be even stranger than ‘Tree of Life.’ They cite a source that claims the new film is “even more experimental than ‘Tree of Life.’” Of course, “experimental” is one of those catchall phrases that could mean many different things to different people (we could describe “Speed Racer” as experimental, for crying out loud), and as always, we’ll have to wait and see. Maybe the jumbled outrageousness of ‘Tree of Life’ isn’t the zenith of his stylistic obsessions; maybe it’s the beginning of something newer and even more out-there.

10. No One Really Seems To Know How Much ‘Tree of Life’ Actually Cost (Or They Aren’t Saying)
It’s pretty common for studios to release, sometimes grudgingly, at least ballpark estimates for how much their big movies cost ($200 million, for instance, for this latest “Pirates of the Caribbean,” is the official studio number while most have it closer to $250 million), while nobody has even thrown out a number for “The Tree of Life.” Just thinking about how much it could have cost is sort of amazing – it’s been in post-production for approximately three years, with four credited editors (including Malick mainstay Billy Weber) and a fifth cited on IMDb with reshoots that took place intermittently during that time. Malick dragged Douglas Trumbull, a visual effects pioneer who helped Stanley Kubrick realize “2001: A Space Odyssey” back in 1969, out of retirement to work on the space sequences, which are almost wholly computer-generated and last for what seems like the better part of an hour and include fully-rendered dinosaur characters. Malick shot on IMAX, 65 mm and 35 mm and relocated the massive tree that sits in Pitt’s backyard from a neighboring town. Nothing about “The Tree of Life” is “little” or easily manageable, and while we’re fairly certain no one has consistently worked on the film since its embryonic “Q” days (except, of course, for Malick), there have been teams of people who have drifted in and out of the production in the years since. And while it’s no secret that Malick takes advantage of people that want to assist him (particularly young film student-types in Austin just looking to say they worked on a Terrence Malick movie), he still has to pay someone. If we took a random guess, we’d put the budget at around $30 million, although we can’t lock down anybody to comment officially. What’s even more astounding, when you think about “The Tree of Life” from a budgetary standpoint, is that while you might see the familiar 20th Century Fox/Searchlight logo when the film begins, Fox is just the distributor – budget-wise, it was cobbled together from a small pack of independent production companies (even if Pohlad claims to have known that Malick was going to take over two years to edit). Investing in Malick, it seems, is like investing in art. And sometimes that art costs lots and lots of money.

11. So How Long Did ‘Tree Of Life’ Actually Take To Make?
Development aside, according to Brad Pitt, the film started in “the spring of 2008.” “[It was] after I did ‘Burn After Reading‘ and before ‘Inglourious Basterds.’ I remember that Angie was pregnant then [with the twins she gave birth to in July 2008] and we were trying to think of names for our kids, and now they’re almost three,” he told Time Magazine. And yes, as noted from our “Q” sections, it’s a film that’s been being worked on for some shape or another for over 30 years. “There’s this mystique around the film, because this is the movie Terry took his hiatus on. It’s gone through many incarnations since, but he started shooting [some of the Cosmos footage] then,” Pitt said.

12. Malick’s Process Is “Imperfection” According To The Film’s Star Who Has Seen The Film In Many Versions That You Never Will
“Someone called Terry a perfectionist, and I said no, he’s an imperfectionist; he’s trying to mess it up. He sets up a scene and then “torpedoes” it — that’s his word,” Pitt said. “Say, if the parents are arguing inside the house, he’ll send one of the kids in and see how we handle it. Instead of doing little rewrites of scenes to be shot on a certain day, Terry would get up in the morning, and meditate, and write his thoughts about the day’s work. And we got handed these four pages, single-spaced, and they’d be these stream-of-consciousness ideas that we would incorporate into the day’s work.”

People drool about the 5-hour cut of “The Thin Red Line,” which no on will ever see, because it wasn’t ever meant to be seen; these were just various stages where the film was shown so the editors and filmmakers could decide what to cut. Well, let the legends live on because there were (naturally) longer versions of “The Tree of Life,” but according to Pitt, you’re not really missing much. “I’ve seen the film in its four-hour incarnation, then three-and-a-half, two-forty-five, back to three-thirty, and now at two-and-a-quarter. In essence, it’s the same.”

This feature could go on and on all day, and hell, who knows, maybe one day we’ll revisit it when more stories surface.

“The Tree of Life” his New York and L.A. today on four screens, but it will be expanding soon and will eventually hit wide release on July 8th. This is our first in a series of Did You Knows about Terrence Malick films, so keep an eye out next week, building up until July 8. Here’s the full roll-out plan for the film. See when it hits your city.

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