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The “Tree of Life” Press Conference and The Man Who Wasn’t There

The "Tree of Life" Press Conference and The Man Who Wasn't There

Outside the Palais Monday morning, the love for Terrence Malick was on the verge of turning into frenzy. Members of the press leapt over railings and used mosh-pit tactics in order to break through the crowd and run up the Palais steps. Scores of fans held handmade signs begging passersby for a ticket.

But inside, the scene was contentious, even prickly. When the credits rolled, the famously vocal Cannes audience reacted with a smattering of polite applause as well as hissing boos. And at the press conference, when the cast and producers took their seats sans Malick (who is said to be in town), there were only a few claps of approval. The message was clear: Malick’s not here and we’re pissed.

It was a theme that moderator Henri Behar was quick to identify. Why, he asked, was Malick not here for his own press conference?

“Mr. Malick is very shy and I believe his work speaks for itself,” said “Tree of Life” producer Dede Gardner.

“That’s not good enough,” Behar replied.

Gardner shot back, “Turn the volume up.”

The lines were drawn. The press felt that they were owed Malick, or at least a good explanation for his absence; Malick’s collaborators drew ranks around their auteur.

Next up, a reporter asked a question about Malick’s impressionistic shooting style, tartly suggesting that it seemed he might “rather be birdwatching than filmmaking.”

Brad Pitt agreed that it was an unusual approach, and one that wasn’t easy. “It’s like he’s waiting with a butterfly net to catch what was going by that day.” he said. “It’s exhausting.”

Added Jessica Chastain, “It’s all about capturing an accident,” she said. “He would be shooting and Brad would be wonderful and then there’d be a woodpecker nearby and he’d turn to that. You can’t plan any moment.”

Behar didn’t seem to be satisfied with the secondhand description of Malick’s process. “What kind of person is he?” he asked. “Does he laugh? Does he eat? Does he like food?”

“He’s laughing most of the day,” Pitt replied. “He finds pleasure in the day.”

Another reporter suggested that Malick was the sort of filmmaker who needed “a tough friend with a big stick” in order to finish his work.

Producer Sarah Green rejected the idea. “He’s the most disciplined director I’ve ever worked with, ” she said. “He never stops.”

Pohlad allowed, “There were a lot of hard conversations back and forth.” (Later, he added: “There was discussion about the dinosaurs.”)

Finally, Chaz Ebert laid it out: As Cannes is the most auteur-driven film festival, Malick “should perhaps be here.” And as his ambassadors, did he provide any direction in what to say, or not?

Once again, the “Tree of Life” team neatly deflected the question, with producer Grant Hill saying that “The idea he would want to exert influence… is a long way from Terry as a person.”

Added Pitt, “He sees himself as building a house. He doesn’t want to focus on the selling of the real estate.”

While Malick may be the most elusive example, he’s not alone in the desire to shrug off the notion of wearing a Century 21 blazer. Mel Gibson is expected to be in Cannes for “The Beaver,” but is not expected to give interviews. Ditto for “The Tree of Life” star Sean Penn. (A conference no-show, he’s on his way from Haiti and is expected to be here for tonight’s premiere.) Johnny Depp made his appearance on the red carpet for the fourth installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, but the film held its junket in Los Angeles.

However, such is the power of the Cannes Film Festival: Certain celebrities can promote their films merely by being within city limits.

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