The Calm Before Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life'
With The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick, the mysterious director no one knew about save for film buffs, will be on the tip of everybody's tongue come the awards season of 2011.
The Tree of Life
It's the film that some claim say drove Days of Heaven director Terrence Malick into seclusion for 20 years after ambitiously helming pre-production on a screenplay titled Q in the summer of 1978. When he returned to the director's helm to complete The Thin Red Line 20 years later, it was as though he merely checked out for a quick cigarette before stepping back in and returning to work as normal.
Q, a 250-page script that playwright/actor Sam Shepard called "brilliant, but virtually unfilmable" was to be peopled by multiple characters amid a Middle Eastern location set during World War I. Malick hired an assistant to scout potential locations, dispatching second unit cameramen around the globe to capture naturalistic scenes that would somehow seem convincing enough (in a pre-CGI-era) to pass for prehistoric earth.
Malick also had Francesco Lupica on the back-burner, hiring him to create a spacey film-score of sonorous chimes and drones. Lupica was a Venice Beach musician known for conjuring hippy trance sessions with his Cosmic Beam Experience (whom Malick would visit for private concerts after stressful days of dealing with Paramount and the tension of uneasy film crew members, the request always the same -- "Francesco, I need me some beam."). He prepared the 'score' before finding out that Malick had disappeared. He did not hear from the filmmaker again until 1997, when he was sought out to contribute to his new film.
Special effects guru Richard Taylor told Joe Gillis in 1995, "Imagine this surrealistic reptilian world, there is this creature, a Minotaur, sleeping in the water, and he dreams about the evolution of the universe, seeing the earth change from a sea of magma to the earliest vegetation, to the dinosaurs, and then to man. It would be this metaphorical story that moves you through time."
However, Malick halted preproduction halfway into the process, perhaps intuiting that his highly-visual tour-de-force was accelerating too rapidly for the ardent perfectionist. Despite the money spent and the vast coverage he was able to commit in so short a time, the film was, apparently abandoned. The pressure of following-up two critical favorites, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven with a film that had to match or surpass their poetic brilliance proved too daunting.
Paramount also wanted results. Studio heads were used to compliance by kowtowing underlings, but this Malick animal proved to be a different breed. Obstinate and eccentric, Malick would not budge; he wasn't about to spit out a masterpiece without giving its gestation period its evolutionary due. Q it turned out, would take another 32 years before it could grace its airy head as the much-anticipated The Tree of Life, due for release in the fall of 2010.
During Terrence Malick's disappearance, he remained busy with various writing projects. By all accounts, Malick was and is an obsessive writer. Like a bee flitting from flower to flower, Malick writes project to project, restless and impulsively creative. Prior to The Thin Red Line, he had written The English Speaker in 1996, since unearthed and available for purchase from a rare manuscripts dealer in New York who had acquired the contents of a storage bay after Malick's partners failed to pay their rental bill.
The work, surreal and brilliant in its overall construct, had all the makings of another masterpiece. It was about Anna O. a schizophrenic patient of Sigmund Freud, who spoke the English language out of the blue, after her own native tongue becomes corrupted. The lines of the screenplay mesmerizingly spill out like poetic brandy:
"When he was gone I tried in terror to pray. But the words wouldn't come. My tongue refused to move. It seemed that in every language I knew I had told or heard lies, that every word was weary from deceiving. Then at last I thought of some children's verse in English that I knew. In English I could think and pray. In English I had never spoken to triumph or spoken to wound. I could hear what was true."
Malick passed on directing the The English Speaker and eschewed as well an ambitious stage play, Sancho the Bailiff, that he had brought to the rehearsal stage on Broadway before scrapping it altogether. He decided to stake his directorial return on a war film based on James Jones's The Thin Red Line. It may have been a move that was strategically planted, as a way of regaining impetus, momentum and critical clout in order to eventually one day yield from his reputation alone, the means to direct Q. But it had to be done his way, on his time-table and with no limits on the length of post-production, on someone else's dime.
By the time Malick's fourth film The New World (2005) was completed, rumors were set in motion abut a mysterious new effort that was in the works. Some sources claimed that Malick had either completed filming and was about to move his next production to the Middle East, or that he was still in the casting process, touting names like Mel Gibson, Colin Farrell, and Heath Ledger as being involved in the production. The news at the time seemed incredulous. The New World had tanked at the box office and was received critically as either a ponderous mess or a flawed masterpiece. The public at large seemed to hate it, yet, a stoic collective of cinephiles called the film the best of the decade.
How could Terrence Malick ever get another film financed? Yet, he had. Casting agents were hired, and one of their goals, after a year and a half of casting in Texas, was to find a young boy for an unnamed, top-secret "Hollywood family film."
The Tree of Life began its initial funding in 2006 commencing with pre-production early that year. When further funding was needed by 2007, Brad Pitt and his production company, Plan B, stepped in with the actor taking over for Heath Ledger. By the middle of 2008, principal photography had begun with a three-month shoot in Smithville and Austin, Texas under the expertise of Malick's trusted New World cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.
Other crews had begun filming in such remote locations as Goblin Valley in Utah to capture backdrops of prehistoric earth. Other oddities tended to stand out in rural Texas, like the Great Khali, a professional wrestler towering at 7' 2" and hired to play a caveman, was snapped by a fan shopping at a local Wal-Mart. Locals were lured in by casting calls; pregnant women, babies, and others dressed n period clothing from the '20s through the '50s.
Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien and Bratt Pitt as Mr. O'Brien in The Tree of Life (IMDB)
Malicki's eccentric directing style is well known by those who have shot with him. Will Wallace, actor for The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life described one occasion: "Terry has a very unique style of directing. It was Martin Sheen who first told me (before I was leaving for Australia to shoot TTRL) to just trust in Terry and his direction even though you may wonder what he is trying to get out of you. Martin says that to this day, he is most proud of his work in Badlands, and he told me that he attributes that to the direction he got from Terry.
You may ask for an example of such: A line might be as simple as "Where is everyone in Charlie Company?"... Terry may ask that you say it again as if you are staring at a strange canoe. Upon trying to visualize a strange canoe, the actor says the line again. Terry then says, "no... that wasn't it... say it again, but this time say it as if you are staring at a strange totem pole." Upon commencing the lines, your eyes might tend to veer upwards in applying this direction, in which case Terry might shout "BUT DON"T LOOK UP!" This actually happened to Adrian Brody."
Eager Malick fans ate up such stories and the epic myth of the filming of Tree rapidly gained momentum. Cryptically, cell phone snapshots captured images of a business-suited Sean Penn standing in the desert, or of crew members constructing a lone doorway in the desert, or of Malick sitting at a table with Penn and actress Crystal Mantecon in the Pennzoil Building, shot from the second floor (and capturing the camera-shy director's shiny bald dome) or of wet-suited cameramen filming underwater scenes in riverbeds. Just as cryptically, images were removed as suddenly as they appeared, by the will of Malick to deprive the world any glimpse of his masterpiece in the making.
Angelina Jolie, who had lived in close quarters to the set while husband Brad Pitt filmed his parts, lent on few details. She toldVanity Fair, "I would be the worst person to explain it, I think there's something existential about it. It's a kind of nuclear 1950s family, and [Brad] is a strong father." On YouTube, cell phone footage had captured the unearthing, relocating and transplanting of a live oak tree to be used, presumably, as a "tree of life" behind an unassuming Smithville, Texas suburban house rented out for the shoot.
By 2008, a synopsis had appeared, courtesy of Apparition, who had picked up distribution for the film, calling Tree of Life, a "cosmic epic, a hymn to life." They continue:
"We trace the evolution of an 11-year-old boy in the Midwest, Jack, one of three brothers. At first all seems marvelous to the child. He sees as his mother does, with the eyes of his soul. She represents the way of love and mercy, where the father tries to teach his son the world's way, of putting oneself first. Each parent contends for his allegiance, and Jack must reconcile their claims. The picture darkens as he has his first glimpses of sickness, suffering and death. The world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth.
"Framing this story is that of adult Jack, a lost soul in a modern world, seeking to discover amid the changing scenes of time that which does not change: the eternal scheme of which we are a part. When he sees all that has gone into our world's preparation, each thing appears a miracle -- precious, incomparable. Jack, with his new understanding, is able to forgive his father and take his first steps on the path of life.
"The story ends in hope, acknowledging the beauty and joy in all things, in the everyday and above all in the family -- our first school -- the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves, or discover life's single most important lesson, of unselfish love."
Production designer Jack Fisk revealed in an interview that he had never seen Malick so excited about a film and, in his opinion, felt that it could change cinema "a bit."
By early 2009, Malick was deep into post-work, deluged with a highly-experimental and multi-layered effects-laden film requiring a heightened attention to detail. Reports surfaced in 2009 of a second offshoot-film titled Voyage of Time that was being prepared for IMAX release. Visual effects artist Mike Fink told Empire magazine: "We're just starting work on a project for Terrence Malick, animating dinosaurs, the film is Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It'll be showing in IMAX -- so the dinosaurs will actually be life size - and the shots of the creatures will be long and lingering."
Other sparse details compared Tree to the epic scope of Kubrick's iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick careful to never include details about his characters or the plot, would discuss his ideas for the film with his team in cryptic metaphors. He suggested that he wanted a scene to suggest "the death of hope that we hold onto forever." That particular scene, whatever it may be, was conducted without much CGI.
It is Malick's wish not to rely exclusively on computer-generated effects, going so far as to recruit 2001's special effects wizard, Douglas Trumbull. Says Trumbull in Vanity Fair, "Terry is a friend, he said to me, 'I don't like CG.' I said, 'Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?'" The result is a retro-version of Trumbull's best work combined with the unique artistic sensibility of Malick. By relying as much as possible on in-camera effects and super-soaking the film stock, the results were staggering. Says one source, "you do feel as if you're seeing something not only important, but bold and eternal. I get chills down my spine every time I think about it."
Eagerly, the movie world remained optimistic about Tree's release by Christmas 2009. It was not. Pushed back by Malick who still labored on the film long after filming stopped, the next logical choice was Cannes. With a release date of November 2010, Cannes passed by for the film was still in a seemingly-perpetual state of flux. A source working for one of the houses, stated, "out of the four houses (!) working on this project, only two have completed their visual effects work. Plus, they shot most of the visual effects stuff on a prototype of a future Red Camera that projects at 4K, and the results didn't come out as well as Terrence had hoped (despises digital, along with his cinematographer).
Nevertheless, the film looks amazing; shot on every kind of stock you could imagine, from super 16mm to 65mm for the in-camera effects. We're not sure what the super 16 is for [ . . .] everyone working on this film is delighted to have worked with Terrence. A really incredible filmmaker that brought the best out of us. While we've read the synopsis online, as most of you probably have as well, the film is on a completely different spectrum than what you think."
Brad Pitt opened up on an element of the plot for Empire magazine in 2010: "It's this little tiny story of a kid growing up in the '50s with a mother who's grace incarnate and a father who's oppressive in nature. So he is negotiating his way through it, defining who he's gonna be when he grows up. And that is juxtaposed with a little, tiny micro-story of the cosmos, from the beginning of the cosmos to the death of the cosmos. So that's where the sci-fi -- or the sci-fact -- comes in."
A limited test print was shown to industry officials in Austin, Texas. On an Internet message board, a source close to the viewing revealed, "He [Malick] screened it to an audience of about thirty, and it's literally 97% done. Our boss was able to see it, and called it the best film of his since Badlands. Emmanuel Lubezki was in attendance, as was some VFX gurus (one of which was my boss)," and "Our house is referring to it as Voyage of Time. I don't know if it will be a separate documentary. Terrence has made sure that we work on footage without knowing too much of the plot or reason behind it. It's always about a feeling or an emotion. He is definitely the most interesting director we've had the pleasure of working with, and probably the only who's interacted with the digital artists themselves. He has never settled for results less than immaculate, but is humble and patient about it."
Malick again took the movie industry and fans by surprise when news of yet another project that would begin filming in the fall of 2010. Recruiting actors Christian Bale, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko, the untitled feature was billed as a romantic drama to be produced by Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green and Bill Pohlad. Without nary a script or even a post-it note, the film was already sold with international distribution to be handled by FilmNation Entertainment.
For now, The Tree of Life is targeted for fall 2010 release, despite the news that Apparition owner Bob Berney had suddenly resigned his post. Questions are raised about The Tree of Life's future, but rest assured that the enormous weight of intrigue and expectations will make this epic film find its way against all odds. For now, the mysterious director no one knew about save for film buffs will be on the tip of everybody's tongue come the awards season of 2011.
For now, Criterion has released Malick's second film, Days of Heaven in high-definition and is projected to release The Thin Red Line for HD treatment this coming fall. One has to assume that Badlands will not be far behind. Terrence Malick once again will stage a miraculous comeback and, I predict, will undoubtedly change the course of American cinema.
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Editor's note: Article layout and images were updated, October 2019.
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