The Tree of LifeCast
: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica ChastainDirector
: Terrence MalickGenre
: Drama, Sci-FiRunning Time
: 138 minutesSynopsis
: From director Terrence Malick comes a thought provoking film experience. His fifth film, The Tree of Life, is a hymn to life, excavating answers to the most haunting and personal human questions through a kaleidoscope of the intimate and the cosmic, from the raw emotions of a family in a small Texas town to the wildest, infinite edges of space and time, from a boy's loss of innocence to a man's transforming encounters with awe, wonder and transcendence.
An impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950's, the film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick's signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.Release Date
: June 30th, 2011Website
: www.twowaysthroughlife.com The Beginnings
Terrence Malick has always created thought-provoking, intensely visual and viscerally emotional films of our times, each one a distinct experience rife with mystery and depth. His new film, The Tree Of Life, may be simultaneously his most intimate and epic work yet - a quest that traverses from today's urban corporate towers to a 1950s Texas family's back yard, and at the same time, from the beginnings of life on earth to the end of the known universe, in search of what is true, what is lasting, what is infinite.
The story unfolds symphonically, like a piece of music divided into movements, or the limbs of a towering tree, tracing the evolution of a single life - that of Jack O'Brien, who is trying to square a series of lingering questions about his father's anger, his mother's love, his brother's death, and his own struggles with meaning and faith. But Jack's story plays out within the vast beauty and the recursive rhythms of the universe itself. His human struggles become part of the cosmos' vast creative and destructive powers, as he begins to sense his connections to the dust of the stars, to the prehistoric creatures who once roamed the earth and to his ultimate destiny. It is a deep love story about how love emerges from life and life emerges from love.
The Tree Of Life is an open-ended journey into uncharted territory for contemporary movie audiences, one that will no doubt impact each person in a unique way. As Terrence Malick enters such nebulous, imagination-rich worlds as childhood memory, pre-human history and the burning realm of the stars, the story plays out both at the microscopic level of the heart and at the unfathomably massive level of eons and eons of time, with both always in motion.
Sarah Green, who also produced The New World, was awed and excited by her initial encounter about the project. "Terrence Malick showed me an early treatment and I remember thinking immediately that this film had to be made - and that I would do everything possible toward that end," she recalls.
Says Sarah Green, "The very title of the movie brings up so much. The 'Tree of Life' is a key symbol in many of the major religions and in Darwinism as well. It brings up nature; it brings up spirit. Everyone has a reaction to those words."
"Terrence Malick has his own unique cinematic language," notes producer Grant Hill, who previously worked with Terrence Malick on The Thin Red Line. "No one else talks the cinematic language that he has invented, in a sense. He has this wonderful gift of being able to really make you feel that you are there, that you know his characters. And with The Tree Of Life, he takes that film language somewhere new in order to draw the audience into an original journey, to take a leap of faith, and to allow them to bring parts of their own life experiences into the canvas of this story - a story that is very much about a single family but also, simultaneously, the creation of the cosmos."
The script would go through its own process of evolution, unfolding in new ways at every turn, yet always kept wide open to other possibilities as part of Terrence Malick's process. It quickly attracted additional producers who had been in touch for several years with Terrence Malick, hoping to work with him on impending projects: River Road's Bill Pohlad and Plan B partners Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner.
Says Bill Pohlad of his reaction to a script that was a highly unconventional read, "It was an amazing piece of writing but not like anything I had read before. Basically it was like a poem. I don't know what I was expecting when I started to read it, but it just hit me on a very emotional level. It was an amazing, powerful script that balanced a profound intimacy with an epic scope."
Continues Bill Pohlad, "There's a powerful connection to be made between the universal and the personal. The beauty of The Tree Of Life is the organic weaving together of the two."
Dede Gardner, who notes that seeing Days of Heaven years ago blew her mind and inspired her own career in film, adds, "I was shocked by how moved I was by the script and I took a very particular thing away from it inside myself but I think different people will take different things away from it, and that is the real beauty of what Terrence Malick does in The Tree Of Life."
She goes on, "For me, this family's story and what it tells us about ego, shame, humility and grace becomes so much more accessible because it is put so beautifully into the bigger context of a timeless, borderless world. What's so amazing to see is how Terrence Malick can bring all these vast layers of perspective - so enormous in size and scope - to it, without ever altering the feeling that this is an incredibly intimate and poignant family story."
As the film moves outward into time and space, it creates images largely unseen in the pantheon of motion picture history: images of the universe and earth forming out of explosive chaos, then growing and evolving into the stunning structures of life. Terrence Malick consulted with an array of scientists from around the world to better understand all the forces at work -- the physics, astronomy and biology-in what he was attempting to capture and, for the first time in his career, he worked extensively with visual effects. He did so in concert with the accomplished team of Douglas Trumbell of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame and veteran visual effects supervisor Dan Glass (Matrix Reloaded, V For Vendetta).
"I don't think I've ever seen any director try to authentically render the beginnings of the universe in a feature film before," states Dede Gardner. "I think it's magical. I could watch hours of it. But beyond its beauty and wonderment, what's so impressive is the way Terrence Malick weaves that all into the film, allowing you to see that this family, this father's ego, these struggles that Jack feels inside are so miniscule and temporary in the face of it."
Sums up Sarah Green, "It's an extraordinary experience and one I don't believe filmgoers have had before, particularly the way Terrence Malick brings nature to the screen in all its wild, extreme glory."
Though a strand of specific themes weaves through all of Terrence Malick's films - the contrast of innocence and violence, nature and spirit, stark reality and transcendent beauty - there is something else that unites them: they aren't so much films a person watches but experiences a person inhabits. The O'Briens
The cast of The Tree Of Life is as diverse as its sweeping themes - Academy Award nominee Brad Pitt and Oscar® winner Sean Penn lead a tight-knit group that includes newcomer Jessica Chastain and three hand-picked young boys from Texas who had no prior film experience.
"In some ways it was remarkably easy to put together this amazing cast because everyone who read the script reacted so strongly to the beauty and the poetry and the power of the ideas," says Sarah Green. "It was a very organic process of pulling together some of the most talented people I've ever come across into this project."
Brad Pitt came on board early after he and his Plan B partner Dede Gardner became involved as producers. He took on the role of Mr. O'Brien, a man who clearly loves his family deeply, yet is also a rigid authoritarian with huge expectations, a deep well of anger, and a belief that the world demands a toughness and steel-cored strength that must be imprinted onto his children.
"It would be very easy for Mr. O'Brien to just seem harsh for harshness sake, but instead, through Brad Pitt's performance, you believe that he really loves his family, and you feel his struggles and his blindness," observes Sarah Gardner. "Brad Pitt's portrait is really precise, subtle and human."
"The journey of Mr. O'Brien is stunning," continues Hill. "His story is told in a very fragmented, Terrence Malick style, that ultimately allows us to feel very, very strongly about the character. He is opened up over the course of the film, so that you start to see the ghosts that have haunted his life and continue to haunt him. It's a performance from Brad Pitt that is very different from his other work."
Brad Pitt had never worked with Terrence Malick before and had to get accustomed to the director's unusually unstructured process. "Brad Pitt was so willing to just jump in and go with it," recalls Bill Pohlad. "He really believed in Terrence Malick and was ready for any challenge."
Sean Penn previously worked with Terrence Malick on The Thin Red Line, playing the hardened Sergeant Welsh, but here takes on a very different role. He plays the O'Brien's son Jack as an adult, a successful architect who nevertheless feels lost in the corporate world of metal skyscrapers around him, and begins to recall his memories, knowledge and emotions, searching for connections that have gone missing.
Says Hill, "Sean Penn allows us through his performance, which has all to do with body language and very few words, an understanding of all that his character is feeling. Every sinew of Sean Penn's body created that performance. He provides a wonderful insight into the comparison of contemporary life with life in the 1950s which is pivotal for the film. And then he leads us into the final section of the film, taking us on this incredible, emotional trip."
"We only had Sean Penn for a brief time, but he leads the entire journey," notes Sarah Green. "He is our guide through the entire experience."
The beating heart of Jack O'Brien's youthful memories is his mother, a luminous beacon of compassion, tolerance and unbounded love, and later of intense heartbreak. To play Mrs. O'Brien, Terrence Malick sought out an actress who most audiences would be seeing fresh, for the first time.
"The mother needed to be someone who just exudes love, who is the embodiment of grace, and so ideally, she would be someone who didn't bring a lot of public history," explains Sarah Green. "We were hoping to find someone new, which isn't easy because people become exposed so quickly in this day and age. But Jessica Chastain had been quietly working in New York, studying her craft, and when we saw her it was a real 'aha' moment."
Jessica Chastain, who earned a scholarship to Julliard after a series of Shakespearean performances in San Francisco, has done most of her work on the New York stage, making her feature film debut in 2008 in the indie feature Jolene. She also appeared with Al Pacino in Salome, and it was Al Pacino who first recommended her to Terrence Malick.
The entire filmmaking team remembers her audition. "I think we all had the instant conviction that Jessica Chastain was right for the role," says Sarah Gardner. "She plays a woman who is the essence of goodness and patience, and Jessica Chastain is that. She's very unusual in her comportment. She's other-worldly in her beauty, almost translucent, and she brings a feeling of grace and kindness that dovetails so beautifully with the mother of this family."
"Jessica Chastain did a beautiful job of creating this almost silent, but solid, strong force that holds the family together," adds Hill.
Right before her audition, Jessica Chastain held her own private Terrence Malick Film Festival. "I watched all his films in chronological order and when I was finished I felt like, 'I love this person,'" she says. "There's this connection in his work between nature and spirit that moves me and I love how he explores the ways we navigate between the two - and the question of are we animals or are we evolved, spiritual beings? And I found that this also how Terrence Malick is as a person. He's such a smart, scientific man, on the one hand, but then he is also is a great believer in the spirit."
It was only after she got the role that Jessica Chastain saw the script and, at first, she was in awe of her character. "She's the kind of woman that you aspire to be, all goodness and trust and forgiveness," she explains. "It's difficult to think of playing a character who is that spiritual and pure. But then I realised the way into her was through her love for her children. That was the key. "
She continues, "Mrs. O'Brien is someone who her whole life has said if I put others before me and am kind to all than everything will be OK. And then when it's not, that shakes her faith and raises questions. Why are we here? Is there something beyond? Are you even real? I think it is at that moment that the universe answers her - and I think for each person watching, the answer will mean a different thing."
As part of her preparation, Jessica Chastain also dove into period research. "I watched movies from the 30s and 40s, especially a lot of Lauren Bacall, which Terrence Malick asked me to, because he said there was a different way of talking then. He said to me, and I find this true, that nowadays we speak so fast because we're afraid someone is going to cut us off. But in films from the 30s, there was this directness and slowness to the way they spoke, which is actually the way Terrence Malick speaks in real life."
There is also a stark contrast between Mrs. O'Brien's manner of speech, and being, and that of Brad Pitt as her husband. "Brad Pitt represents Nature and she, Grace, so he is really energetic and aggressive with the way he speaks while she is never reactive and her lessons come more through actions than words, through how she treats others. It was wonderful for me to work with Brad that way," she says. "He was so brave and generous and he really went for the most difficult, scary scenes."
Jessica Chastain worked equally closely with the three boys, all of them non-actors, who portray her young sons. She spent hours on the set with them playing tag, laughing and reading books, sparking a maternal connection that felt true, almost devastatingly so. "I think with Terrence Malick, acting becomes like magic, there is really a total suspension of disbelief. At the end of the production, my heart broke as I realised these were not really my boys," she confesses.
Jessica Chastain says she was acutely aware that something powerful was in motion. "The film was so personal to all of us," she says. "Everyone has asked these questions that the film asks and that makes it more than just a beautiful film. It's an experience that makes you think about your life and the people you love and that changes you."
Over a year was spent searching for the three boys who play the O'Brien siblings, with the filmmakers moving from town to town through Texas and Oklahoma, perusing over 10,000 kids, looking for qualities that transcended a lack of acting experience.
"We went into schools and just looked at faces, watched the kids interacting and responding, and put together a group who had a way of moving in the world that felt right to us. We narrowed it down to about 12 kids and then we started bringing them to Austin," explains Sarah Green. "Interestingly, we ended up taking our three favorite candidates for Jack and making them the three O'Brien brothers. They were each so natural and felt connected to each other."
Hunter McCracken took on the pivotal role of Jack. Says co-producer Nicolas Gonda, "We came across Hunter McCraken a year before we actually cast him and over that year, Hunter McCracken grew into Jack. He started to take on qualities that we hadn't even thought of yet. We began to see the extremely sincere and sympathetic side to him that shows a type of interior sensitivity and thoughtfulness. As we started to work with him, we realised that this boy was extraordinary."
Confirms Sarah Green, "None of us could take our eyes off Hunter McCracken. He has that gangly look and a feisty quality, a questioning nature that we found fascinating. He's extremely smart and very creative; even Jessica Chastain said he gave her a run for her money. He has this goodness that you fall in love with, so that when Jack becomes troubled by life and begins to lose that purity, your heart is broken."
Laramie Eppler takes on the family's middle son R.L., who holds a special, if turbulent, place in his older brother's memories. "Finding Laramie Eppler was a kind of miracle," says Nicolas Gonda. "He happened to accompany a friend of his to a call-back audition but when we saw him, he had exactly that sweet quality we were searching for. We didn't find Laramie Eppler - he found us."
Tye Sheridan, who plays the youngest brother, Steve, was one of the earliest choices. Remembers Nicolas Gonda, "He just popped right away and we knew that this was someone who had such an old-fashioned American quality that he would lift up the story naturally. We weren't sure which brother he would portray but we knew we needed him in the movie."
Neither the boys nor their families ever read the script, nor did they know of the film's full scope. All they knew for certain is that the three would portray Texas brothers in the 50s. This was a purposeful decision because the filmmakers didn't want the boys to think in terms of "performing."
"It would have been counter-productive to find these boys with so many natural qualities and then ask them to be someone else," explains Nicolas Gonda.
The boys seemed to organically take to their roles, bringing the naturalistic curiosity, ease and wildness of boyhood innocence to the fore. "Terrence Malick was trying to get to something that was very true. So he looked for boys who he thought could develop into the roles," says Bill Pohlad. "It was fun to see the boys grow as the film grew, and vice versa, to see Terrence Malick mold their roles as they brought more and more to the table."
While the boys may have simply been playing with each other in an organic way, the impact of it on screen is raw and heartfelt. "Some of the most unique, moving and quite frankly stunning sequences in the movie come out of just witnessing these boys interact together, which has a quality on screen that I don't think has been seen before," comments Hill. In what may be a first for a major motion picture, 90-95% of the cast are non-professionals.
"Terrence Malick's instincts about these things are infallible and it worked out superbly with everybody. He manages somehow in his style and his approach to get people who are not trained actors and who are not used to the process to become comfortable and deliver what he has been thinking of for the roles," states Bill Pohlad.
"His way of working is mystifying," muses Bill Pohlad, "and impressive. You watch the process but you're never quite sure how it's going to come out. Not only does he shoot out of chronological order but the images are so varied, you wonder how he's going to put it all together. And yet, later it all starts to make incredible sense. You see that there are all of these other levels adding to it, which results in greater and greater richness." The Visuals
In the midst of creating the full breadth of The Tree Of Life, Terrence Malick would put on film some of the most primeval, chaotic and seemingly unknowable moments that have ever percolated in the human imagination.
These include the formation of the universe in a stunning blast of cosmic power 14 billion years ago; the formation of Earth from the accretion of solar nebulae 4.5 billion years ago; the appearance of the first single-celled life forms in the Proterozoic Eon; the 160 million years during which dinosaurs reigned as the most dominant and complex beings on the planet; and the universe's ultimate fate projected billions of years from now when our sun has become a white dwarf and the scattered remnants of Earth trail behind.
To create all of this in an authentic way would mean using extensive visual effects for the very first time in Terrence Malick's career. It would also mean doing so with an original approach that would jibe with Terrence Malick's aesthetic sensibilities - mixing Old School paint-and-water effects with the latest in digital generation to find an organic, even emotional, feeling within these seemingly spectacular, mind-boggling events which are of course nature, played out on the screen.
Years ago, when the project was still just a seed of an idea in his mind, Terrence Malick began consulting with Douglas Trumbull, a pioneer in the inventive use of special effects, most renowned for immersing audiences in outer space for Stanley Kubrick's masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey. Douglas Trumbull went on to create effects for Steven Spielberg's classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and the first Star Trek movie, as well as directing such sci-fi films as Silent Running and Brainstorming.
Though he has not worked in Hollywood for years, Douglas Trumbull was drawn to Terrence Malick's vision for The Tree Of Life. For one thing, Terrence Malick wanted every image to feel like a natural phenomenon, which meant relying as little as possible on computers, and using what Douglas Trumbull dubs "Non-Computer Graphics."
"Terrence Malick and I share a perspective on visual effects and imagery as it pertains to wanting to get to something that's completely organic. We both want to push into new territories of what film can actually be. It wasn't that we didn't use computers on this film - we used a lot of them and there are some truly amazing computer graphics," explains Douglas Trumbull. "But, for example, when you see the dinosaurs they look like truly living creatures and they are then super-imposed into a world that is completely real. It's not a synthetic world with a synthetic creature in it. Only 10 to 20 percent of what you're seeing is computer-generated, but you can't tell which part of the frame is computer generated and which part is real which fits into Terrence Malick's naturalistic world."
Douglas Trumbull had fallen in love with Terrence Malick's naturalism as soon as he saw Days of Heaven while he was then working on Star Trek: The Movie. "I was really impressed that the movie had such a profound effect on my memories. It was a very ethereal, experiential movie that was trying to break the language of cinema," he observes. "What I like about Terrence Malick's films is that it's more of a poetic film style. He's constantly trying to learn something, which is rewarding."
When he read a script for The Tree Of Life, he was overtaken by its creative possibilities. "It takes a simple human story and puts it in the spectacular framework of the beginning and end of the universe and the infinity of life," Douglas Trumbull says.
Soon after, Douglas Trumbull and Terrence Malick began a series of hypothetical conversations about how some of the sequences in Terrence Malick's vision could best be created. "We talked about doing many of the intergalactic effects he wanted the way that we did things many, many years ago -- using water and paint and high-speed cameras," Douglas Trumbull explains.
They also talked a lot about astronomy in general, says Douglas Trumbull, "about the workings of the universe, the Big Bang Theory, cosmic expansion, general relativity and how they might all fit together. Terrence Malick wanted to explore these ideas as an artist, not a scientist, to take film into new territory. He would talk about certain things he wanted to see - protostars [the earliest conglomerations of dust and gas becoming stars], accretion disks [a rotating disc of gas and dust that forms around stars and other massive space objects], the sun turning into a Red Giant [a star in the last stages of its life which has expanded after core collapse] - and we would talk about how it might be done."
Then Douglas Trumbull put together a kind of secret laboratory in Austin, Texas, dubbed the "Skunkworks," where they began to experiment. "We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be," he says. "It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terrence Malick didn't have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic."
To keep the creativity flowing, Terrence Malick did not use typical storyboards for these sequences. "He didn't want a mechanistic approach that would be set in cement," observes Douglas Trumbull. "He would rather have mysterious phenomena spontaneously occur while the camera was rolling."
This process of experimenting and shooting individual effects went on for well over a year. "All along," says Douglas Trumbull, "Terrence Malick was hunting for the Tao, that completely unanticipated phenomena, those magical unexpected moments that no one could possibly design."
That hunt proved to be very satisfying. "I'm very proud of how it all worked and all that we discovered," concludes Douglas Trumbull. "I hope the result is a kind of experiential, immersive cinema that goes beyond words and beyond the envelope of a conventional Hollywood movie."
About four years ago, producer Grant Hill also brought in Dan Glass to work in concert with Terrence Malick and Douglas Trumbull on the high-tech end of the visual effects. The request from Hill took Glass aback, "As a visual effects professional I never imagined I would have the opportunity to work with a filmmaker like Terrence Malick," he explains. "It was very exciting."
The process was quite different from what he had experienced on some of cinema's biggest action, fantasy and sci-fi blockbusters, including Matrix Reloaded and Batman Begins. "Visual effects are normally very systemised, very planned out at the earliest stages," he comments, "but Terrence Malick was more interested in creating vignettes that really communicate emotion and mood and are more spontaneous feeling."
In keeping with that process, Dan Glass never learned the full story of The Tree Of Life, or anything about the O'Brien family. He was only made aware of the sections of the film tracing the history of the universe, the earth and nature itself.
Like Douglas Trumbull, he spent a lot of time with Terrence Malick discussing what we have gleaned of the history and fate of the universe over billions of years from the latest scientific research. "Terrence Malick had read and read and had a phenomenal level of knowledge about our current understanding in these areas," Dan Glass says. "He had contacted world experts and it was very important to him that in the midst of trying to make beautiful, emotional imagery that it also be representative of the latest scientific theories. As we arrived at ideas and shots, these would be sent to scientists for their input."
Science consultant, Dr. Andrew H. Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, talked with Terrence Malick and his team for some years about the history of life and the processes that underpin that history. "What impresses me about Terrence Malick is his deep commitment both to artistic vision and to the facts that inform his film's philosophy," says Dr. Andrew H. Knoll. "Terrence Malick worked hard to get the science right, seeing in life's history the broadest of frames for an intimate family story."
Dan Glass also joined the proceedings at the Skunkworks in Austin, bringing his own assortment of smoke machines, dyes, chemicals and other Old School cinematic tools to add to the mix. "Most contemporary directors would have done these scenes in a very different way. For example, the moment where a meteor hits the earth could be very flashy. But Terrence Malick wanted to make it very understated, where you see just the arc of the earth as the shadow of night is crossing over it, and then the meteor hits and the wake is this dispersion of clouds and matter that was created with milk in a circular tank. The result was a very natural, organic feel."
That same kind of organic feel is imbued in recreating the time of the dinosaurs, in which life takes on a fiercer intelligence and perhaps the beginnings of compassion. Dan Glass worked with a lot of filmed material, from redwoods in Northern California to the Atacama Desert in Chile. "Then we would decide where we could place the creatures, almost like an afterthought," he explains. "We would fit in a creature maybe half framed out of the shot to make it feel more natural. The creatures were chosen to be more understated, not the famous representations of dinosaurs you expect, but more as if you've come across a scene from every day life. We worked in close consultation with renowned paleontologist Dr. John "Jack" Horner from Montana State University to keep everything accurate to what we know."
These gaps in human knowledge gave Terrence Malick, Dan Glass and Douglas Trumbull an open space in which to create. "A lot of what you see in the film is something closer to poetry or painting in the way that it was made," sums up Dan Glass of the film. "But I think the beauty of that is it allows everyone to draw their own different impressions of what they're seeing and enjoy it in a personal way."
The great span of natural worlds depicted in The Tree Of Life, from intergalactic movements to rustling trees to domestic moments of love and fear, flow out of the camerawork of four-time Oscar®-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki who previously worked with Terrence Malick on The New World. As he had done before with Terrence Malick, Emmanuel Lubezki focused not at all on typical master shots or coverage, but rather on the sheer expression of emotion through organic images and perpetual motion. He did so by feeling his way into the shots, using natural lighting and handheld cameras, and following the sun, the wind, the trees and his instincts as much as the dialogue or action.
"Terrence Malick is the most visual director I've come across and he and Emmanuel Lubezki have a huge amount of trust between them," says Sarah Green. "They both are driven to use visuals to their fullest extent."
Adds co-producer Nicolas Gonda, Emmanuel Lubezki is a vital part of Terrence Malick's process. In a sense he had to be as much a writer as a D.P. because when the two of them are on the set, things can change in the moment. It's a dance between the two of them riffing creatively off each other." The Design
Also joining in the dance was production designer Jack Fisk, who has worked with Terrence Malick on each of his films since Badlands, and most recently brought his grand sense of scale to Paul Thomas Anderson's oil epic There Will Be Blood.
Jack Fisk had known for many years that Terrence Malick was quietly working on a large-scale project that had something to do with natural history, but it was awhile before the director showed him anything on the page. "I think I was working on Mulholland Drive at the time that I first heard about it," the designer recalls.
"Terrence Malick came in with about 20 pages of the script. He only talked about it being a small film about a family - and it was some time again before I realised it was also going to involve special effects and extensive nature photography. But with the live-action portion, I had my hands full. I knew Terrence Malick wanted to shoot in an unconventional way, to be spontaneous and natural."
As production approached, Jack Fisk searched for a Texas town that still retained a slower, quieter 1950s feel. He found what he was looking for in Smithville, about 40 miles outside of Austin. First settled in the mid-1800's, Smithville lies nestled at the eastern edge of the fabled "Lost Pines of Texas" and near the banks of the Colorado River. With its broad streets lined with sprawling magnolias, and its mix of Queen Anne, Craftsman and Victorian houses hosting ample lawns with children at play, Smithville could easily be mistaken for a time machine to the American past.
"Smithville looks like it hasn't changed in 50 years," muses Dede Gardner. "And Terrence Malick wanted there to be no movie trucks or trailers anywhere in sight so that you could walk down any block and shoot. You'd wander around and see bicycles left on lawns, dogs roaming around the neighborhood, kids toys in the yard - it was an extraordinary place."
Taking advantage of the tenor of the town, Jack Fisk began creating the O'Brien house, and the backyard territory where the boys first encounter so much of life around the tree their father plants. Jack Fisk explains: "What I wanted to do with the production design was to create a town that wasn't at all specific, that was more timeless, that was more like a childhood memory of the way things one were, a memory that could apply to everyone."
To that end, says Jack Fisk, "the sets are more about color and light than anything substantive. Color and texture are what the camera sees, and since Terrence Malick did not light the sets, the colors became very important. I always approach sets as a sculpture, like a work in progress that evolves. I don't go locked in with an idea."
He continues, "My approach to the O'Brien house was from what I remembered from my own childhood. Terrence Malick's films also always have a lot of earth and naturalism so I try to incorporate the environment as much as possible. One thing I've learned from Terrence Malick is to always appreciate the amazing things that surround us."
The sets in Houston, where a grown Jack O'Brien, moves through a world of finance and power in steel high-rises that pierce the sky, become the antithesis of Smithville. "The contrast of this little town with the big, modern city shows the life many of us find ourselves leading a generation later. It's a powerful image that in Houston, the trees are in the lobbies of big buildings instead of in the yards."
Shooting also took place at Austin's Barton Springs, the State Capitol in Austin and amid the grain and cotton fields of Manor, Texas. The film's climactic scenes were shot in a variety of stark landscapes, including Utah's Goblin Valley, the Bonneville Salt Flats, Mono Lake, Death Valley, and Matagorda Bay Nature Park, the rustic shoreline where the Colorado River meets the Gulf of Mexico.
Throughout the production, Jack Fisk says a kind of organic connection developed between all of the cast and crew, which allowed each of the film's different elements to combine in unexpected ways. "Terrence Malick never calls it his film, he always says 'it's our film.' There's a sense that all of us are working together to create moments that become the big picture of the film. It's a great way to work."
Also excited to work again with Terrence Malick was costume designer Jacqueline West, a two-time Academy Award® nominee who collaborated with him on The New World, and most recently designed the costumes for The Social Network. Says Jacqueline West, "There's nobody like Terrence Malick as a filmmaker. He's an artist and a philosopher, but he makes his ideas accessible to everyone like a painter, like Van Gogh. When I work with Terrence Malick, I feel like I'm working on something that'll endure."
For Jacqueline West, this was especially true of The Tree Of Life. "It was the most beautiful script I've ever read," she comments. "I found it to be the most moving depiction of what it means to be part of a family -- how you're connected to those you've lost and all that's gone before and to what it all will mean when your own life ends. I'd never seen any of that put on paper in a movie script before."
To prepare for the production, West researched films such as Intolerance and Nostalgia. "I felt a timelessness with the project. I wanted to immerse myself in films that had kept their evocative qualities even after many years. This film needed a subtle touch," says Jacqueline West.
Jacqueline West has also worked numerous times with Brad Pitt, including helping to age him backwards in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. "I really enjoy working with Brad Pitt," she says. "He calls me a 'Method Costumer' because I like to dress characters from the inside out."
This was the only way to approach the fluid world of memories at play in The Tree Of Life. Jacqueline West was inspired by the title of the film itself. "The centerpiece of the movie to me was that tree in the O'Brien yard. I wanted the family to look almost like they grew out of that yard, too, so I tried to keep the colors very organic and muted like in nature," she explains.
Jacqueline West continues: "For Jessica Chastain, her clothes are classic and simple to allow her character to shine through. For Brad Pitt I looked to a photo I found of Texas-based NASA engineers standing in the wind in soft, muted gabardines. I felt that in all