Cannes 2011: Finally, the end of secrets on Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’

For years, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” has hovered over the film world like a ghost, staying just out of reach. An intriguing, mysterious project starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, there were hints over the years that the movie tackled themes of faith, family and the reason for existence. And oh yes, there seemed to be a dinosaur involved too.

Last year, the movie almost came to the Cannes Film Festival — plans were in motion with organizers — before the enigmatic Malick and the producers pulled back as the festival drew near.

Not long after, the question began to percolate: Perhaps “The Tree of Life” would never come out? After all, Malick had taken an unusually long time to get a movie out before, waiting 20 years after his sophomore effort, “Days of Heaven,” to release his third film, the 1998 war drama “The Thin Red Line,” which was nominated for the best picture Oscar. The new film’s effects — including what looked like a computer-generated dinosaur, revealed in a leaked photo — were indeed taking years to assemble in postproduction. The process dragged out to such an extent that the film ended up with about a half-dozen editors; no one could afford to stay on long enough to complete the job.

All the whispers will finally come to an end Monday as “The Tree of Life” premieres in Cannes before arriving in U.S. theaters on May 27. In interviews, people who worked on “The Tree of Life” described a process filled with almost as much mystery as the themes the movie explores.

About five years ago, Malick had just finished the Colin Farrell colonial tale “The New World” and began talking with his team in earnest about making a film that dealt with his own childhood, the creation of the universe and the meaning of all things.

He had discussed it before — financier-producer Bill Pohlad recalls sitting down with Malick about a decade ago and hearing the pitch for a script well over 200 pages. “I told him good luck and moved on,” said Pohlad, who couldn’t imagine such an ambitious project ever getting made.

But Malick, who eschews photos and interviews, had been working on it much earlier. Jack Fisk, the director’s longtime production designer and collaborator, says the ideas have been dancing in the back of the director’s mind since he began making films.

“Terry had been collecting footage for decades, since ‘Badlands,’” Fisk said, referring to the director’s acclaimed 1973 debut starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. “Things like eclipses and other natural wonders, just for this film.”

It would be more than 30 years before Malick was ready to make his spiritual opus, combining scenes from a midcentury Texas childhood, inspired by Malick’s, with cosmic and astral images pertaining to the origins of the world. With a new script that interwove those two sections more tightly than before, Pohlad came on to finance and produce it.

Pitt, Penn and Jessica Chastain would star. Pitt, originally a producer on the film, decided to commit to the role of the midcentury father after several other actors fell out. Chastain was already cast as the wife, and Penn would play one of their sons as a grown-up.

The budget for the live-action portion was about $6 million, according to one person close to the production who asked not to be named because the person was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. It was shot about three years ago in Smithville, Texas, a town that Fisk describes as “more like 1950s America than any place in the country today.”

The budget for the effects portion — which according to some who worked on the film is split into “realms” such as “the microbial” and “the natural” and includes simulations of the creation of the galaxy’s first stars — is harder to gauge. Those scenes were put together with an unusual set of partners that included NASA experts.

“I’ve worked on a lot of movies where scientists were consultants,” said visual effects coordinator Dan Glass, who described the use of Hubble Telescope imagery and the process of re-creating the stars, known as Population 3 stars. “But these were not advisors that contributed an image or two — they were a team of people meant to ensure this was scientifically accurate.”

In Texas, the movie shot in three houses all made to look like the same one, so Malick could shift easily between them depending on the light at a given moment, with the production often packing up in one house and running to the next in the middle of the day. Malick used no artificial lighting and often pointed the camera away from the actors’ performances, toward the wind and the sky. Cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki said “Tree” was “like no set I’ve ever worked on.”

Malick changed dialogue and action as he went. “‘Oh Jessica, no one pays attention to the script,’” Chastain recalled Malick saying when she sought to recall her lines as written.

Because he didn’t know what he wanted until he saw it, the director would often keep everyone else guessing too.

“It was about waking up early in the morning and wondering how your day would change based on what you thought Terry might feel,” said Jacqueline West, a costume designer and another member of the Malick coterie. “A lot of working on this movie was about being clairvoyant.”

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Michelle