Making ‘Tree of Life': Inside the Malick Method

Terrence Malick’s collaborators talk about the wild, unconventional journey that turned into a remarkable new film

Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" may have a summer release date, but it's further away from being a typical summer movie than any other film released this season.

At times an intimate coming-of-age story and at times a cosmic meditation on grace, life and creation, Malick's Palme d'Or winner is a remarkable achievement that has divided critics but is essential viewing for serious movie fans.

(Whether the film, which debuts in limited New York and Los Angeles release Friday, will translate to the casual multiplex crowd, even with Brad Pitt in a leading role, is another matter entirely.)

Also Read: Outside of Cannes, 'Tree of Life' Remains Magnificent and Maddening

Dede Gardner and Bill PohladSince the famously reclusive Malick is not one to explain himself, TheWrap spoke to producers Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardner (left, at the Cannes awards ceremony) and to special effects supervisor Dan Glass about the various stages of Malick's lyrical, fragmented, occasionally perplexing but always rapturous reverie.  

(Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

1. GENESIS

BILL POHLAD: We were working on another project, "Che," which Terry was going to direct at the time. It was a daunting project, and Terry's script for "Che" was not an easy read, or a typical read.

And right in the middle of our discussions about "Che," he sat down and told me this three-hour story that was "Tree of Life." At that point, half of it was the creation of the world and the universe, and the other half was a family growing up in a small town in Texas. And after three hours I was like, "Wow. That's one of the greatest stories I've ever heard, but if you're asking me to get involved in it now, I think we've got enough on our plate."

And then in the end, neither of us ended up doing "Che." Steven Soderbergh did it, Terry went off and did "The New World," and I went in another direction as well. But we kept in touch, and he sent me the "Tree of Life" script three or four years later.

DAN GLASS: It was a little over five years ago that I had my first meetings with Terry. My first impression was that he's a wonderful, sweet-natured human being. He's a very humble, very mild and gentle individual, and he has this wonderful way of making everybody around him feel like they're equals in terms of knowledge.

It's like he strains to remember things: "Well, it’s something like this … "  (laughs) But he'll rattle off the correct scientific names for a dozen species, and know all the eras in sequential order for the period of history that we were dealing with. He's a vast encyclopedia, but he doesn’t wear it in a way that is overbearing.

DEDE GARDNER: Brad [Pitt] and I were talking to Terry about another project, and Terry mentioned this one to us. We talked about getting involved just on the producing side, because there was another actor attached. And then it didn’t happen with that actor, and we thought, well, let's do this.

2. PRE-PRODUCTION

GLASS: Our first conversations ranged from the very beginnings of the universe all the way up to the present day, and certain sections that take us to a future. And that would have been one thing, to have covered that breath of knowledge and information and ideas. But infused in that was his idea that he wanted to involve some of the world's leading scientists, so that the base of what we were doing was very true to what we now understand about our place in the world. And at the same time he wanted to bring in artists that he had encountered over the decades.

Tree of LifeThere weren’t any storyboards. In fact, he said he wasn’t somebody who worked in that fashion. He said he didn’t respond to the coldness of storyboards or pre-viz. You don't feel the emotion, and at the end of the day he's an emotional director.

3. PRODUCTION

GARDNER: It was extraordinary being on location. We had a whole neighborhood in Smithville, this little town in Texas. And we didn’t have to do too much to make it look like the 1950s. We removed a few air conditioners and things, but it already looked good.

Some of the people moved out, others were still there part of the time. But our people could work there and live there. One house might be wardrobe, another house would be makeup — it was a great way to shoot, because there were no star trailers or trucks or anything around. We all had places to work, but when you closed the front doors it just looked like a neighborhood from the '50s.

POHLAD: I'll never forget the first day sitting in the main house. Terry was sitting in a chair talking to Chivo [cinematographer Emanual Lubezki], just sitting back so relaxed and so happy. Not relaxed like he's not doing anything, but relaxed like he knows exactly what he's doing. It was so easy, and so cool. It reminded me of an athlete: when you're in the zone everything seems so easy, even though what you're doing is amazingly out there.

GARDNER: I think his approach was a little more straightforward on this film than on some of his others, in terms of the actors not knowing what he was going to use. We did have a script, and he basically followed the script. But he was always open to accidents.

GLASS: He's always looking for those magical moments that in the live-action drama are so present — the butterfly that lands on Jessica [Chastain]'s hand, which he said was a happy accident. He's a director of happy accidents, in some ways. But visual effects is not a natural environment for creating happy accidents.

So he had the idea of using experimental art as a reference. We met with several experimental filmmakers from the '70s. And we looked at music, because I was trying to find a way into understanding what he wanted to communicate if we couldn't storyboard. Could we construct a template of music, and build images to that? He responded very well to that, and sent me vast libraries of musical motifs, many of which are in the film. It was a great way to get an impression of what he was after emotionally.

GARDNER: We were shooting the live-action scenes in Texas, and at the same time they were doing visual-effects work on the creation of the universe, and those other scenes. Because those were always an integral part of the film, from the first time we heard Terry talk about it.

Tree of LifeGLASS: There are these visualizations in the film that are really cutting edge. Visualizations of "Population Three" stars at the birth of the universe, which is a very key moment because it's about the birth of light in the universe. There are scientific visualizations of that, and the trick was translating them into something that had a kind of heart and soul to it, whilst being very faithful to the science.

We brought in a series of concept artists to play with ideas and light and shadow, and we'd feed that back to scientists. And if there was something that diverged from the science, they would let us know. But mostly the scientists really embraced the idea of what Terry was trying to do, which was to present science in a stunning visual form.

4. POST-PRODUCTION

POHLAD: We had a long post-production schedule budgeted in there, so it wasn't like any of us ever thought, It's been two years, what's going on? 

We did have a point last year when we thought we might be ready for Cannes [2010]. There was a certain day where we had to be finished to have the film ready to go to Cannes. And we came around to that Friday, and I remember the sun going down on the lot. We were just sitting there and looking at each other going, "This is not right yet. This is not the way we want it to be."

I have a high regard for Cannes, and looked forward to showing the film there. And after all these years, with the scope of this film, to go half-baked or three-quarter baked just didn’t seem right.

It was a tough decision. Terry had a respect for the dynamics and the marketplace and the money and all that, and we had a mutual respect for his vision. We had to find a balance.

GARDNER: In a way, the film isn't that different from what it was a year ago. But in a way it's very different, because it just wasn’t finished then. Maybe the changes weren’t huge, but it was just obvious to all of us that it wasn't finished.

Tree of Life poster5. MARKETING

POHLAD: It’s a tough sell in the sense that it's not a traditional movie. People who say, "Oh, a Brad Pitt movie, I'll go see it" — it's not going to be what you expect. I think Fox Searchlight has been amazing in trying to ride that line, to generate interest in the film without trying to mislead people about what it is.

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. But it's a powerful movie, and a moving movie.

GARDNER: I think movies have a lot of different lives. I saw that with "The Assassination of Jesse James" — we had trouble getting people to see it in theaters, but I still have people coming up to me and telling me how much that movie affected them. That's been happening with "Jesse James" since the movie came out, and it is not slowing down — I still hear it constantly. And I think "Tree of Life" is that kind of movie, too.

POHLAD: It's like a poem, or maybe a great, dense piece of prose where you have to let it wash over you, and not necessarily follow each individual point.  It's not a logical movie, it’s an emotional movie. It's like a great Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen song: you might not get all the lyrics, but just let it happen.