A six-hour “Tree of Life”?
Filmgoers with a love for master filmmaking that tends toward the semi-linear embraced "The Tree of Life" in a big way. So when word got out the original screenplay was three inches high and six hours long – and when cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki hinted in the press a few weeks ago that legendary auteur Terrence Malick had plans to work on a cut of the movie that might be several hours longer — happy forwards and retweets rippled through the cineaste community.
At a Q&A following a showing of the film Thursday night at the Landmark, part of TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series, Lubezki turned a bit bashful about the revelation. "I got scolded, so I don't know if I can talk about it," he said.
Turning to producer Dede Gardner, he asked, "Dede, can I talk about it?"
After the producer gave him the go-ahead, the cinematographer explained.
Much — if not almost all — of the intimidating, original three-inch-thick screenplay was jettisoned, and Malick ultimately came in with a very dialogue-light, almost montage-like film that clocks in at a fairly economical two hours and 19 minutes.
Indeed, several reports at Cannes had Sean Penn storming out after the "Tree of Life" screening, complaining that most of his work had been left on the cutting-room floor.
"There was going to be a long version of the movie at one point, and I don't know if it exists or not, Lubezi said. “I saw many edits, and one was probably close to six hours, and it was incredible. And I was hoping that they would finish it, even if it was just to make some DVDs or Blu-Rays, because it was fantastic."
But when the evening’s host, TheWrap’s Oscars guru Steve Pond, asked Gardner if she had anything to add about the prospect of eventually sating Malick fans' thirst with an epic cut of the film on home video, the producer was more circumspect: "No.”
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But as open as Malick was to throwing out much of his script and virtually all of its dialogue, he was exacting when it came to including certain key beats.
"Some scenes he'd thought about for many, many decades," said Lubezki, "and he knew he wanted to capture a certain emotion, and he would not leave the set until that was in the can. The scene where Jack is crying in the high grass and his brother is there, it took many, many weeks for (the child actor) to get comfortable with us to open up like that, and Terry knew he wanted that scene," however long a wait it took.
Before "The Tree of Life," Lubezki had worked with legendary auteur Terrence Malick once before, “The New World.” So by the time he got to this film's Texas set, he already knew the secret of "Life": Don't read the script.
When Malick approached Lubezki about shooting a second film, "he sent me five pages, a little outline that explained what this movie was going to be, and it was beautifully written. All the ideas, all the intent, and the core were there."
Then things got … expansive. "I never read the entire script," Lubezki admitted. "The first time they sent me the script, it was like this" — he held his fingers about an inch apart — "and the first time I went into the office it was something like that," he said, laughing, his fingers now three inches apart. "I said, 'Terry, which scenes are we going to shoot?' He said, 'I don't know.'
"I learned on the previous movie that when I read the script, I get very anxious that we're not getting all the material. That's my small producer side (coming out) on something like that. So it was liberating for me not to read the script and only read the pages that we were going to shoot a week or three days before, and prepare as little as possible. I almost didn't prep the movie."
Those words might sound as horrific to the average producer as they would to anyone who grew up believing the Boy Scout credo. But Gardner told the crowd she was on the same spontaneous page, even as she emphasized that Malick's improvisational spirit shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of planning.
"It was like an experiment he'd practiced for his whole life," Gardner told Pond.
Added Lubezki, "Some people would ask me, 'Was he prepared?' He prepared this movie for 20 or 30 years!"
Gardner said that, ironically, Brad Pitt's involvement predated the making of the film by years, as a producer, but only by a very short time, in his more visible role.
"Brad and I had been speaking to Terry and Sarah Green many, many years prior about a different project," Gardner said, "and over the course of this conversation he brought up 'The Tree of Life' as a movie he absolutely intended to get made one day — and recognized the challenges that it would present."
At that time, she and Pitt pledged the support that ultimately led to both being producers on the project. But "it was very late in the game that Brad decided to be in it. As crazy as it sounds, that came at the 11th hour."
But, from the sound of things, Malick is in love with no hour if not the 11th one… especially when it comes to spontaneous developments on the set.
Lubezki said Malick would eschew dialogue whenever possible, trying to get the actors to "express the same emotion without the words."
How'd the actors go for that?
"It takes time to understand how this works," Lubezki said. "But what I know is, by the second week, everybody was comfortable and understood what we were trying to do. The first week, it was easiest for us to work with the kids, because they didn't have any experience. They'd never seen a set before. They didn't know how movies are made. So they didn't care much. It felt a little like summer camp, to them."
An asterisk is required there because Malick "finds the movie in the editing room," as his cinematographer says.
There's a history of actors' importance in Malick's movies shifting from the shooting to editing process, with Adrien Brody reportedly not finding out he'd gone from leading character to cameo player in "The Thin Red Line" till it was about to open.
Pond added that he'd spoken with Bardem a year ago about the role he'd just shot in Malick's still-unreleased film, and at that time, the actor wasn't certain if he'd be a major character or get cut out — though he loved the experience either way.
"Is Javier Bardem in the movie?" asked Pond.
"I hope so," laughed Lubezki.
"But that's what we shot. I don't know. We'll find out together!"