The Story Behind The Tree Of Life
If director Terrence Malick lived life by a mantra, we’d put good money on that mantra being ‘Slow and steady wins the race’. The cult director of Badlands and The Thin Red Line has been making movies for over 30 years, but until recently he still only had four feature directing credits to his name.
His fifth and latest is The Tree Of Life , a CG-infused dramatic human-struggle genre-splicer that seemingly takes its title from Norse mythology, and has been consistently shrouded in mystery. But like all of Malick’s films, Tree has taken its time getting to the big screen.
With attempts to premiere the film at Cannes 2010 falling through and word that CGI work was coming along at a snail’s pace, Tree was stirring and frustrating expectant fans in equal measure. Which only served to make the project even more enticing. Because Tree was looking like it just might be Malick’s most ambitious, outrageous work to date...
“We met when he was involved with Che ,” said producer-financier-distributor Bill Pohlad of Malick last October. “He pitched me an idea that I thought was crazy, and it turned out to be The Tree Of Life , which we're doing together now.”
Even Pohlad had his doubts. “It wasn't a case of, ‘Sure, whatever you want to do.’ It evolved over a period of time - the development of the idea and our personal friendship - and then I felt as strongly about it as he did.”
So what what would The Tree Of Life prove to be? A typically media-shy Malick refused to be drawn on the topic, having avoided talking with journalists for pretty much the entirety of his career.
But it could be that Tree has its origins back in the summer of 1978. Back with a script mysteriously titled Q ...
In the late 1970s, Terrence Malick was hot property. His directorial debut Badlands , which landed in 1973 and starred Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen as a murderous couple on the run, was greeted with rave reviews and the sense that a formidable new talent had arrived in the movie world.
With the release of Malick’s phenomenal sophomore picture Days Of Heaven in ’78, it seemed the director had well and truly established himself as a force to be reckoned with.
But then Malick disappeared. “From this point on,” he said in his last interview before the vanishing act, “I'm being watched. That could trip me up.”
“I knew he wasn't long for this business,” said producer Don Simpson, who’d hung out with Malick on Days Of Heaven . “He never loved the movies - he was more the philosopher.”
Still, Malick couldn’t stop writing...
What was it that prompted Malick’s sudden disappearance from movieland? A new script he’d been working on entitled Q .
Hatching the concept in the summer of 1978, Malick began writing Q at the time that Days Of Heaven was being lauded as his breakthrough work. Q was to be his most ambitious project yet.
Set in the Middle East during World War I, with a prologue that took place in prehistoric times, the script ended up being 250 pages in length.
This was serious. Malick even went so far as to send an assistant out scouting locations. But after a 10 week scouting trip, Malick decided to dump the Middle East section of Q and expand the prehistoric prologue so that it became the whole script.
“Imagine this surrealistic reptilian world,” says Richard Taylor, who was hired by Malick as a special-effects consultant.
“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.”
Sadly, it was not to be...
By the middle of 1979, Malick had forked out a small fortune in preparation to shoot the film. But Paramount were becoming irritable, finding themselves footing the bills for a film that was changing massively from one day to the next.
“It got to the point that whatever people wanted, he wouldn't give it to them,” special effects guru Taylor recalls. “Because he was expected to make a movie, he'd say, ‘I don't want to.’ One day he went to France, and that was it.”
Screenwriter pal Bill Witliff summed up Malick’s flying the coup succinctly: “I think the more applause he got, the more frightened he got.” Q was dead...
Twenty years after Days Of Heaven hit the big time, Malick finally made his return to moviemaking. He started considering it as early as 1992, when he wrote numerous drafts of The Thin Red Line , a war epic that focussed on the Guadalcanal conflict in World War II.
In a working process that would become the director’s trademark, Malick crafted his first film in two decades with slow care. An early draft of The Thin Red Line was read out to him by Kevin Costner and Ethan Hawke, just so Malick could hear what it sounded like.
Finally, by 1998, he had a movie. “Terry is just an elegant gentleman and a wonderful poet,” said star Sean Penn of his director. “I wish Terry would make more films.”
Opening to overwhelmingly positive reviews, Red Line went on to receive seven Oscar nominations, including one for Malick himself in the Best Director category. The shy auteur was well and truly back...
The Fresh Buds
By 2005, Malick was on a roll. He’d shot and released The New World , a pseudo-Pocahontas re-telling that was lauded for its sumptuous visuals, and his new film The Tree Of Life had been announced.
With Colin Farrell and Mel Gibson in talks to star, Indian production company Percept Picture Co would finance the film, which would be shot mostly in India. Then, as is often the way with Malick films, forward momentum ground to a crawling pace.
In October 2007, Sean Penn and Heath Ledger were mentioned as possible stars, replacing Farrell and Gibson. By December ’07, Brad Pitt was being talked about as a replacement for Ledger. Plot details were kept strictly under wraps.
Another 17 months later in May 2009, we finally got our first inkling that Tree Of Life could very well be the resurrected Q , as visual effects artist Mike Fink revealed he was working on prehistoric scenes for the film. At last, Tree Of Life was coming together...
“It should be interesting, really interesting,” says Brad Pitt of The Tree Of Life , before he revealed the film's basic plot. “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.”
Filming on Malick’s fifth feature film took place mostly in Texas, with prehistoric scenes reportedly shot for a separate IMAX project that would depict the birth and death of the universe.
Meanwhile, the titular tree (apparently not a nod to Yggdrasil, the ‘tree of life’ in Norse mythology, but a more poetic allusion to the links we share in our lives) was a 65,000 pound live oak tree that was transplanted to Smithsville for the film...
For the man who Christian Bale once referred to as “an unusual and rare bird”, an apparent 30-year-old dream has finally come to fruition with The Tree Of Life .
Malick’s film premiered in Cannes this year after it failed to make an appearance at last year’s festival. The reaction was typically mixed, but there was considerable praise for the personal epic. After being postponed several times, the movie should finally be arriving in UK cinemas on 8 July 2011.
So, will Tree Of Life become Malick's defining work? Well, when even the film’s trailer is a thing of heart-stopping beauty, you know you’re in the presence of something truly extraordinary...