From director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) 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.
Fox Searchlight Pictures and River Road Entertainment present The Tree Of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The producers are Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill. The executive producer is Donald Rosenfeld, the co-producer is Nicolas Gonda and Steve Schwartz and Paula Mae Schwartz are co-executive producers.
The film's artistic crew is comprised of skilled craftspeople who have collaborated with Malick in the past including four-time Academy Award nominated director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC (The New World, Children Of Men); Academy Award nominated costume designer Jacqueline West (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button); Academy Award nominated production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood, Days Of Heaven) and a team of editors including Hank Corwin ACE (The New World), Jay Rabinowitz ACE (I'm Not There, 8 Mile), Academy Award nominee Daniel Rezende (City Of God), two-time Academy Award-nominee Billy Weber (The Thin Red Line, Days Of Heaven) and Mark Yoshikawa (The New World). Alexandre Desplat, three time Academy Award nominee for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, The Queen and The King's Speech, composed the score.
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 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. "Terry 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. "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".
"Terry has his own unique cinematic language", notes producer Grant Hill, who previously worked with 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 Malick's process. It quickly attracted additional producers who had been in touch for several years with Malick, hoping to work with him on impending projects: River Road's Bill Pohlad and Plan B partners Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner.
Says 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 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". 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 Terry 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 Terry 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. 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 Trumbull 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 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 Terry 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 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 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 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's performance, you believe that he really loves his family and you feel his struggles and his blindness", observes Gardner. "Brad'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, Terry 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 that is very different from his other work".
Pitt had never worked with Malick before and had to get accustomed to the director's unusually unstructured process. "Brad was so willing to just jump in and go with it", recalls Pohlad. "He really believed in Terry and was ready for any challenge". Sean Penn previously worked with 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 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'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 for a brief time, but he leads the entire journey", notes 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, 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 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".
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 Pacino who first recommended her to Malick. The entire filmmaking team remembers her audition. "I think we all had the instant conviction that Jessica was right for the role", says Gardner. "She plays a woman who is the essence of goodness and patience and Jessica 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 did a beautiful job of creating this almost silent, but solid, strong force that holds the family together", adds Hill. Right before her audition, Chastain held her own private 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 Terry 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 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 realized 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, Chastain also dove into period research. "I watched movies from the 30s and 40s, especially a lot of Lauren Bacall, which Terry 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 Terry 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 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".
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 Terry, acting becomes like magic, there is really a total suspension of disbelief. At the end of the production, my heart broke as I realized these were not really my boys", she confesses.
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 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 a year before we actually cast him and over that year, Hunter 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 realized that this boy was extraordinary".
Confirms Green, "None of us could take our eyes off Hunter. 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 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 was a kind of miracle", says 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 - he found us".
Tye Sheridan, who plays the youngest brother, Steve, was one of the earliest choices. Remembers 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 Gonda. The boys seemed to organically take to their roles, bringing the naturalistic curiosity, ease and wildness of boyhood innocence to the fore. "Terry was trying to get to something that was very true. So he looked for boys who he thought could develop into the roles", says Pohlad. "It was fun to see the boys grow as the film grew and vice versa, to see Terry 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.
"Terry'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 Pohlad.
"His way of working is mystifying", muses 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".
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 Malick's career. It would also mean doing so with an original approach that would jibe with 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, 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 Oddysey. 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 Brainstorm. Though he has not worked in Hollywood for years, Trumbull was drawn to Malick's vision for The Tree Of Life. For one thing, Malick wanted every image to feel like a natural phenomenon, which meant relying as little as possible on computers and using what Trumbull dubs "Non-Computer Graphics".
"Terry 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 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 Terry's naturalistic world".
Trumbull had fallen in love with 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 Terry'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", Trumbull says. Soon after, Trumbull and Malick began a series of hypothetical conversations about how some of the sequences in 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", Trumbull explains.
They also talked a lot about astronomy in general, says Trumbull, "about the workings of the universe, the Big Bang Theory, cosmic expansion, general relativity and how they might all fit together. Terry 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 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. Terry 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, Malick did not use typical storyboards for these sequences. "He didn't want a mechanistic approach that would be set in cement", observes 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 Trumbull, "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 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 Malick and 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", 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 systemized, very planned out at the earliest stages", he comments, "but Terry was more interested in creating vignettes that really communicate emotion and mood and are more spontaneous feeling".
In keeping with that process, 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 Trumbull, he spent a lot of time with Malick discussing what we have gleaned of the history and fate of the universe over billions of years from the latest scientific research. "Terry had read and read and had a phenomenal level of knowledge about our current understanding in these areas", 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 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. Knoll. "Terrence worked hard to get the science right, seeing in life's history the broadest of frames for an intimate family story".
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 Terry 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. 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 Malick, Glass and 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 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 Malick on The New World. As he had done before with Malick, 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.
"Terry is the most visual director I've come across and he and Chivo 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, "Chivo Lubezki is a vital part of Terry'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".
Also joining in the dance was production designer Jack Fisk, who has worked with 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.
Fisk had known for many years that 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. "Terry 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 realized 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 Terry wanted to shoot in an unconventional way, to be spontaneous and natural".
As production approached, 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 Terry 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, 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. 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 Fisk, "the sets are more about color and light than anything substantive. Color and texture are what the camera sees and since Terry 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. Terry'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 Terry 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, 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. "Terry 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 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 West, "There's nobody like Terry 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 Terry, I feel like I'm working on something that'll endure".
For 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 West. 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", 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. 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. West continues: "For Jessica, her clothes are classic and simple to allow her character to shine through. For Brad 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 the rigidity of his character, there was still a soft side that should come through in his wardrobe. But he has to be intimidating to the boys, so he's always in a suit. He never really undresses or exposes his inner self to his children".
West collaborated closely with the actors and Malick in all her choices. "I made a little closet for Jessica with all the items we had picked and then she would just pull the clothes out that fit how she felt that day. It was a lovely way to do it". Chastain loved working with West in this way. "Jackie helped me to know my character in a way I couldn't even have come close to on my own. Everything she gave me were just the perfect choices", says the actress. For the three O'Brien boys, West allowed their outfits to echo one another. "They are definitely individuals but they are also brothers who have that kind of common thread, so I tried to keep the similarity going and also that sense that they wore hand-me-downs from each other". West saw Sean Penn's older version of Jack as standing in stark opposition to those boys. "The palette of the family is soft and almost sepia-toned, like a photograph, but Jack became an architect with very sharp lines in his life. I felt that a black suit created the right contrast to the earthy tones of his memories and Terry was in agreement. He loved the modernity of it".
The Tree Of Life also marks the fifth time that West has collaborated with Jack Fisk, with whom she has a nearly symbiotic relationship. "I almost feel that I don't have to communicate with Jack, we feel so similarly about using design and palette to tell a story. Just as Jack's sets reveal Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien's take on life, the clothes had to do the same". Perhaps the most unusual scene to design for was the climactic sequence, as the O'Brien family meets again in a numinous space. "I talked with Terry about how this would be a very emotional, beautiful moment and that there should be a lovely softness, an ethereal feeling, yet using everyday clothes", she explains.
West says that the entire experience of The Tree Of Life will stand out as something entirely different from anything else in her career. "Working with Terry feels like you're doing much more than making a movie", she summarizes. "I think for all of us, it had to come from a different place. With Terry, it's more like you're all going out and painting a painting together".
But the art of making a movie is not just visual but also aural - with music and sound as vital to the experience of The Tree Of Life as color, texture and mood. Voiceovers bleed into the orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat and vice versa, forging a sonic environment in which all the everyday noises and grand melodies of life carry equal weight and become another source of wonder and mystery.
"The film can be seen as a requiem to a lost son", says Green. "And the music is a reflection of that idea. Many of the compositions are requiems, from the opening Tavenor, to the Preisner over the early universe sequence, to the Berlioz over the future". But the absence of music also played a pivotal role for Malick. As Gardner describes, "Silence is as equally powerful as music to Terry. He uses it like a single instrument, but with the impact of a full symphony orchestra". Enhancing that experience is the work of French composer Desplat, noted for his sensual, moody scores for such films as The King's Speech and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, who was instantly drawn to the themes of The Tree Of Life.
In early conversations, Desplat understood that Malick wanted something "trance-like and meditative" for the score, that he wanted it to be as natural and innate an element as the trees, grass and stellar implosions. "The main thing Terry told me was that the music should be flowing like a body of water throughout the film. So there was a river-like feeling to what I tried to achieve", Desplat says. "The music had to be very organic and earthy so we used only live instruments and no electronics. There is a lot of piano, which is very simple and basic. And even though the movie is very spiritual, I didn't want the music to ever be New Age-y. I wanted a timeless quality, a shimmering quality, where vibrations arise from the sounds of nature".
He worked with Malick, who speaks fluent French, in unorthodox ways. "We worked by talking about everything, about philosophy, poetry, visual perceptions, many various things", he explains. "We talked about light, silence, nature, childhood innocence". Malick had already chosen existing music from several composers, including the 19th Century French Romantic Hector Berlioz - known for his mix of emotional turbulence and elegant classicism - and the 20th Century Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti - whose is perhaps most widely known for pieces used in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddysey. Desplat used their work as cues to inspire his own.
Desplat then recorded about two hours of score with the London Symphony Orchestra, without any picture. "Terry had shown me chunks of the film, so I had a sense of the pace, the fluidity, the density, but I did not want to follow it literally", he explains. "When the score was recorded, I put it in Terry's hands to edit all the layers as he wanted. He could play with it as another part of his toolbox".
Like everyone involved in The Tree Of Life, Desplat trusted that somewhere in this river-like process, unexpected and unrepeatable moments would break the surface. Concludes Desplat, echoing his compatriots on the film, "I trusted in the idea that Terry is always an alchemist, who will find just the right mix to turn mercury into gold".
Brad Pitt (Mr. O'Brien/ Produced by), one of today's strongest and most versatile film actors, is also a successful film producer, with his company Plan B Entertainment. He was an Academy Award nominee for his performance in David Fincher's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, for which he won a Golden Globe Award. He was also a Golden Globe Award nominee for his performances in Edward Zwick's Legends Of The Fall and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel.
Pitt recently wrapped Moneyball as Billy Beane for Bennett Miller. This Sony picture will be released in Spring 2011. The previous year, Pitt starred in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds as Lt. Aldo Raine. Prior to Inglorious Basterds, Pitt appeared in Joel and Ethan Coen's comedy thriller Burn After Reading, which had its world premiere as the opening night attraction at the 2008 Venice International Film Festival. The previous year, he was named Best Actor at Venice for his portrayal of Jesse James in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford directed by Andrew Dominik. Opposite George Clooney, his Burn After Reading co-star, he also appeared in Steven Soderbergh's hits Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen with him.
Born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, he grew up in Springfield, Missouri and attended the University of Missouri at Columbia where he majored in Journalism. Right before graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to study graphic design, but instead began to pursue an acting career, studying with Roy London. Soon after, he began securing roles in television, including the series Glory Days and the acclaimed telefilms The Image directed by Peter Werner and Too Young to Die? directed by Robert Markowitz.
It was Mr. Pitt's role in Ridley Scott's Academy Award-winning Thelma And Louise that first brought him national attention. He soon went on to star in Robert Redford's Academy Award-winning A River Runs Through It, Dominic Sena's Kalifornia and Neil Jordan's Interview With The VampirE. He has also starred in Tom DiCillo's Johnny Suede, which won the Golden Leopard Award for Best Picture at the 1991 Locarno International Film Festival; Ralph Bakshi's Cool World, Tony Scott's True Romance, Barry Levinson's Sleepers, Alan J. Pakula's The Devil's Own, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years In Tibet, Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black and two previous David Fincher films SE7EN and Fight Club.
More recent films include Doug Liman's Mr. And MrS. Smith, which was one of 2005's biggest hits, Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, Patrick Gilmore and Tim Johnson's animated feature Sinbad: Legend Of The SevEn Seas, Tony Scott's Spy Game, Gore Verbinski's The Mexican, Guy Ritchie's Snatch, as well as cameo roles in Soderbergh's Full Frontal and Clooney's Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind.
Pitt's Plan B Entertainment develops and produces both film and television projects. Plan B has thus far produced such films as Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart, for which Angelina Jolie received Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, Critics' Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, Robert Schwentke's Time Traveller's Wife, Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee and the Oscar nominated The Assassination Of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and directed by Andrew Dominik.
Two-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn (Jack) has become an American film icon in a career spanning nearly three decades. Penn has been nominated five times for the Academy Award as Best Actor for Dead Man Walking, Sweet And Lowdown, I Am Sam and won his first Oscar in 2003 for his searing performance in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and his second Oscar as Best Actor in 2009 for Gus Van Sant's Milk. The performance as gay rights icon Harvey Milk also garnered Penn "Best Actor" awards from The Screen Actors Guild, New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Penn has also received Best Actor awards at the Cannes (She's So Lovely) and Berlin (Dead Man Walking) Film Festivals, as well as being a two-time winner of Best Actor honors at the Venice Film Festival (Hurlyburly, 21 Grams). Penn will next be seen in Terrence Malick's drama The Tree Of Life opposite Brad Pitt and Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The PlAce. Both films are official entries at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Penn's feature film directorial debut came with 1991's The Indian Runner, which he also wrote and produced. In 1995, he directed The Crossing Guard, which he also wrote and produced. His third film as director/producer was 2001's The Pledge starring Jack Nicholson and was named in the Top Ten Films of 2001 by The National Board of Review. Since then, Penn wrote and directed the United States contribution to the compilation film 11'09'01. This important project gathered 11 acclaimed directors from around the world to create short films in response to the horrific events of September 11, 2001. In 2003 the film was nominated for a French Cesar in the best European Union Film category and received a special recognition award from the National Board of Review. As writer, producer and director, Into The Wild marked Penn's fourth feature film, which opened to rave reviews in September 2007. The film, based on Jon Krakauer's best-selling non-fiction book, premiered at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and appeared on many lists of the top ten films of 2007.
Penn has appeared on stage in productions including Alfred Hayes' Girl on the Via Flaminia and Albert Innaurato's Earthworms In Los Angeles. On Broadway, Penn performed in Kevin Heelan's Heartland and John Byrne's Slab Boys. He appeared in David Rabe's Hurlyburly, at the Westwood Playhouse and Goose and Tom Tom, at Lincoln Center, both productions directed by the author. Most recently, Penn starred opposite Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson in The Late Henry Moss, written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Sam Shepard.
In 2002, Sean Penn was presented with the Modern Master Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and in 2003, became the youngest recipient to ever receive the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Sebastian Film Festival. In 2004, he was honored with the John Steinbeck Award for outspoken torch-bearers in the creative arts. In 2008, Penn received the Desert Palm Achievement Award for Acting, after being presented in 2007 with the Director of the Year Award for Into The Wild from the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Penn served as President of the jury for the 2008 Cannes International Film Festival and later that year was named a Knight in the French Legion of Honor.
As a journalist, Penn has written for Time, Interview, Rolling Stone and The Nation magazines. In 2004, Penn wrote a two-part feature in The San Francisco Chronicle after a second visit to the war-torn Iraq. In 2005, he wrote a five-part feature in the same paper reporting from Iran during the election which led to the Ahmadinejad regime. Penn's landmark interviews with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's President Raul Castro, were published in The Nation and The Huffington Post. Penn's interview with President Castro was the first-ever interview with an international journalist.
Penn's humanitarian work has found him in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and more recently in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. In January 2010, Penn founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization which focuses on medical aid, protection and re-location. His organization is currently serving as UN IOM designated Camp Management for the largest IDP camp in Port-au-Prince and established the first emergency re-location in the country. For his efforts, Penn received the Commander's Award for Service (US Army 82nd Airborne Division), 82nd Airborne Award for Meritorious Service, the Operation Unified Response JTF Haiti Certificate from Lieutenant General, US Army Commander P.K. Keen, along with the 1st Recon 73rd Division Coin of Excellence, 2nd Brigade Combat Team Coin of Excellence, Commendation of Excellence United States Southern Command and Award of Excellence by the Deputy Commander US Southern Command. Earlier this year, Penn was honored with the "Children's and Families Global Development Fund Humanitarian Award" presented by the Ambassador of the Republic of Haiti, Raymond A. Joseph and his wife, Lola Poisson-Joseph. In July 2010 Penn was knighted by Haitian President Rene Preval in a ceremony in Port-Au-Prince. Penn recently received the 2010 Hollywood Humanitarian Award from the Hollywood Film Festival and the 2011 Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America.
Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O'Brien) has emerged as one of Hollywood's most sought after actors of her generation. Born and raised in Northern California, Chastain attended the Juilliard School in New York City. While there she starred in Romeo and Juliet and went on to receive glowing reviews for her performances in The Cherry Orchard opposite Michelle Williams at Williamstown and Richard Nelson's Rodney's Wife opposite David Strathairn off-Broadway at Playwright's Horizons.
Chastain stars as the female lead in Miramax's The Debt alongside Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. Chastain is an Israeli Mossad agent sent on a mission to apprehend the WWII Nazi surgeon from the concentration camp who tortured Jewish prisoners. Production took place in Budapest and Tel Aviv. Chastain will also be seen in Ami Mann's upcoming feature film, The Fields. This psychological thriller is based on true events that took place in a small Pennsylvania town in 1973. In this project Jessica will star alongside Sam Worthington and Chloe Moretz. Chastain recently wrapped production on Dreamworks' adaptation of the best-selling Kathryn Stockett novel The Help playing Celia Foote, an insecure Southern lady constantly trying to fit in with the high society women who reject her. The story centers on black maids working in white households in the early 1960s in Jackson, Miss. Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and Octavia Spencer are among the cast. The film will be released in August 2011. Chastain will soon begin filming Wettest County, opposite Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy. The film will be directed by John Hillcoat and produced by Doug Wick.
In 2009, Jessica played the role of Desmonda in the classic play Othello opposite Phillip Seymor Hoffman. Directed by Peter Sellars, the project ran beginning in Vienna, then Germany and finishing in New York. At the senior class Juilliard showcase, Jessica landed a coveted talent deal with Emmy award winning executive producer and writer John Wells, the show runner of E.R, West Wing and producer of White Oleander. After completing a pilot for John Wells and director PJ Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding), Jessica returned to the stage in the Los Angeles Wadsworth Theatre production of Salome, where Academy Award Winners Estelle Parsons (director) and Al Pacino handpicked Jessica to play the title role of 'Salome' opposite Al. Continuing the collaboration, producer Barry Navidi commenced the film version of Salome entitled Wild Salome directed by Al Pacino, where they filmed behind the scenes and portions of the play's production.
Chastain's stage work in Salome received enormous critical attention and led to her landing the dynamic title role of Jolene in the Dan Ireland directed production opposite Rupert Friend, Frances Fisher, Dermot Mulroney and Michael Vartan. This adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) short story Jolene depicts a young woman's odyssey of relationships over the course of ten years. Chastain won the Best Actress Award at the 2008 Seattle Film Festival for this role. Chastain currently lives in California.
Fiona Shaw (Grandmother) was born and educated in Ireland. After a degree in philosophy at the University College Cork, she went to R.A.D.A. and was awarded the Bancroft Gold Medal. Theater credits at RNT include Julia in The Rivals, Shen Te Shui in The Good Person of Sichuan (Olivier Award for Best Actress), the Woman in Machinal (Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Actress), Millament in The Way of the World, the title roles in the controversial Richard II and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Power Book by Jeanette Winterson.
For the RSC her work includes Philistines, As You Like It, Les Liasons Dangereuses, Mephisto, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Mistress Carol in Hyde Park, Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew and Electra (Laurence Olivier and London Critics' Awards). At Old Vic Theatre, Shaw performed Rosalind in As You Like It (Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress); at Greenwich Theatre, the title role in Mary Stewart; at Garrick Theatre, Footfalls; at Abbey Theatre, Dublin and Playhouse Theatre, London, Hedda Gabler (London Critics' Award); Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher at BBC Proms and at Lincoln Center, Robert Wilson's DD3. She has performed T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land in Europe, North America and Australia (New York Drama Desk Award for Best Actress).
Films include My Left Foot, Mountains of the Moon-Bob Rafelson, Three Men and a Little Lady - Disney, Undercover Blues - Herbert Ross, The Last September dir. Deborah Warner, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Warner Brothers. Shaw has been awarded D.LITT Trinity College Dublin, in 2001 and an honorary LLD National University of Ireland 1999. In 2002, Shaw was awarded L'Officier des Artes et des Lettres by the French government and was awarded a C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire) in the New Years honours list.
Irrne Bedard (Messenger) was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska and received her BFA in theater arts from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. After school, she moved to New York City and was a founding member of the Native American theater ensemble, Chuka Lokoli. She performed on stages all over the Big Apple including Circle in the Square, Ensemble Studio Theater and the prestigious Joseph Papp Public Theater.
Soon after, she began a career in film and television and has over 40 credits including Lakota Woman for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe in Terrence Malick's The New World, the Robert Redford produced Grand Avenue, Steven Spielberg's miniseries Into the West, cult classic Smoke Signals and the voice of Disney's Pocahontas. She has won numerous best actress and best supporting actress awards.
Hunter McCracken (Young Jack) is making his acting debut in The Tree Of Life. Hunter was born to parents Melissa and Reese McCracken, at Possom Kingdom Lake, Texas and for a time attended school in Clifton, Texas. Currently, Hunter attends Bryson High School in Bryson, Texas. Hunter was playing on the school play ground in Clifton, Texas when he was asked to audition for a possible role in The Tree Of Life. After over a year of auditions for this movie, Hunter was selected to play Jack O'Brien, Brad Pitt's oldest child of three. Hunter was unaware of his acting talents, but after the filming of this movie, Hunter is considering other acting possibilities. Hunter enjoys hunting, fishing, sports and spending time with his friends.
Laramie Eppler (R.L.) is making his acting debut in The Tree Of Life. He was born in Wichita Falls, Tx and raised in Iowa Park, Tx where he is currently an 8th grader at W.F. George Middle School. Laramie is active in football, basketball, baseball, track and National Honor Society. He spends his time working and showing Market Goats in Jr. FFA and hunting and rodeoing.
Tye Sherridan (Steve) was born on November 11, 1996, the first child of Bryan and Stephanie Sheridan. Since birth, he has lived in the small town of Elkhart, Texas, east of Houston. His family has resided in Elkhart for many generations. From a very early age, Tye has been involved in the outdoors, especially when it comes to hunting and fishing. He has attended Elkhart Independent School System since kindergarten and has always achieved academically, being at the top of his class every year. Besides academic success, he has excelled at many sports in his lifetime - as a small child on the pee-wee league of football and baseball; as an eighth grader, he was the quarterback on his junior high football team and has been an awarded track runner. When it comes to his hunting and fishing, Tye has been known to get up as early as 4 am on a Saturday - true passions for him.
Known for his comic wit, Tye would amuse his parents with comedy as imitations since the age of three. While filming The Tree Of Life, he relocated with his mother and sister to Smithville for four months. Even under the most stressful situations, Tye remains grounded and always shows the upmost respect for his elders and well as everyone he meets. Others will always remember him not only for his talent, but also his sweet spirit.Besides sports and the outdoors, his other hobbies include riding four wheelers, being with friends and cousins and playing video games. Along with his parents and little sister, Madison, the entire family is proud of Tye's many achievements with many more to come.