24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Terrence Malick

In exclusive video, Brad Pitt and others explain 'The Tree of Life'

May 26, 2011 | 10:10 am

It's been one of the bigger cinematic mysteries ever since buzz around the movie intensified last year -- just what exactly is "The Tree of Life" about? Terrence Malick's new film, as those of us who saw it in Cannes described, grapples with many subjects -- love and family, nature and religion, sadness and suffering. In this new exclusive video, actors Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, along with the film's producers, walk us through clips and moments in one of the spring's most anticipated films.


What Malick's "Tree of Life" is  about (yes, we finally see it)

Finally, the end of secrets on Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"

How did the reaction to Malick's "The Tree of Life" get so complicated?

-- Steven Zeitchik





Terrence Malick looks to Imax documentary to extend 'Tree of Life' explorations

May 25, 2011 |  3:17 pm

Terrence Malick left a lot of “The Tree of Life” footage on the cutting room floor. But the writer-director’s elaborate visual presentation of the birth of the universe and the origin of life may have a second life in an Imax documentary.

The publicity-phobic maker of “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line” has been developing a documentary called “Voyage of Time.” It was originally designed as a companion piece to “Tree of Life,” which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday. But the producers of “Tree of Life” were concerned that two films—one fiction, one not—covering similar ground might confuse audiences, and decided to push back “Voyage of Time” to an unspecified future date.

“It was important not to cannibalize ‘Tree of Life,’” says Bill Pohlad, whose River Road Entertainment financed “Tree of Life” and is one of the producers of “Voyage of Time.” “But we want to do it. He just has to find the time to do it,” Pohlad said of Malick, who recently completed photography and several reshoots on an untitled film starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams that is by one account even more experimental than “Tree of Life.”
“Voyage of Time” will be narrated by “Tree of Life” star Brad Pitt and display “the whole of time, from the birth of the universe to its final collapse,” according to a confidential outline for the film obtained by The Times. A team of more than 20 advisors will “ensure the film is both aesthetically unique and scientifically accurate.” 

According to a treatment for the documentary, “Voyage of Time” will cover the first signs of life, bacteria, cellular pioneers, first love, consciousness, the ascent of humanity, life and death and the end of the universe.

The business plan, heavily illustrated with images of jellyfish, crocodile embryo, nebular clouds, a slot canyon in Utah and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, includes testimonial letters from Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who promises that “Voyage of Time” will “be a memorable combination of art and science that will inspire as well as educate.”


What Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is actually about


How will the Palme d'Or affect 'Tree of Life's' commercial prospects?

Brad Pitt and the 'Tree of Life' gang explain Terrence Malick's process

--John Horn

Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life." Credit: Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight Pictures

How will the Palme d'Or affect 'Tree of Life's' commercial prospects?

May 23, 2011 |  6:30 am


In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of chances to gauge the mainstream appetite for Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," the story of God and nature and one mid-century family's issues among them, which opens in limited urban release this weekend before expanding in the following week to suburban precincts.

But Sunday's news out of the Cannes Film Festival that the movie had won the Palme d'Or -- one of the few festival prizes to draw universal respect -- raises a more immediate question: How much will the Croisette honor motivate filmgoers to turn out to see it?

The question of a Palme bump has been an interesting one in recent years. Foreign-language films are their own breed, but among English-language titles, the prize has had a limited but hardly insignificant effect on what we see.

Over the last 20 years, it's helped set the table for box-office hits such as "Secrets & Lies," "Fahrenheit 911" and "Pulp Fiction" -- at minimum facilitating momentum the movie already had, and in some cases actively putting it on the map. The average filmgoer may not know a Palme d'Or from a palm reader, but he or she is certainly acquainted with the media that respond to one.

On the other hand, the Cannes prize did almost nothing for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" and "Elephant," both of which failed to break out of an art-house ghetto.

Certainly a host of factors played into all of these results. But the Palme does seem to help movies that contain big, bold premises (including "Secrets & Lies," about interracial adoption). In that respect, "Tree," with its visual centerpiece featuring dinosaurs and colliding planets, would fit right in. (It's also worth noting that two of these three Palme hits were distributed by Harvey Weinstein, though "Tree" distributor Fox Searchlight is no slouch itself.) "Tree" also stars Brad Pitt, who has shown himself capable of motivating a mainstream filmgoer to specialized fare.

At Cannes, several involved in the international distribution of "Tree" shook their head ruefully when the subject of the film's U.S. fate came up. Romania and France, the thinking went, stood a far better shot of fielding a hit. But of course the odds are always long when you have material as abstract -- and as resistant to being boiled down -- as this. A Palme just makes those odds a little bit shorter.


What Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is actually about

Brad Pitt and the 'Tree of Life' gang explain Terrence Malick's process

Awards Tracker: Palme d'Or goes to Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: A scene from "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight


Cannes 2011: A spell of conflict, and then (some) resolution

May 22, 2011 |  6:45 pm


With the major awards handed out and the last of the cinephiles, partiers, salespeople and hangers-on finally packing up for calmer climes, let's take a moment to look back at this year's Cannes Film Festival in all its intensity and strangeness.

The 2011 edition of the world's most prestigious film gathering was historic in several ways. Egyptian directors banded together to create and premiere shorts about their country's revolution just three months after it happened, while more female directors landed in the main competition than ever before (a sharp contrast to Hollywood's glass ceiling).

Less nobly, for the first time in the history of Cannes, a filmmaker was declared persona non grata at the festival. Leave it to Lars.

It was, as might be expected with any 64th installment, sometimes a festival of the familiar — Harvey Weinstein spending millions on high-profile films from the likes of Meryl Streep and Shia LaBeouf, and Woody Allen embraced again, thanks to his opening-night movie, "Midnight in Paris."

But it was also a festival filled with paradox.  Cannes always contains multitudes, but the contradictions rarely have ever seemed this pungent, and they've seldom grabbed so many headlines. Cannes this year saw the European premiere of Mel Gibson's new film — and yet he had to settle for second place for the festival's biggest race-themed controversy. The Croisette also saw a silent film, Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," making some of the loudest noise.

It was a festival where the darkest of subjects, a school shooting, was given the flashiest of treatments with Lynne Ramsay's well-received "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Cannes is filled with old-timers and veterans, and yet one of the biggest splashes came from a young 'un first-timer, "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn.

And finally, there was the festival's biggest enigma, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," whose premiere ensured that the most scrutinized festival director was also the most invisible. Malick sat out the red carpet and the screening feting him and drove the point home when he also sat out the Palme d'Or ceremony Sunday, opting for his producers to accept on his behalf.

There was good and bad, strange and sane, in this year's Cannes. It's the favorable more than the dodgy one hopes will prevail, though in the end it will may well be that both co-exist. It was, after all, that kind of festival.

— Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France



What Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is actually about (yes, we finally see it)

Awards Tracker: Palme d'Or goes to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

In interview, Lars von Trier says he doesn't deserve a Palme d'Or

Photo: Sean Penn in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight.

Cannes 2011: Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier, Cannes contrasts, strangely united

May 22, 2011 |  2:30 am


Among all the plot lines the Cannes Film Festival has offered over the last week, none has been as compelling as the tale of two directors -- each highly acclaimed, each inscrutable in his own way. One said too much, and one said nothing at all. One got kicked out of the festival midway through it; one never appeared in public in the first place.

And yet for all the differences between Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick, they shared the stage in these May days. They each furnished drama at a press conference, of all places, causing reporters to drop their pens -- Malick when producers declined to acknowledge there was anything wrong with his absence; von Trier, in a more morally problematic vein, when he made his infamous Nazi comments.

Ironically lost in the separate yet parallel stories of these two filmmakers are their movies, which have a surprising amount in common. Both "The Tree of Life" and "Melancholia" make generous use of grand cosmic images, set against soaring classical music, while focusing  tightly on the dysfunctions of one family amid the astral pomp. If you asked a blind focus group to pick out the two movies among the 21 in competition with the most commonalities, a good number would choose "Tree" and "Melancholia."

And yet. There's something telling about Malick's use of cosmic images to portray the world's creation and Von Trier's use of them to show its end. The Texas auteur is fascinated with the origin of all things and Von Trier, ever the nihilist, constantly wants to tear them down.

As interesting as it has been to hear speculation about why Malick declined to show up for his premiere, it's been that much more fascinating, if frustrating, to hear the speculation about Von Trier and his motives. He is either the second coming of David Duke, a horrible and inexcusable racist, or a simple and misunderstood talent, the Manny Ramirez of the international film world, whose missteps are proof of nothing more than his quirkiness. In truth, the reality probably lies in between; he does not really embrace the Third Reich, but his comments also can't be explained away as mistimed jokes.

When we interviewed Von Trier, as his critics were circling and the festival was preparing to eject him, the director had a simple response to all. "Terrence Malick is a clever man -- he knows that it's good to stay home." He seemed to be saying, in that moment at least, that he wished he was Malick. The rest of us could only wish for something more obtainable: that Malick spoke a little more, and Von Trier a little less.


Danish director Refn describes date with Gosling, laces into von Trier

Pitt and Chastain wonder if hype, squareness are behind 'Tree of Life' divisions

With Ryan Gosling’s ‘Drive,’ a different Dane gets his moment

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Lars von Trier. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

Cannes 2011: Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain wonder if hype, squareness are behind 'Tree of Life' divisions

May 20, 2011 |  1:30 am

Brad Pitt was sitting in a suite high above the Croisette earlier this week, pondering the divisive reaction to “The Tree of Life,” the long-awaited Terrence Malick movie about life, death, religion and nature, among other things.

“That doesn’t bother me,” he told 24 Frames. “Really. I much prefer that some people love and others don’t get it, as long as it starts a discussion. That’s a bigger win.”

At screenings earlier in the week, some Cannes-goers had embraced Malick's boldness, while others resisted it, as boos and applause would often mix together. But Pitt was keeping a sunny attitude. “Certainly it’s engaged people in conversation. To me that’s a huge success.”

He said he did realize how buzz could work against a film, especially in the hothouse environment of a festival.  “Terry being Terry, there’s a weight it carries,” the actor said. “And this thing has been in incubation for so long. Hype is always dangerous because you could never answer all the expectations."

Just down the hall, co-star Jessica Chastain was offering her own explanation for why some had bristled.

“The qualities that some people will find it difficult is why I think it’s brilliant, and that is that there’s nothing cynical about it," she said. "It’s not cool. I’m a great fan of Michael Haneke, but his movies are really edgy and dark. There’s something about them that’s really cool. And this is a film that says we’re essentially good. And maybe the public has a harder time thinking that.”

Chastain did say that she thought a longer view was necessary in evaluating "Tree's" power. “Even if the film isn’t a great success, I know it’s something people will be coming up to me in 30 years and saying, ‘You were in that film.’"

She may not need to wait decades, though: As of Thursday evening, the film had scored a perfect 100% rating among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes.


Cannes 2011: How did the reaction to The Tree of Life get so complicated?

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight

Cannes 2011: How did the reaction to Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' get so complicated?

May 17, 2011 |  1:15 am


Perhaps it was inevitable, after all the hype about the movie's brilliance and Oscar potential, that "The Tree of Life" ended up where it has: in a place where it still got a decent enough Cannes reception but hardly a stellar or flawless one.

Or perhaps it was just one more strange turn for a movie that was slated to be here a year ago, before its eccentric director continued a tweaking process that had already gone on for years.

In case you haven't been following, the much-anticipated "The Tree of Life"  premiered to a mixed response from the tuxedoed set on the Croisette Monday night. According to the standard by which many Cannes films are measured, it didn't fly that well. The post-screening clapping lasted just a few minutes -- as opposed to the 10 or 12 minutes that's the mark of an unequivocally well-received Cannes screening (as there was for silent film "The Artist" the night before). Whatever the final verdict on the film, there was a bit of a deflated feeling in the room, owing in part, probably, to the way it had been inflated in the first place.

Not helping in all of this (apart from the 2-hour, 18-minute running time and grandiose imagery that seemed to make some restless) was the absence of Malick himself. Sometimes when a director stays out of sight it can add to the mystery. Sometimes it can do the opposite, making it seem as if he or she is indifferent to public reaction. And sometimes it just seems weird. It was probably a little of the second and a lot of the third that obtained Monday night.

Malick had actually come to this beach town a few days ago and in fact went to dinner both on a previous night and the night of the screening after the movie ended. But he doesn't like crowds or the spotlight, according to several who know him, so he stayed away from the Palais des Festivals during the film's premiere. (A Fox Searchlight spokesman later said that he did come in to the room after the movie screened while the audience was applauding, but covertly.)

Star Brad Pitt and romantic partner Angelina Jolie took a dramatic walk toward each other on the red carpet, epitomizing the kind of glitz this film festival does best. But inside the theater, the mood was cool after the helmer decided to stay away.

Malick's invisibility meant that the ceremonial post-screening bow in front of the crowd -- an oddly important ritual that can reinforce and even offer a window into a film's appeal -- did not happen. Instead, a camera that normally spotlights the filmmaker showed an empty chair presumably reserved for Malick. It was as though something awful had happened to him, even though almost everyone in the theater believed he was just fine, walking somewhere, incognito, on the streets outside the theater (or inside the theater, amid the crowd, as it happened).

All this comes after an earlier screening for media on Monday, when some boos greeted the final scenes before giving way to a generally hearty applause.

Of course, festival reaction is hardly an accurate predictor of commercial success, no matter how warm or cold. The movie will face its true box-office test when Fox Searchlight rolls it out in the U.S. on May 27, while other distributors release in other countries around the same time (though look for ongoing drama in Britain, where a battle over the release date has resulted in legal action involving the distributor and currently no release date in the country).

As for the larger state of Malick ... in the cycle of film-festival receptions, it feels like we're somewhere between the backlash and the backlash to the backlash. The relentless hype of this movie as a transcendental masterpiece really couldn't continue, but until the movie opens, we won't quite be at the point yet when Malick defenders come out to argue their case.

It's hard not to think, when all is said and done, that a number of cinephiles will hail this as a masterpiece, while the masses, at least in the U.S., may need a little more convincing. As for Malick himself, whatever anonymous Cannes street he's currently taking all this in on -- or, perhaps, just pleasantly observing a flock of seagulls -- it's hard not to imagine him wondering how we got to this place, where his movie failed to meet expectations he didn't mean to put on it.


Cannes 2011: What Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is actually about (yes, we finally see it)

Cannes 2011: Brad Pitt and The Tree of Life gang explain his process, defend his absence

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

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Brad Pitt on the red carpet at the premiere of "The Tree of Life." Credit: Christian Hartmann / AFP/Getty Images


Cannes 2011: Brad Pitt and the 'Tree of Life' gang explain Terrence Malick's process, defend his absence

May 16, 2011 |  5:37 am

With Terrence Malick's long-awaited "The Tree of Life" unveiled in Cannes on Monday morning, his stars and producers came out to talk about the film. But in keeping with his off-the-radar persona, the director himself was nowhere to be found.

Actors Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain anchored a press conference in which they and producers for the first time in a public setting answered questions about the unusual process of shooting this film and occasionally attempted to explain why the man of the hour wasn't present at the press conference.

Longtime Malick producer Sarah Green began by answering a moderator's question about the absence of the filmmaker as well as costar Sean Penn. "Mr. Malick is very shy," she said, adding that he "believe[s] that his work speaks for itself." (Another producer, Bill Pohlad, said Penn was just traveling up from Haiti and would be on the Croisette shortly to promote his other Cannes film, "This Must Be the Place.")

But a little further into the press conference, reporter Chaz Ebert (wife of Roger, who is not in Cannes this year as he finishes his memoir) pressed the panelists, asking if it was at all odd that the director wasn't there to speak for the film he had spent decades putting together. Didn't he feel, she asked, that he had a responsibility to serve as an ambassador for his movie, especially at a director-friendly place like Cannes?

That prompted Pitt, who gamely fielded questions for the better part of an hour, to offer a publicity-agnostic point of view. "I don't know why people who make things in our business are expected to sell them. I don't think that computes with [Malick]," Pitt said. The actor went on to compare the absence to a man who designs houses not being forced to deal with a real-estate transaction, or to any creator who prefers to stay out of the fray. "It's an odd thing for an artist to sculpt [something] and then try to sell it."

He also said he thought hearing a director speak about a film could ruin the experience of watching it. "You know when you have a favorite band and you hear them talk about lyrics and you're immediately disappointed, and you can't listen to that song anymore?" he said.

Why a director is or isn't present at a film festival is rarely of interest to most people outside the festival's bubble. Still, it was either fitting or frustrating for some, after years of mystery and a movie that was itself mysterious, to find the man who created a work wasn't there to engage with them.

Just minutes before, "The Tree of Life" screening divided audiences; in at least one of the two theaters the film was being shown, some boos came up before the applause started. Then again, just as a public screening at a film festival can be a misleadingly positive affair, press screenings can be an insular and grumpy place. Two years ago, you could barely find a journalist enthused about "Inglourious Basterds," and we know how that turned out.

Pitt, Chastain and producers did go into some detail about the process of making "Tree," which was improvisational and aimed at capturing moments more than it was constructing scenes. The film was a "complete lesson in letting go of all control of what you expect any outcome to be," Chastain, who played nurturing mother Mrs. O'Brien, said. "You can't plan any moment in his films," she added, describing how Malick would shoot a character interaction and then be taken with a woodpecker or another moment in nature and quickly shift the camera there.

Pitt, who plays a stern father figure, called the process a "leap of faith. But that's the point," he said. "You know you're in good hands so it's not really that scary." The actor also talked about the movie's themes, particularly its connecting the story of the universe with one family's struggles and the process of growing up and/or raising a family. "I was surprised by the structure," which he said he found "quite ingenious, this marriage of the micro with the macro." He added, "I hope it speaks to all cultures [about] childhood and growing up and deciding who you're going to be as you go from a child to an adult."

Pitt, who by far fielded the most questions, struck a candid pose on a number of subjects, including religion. "I got my issues, man. You don't want to get me me started," he responded, only half-joking, to one questioner. He went on to say that although he understood that some found comfort in it, "I myself found it stifling."

Toward the end of the press conference, one reporter asked producers if, given the length of time it took to complete the movie, they ever felt that Malick needed to be more disciplined. Green jumped in quickly. "He's the most disciplined director I've ever worked with," she said. "He works days and nights and weekends," searching for the right shot or moment, she added. "He knows it when he sees it."


Cannes 2011: What "The Tree of Life" is actually about (yes, we finally see it)

Cannes 2011: Finally, the end of secrets on Malick's "The Tree of Life"

"Tree of Life" cinematographer: It was like no set I ever worked on

-- Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France


Photo: Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain at the press conference for "The Tree of Life." Credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP/Getty Images

Cannes 2011: What Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is actually about (yes, we finally see it)

May 16, 2011 |  2:32 am


After several years of filmgoer anticipation -- and nearly 40 years of gestation in Terrence Malick's mind -- "The Tree of Life" was finally unveiled Monday morning to the media at the Cannes Film Festival.

Even before the trailer hit the Web in December, many questions about the mysterious project had bubbled up. How much does Sean Penn's character actually speak? Is there really a dinosaur in the film, and how big is its role ? And what's the darned thing about?

In order, the answers are: not much (but his weather-beaten face says volumes); yes, and it's kind of an important part; and, finally, well, the last one is tricky.

Describing the film isn't easy because "Tree" rarely follows a conventional narrative path, and in fact contains only snippets of what most viewers would consider dialogue. And yet there are thousands of words that can, and likely will, be written interpreting Malick's shots. So here goes. (Incidentally, this isn't a review, but an impressionistic take on a movie whose first screening concluded just a short time ago. Also, note that there are spoilers ahead -- not in a traditional, the-butler-did-it sense; you couldn't spoil this film that way if you tried, but certainly in terms of the arc and individual scenes. And of course if you want to see for yourself, you won't have to wait much longer: Fox Searchlight releases the movie to theaters on May 27.) 

The movie starts off with a tragedy in the small-town Texas family of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) circa the middle of the 20th century. The family learns of it by messenger, and we divine that one of their three children is now dead. Mother and father mourn the loss of the child in different ways, a function of their very different constitutions. Mr. O'Brien has some kind of solid, if unremarkable, 1950s job at an airport (though we later learn he always wanted to be a musician).  Chastain's character, a devoted housewife, is a nurturing mother and almost angelic spirit, which stands in sharp contrast to her husband's stubborn and rage-prone personality.

When the news about the death comes, Mr. O'Brien responds by doing work around the house and lowering his head through the pain, while his wife takes walks into the woods, crying out to the heavens for an explanation. Their personalities bleed into their worldviews too, with the much-described conflict between his "nature" and her "grace" highlighted in the trailer.

Continue reading »

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

May 13, 2011 |  3:11 pm

Tree 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.

Continue reading »


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