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."
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-- 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