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

January 14, 2011 |  7:00 am


It's not many film productions that consult with NASA as they're shooting. But then, not many film productions have Terrence Malick for a director.

As cinematographer Emanuel "Chivo" Lubezki tells it, the shoot for Malick's coming-of-age epic "The Tree of Life," starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, pretty much made up its own rules as it went along. Then it broke those too. "Once you think you got the formula, you realized there is no formula," Chivo told 24 Frames in an interview. "It's like no set I ever worked on."

There are plenty of reasons why that's true. Besides the NASA factor -- Malick consulted with the space agency for footage of the cosmos and other grand imagery he used in the film -- there was the fact that he didn't shoot actors in a conventional way. Or, sometimes, at all.

Though most movies use what's known as "coverage" -- cameras stationed in different places, with the idea of conveying a scene as you might experience it in real life -- "Tree of Life" eschewed those conventions.

"So the actors are performing the dialogue, but Terry isn't interested in dialogue. So they're talking, and we're shooting a reflection or we're shooting the wind or we're shooting the frame of the window, and then we finally pan to them when they finish the dialogue," Chivo recalled.

The movie, which comes out in May, aims to tell of a spiritual journey using a sense of place, a long span of time and a set of striking elemental images -- and, oh yes, also is partly based on Malick's own life. (An exclusive image from the film is above.) The idea, say those who worked on it, was not so much to tell a story but to create a feeling.

"Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance," Chivo said." "We're using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It's meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume." (More from the cinematographer in Sunday's Movie Preview issue.)

And how did the performers react to all this unconventionality -- like, say, the fact that Malick wasn't always interested in what they had to say? "I think they thought we were insane," Chivo said. "Sean is a director, and I'm sure he wondered 'Is this method something I want to learn or is it something I never want to repeat?' For Brad I think it took him a couple of days or a week to get into the spirit."

Dede Gardner, Pitt's producing partner and a producer on the film, said a sense of elastic possibility is essential in making a movie like this as well as watching it. "One of the things you learn when you work with Terry is there isn't one interpretation," she said. "Life's experience is individualized, so why shouldn't a film be?"

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: The latest image from "The Tree of Life." Credit: 20th Century Fox


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Comments () | Archives (7)

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Can't wait to see this Malick greatness again. Funny thing about Malick and the way he works...I do the same with my writing; especially my screenplays.

This obviously doesn't occur any sentiment or enthusiasm in Hollywood...when a screenwriter writes an image - driven narrative with images more than dialogue, and without resorting to specific CAMERA DIRECTIONS and EDITING TRANSITIONS.

Try it some time if you're not a director, let alone a great director like Malick.

Such image - driven narratives still have to contain a certain amount of dramatic conflict and dialogue; but the bulk of my works have always been like partial silent film scripts...with multiple meanings on the conscious (TEXTUAL) and sub conscious (SUBTEXTUAL) levels.

Obviously visual symbolism and metaphors are also the foundations for said screenplays. And guess what? None of this can stick out as being obvious.

Thank god for Malick and his own POV.
Maybe that's why I'm a solid fan of his work. I get what he's doing...without even a film critic to explain it to me.

Great comment and subtly put. I personally feel that the writer is the most disrespected man in all service- A scriptwriter that is. Why do people rush to see actors and movie stars ?
The real author of a film is its writer and the director. Why can't their names open a movie on a Friday night instead of a Will Smith or Tom Cruise ? Ignored, undervalued and ill-treated...that is what a writer is in the business.

Coming back to what you said, I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that silence crosses barriers no dialogue can.
Have you seen Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samourai - It has an existentialist feel, an amazing atmosphere and hardly any dialogues and yet it touches a nerve most films do not. Like a painting you want to observe for ever. Films by Satyajit Ray also fall in this category.

On a side note I would like most commercial movie goers to watch films by Andrei Tarkovsky. I consider Mallick to be the American Tarkovsky and I am pretty damn certain of the fact that the Russian director is an influence in some way or the other to Mr Mallick.
Solaris(1972).....I can remember each and every scene. Every scene can be freeze framed and sold as portraits, that is how stunningly beautiful it is, and deeply layered I might add. Needless to say its a very slow film but highly rewarding for a minor section of the population who consider science fiction to be more than Aliens and Laser Beams.

So in essence, yes, we need directors like Terrence Mallick because this is art.Films like these have transcended the medium of film as a commercial commodity . They deserve to be remembered as time goes on. Good luck to the cinematographer.

Consulting with NASA means nothing. Michael Bay did it for Armageddon as well.

"Consulting with NASA means nothing. Michael Bay did it for Armageddon as well."

Yeah, Bay is the best director of all time. Malick is nothing compared to him.

Consulting with NASA means nothing... if you hear that Michael Bay did it.
For Armageddon Bay essentially consulted with NASA and chose to disregard most of what he learned. I would assume that a respected and intelligent director like Terrence Malick would choose to use the knowledge obtained from NASA staff wisely.
Is the whole NASA connection blown out of proportion? probably. Since info on this film is so hard to come by and Malick is such a respected and talented director, weight is immediately added to any piece of news that comes out.

Comparing Michael Bay to Terrence Malick, Really?
Yes, they both direct, and both did WWII movies(Pearl Harbor and Thin Red Line) but can you really consider these two directors in the same breathe? Pearl Harbor shared company for Razzie of the year with other amazing films like Driven, Freddy Got Fingered, Glitter and 3000 Miles to Graceland. and on the flipside Thin Red Line which was up for Best Picture Oscar among others.

filmmakers should challenge conventions. They are artists afterall! I am sure film students like myself will learn much from this new film. So much anticipation for this film.

Malick seems pretty pretentious. But, I guess that's just Jewish Hollywood for you.


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