If there’s one label that would never fit Terrence Malick as a director, it’s ‘conventional’. From a 20-year wait for a new film between 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line, to not giving lead actor Christian Bale a script for his latest effort, Knight of Cups, Malick is one of the few filmmakers whose behind-the-scenes stories have nearly as much mystique as what ends up onscreen. The Tree of Life was no exception – according to producer Grant Hill, the first draft he saw of the screenplay was less a script than a vision board, filled with photos, paintings, and references to classical music.
The looseness of Malick’s writing transferred to the Tree of Life set in a big way. Many scenes were almost entirely improvised, with the children (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan) only scripted 40% of the time. Some of the film’s most memorable moments, such as the physical struggle between Mr and Mrs O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in the kitchen, and Chastain dancing in midair, were unplanned. The butterfly landing on Mrs O’Brien was by all accounts just a happy accident.
Immersion into character was vital for every actor – in this case, because cameras could roll at any minute if Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki felt that something interesting was happening. Joerg Widmer, camera operator and the DoP for the sections shot in Italy, said that if it weren’t for the physical limitations of film, Malick “would have shot forever”. In order to achieve the specific family dynamic that we see in the finished product, Pitt and Chastain spent very little time together when they weren’t shooting, but Chastain had hung out with the three boys for two weeks before production started. Therefore, the actors could slot into their roles of distant father and attentive mother easily whenever called upon to do so. They even spent time bonding with the family dog, Dexter, who Malick would release into any scene that he felt needed a jolt of energy.
Plenty of credit for the film’s atmosphere has to go to the location scouts, who scoured Texas to find a perfect small town in which to shoot. Eventually, they settled on Smithville, which barely needed any set-dressing to convincingly look like a town from the 1950s. Residents were asked to park their cars out of the sightline of the cameras, and some outdoor appliances had to be removed, but few other actions were required. Smithville’s population was also more than happy to help on the film, even going so far as to pass a local temporary law forbidding paparazzi from entering the town. Some residents stayed, helping out if they could or just watching the filmmaking process. The ones who packed up for the duration of the filming then rented their houses to the cast and crew, who lived and worked in these homes.
There were no trailers for the stars; everyone just lived in Smithville, which brought the entire crew closer together as its own mini-community. One house stored props and costumes while another was used for hair and makeup. The O’Brien homestead itself was the biggest challenge for the designers and set builders – it had to be altered to accommodate the cameras and make sure natural light (the only light Lubezki wanted to shoot in) was available all around the house.
Malick’s experimentation was not just limited to the on-set filming. He allowed other units to construct parts of the film without his direct oversight, believing that the world he had envisaged and explained was enough guidance to allow the film to come together naturally. Even when the cameras weren’t rolling, the film proved to be an equally unusual experience, especially for Chastain. Instead of going in for a typical line-reading at her audition, she was instead assigned “behavioural tasks”, like putting a baby to bed and “looking at someone with love and respect”. After the actual filming was finished, Chastain then spent a good couple of years recording a series of voiceovers; just one example of the immense amount of post-production needed for this film.
Not only did Malick’s editing team have to sift through tonnes of footage to put together the final cut, the VFX team creating the magnificent birth-of-the-universe sequence had both a difficult and exhilarating task. Malick does not particularly like using pre-viz or storyboards, so these scenes had to include the kind of spontaneity one doesn’t usually associate with effects shots. To achieve this, the team, led by the legendary Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters, Blade Runner), largely eschewed CGI, instead using a series of paints, flares, smoke, and, most strikingly, milk to create the primordial cosmos. As a film, The Tree of Life thrives on this exact sort of hands-on creative thinking, ensuring that it’s both believable and quite unlike anything else out there.