Producers Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardner Interview THE TREE OF LIFE

     May 27, 2011


Though the summer box office season is in full force this weekend with The Hangover Part II and Kung Fu Panda 2 poised to make over $100 million each, I suspect it is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life that will leave viewers the most awed. With spectacle ranging from sumptuous images of the beginning and end of the universe to brief glimpses of evolution on earth and even dinosaurs as well as touches of magical realism, this film is an epic tonal poem that left me speechless. My eyes ached because I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing even one moment. After the film, I stumbled out into the streets of Los Angeles and walked for eight miles, contemplating what I had just seen.

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to sit down with producers Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardner to discuss the Palme d’Or Winning film, which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. During our chat we discussed the film’s prolonged development, the editing process, Malick’s forthcoming companion piece Voyage of Time, and much more. Hit the jump for the full interview.

the-tree-of-life-movie-poster-02In case you don’t have time to read the full interview, here is a brief rundown of some of the most interesting points:

  • Pohlad and Gardner both came to the project through discussing other possible films with Malick. Pitt was involved early as a producer. It wasn’t until late in the game that anyone considered him for the lead.
  • The script for the film was fairly traditional, but with longer paragraphs.
  • Though the film is full of ellipses, the production was fairly standard and regimented.
  • Voyage of Time is still happening. Some of it has already been shot, including sequences employing Imax cameras.
  • Pohlad is unafraid to admit that this is not a film for everyone and that many audiences won’t like it. They have focused the marketing to make sure that it conveys that this is not a typical Brad Pitt movie.

Collider: What did this script, or treatment, look like on the page when you first saw it?

GARDNER: It was a pretty picture with a smiley face.

POHLAD: Terry told me the story a long time ago and when he finally sent the script I had read a couple of Terry’s scripts before and was familiar with his writing style, which is different. So I wasn’t surprised by it. It looks like a script but with a lot bigger paragraphs, more…

GARDNER: Description.

POHLAD: But there’s dialogue and all that.

Is he one of those names where you have to say, “Oh, we have to have to see the script.” Or if he really wants to make the film do you just say, “We’re behind you,”?

bill-pohlad-dede-gardner-imagePOHLAD: Well, I can’t answer that because with us it happened very organically. We were talking about this other project and trying to work all that out. And I got to know him over a period of time and we had a lot of discussions on that script and the way it was and what he was really trying to say and all that. We had a lot of great back and forth debate about it. Like, should it be more descriptive or linear so I can understand it better. Or, you know…not? So we just went through that for a number of years just as friends because we ultimately didn’t do that project together. So when he finally sent Tree of Life, I was prepared and knew what he did, what his approach is. So it wasn’t a shock.

The film had a very long development process. You talked about it for a number of years before it got made and then you shot in and then you worked on it for a very long time afterwards. The script you decided to shoot, is that much like the finished film? Because it feels a lot like a memory where there’s bits and pieces of things. And it flows very nicely but is it actually what was written, or was it discovered in editing?

GARDNER: It’s what was written…


GARDNER: Yes, yes and yes. No, I mean, I think it was his intention. It was a very intended film. Obviously the editing process is its own chapter in a film finding itself but the movie you see was shot and we were there and you schedule it and you put it together, so that was all there.

POHLAD: And it was always intended to have that feel about it. It never took a dramatic right or left turn. It was, certainly we shot things that didn’t end up in the movie and there were other things that came up during the shoot that weren’t in the script. But kind of, all of those kinds of things that normally happen. But none of them were dramatic turns. You kind of understand what Terry is trying to accomplish, or as much as you can anyway. The spirit of it, even if you don’t understand each little element of it. And it never diverted from that and it’s always about how to get there how to achieve that emotion or feeling for people.

bill-pohlad-dede-gardner-image-1One of the tasks that I would imagine is hardest for a producer is reigning in the director and saying, “You can’t do that, that’s too much.” When you have a movie that encompasses the end of the universe and dinosaurs and everything in between and an artist like Terrance Malick, where do you step in and go, “You can’t do that?”

GARDNER: Creatively or practically?

Just practically.

GARDNER: You know, he’s an incredibly creative and practical person. He’s made movies before and since and he understand that movies get scheduled and budgeted and need to fit into a box. And what I think he asks for in return is an enormous amount of…just creating a space for opportunity. So, let’s do things a little untraditionally. Let’s not have trucks. Let’s not have trailers. Let’s be able to go outside. Let’s be able to go down the street. Let’s be able to go into this house. That’s an amazing way to be able to make a movie. I certainly learned a lot that way. You know, there’s so much freedom and it allows for mood and tone and weather and sun and everything in between.

POHLAD: It’s not like he’s just out there indulging himself in whatever he wants to do and we just sit back and go, “Should we say something or not?” He’s very reasonable. I mean, clearly he’s the director and he’s got a vision and he wants to see that vision through and it’s his job to push for that. It’s our job as producers to be on board with that but also, you know, kind of, you know, keep some sense going on. But again, it’s not like it was really adversarial as some productions might be. We’re all on the same page more or less and we’ve got jobs to do to kind of help each other through those different periods.

GARDNER: It was really fun. You know, making movies should be fun.

bill-pohlad-dede-gardner-image-2One of my favorite things about the film is the music. But in addition to the really good score you have there is a lot of preexisting material. And in the last couple of years there has been some controversy in the Oscars about films using too much traditional song or preexisting pieces. Have you guys through ahead to award season and how you might push for the music? And do you have any contingency plans?


POHLAD: I don’t mean to be like that but a lot of the things that happen for Terry’s films and I think for both [River Road Entertainment and Plan B Entertainment] are that we’re not really into that kind of thing. I mean, obviously awards are great and all that and it was great to get the Palme d’Or and all that. But it doesn’t factor into decisions like should we have more of this music in there or less of that? Particularly in Terry’s projects you’re going toward that emotion, that vision and whatever it takes to get there, so…

brad-pitt-the-tree-of-life-movie-imageHow did Brad’s involvement with the film unfold? Did he initially approach this as an actor, as a producer or…

GARDNER: No. We were involved as producers first. Sort of like Bill, we were talking to Terry about a different project, and [Producer] Sarah [Green]. And they told us about this and it seemed pretty amazing and we said, “We’d love to help you with this in any way we can. And let’s try and link arms and get this thing made because it’s going to be a challenge.” So kind of deep in for all of us, the part of Mr. O’Brien became available and it sounds crazy but it’s true, we sort of all looked at each other and went, “Oh. Huh, you should do it,” But really it happened clearly the way it should because, you know, actors read things, or hear about things, or plan to do things at different times. And what’s happening in your life at that moment is always different than another moment, you know? It just worked out. It’s hard to imagine someone else in it now, but hopefully if you cast your movies right that’s always true.

POHLAD: It speaks a lot to Brad and Gardner and how they approach things that they really were involved in the project as producers. They both have a high regard for Terry and for the material. So even thought from the outside you might go, “Oh come on, Brad Pitt is sitting there and you’re not thinking he’s gonna be Mr. O’Brien? “ But I think it’s a testament to how serious they are that they were in there as producers, kind of for a belief in the material.

bill-pohlad-dede-gardner-image-3I actually ran into you at the Telluride Film Festival a couple of years ago and you mentioned that there was a companion piece you were considering that was going to be possibly done in Imax. What happened to that? Will we see that footage?

POHLAD: Yeah. No, that’s still in the works. Obviously this became a bit overwhelming, getting Tree of Life where it should be and where everybody wanted it to be. And that period, a year ago, when we wanted to be in Cannes but it didn’t feel right and we needed a bit of extra time. And you know, when you’re getting to that point, you think, “Okay, lets wait on Voyage of Time and concentrate on what we’re doing.” But it’s still a strong desire of Terry’s and we’re all kind of working on getting it together.

Will there be footage that you shot for Tree of Life involved in that or will it be entirely new footage?

POHLAD: There will be footage that we shot during The Tree of Life in that movie but not the same footage. You know, it will be different.

Will it have characters or is it more focusing on the history of the universe type?

POHLAD: I don’t know that I would want to presume, you know…

GARDNER: You never know! Largely the latter. But again, it’s going to change too. Some new stuff is getting shot and we’ll see what happens.

brad-pitt-the-tree-of-life-movie-image-1Are you using Imax cameras for this or are you using the same cameras from Tree of Life?

GARDNER: It’s a variety.

POHLAD: Yeah, it’s a variety. The cameras that were used for the Smithville section and most of the character work is one set of cameras and the stuff, the natural history things, there were a variety of cameras used depending on the situation. Some were Imax and some weren’t.”

The town you shot in seems to be untouched by time. What was it like shooting in Texas? Where did you find that Main Street and that neighborhood?

GARDNER: Well, the Neighborhood was Smithville and then we traveled a little bit for the courthouse and for the bigger town square. But what you see is what it is. I remember walking down the street and there were a whole bunch of Matchbox cars like off in a sewer or a gutter and someone had clearly set up this whole thing and then they just left it there because they could come back the next day and no one was going to touch it. And I was just like, “Oh! Ha! Remember!” It was just so great. That’s just what it is.

POHLAD: So we took ‘em.

GARDNER: So I palmed them for my son. No, just kidding.

tree-of-life-movie-image-brad-pitt-jessica-chastain-02Can you talk about your own relation and Terrance’s relationship to the effects? Because that’s something that he’s never really worked with to such an extreme.

POHLAD: Yeah, I think you got it right. That’s not his kind of thing usually. But on the other hand, he kind of knew that for this project and for the vision he and had and the things he wanted to accomplish…you know, he did as much as he could naturally or kind of organically and then there were some things that needed to be filled in, like dinosaurs. Hard to do those. But most of the rest of the stuff, like the space footage and the planets, I mean, I think it’s cool that those weren’t computer generated. And it’s like, the Hubble images kind of layered together and kind of rendered in that way. That’s kind of typical of Terry, figuring out a way to do it that’s not completely…you know…not that using computer generated is selling out, but he likes to do it as organically as possible.

Can you talk about casting Jessica Chastain because she’s a very fresh face and now she’s got about six movies coming out this year. How did you discover her?

GARDNER: Just the way you do. She’d done Salome with Al Pacino and she was at Julliard and [Casting Director] Francine Maisler is really good at that. And, you know, Terry will always cast a wide net. He’ll meet anyone. I think, probably, first and foremost, he’s looking for an essence, you know? And there’s the period nature of the move and I don’t think that necessarily everyone can fall into period as easily as she can. But, she’s fiercely talented. And again, I think he was just looking for a feeling, you know?

bill-pohlad-dede-gardner-image-4About the win in Cannes. Do you think that will get people into the cinemas to see it?

POHLAD: I think it’s great, obviously. I mean, personally, we had a great time there.

GARDNER: It was so fun!

POHLAD: But also I think what Cannes did, and hopefully what the Palme d’Or will do is…again, this is not a traditional movie. It’s not one that, if for example, somebody wants to see a Brad Pitt film and they’re expecting to see Mr. & Mrs. Smith they’re going to be disappointed. So I think what our goal has been is to sort of prep and the audience that this is something different. This is not, you’re not going to necessarily come out of the film and get it all right away and have an immediate reaction. It will probably change over time. But it’s also more of like a symphony or a great piece of poetry. You don’t have to get every little piece of it or every beat of the story. It’s not that way.

GARDNER: It’s not that way. You go in not knowing.

POHLAD: And letting it wash over you as opposed to getting halfway through and going, “What’s that doing there? That doesn’t make sense for that.” You want people to be open to a different experience then what they’re normally used to when they go to a movie. And then they can be open. And that doesn’t mean that they’re always going to like it but then at lest they’re be open to this different kind of experience. And they might ultimately not like it. But we just wanted to avoid that other thing where the immediate reaction is, “I don’t get it. I don’t get why this scene is here. What ever happened to that person?” If you’re getting into that kind of detail you ‘re not getting…sort of like, don’t worry about the lyrics. So long as you’re getting the melody it’s going to work for you.


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