SF Gate – May 27, 2011

Q&A with Brad Pitt, on ‘Tree of Life’

By Walter Addiego

There will be few halfhearted reactions to Terrence Malick’s grandly ambitious new film, “The Tree of Life,” which last week was awarded the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s highest prize.

Partisans of the director, one of American film’s few genuine visionaries (“Days of Heaven,” “The New World”), will see it as a deeply moving, poetic meditation that addresses classic spiritual and philosophical questions with sublime images and minimal dialogue. Viewers of a different temperament will find it self-important and arty in the worst way.

The main story, set in the 1950s, is about a small-town Texas family that suffers a tragedy, and the aftershocks of the event on one of the sons, now grown. This domestic tale is set in a context of ravishing visual sequences suggestive of nothing less than the origins of the universe and of life, segments that are being compared to the cosmic “stargate” section of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (Douglas Trumbull, who created those effects for Stanley Kubrick’s film, served as a consultant here.)

The cast includes Brad Pitt as the authoritarian father, Bay Area native Jessica Chastain as his wife and Sean Penn as the grown-up son. Chronicle Movie Critic Mick LaSalle calls Pitt’s performance one of the actor’s finest.

Pitt spoke by phone from Los Angeles.

Q: How would you describe a Terrence Malick film to someone who has never seen one?

A: I would say that there’s an experiential component to the films he crafts. This one certainly is designed for personal reflection, to trigger – maybe I’m speaking of my own experience – moments in your own life, and to put those on the film.

Q: Roger Ebert wrote in his blog: “Terrence Malick’s new film is a form of prayer.” The movie opens with a quotation from the Book of Job. Can you speak to the film’s religious sensibility?

A: I’ve been calling it a symphony. It’s more musical to me. Maybe that’s just my aversion to theology. Listen, I grew up in this kind of environment, as far as the landscape, the sense of play and Christian iconography. I was quite comfortable with that. What’s most interesting about Terry, and his films, is that he sees science in God and God in science, and these two notions are generally diametrically opposed. He has a wider grasp of things, that comes from his study of philosophy and his travels.

For me, the film speaks to the impermanence of things, also that there’s something greater out there, which is evident in the shots of the cosmos. There’s a bigger power and there’s much we don’t understand. Again, this is my interpretation, though we try to explain that which is unknown and scary in terms of story, to comfort ourselves in forms of religion, that maybe it’s in acceptance of that very unknown that peace can be found.

Q: One of the film’s narrators talks about there being two paths in life, “the way of grace and the way of nature.” Do you recognize those paths?

A: I actually don’t see one without the other. I see more of a balance. Terry had given us a poem – actually he gave it to Jessica (Chastain), and I usurped it a couple of weeks later – but it was detailing this very thing. In the time of adolescence, you’re trying on different things, you’re trying to figure out who you are. You try your first lie, you may steal something, you may break something. And there are acts of kindness along the way as well. It’s these moments, and the reaction to these moments, that define the kind of adult you’ll become.

In our story, for the oldest son, the mother does represent grace and love and all that is good, and the father (represents) nature, but a nature that is defined by survival, a nature that will choke out another for its own existence. And (the son) is being honed as he is pinballed between the two. And these moments that seem so inconsequential – especially when put up against the birth of the cosmos and the formation of life – are monumental in a child’s world.

Q: It would be easy to diminish your character as a harsh, disciplinarian father, kind of a bad guy, but he’s more complex.

A: I saw a great sadness in him. I saw a man who probably believed in this idea of the American dream but was not able to get ahead, for whatever reason. The poison he drank – what defined his character was bitterness toward others who were doing better than him. He was feeling great oppression from his surroundings and his job. Naturally what happens when someone is oppressed is that they need to find someone to pass that oppression to, to feel better about themselves.

And in this case the sadness of the story is that it’s his kids. And of course he feels remorse and tries to make up for it, and it’s this terrible cycle he’s caught up in and doesn’t know how to get past. These are the formative years for his sons, and they can leave a scar.

Q: The soundtrack is pretty incredible. One critic said the music plays a more important role than the words.

A: There’s not music without images, it’s the combination of the two for me. I don’t place a lot of importance on the words, either.

Q: Malick is seen as a perfectionist, extremely painstaking, often compared to Kubrick. What’s it like to be directed by him?

A: I call him an imperfectionist. He finds perfection in imperfection. That’s what he’s looking for. He’s like a documentarian that’s just waiting for the moment to happen, and he’ll follow it when it’s of interest, and piece it together later. But his set is unlike any experience I’ve ever had. You have to understand that a movie set is a lot of noise, a lot of a trucks, a lot of chaos, over a hundred people, everyone’s got their little compartment and task. And here we had none of that. He doesn’t want to be encumbered by it, he doesn’t want the kids (who portrayed the boys) to be encumbered by it. The kids don’t read the script. They go in their closet and pick out what they want to wear that day. And that’s what they wear all day.

Continuity is not the focus, makeup, none of that. No lights. So there are no trucks and generators and noise. There’s just one guy with a camera on his shoulder. And Terry. We would only do a couple of takes of something. He never wanted to, what he called, “hammer and tong” a scene as written. He wanted to just use that as a springboard. His process is that he gets up (every morning) and writes for an hour or so, kind of a stream-of-consciousness manner, and we would get these pages, sometimes three or four pages, single-spaced, of ideas and thoughts for the day’s scenes. It was a really interesting, arduous, but successful experiment for me, and I see other directors heading in that
direction now.

Q: A number of critics have said the film will polarize audiences. Do you think that’s true?

A: Yeah, I think that’s true. This is one you’ve got to want to look at, and fair enough if you don’t, at this place and time in your life. It asks some big questions. But fair enough. Fair enough. It doesn’t follow any conventional narrative. It’s a big leap.