Toronto Star – May 20, 2011

The Philosophy of Brad Pitt

By Peter Howell

To get Brad Pitt to stop clowning around during a press conference is a feat unto itself.

He’s normally resistant to serious questions, especially when he’s in the company of George Clooney, his fellow actor and close friend.

So it was something of a marvel to see Pitt holding forth this week at the Cannes Film Festival press conference following the world premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, in which Pitt has a major role.

Pitt wasn’t just talking seriously; he was leading the conversation.

He’s done a lot of thinking about this most thoughtful film that wrestles with man’s place in the cosmos, which opens in Toronto June 10. Here’s what Pitt had to say in answer to a succession of journalists’ questions:

What’s it like working with a director who works more like a French Impressionist than a “normal” linear, conventional director?

Yes, I could go on far too long about Terry’s process but it’s very, very interesting for us. The quick strokes were: our section of the story takes place in the ’50s and Terry started by renting the entire block (of an Austin, Texas suburb) and dressing it as the 1950s — therefore allowing us to walk outside and go wherever we wanted. He would have a couple of kids jumping rope outside.

His idea, even though he handed us a very dense script, is he never wanted to do what he called “hammer and tong” a scene as written. He was more interested in catching what was happening on the day. He’s like a guy standing there with a butterfly net, waiting for that moment of truth to go by.

So the kids, themselves, were not given a script — they weren’t allowed a script. They had a closet of clothes and they put on what they wanted to put on that day and that’s what we shot in. And we would do two takes and Terry would also . . . get up every morning and write for an hour and give us pages in the morning — single spaced, like three or four pages — and we kind of developed something out of that. And I think because of that is why the moments are fresh, because they are not preconceived in any way.

The lighting: there was only one light in the house; everything else was natural light. One light over the table and everything was handheld. It was a pretty incredible experience. I don’t know that I could do them all this way because it’s exhausting, but you see what you get.

I want to add one thing. (Malick) does what he calls “torpedoing” a scene, and the youngest child he called “the torpedo.” And on the first take, we’re having an argument, we’ll be going at it and raising our voices and doing as you do, and the second take, unbeknownst to us, he would just send in Ty — the torpedo — who would sit down at the table and suddenly it changed the whole tenor and tone of the scene. So this is something that would happen on a daily basis as well. Again, I could go on for a couple days, so I’ll cut it there.

What is Malick like? Does he eat, drink, etc.?

Yes, he even goes to the bathroom! He’s quite jovial, he’s incredibly sweet, he’s laughing most of the day over, like, when the dog would act up and bite one of us or something . . . He finds pleasure in the day is my point. And I think this is the difference between great directors and good directors — is that he truly loves all his characters. In a very passionate way, he respects and appreciates them. Again, therein lies the difference.

Were there any autobiographical echoes in the script for any of you, especially in how Southern men and women choose to express themselves or not express themselves?

Well, I can speak a little about the Southern upbringing (Pitt was raised in Missouri) but, again, I find this film more universal. I hope it speaks to people of all cultures, as far as childhood and deciding who you are going to be as you grow at that point from child to young adult and you try on things and some things work for you, some things don’t, and you’re being honed by the influences around you.

In this case, Terry designed it as the mother represents grace and love and all that is pure and good, and the father represents this oppressive nature . . . the nature that must survive and that will choke out another plant in order to do so. And the young child is trying both things on and figuring out what works for him and who he’s going to be as he grows up. And there’s the bigger questions of the impermanence of life that I think we all go through.

Now, the Southern upbringing — I’m making it a cliché, almost — but there is truth to a purity and sweetness in the mother and a more “father knows best” mentality, of father-as-provider. And in the film, here, you see the American Dream, as we grow up to understand it, is not working. The father’s on the tail end of that. And there’s a lot of anger because of it and he, in turn, passes that on to his sons, inadvertently, unintentionally. I do think there are elements of the story that are personal to Terry. There were elements of the story that were personal to me but I don’t think it mirrors or is an exact template for either one of us.

Share some memories of your childhood.

I grew up with Christianity. I remember questioning it greatly — some things didn’t work for me, some things did — and just having a lot of the questions that the film presents, and I think that’s why it spoke to me as it does.

What did you feel you were making? When you saw it, what surprised you about it? What kind of impact do you think it will have in America, where there aren’t many religiously themed films?

I was surprised by the structure, which I find quite ingenious. I think this marriage of the micro with the macro, I found most interesting, when he tells this micro story of this family in this small town in Texas, juxtaposed with the macro of the birth of the cosmos and cell-splitting and I find that quite extraordinary that there seems to be some parallel truths in there.

You play a strict father in the film. What is your own parenting style? Also, were any of the boys related to you?

(Smiling) No relation. I beat my kids regularly — it seems to do the trick — and deprive them of meals.

What did Malick tell you about this film in advance?

Yes, it’s a leap of faith and that’s the point: that’s when these accidents are going to happen and you know you’re in great hands with Terry, so it’s not that scary.

What elements of your religious upbringing could you use to give your character form?

I don’t know if I thought of that specifically, just because it’s internalized. But as far as a faith that I grew up with is being told that God’s going to take care of everything and it doesn’t always work out that way. And when it doesn’t work out that way, well, then you’re told it’s God’s will. I got my issues, man — you don’t want to get me started! I got my issues. But many people find in religion something to be very inspiring and actually leads them to opportunities. I, myself, found it very stifling, as an individual, and a tightness to it that I think that the father character carried with him. More focused on what you can’t do than experiencing and discovering.

Since Cannes is the most auteur-driven festival, the director should be here. Did he give you direction on how to present the film for him? What is the conversation behind the scenes of the festival when a director doesn’t show up?

He sees himself — I believe I can speak for him — as building a house. I don’t know why it’s accepted that people who make things in our business are then expected to sell them. I don’t think it computes with him. He wants to focus on the making-of and not the selling of the real estate. It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be a salesman.

You know how when you have a favourite song and you hear the band telling what it’s about, describing the lyrics, and you’re immediately disappointed and you can’t listen to that song anymore? No?

Aside from the chance to work with Malick, what attracted you to this story?

We were actually already on it as producers and the unfortunate thing about this business, sometimes, is that great stories have great difficulties getting made even when there are people involved like Terry Malick. We’ve witnessed a lot of really strong scripts go by the wayside and not get made and we wanted to ensure that this one did and so I jumped in.

I was a little hesitant about playing the oppressive father but I felt like the story was so important and to me it was really about the kids’ journey. I think about everything I do now my kids are going to see when they grow up and how are they going to feel, but they know me as a dad and I hope they’ll just think I’m a pretty damned good actor.

Can you talk about how you pick roles and why you’re not doing more blockbuster type films like Mission: Impossible types?

Don’t count me out of Mission: Impossible! I’ll be there! I’m not that highbrow. You know, like the film, itself, you want to discover, you want it to be about something, you want to find something new . . . I always have. I want to find something different. That’s been my focus. Also, I think about 10 years ago, I started thinking about my favourite films and they weren’t the big commercial things; they were things that have a little more depth that were asking bigger questions or really, really funny.

I do like a comedy. There’s some great comedy coming out of America right now . . . I’m thinking Zach Galifianakis and Jonah Hill and Danny McBride. The point is just to keep messing it up and I figure I only have so many more of these that I’ll get to do and I want to make sure it has some worth to me and has some worth out there instead of something that’s more disposable.