Brad Pitt on the Mystery of Terry Malick

The Tree of Life star describes the free-form family vibe in making a film with the world's most reclusive director

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Joel Ryan / AP

Actor Brad Pitt poses for portraits during promotion for the film The Tree of Life at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 17, 2011

For Brad Pitt, the Cannes Film Festival is almost a perennial rite of spring. He’s been there four of the past five years, either with his own films (Ocean’s Thirteen, Inglourious Basterds) or accompanying his partner Angelina Jolie (for Changeling). But this year, as the star and one of the producers of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Pitt was also the impromptu spokesman for the absent, famously shy writer-director. The film, which won Cannes’ highest accolade, the Palme d’Or, features what many have called Pitt’s finest, boldest performance, as the severe father of three young boys in suburban Texas in the 1950s.

The day after Tree of Life’s official screening (where Malick did show up briefly), Pitt met us for an interview in a penthouse site at Cannes’ Carlton Hotel. Immaculate in a white cotton sweater and cream-colored trousers, sporting tinted, tortoise-shell glasses and a gold chain around his neck, he spoke softly and precisely about making this minutely observed, wildly ambitious film.

A UNIQUE SHOT

Your part of the movie was shot ages ago.
Yes, in the spring of 2008, after I did Burn After Reading and before Inglourious Basterds. I remember that Angie was pregnant then [with the twins she gave birth to in July 2008] and we were trying to think of names for our kids, and now they’re almost three.

Yet in Malick’s mind it started forming much earlier: in the late ’70s, when he began his absence from directing that lasted 20 years.

There’s this mystique around the film, because this is the movie Terry took his hiatus on. It’s gone through many incarnations since, but he started shooting [some of the Cosmos footage] then.

In 2007, when he was finally preparing to shoot it, Heath Ledger was going to play your character, Mr. O’Brien.
Yes, he pulled out at the time for family reasons. His death was a great loss. Heath was one of the younger guys who was on track, who taught me something. You saw it coming in the stuff he’d done, where he’d found a line — the way [Ryan] Gosling is finding a line — against the tide, where the pressure is to do the much more disposable kind of film. These guys are smart enough to know there’s something better to do.

The boys who play your sons in the film — their voices must have broken by now.
You wouldn’t even recognize the oldest [Hunter McCracken]. He’s taller than I am, and he could kick the shit out of me. But there was a family feeling on the shoot, more than you’d normally get on a film set. The boys were like real brothers: they loved each other, they got into fights. Where the Laramie kid [Laramie Eppler, who plays the second son] kicks Hunter, that was real; they really had a fight that day. The tears you see at the end from Tye [Sheridan], the youngest, which gets me every time, those were real. That was the boys’ last day of shooting, and they’d had this summer-camp vibe, and they were going to be separating. Three years later, the boys still call Jessica [Chastain, who plays Mrs. O'Brien], and send her something on Mother’s Day.

It was a unique shoot, because we didn’t have all the lights and the equipment, and it was a very free-form narrative. So the kids weren’t really making a movie — other than there’s this one camera there. They didn’t know the script, and Terry just told them a little bit about what’s happening. We’d set off, do a couple takes and move on.

Instead of doing little rewrites of scenes to be shot on a certain day, Terry would get up in the morning, and meditate, and write his thoughts about the day’s work. And we got handed these four pages, single-spaced, and they’d be these stream-of-consciousness ideas that we would incorporate into the day’s work.

Someone called Terry a perfectionist, and I said no, he’s an imperfectionist; he’s trying to mess it up. He sets up a scene and then “torpedoes” it — that’s his word. Say, if the parents are arguing inside the house, he’ll send one of the kids in and see how we handle it.

The best moments were not preconceived. In a movie, an actor can get all the words right, but it flatlines, it doesn’t land. And when it does work, it’s this thing that actors talk about pretentiously, but it’s true, about “being in the moment.” Terry’s creating the moment, and standing there with a big butterfly net.

Having just made a film with the Coen brothers, who don’t want their actors to deviate from the script, you must have found this a polar-opposite experience.
It’s the opposite in that a Coen brothers script and shoot are very structured. But it’s the same in that it’s just a couple takes — Terry knows what he wants, and Joel and Ethan know what they want. [As Joel Coen]: “Ethan, that was pretty good, eh Ethan? OK.” And Terry’s like [a high, wispy, tentative voice]: “Yeah. Yeah. I think, uh, yeah, I think I liked it.”

With a Coen brothers movie, you as an actor know pretty clearly what the final movie is going to be, whereas with Malick you have to take a leap of faith.
Joel and Ethan, and Terry too, have it so designed in their heads, and I’m only a small quotient of the end product. So it’s all a bit of a surprise. But I figure, if you know what it’s gonna be, why do it?

I’ve seen the film in its four-hour incarnation, then three-and-a-half, two-forty-five, back to three-thirty, and now at two-and-a-quarter. In essence, it’s the same.

FATHERS AND SONS

Most of the film takes place in the ’50s and is the story of the boy Jack [McCracken], about 12 years old, and his growing rebellion against his father.
With sons and fathers, there’s an inexplicable connection and imprint that your father leaves on you. And I think that [for Malick] there were personal elements to the story. I dare say — actually, I don’t dare say! I’ve become the spokesman for Terry and I don’t have the right. But I do know he had brothers, and lost one at an earlier age.

Do you have brothers?
I have a younger brother and a younger sister. I grew up in the same environment [in Oklahoma]. I didn’t suffer the same sort of oppression from my father. My dad actually gave me a lot of opportunities; he’s why I’m sitting on this couch. But as far as the environment — getting me a BB gun, spending a lot of time with me outdoors — it was similar.

Your character, Mr. O’Brien, is someone who’s wracked by his sense of failure. He wanted to be a musician, and thinks of himself as an inventor, and tries to be a good father; yet he comes up short on all counts.
He’s a sad man. He was poisoned by his thoughts that other people were getting ahead, and he wasn’t, getting the shitty end of the stick. Then he’s passing that grudge on to his kids, and feeling remorseful about that and trying to make it up to them. It’s a sad story.

I got the same feeling from the father-know-best mentality that we suffered from in the last Administration. It’s still prevalent in certain areas of rural America. It’s not questioned, and yet at the heart of it is a great fear. You certainly see that with the father in our film: the bitterness that he carries and the oppression that he passes on. We’re talking about the 50s. I wasn’t there but my understanding is that there was an idyllic, even puritanical image of ourselves that stoked the kind of malaise and led us into the 60s.

CHRIST AND THE COSMOS

Terry studied philosophy at Harvard and at Oxford.
as a Rhodes scholar…

and translated a book by Heidegger that Northwestern University Press published when he was 25. And now, more than 40 years later, he’s taking on issues of philosophy, religion and science — of Christ and the cosmos. There’s that 17-minute sequence covering the history of the universe from the Big Bang through the age of the dinosaurs. Is that in the original script?
Yes, it was part of a very dense script that became the springboard for the film. There’s also a companion piece to this that we talked about then, and that he’s still working on. It’s an IMAX experience, with National Geographic, that will be an hour-long version of this: from the birth of the cosmos up to God knows where he’s going to end it. He’s still calling images for that. And that’s going to be mesmerizing.

This is not a specifically religious film, but it certainly embraces the Christian notion of forgiveness in the afterlife.
Terry has an embrace for Christianity, for all religions, but not in the textbook definition of Christianity. You’re looking at a man who loves science, and has an interpretation and a feeling for God. In America those two things usually don’t coincide. And yet he sees the two as one: he sees God in science and science in God.

I also grew up in a Christian environment, and as I became an adult — it doesn’t work for me. I hesitate to say anything about religion, and yet I think I should say it, when so many wars are spawned by it. I got my issues; I can’t talk about it without getting a little bit hot. It’s probably not best for me to talk about that. But I was actually very comfortable playing within the religious iconography, because I lived that.

I’d say that Tree of Life is not a Christian so much as a spiritual film. I was surprised, watching it last night, how powerfully it struck me. What the film was saying to me is that there is an unexplained power; there is this force. And maybe peace can be found, but not by trying to explain it with the religion. Maybe there’s peace to be found just in that acceptance of the unknown.

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