Terrence Malick‘s long-awaited “The Tree of Life,” opening today in select cities, is the kind of movie that is designed to be talked about, chewed on, and poured over. It’s a movie that demands you grasp at the unknowable, is challenging and gorgeous in some very deep and profound levels and asks big questions about who we are and where we came from, not just on a human level but on a grander, “how does life exist” scale. (On the same token, its complete lack of an identifiable narrative/dramatic structure and emotional aloofness might drive you batty.) Looking into “The Tree of Life” (and beyond), though, you’ll find even more tantalizing questions, possibilities, and dead-ends. The fact that most of us are still as intrigued, befuddled, and mystified by the film after we’ve seen it is a testament to its singular, oddball power. So we now present to you 10 things we’ve learned about ‘Tree of Life’ that maybe you never knew. This feature is probably best enjoyed after you’ve seen the film, but we give proper warning when discussing plot (if that’s the right word) specifics. Here’s similarly exhaustive features we wrote about “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line.”
01. “The Tree of Life” Started Out Life As Something Very, Very Different
During the “lost years” following the grueling production and ultimate success of “Days of Heaven,” (which turned into a 20 year stretch), Malick hid out in Paris and worked on a movie tentatively titled “Q.” According to a lengthy and in-depth Vanity Fair article that came out right before his poetic war movie “The Thin Red Line” (“The Runaway Genius,” August 1998) the film initially included “a prologue, which dramatized the origins of life.” Except that the segment “became increasingly elaborate and would ultimately take over the rest of the story.” The “origins of life” bit would make the transition to “The Tree of Life,” but otherwise, the visualization of the cosmos would have been strikingly different – “Q” featured (again, according to the Vanity Fair piece) a “sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as florescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils.” Um. Okay. The movie got fairly far along, with Malick traveling between Paris and Los Angeles, where he had instilled a small team, mostly comprised of photographers and special effects technicians, until one day, just like the big bang, things just stopped. According to a visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor, “One Monday, Terry never showed up. He didn’t call anybody, we couldn’t find him… He just stopped.”
02. Wait, Tell Me More About “Q”
Okay! According to a January 2006 issue of British film magazine Total Film, in an article hilariously (and appropriately) entitled “Who the Hell is Terrence Malick?” (it’s not online unfortunately), Charles Bludhorn, chairman of Gulf + Western (which, at the time of “Days of Heaven,” owned Paramount), “took the unprecedented step of establishing a trust fund for Malick: it was worth $1 million, paid out in installments of around $100,000 on the condition that he would bring his next project to Paramount.” So what did Malick do with that stipend? He sent cameramen to the Great Barrier Reef to “shoot micro jellyfish,” to Mount Edna to shoot volcanoes violently erupting, and Antarctica to see sheets of ice slide off of the polar ice caps. The script was less a script and more “pages of poetry,” which he would deliver to the powers that be at Paramount in 30-page increments, until they eventually lost their patience, became frustrated and demanded “a script that starts with page one and at the end says, ‘The End.’” While many of the ideas he toyed with in this period would make their ways into “The Tree of Life” (except for the sleepy giant space god), much more recently it was conceived as its own film.