Hollywood Grind: How THE TREE OF LIFE Got Made

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, USA (@peteramartin)
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Hollywood Grind: How THE TREE OF LIFE Got Made

"How on Earth did that movie get financed?" After watching The Tree of Life on Monday afternoon, not in Cannes, but in Dallas, Texas (so my review is under embargo until it opens locally in a couple of weeks), I walked out into the bright sunshine, still shaking my head in amazement at what I'd seen. And in talking with a fellow writer, I openly wondered what the script might have looked like, in order to convince someone to put up the not-so-tiny budget. (Which is as far as I can go without entering spoiler territory.)

The easy answer: Terrence Malick.

But Malick is not, in fact, any kind of sure bet, either critically or financially. The Thin Red Line, generally well-received critically, marked his return to filmmaking in 1998, yet failed to make back its reported production budget of $52 million on US receipts alone; thanks to non-US receipts, worldwide box office for the period war picture totaled $98 million. The New World received a more measured critical response, and box office returns barely covered the reported production budget of $30 million.

Anyone deciding to finance a film by Terrence Malick must come to grips with the director's requirement for final cut and his well-documented editing process, which can drag things out for years. On the plus side, his films are guaranteed strong critical reaction, whether positive or negative, and hold award-season possibilities. And the prestige factor cannot be discounted.

Still, The Tree of Life got made due to one man and his money.

That man is William Pohlad, son of a billionaire. Pohlad has been involved with the film industry for more than 20 years, first as a director (Old Explorers), then as a producer (most notably for Into the Wild and Fair Game). He first heard Malick's pitch for The Tree of Life at a three-hour lunch meeting, but Pohlad was otherwise occupied at the time with another big project, trying to get Che off the ground. Malick might have directed that one, but both he and Pohlad ended up leaving the project, and Malick sent him a script for Tree in 2006 or 2007.

"By then, I knew Terry's writing style," Pohlad told Deadline in a long and interesting interview, "so I wasn't shocked by it or put off by it at all. I thought it was emotional, really amazing. I committed then."

Let those words sink in. He read the script. And then he committed. As he said, "I've always believed in Tree of Life, from the script to the finished movie. I believe just as strongly in Terry. So you just go with that. You've got to believe, and take some chances. Otherwise the film doesn't get made, or it gets made a different way, with me trying to be overly aggressive and changing the project. I believed in Terry's vision and it was always about trying to balance that artistic vision with reality."

The Tree of Life met with mixed critical reaction at Cannes, and the cross-currents of boos and praise will continue until the film begins its platform release in the U.S. starting next week, and then build as it's released around the world. It's a must see, but you already knew that.

Are there any take-away lessons for Hollywood at large?

The easy answer: No.

Malick is an exception, people say, and geniuses (whether you buy that as an accurate of description of Malick or not) are exceedingly rare. Producers, who can number into a dozen on some projects, must have their input, and directors with singular visions are trouble. Studio executives must justify their existence, and appear more intent on making a name for themselves by repeating old formulas than on championing filmmakers who bring something new (and, therefore, inherently risky) to the table.

Maybe, to paraphrase and possibly misconstrue Shakespeare: 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the studio executives.'

While the intent of the original line in Henry VI (substitute "lawyers" for "studio executives") has been vigorously debated, the idea of doing away with the current flock is incredibly appealing when you reflect upon the low-quality product that continues to be churned out for worldwide consumption. It makes me feel like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."

It's an unhappy prospect to live in a smaller town or city, and want to see an artistically adventurous movie on the biggest screen possible, and share that experience with strangers, and constantly be thwarted, to ratchet down expectations and accept movies that are "not bad for what they are." Personally, I'd rather see an ambitious movie that fails, rather than a movie that wasn't trying that hard to begin with, and I know I'm not alone.

It's all wistful thinking, set in motion by The Tree of Life.

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More about Tree of Life

Jim TudorMay 20, 2011 1:33 AM

I saw this Monday as well Peter, and i imagine you feel the same frustration at being able to unable to discuss this movie with anyone closely at hand. (If your screening had the same rigid restrictions as mine did, we could bring NO GUESTS! Sheesh...) When I went to the "Pirates 4" screening a few nights later, there was almost a desperation among the press before to the film to discuss "Tree of Life". I'm definitely planning to see it again in the theater...

Peter MartinMay 20, 2011 1:45 AM

Yes, that's my frustration as well. I've gotten into two discussions with other critics so far, one whose reaction was similar to mine and the other who had exactly the opposite reaction. Both were spirited conversations. It's the kind of movie that should provoke debate -- and I likewise plan to see it again.