Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sarah Green talk about the new movie from Terrence Malick

Why are Sean Penn and Terrence Malick not here in Cannes?

BP: Sean Penn is in Haiti. They were recently meeting on NGOs [non-government organisations] and his work there. He’s on his way, he should be here momentarily.
SG: Mr Malick is very shy and I would say that I believe his work speaks for him.

Since Cannes is one of the most auteur driven festivals in the world,
BP: I believe I can speak for him; he says that [making a film] is like building a house. I don’t know why it is accepted in our business that people who make things are now expected to sell them. I don’t think it computes with him, he wants to focus on the making of, and not the real estate. It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be salesman.
SG: I think the most sincere gesture he can make for the audience, is to let them interpret it as they will on their own, individually, and any influence on that corrupts the process.
BP: You know when you have a favourite song and you hear the band telling what it’s about, describing the lyrics, and you are immediately disappointed? That it’s not the same song any more? [laughs]

Brad, aside from working with Terrence Malick, what attracted you to the film?
BP: We were already on it as producers and the unfortunate thing about this business sometimes, is that great stories have great difficulty getting made. We have witnessed a lot of really strong scripts go by the wayside and we wanted to ensure that this one didn’t, 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.

What was it like working with a director who makes films like a French impressionist, rather than in the more ‘normal’ linear, conventional way?
BP: I can go on far too long about Terry’s process, but the quick strokes were; our story takes place in the ’50s, and Terry started by renting the entire block and dressing is as the 1950s, therefore allowing us to go wherever we wanted – he had a couple of kids jumping rope outside. He gave us a very dense script. He never wanted to hammer and tongs a scene the way it was written, he was more interested in catching what was happening on the day. He was like a guy standing with a butterfly net and waiting for that moment of truth to go by. The kids themselves were not given a script, they were not allowed a script, they had a closet of clothes, they put on what they wanted to wear that day. We would do two takes. Terry would also get up early in the morning to write and he would give us two or three pages, single spaced, and we would develop something out of that. I think it’s because of that, that the moments are fresh – they are not preconceived in any way. There was only one light in the house – the light over the table – and everything else was hand held. It was a pretty incredible experience. I don’t know that I could do a lot of it though because it was exhausting.

JC: For me it was giving up any idea of what I thought the plan might be for the first scene or the day that we wee going to film. It was all about capturing an accident. I remember shooting a scene and there was a woodpecker making a bird call, and he found a way to incorporate it. In the trailer, during the voice over, you can hear a bird in the background and that is actually from the set.
BP: I wanna add one thing. He does what he calls ‘torpedoing’ a scene, and the youngest child he called ‘The Torpedo’. In the first take where we were having an argument, we were going at it and raising our voices. In the second take, unbeknownst to us, he would send ‘The Torpedo’ in and he would sit down at the table, and that would change the whole tenure and tone of the scene. This is something that would happen on a daily basis… I could go on for a couple of days…! [laughs]

Brad, as a person, and as an artist, how inspiring was it for you to work with Terrence Malick?
BP: It’s changed everything I have done since. I have found in the past that, what I thought were the best moments were not preconceived, they were not planned. They were the accidents that Jess was describing. In the things I have done since, I have tried to go more in that direction and less on… Making an intense study when you are going into it, but then working with non-actors and trying to go off script and see what happens.

There is a theme of creation through the movie, how religious is Terrence Malick?
BP: We had a lot of theological debates throughout the process, he’s a really interesting person to talk to. I would say that he is more of a spiritualist than a compartmentalised version of Christianity. He has a more universal viewpoint in life.
SG: Yeah, I think Terry is interested in philosophy and all matter of the spirit, and he is extraordinarily educated in all religions and philosophies.

BP: I find this film more universal; I hope it speaks to people of all cultures and aspects of childhood, and deciding who you are going to be as you grow from child to young adult. You try things, some work for you, some don’t, and you are being honed by the influences around you. In this case, Terry designed it so that the Mother represents grace and love and all that is pure and the Father represents this oppressive nature that must survive, and will choke out another plant in order to do so. The young child is trying on both things and finding out what works for him and the bigger questions of the impermanence of life – which I think we all go through.

If a lot of the film was trying to capture accidents, what surprised you most about it when you saw the finished film?
BP: I was surprised by the structure, I think it’s quite ingenious. I think the mixing of the micro with the macro was interesting – he does this micro story of this family in a small town in Texas and juxtaposes it with the cosmos and cells splitting… I find that quite extraordinary.

The dinosaurs were an unusual move…
BP: Right? [laughs]
Were the dinosaurs always part of the plan for this film?
BP: It was always part of the script – this story of time as we know it.
SG: Well the formation of the universe included dinosaurs! [laughs]
BP: End of discussion!

How different was the film that was to show at Cannes last year to the film that is showing this year?
SG: If you believe that films are alive, there is a point where they are not finished, and a point at which they are. Hopefully you have the privilege and luxury of listening to that and that being the single voice in the process.

Brad, you tend to make more character driven films – as opposed to things like Mission: Impossible – how do you choose a role?
BP: Don’t count me out of Mission: Impossible! [laughs] I’ll be there! [laughs] I always want to find something different and that’s been my focus. About ten years ago I stared thinking about my favourite films and they were not the big commercial films, they were things that had a little more depth or really really funny. I do like a comedy. There is some great comedy coming out of America at the moment, like Zach Galifinakis and Danny McBride… But the point is just to keep messing it up.

Words – Brogen Hayes

The Tree Of Life is currently waiting for an Irish release date