Brad Pitt could work with just about any director he wanted to. And he wanted to work with Terrence Malick.
At a screening of their polarizing new project “The Tree of Life” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pitt said that he and the iconoclastic auteur – who’s few-and-far-between films like “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World” are considered epic masterpieces in some circles, epic puzzlements in others – had quietly been looking for a project to collaborate on for a while.
“I've been talking to Terry for some time about doing something, and, you know, I'm a bit of a cinephile, so he ranks at the top,” said Pitt, who stars as an abusive 1950s father whose actions profoundly mark his three sons, particularly Jack (played by Sean Penn), who the story follows into the future. “I think this film, it's a challenging film, and equally challenging to get made. He had come to us. I think he needed some muscle to help get it through, and that's how we originally got involved. And it's a big honor for me.”
The film – which recently won the Palm d‘Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – follows an unconventional, meditative, existential and even surrealist path, in keeping with the Malick milieu. Behind the scenes, Pitt says the decidedly non-Hollywood production was equally unconventional.
“It's completely different because you don't have chaos that you have on a normal set,” explained Pitt. “There are generators and noise and trucks and unions and food – and this is none of that. It was quite like everyday life. We were in the neighborhood, we were in the houses, working out of the houses. The whole place, the neighborhood's dressed like the ‘50s. The kids are in their house, they pick out their own clothes that day and that's what they wear. Freeform script – they don't know the script. There's one guy with a camera, no lights, none of that stuff. It was a completely different experience. He was trying to capture the sweet perfections of life. I don't know if that's interesting, but it was interesting for me on the other side.”
Because of the lack of definitive script, Pitt – famously, the father of six with partner Angelina Jolie – had to take care with the child actors playing his sons when it came to staging the scenes in which he terrorizes them.
“We had to be careful, because they are young boys and you don't want to scar them in the process,” admits Pitt. “So it was explained to them ahead of time who was playing and they knew it was coming, but they didn't know when it was coming. And in between we made sure we had a lot of time for everyday life, throwing the ball around and riding bikes. And I think everyone got through it unscathed.”
As a parent himself, Pitt connected to how the film explores the long-lasting influences a child’s upbringing can have. “When we're a kid, our parents are our universe. Then you reach an age of consciousness where you realize people do die; your loved ones die; you will die – the impermanence of life. And it's a discombobulating, scary moment. And then you try to understand and rationalize it. At the same time you're growing up, you thought you were being shaped by the influences around you and being formed by this. It's a really complicated time.”
He admits that the film didn’t alter his perspective on life, but rather gave him an outlet to add his own viewpoint to Malick’s vision. “A lot of art is putting what you know about life into a story, and I come at it more from that,” he said. “But this film is experiential. It's meant to trigger moments in your own life. And I think it's pretty successful on that front.”
Despite the wildly disparate reactions to the film – along with collecting Cannes’ highest honor, it was also booed by many audience members – Pitt said he thinks the film is one worth watching. “I have to believe it's one that has some longevity and I hope it finds an audience,” he said. “It certainly provokes some debate.”