Tree of Life: 2011 Film of the Year

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Any preconceptions one might have about cigar-chomping, gold-chain-bedecked, commerce-above-art Hollywood producers go right out the window early in your first conversation with Dede Gardner. Gardner, the head of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions, and one of the producers of Paste’s 2011 Narrative Film of the Year The Tree of Life, explodes those stereotypes. She’s warm, generous, and—surprise!—utterly entranced with the idea of making great films.

“One of the reasons I treasure the movie so much is that it’s really honest,” she says. “This is how real life works. I don’t think it’s ever simple. You’re a sum total of all your days, and in most cases that’s a lot of days. They’re going to result in complex and multifaceted people, and holding on to that is a source of strength in some way.”

She’s discussing how Terrence Malick’s brilliant film creates such vivid, three-dimensional characters. Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien, who is certainly overly harsh toward his children, never slides into the realm of villainy because of his obvious love for them and because of our empathy in seeing him fight his own demons. It’s a depth of character, Gardner remembers, that came as part of a long process: “Some of it is just time. Time inside the character, time speaking with Terry about the character, time speaking with Terry about what his intentions are for a particular scene. And the intention might well trump the current words on the page. But the intention and the honesty with which it’s portrayed are what’s so crucial. If it feels rehearsed, then by definition it’s not really honest.”

Of course, a large part of the reason we’re able to have sympathy for Mr. O’Brien is that the beatific Mrs. O’Brien is devoted to him, and treats him with love and sympathy. As seen through the lens of memory, Mrs. O’Brien is nearly the very personification of grace. Not an easy part to cast. But the production found its perfect actress in Jessica Chastain, who glides across the screen like a Botticelli. “There are some people who, more easily than others, slide into different eras,” Gardner says. “And I certainly think she’s one of those, and that’s evidenced by a lot of the work she’s done that’s come out in the last year. But even more than an ability to slide into a specific era, I think, is a sense of timelessness. She feels timeless to me when I look at her, and in many ways, she feels timeless when you spend time with her. She’s grounded, in a really beautiful way. That’s really remarkable, to not be defined by your moment, or by when you’re breaking as an actor, or by things that you learned in school. She’s sort of ferocious in her serenity, if that makes sense.”

Having such top-notch acting talent is critical to Malick’s process, which includes creating a world in toto and committing to a glacial pace of improvisation and discovery. “Finding the accident,” says Gardner, quoting a phrase Malick veterans often use, “or even just creating the space for the accident. The word has such a negative connotation, but I’m not sure that it should. It just means what wasn’t expected or what wasn’t planned. That’s the way real life goes, so permitting that and encouraging that, which is something that Terry does with vigor, is very liberating. And it can be great fun too.”

In order to create that world, and that freedom, the production took on an unusual form. “You just have to be an incredibly agile and elastic production.” Gardner recalls. “So we took over several blocks of this town, Smithville, Texas. Grip and electric were in one of the garages, and wardrobe was in a house, and hair and makeup were in a house, and the actors were in houses. There were no trucks. There were no trailers. You could turn around 360 degrees and walk down the block and in the door and out the door and onto the porch. You could do that because we created that freedom. You could look up at the sky, and look at the time of day and the weather, and feel the mood and how people were feeling that day, and just shoot what felt best. You could just go for it. You were not hindered by, ‘Okay, if we turn around we’re going to have to move all those trucks, and that’s going to take an hour and a half, and then the light will be gone.’ We eliminated all those normal conditions. It was amazing.”

The resulting film is one from which each viewer leaves with a different response, which is just what Malick intends. For Gardner, the response was intense from the moment she read the script, especially given the timing: “I was a brand new parent when I first read it,” she says. “When you become a parent, lots of things happen that you’re aware of, and lots more things happen that you’re not aware of. What it meant to me, when I closed the script, the connective tissue of the movie was that if we have any idea how minute we are in the spectrum of time and the universe, we won’t waste time with ego and shame, or with imposing that ego and shame on our children. That’s an extremely personal takeaway for me that has everything to do with how I was raised and with how I want to be a parent. That’s part of why the movie is so meaningful to me. It’s like a constant reminder of how I hope to parent.”

It’s deeply personal responses such as this that produce masterpieces like The Tree of Life. And Gardner fully realizes how special that process is: “For all of us making this film, none of us do this lightly. We all consider it an enormous privilege to make movies. We all love movies. And I certainly know when I walk out of a movie that’s moved me, I feel charged and excited and motivated, or even sad or contemplative, or any number of other things. And obviously we have tremendous faith in Terry. We had the opportunity to bring something to the screen that he wanted to bring to the screen. It was that simple. And we thought, ‘My God, how lucky are we?’”

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