Brad Pitt, left, and Laramie Heppler in "The Tree of Life." (Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight…)
Terrence Malick's coming-of-age epic "The Tree of Life" has been shrouded in mystery since news of it surfaced in 2005. So it's fitting that the first thing cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki says about the film is that, well, there's not much he can say about the film.
"It's very hard to talk about this movie because almost anything I say will reduce it and make it seem prosaic and simplistic," he said.
But then the veteran cinematographer, whose credits include "Children of Men" and "Ali" and who collaborated with Malick on his "The New World," goes on to say plenty, comparing the May 27 release to, among other things, a symphony and a novel.
Malick's partly autobiographical tale centers on a boy growing up in the Midwest caught between the conflicting world views of his mother (Jessica Chastain) and father ( Brad Pitt) and a subsequent crisis he faces as an adult ( Sean Penn). Intercut with this story are grand images of nature, particularly elemental items like water and fire, as well as the cosmos.
Lubezki didn't shoot the more abstract moments (though NASA was among the organizations that collaborated with the production). But even the traditional scenes with actors were filmed in a highly unorthodox way.
Whereas most movies use what's known as "coverage" — cameras stationed in different places, with the idea of conveying a scene as you might experience it in real life — "Tree of Life" eschewed those conventions.
"Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance," said Lubezki, who goes by the name "Chivo." "We're using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It's meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume, or like when you go into a house and it smells maybe like chocolate, and it takes you to your past."
If that sounds esoteric and even a little weird, it should. Despite decades of experience, Lubezki acknowledges that "Tree of Life" was "like no set I ever worked on." "Once you think you got the formula," he said, "you realized there is no formula."
But ultimately, he said, that unorthodoxy will pay off for filmgoers. "The movie is like great music. It doesn't move you the way a normal movie does. It moves you from a very primordial place in your brain."