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Will the real Terrence Malick please stand up?

His friends and collaborators paint a portrait of the reclusive 'Tree of Life' filmmaker as a complicated and contradictory man.

May 22, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Brad Pitt stars in Terrence Malick's long-gestating family drama, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and opens Friday in Los Angeles.
Brad Pitt stars in Terrence Malick's long-gestating family drama,… (Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight )

Reporting from Cannes, France — — When Jessica Chastain, the up-and-coming actress who stars opposite Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life," had a meeting with Ben Stiller a few years ago, the actor caught her off guard with an unexpected request: "Tell Terry I said hi," Stiller told her, referring to "Tree" director Terrence Malick.

Chastain assumed that Stiller was kidding. How on Earth would the star of comedies like "Dodgeball" and "Meet the Fockers" be on such casual terms with a reclusive, enigmatic auteur like Malick?

But he wasn't joking. It turns out Malick is a huge fan of "Zoolander," Stiller's 2001 send-up of fashion fabulousness — so much so that for Malick's birthday one year, Stiller dressed up as the character Derek Zoolander, made a personalized video card and sent it to the director. "I think 'Zoolander' is one of Terry's favorite movies ever," said Jack Fisk, Malick's longtime production designer, who has known him for nearly 40 years. "He watches it all the time, and he likes quoting it."

Love for a goofy comedy is one of many paradoxes about Malick, the film world's version of J.D. Salinger. The director dislikes being photographed, avoids public appearances — he skipped the premiere of his highly anticipated, long-delayed "Tree" last week here at the Cannes Film Festival — and turns down all interview requests (including this one), creating an impression of a cranky, precious artist.

But conversations with nearly a dozen friends and collaborators reveal a different portrait of the 67-year-old director who has made only five movies in nearly four decades: "Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line," "The New World" and now "Tree." They paint a picture of a complicated and contradictory man: painfully shy in public but jovial on his sets, gentle but fiercely driven. While he believes in the mystical, he nonetheless has a strong belief in science. Though he can be rigorous to the point of obsessive, he also has a childlike sense of wonder, the kind that might cause him to gaze at a nearby woodpecker or butterfly in the middle of shooting a scene.

And while his films are concerned with big ideas like the meaning of life and the nature of identity, his conversation is filled with talk about dogs and "downhome-y things," Pitt said in an interview. The perception of Malick as a lofty thinker, he added, is "at odds with who he is in daily life."

"When I first met Terry, I thought we'd be talking about film," Chastain said in an interview. "He's more interested in you and where you come from than spouting his ideas." Fisk added that the director can talk to anyone about anything, from the origin of asphalt to breeds of birds to life in North Africa. "He knows so much but he always makes you feel like he knows less than you do," he said.

Malick has been hailed as a genius by some and derided as pretentious by others for his first four directing efforts, which favor slow pacing, sweeping visuals and a contemplative tone to tease out human and natural moments, whether in a small-town church or a cross-country killing spree. So perhaps it was no surprise that "Tree" divided audiences when it screened in Cannes. Clearly, though, the film is Malick's most personal.

The director's opus, which comes out Friday in Los Angeles, follows a trio of brothers growing up in the small town of Waco, Texas, in the middle of the 20th century with a stern father (Pitt) and generous mother (Chastain), a circumstance that paralleled Malick's upbringing. We see their lives unfold not in conventional scenes but in morsels and snatches.

Based on a script that Malick worked on for at least a decade, "Tree" contains an unusual visual montage that suggests the creation of the world; it's an effects-driven piece de resistance that lasts about 20 minutes and features exploding stars, underwater microbes and even an interaction between two dinosaurs. With many philosophical queries posed in whispered voice-overs, the film not only has life cycles and family on its mind but religion and morality too.

At Cannes, Malick continued to perpetuate the aura of mystery that surrounds him. He flew into the city and went to dinner with Pitt and Angelina Jolie and the film's producers several times. He was even joined once by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox Searchlight is distributing his movie.

But Malick refused to walk the red carpet at the premiere, attend a news conference as directors here typically do or even sit for the screening. When the movie ended after 2 hours and 17 minutes, the closed-circuit projection on the theater screen cut not to the usual Cannes shot of the director standing to acknowledge applause but to an empty chair that was to have been Malick's. (A Fox Searchlight spokesman later said that Malick entered the theater at the end of the screening but did so covertly.)

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