The film opens somewhere in a dark underwater world. The camera slowly moves in toward an unreal creature—a god with the head of a Minotaur, strange flurries of light drifting around his face. As we get closer, we see that the flickers are glowing fish, swimming in and out of his nose as he breathes. The god is sleeping, and dreaming …
The movie in question became Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Once regarded as one of the greatest films never made, it will finally be released onMay 27, after more than three decades’ gestation. Starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the result is being kept under tight wraps, but reportedly, the Minotaur opening is long gone, most likely replaced with a scene of an ordinary fifties Texas family. What we do know is that, as with so many other directors’ dream projects—think of Stanley Kubrick’s unrealized Napoleon—the pursuit of this film has informed virtually everything this notably reclusive director has done.
1. In 1978, Malick was a golden boy, a charismatic Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar who had published a translation of Martin Heidegger’s Essence of Reasons. His first film, Badlands, had been a critical smash if not a financial one. Days of Heaven, his second, would soon win a Best Director award at Cannes and be nominated for four Oscars. Charles Bluhdorn, who ran Gulf + Western, the parent company of Paramount, was so impressed with Days of Heaven that he offered the director a million dollars for his next project, no matter what it was. Malick accepted—even though he was worn out. “I think Terry really wanted to take some time off,” says Paul Ryan, who shot second unit on Days and signed on for the new film. “But he also realized he might not get this chance again.”
2. The film Malick had in mind made Days of Heaven look like a home movie: It would be a history of the cosmos up through the formation of the Earth and the beginnings of life. “Creation was the word that kept coming up,” says Ryan, “whether God’s creation or evolution.” The film went under a number of names—among them Qasida, referring to an ancient Arabian form of rhythmic lyric poetry—and eventually came to be called Q.
3. By 1979, Malick and a small crew were learning about the technology they planned to use, including military night-vision cameras. They shot ice floes in Antarctica and microscopic jellyfish along the Great Barrier Reef. Ryan went off to film an eclipse of the sun in Montana. “Terry wasn’t just interested in the classic shot of the sun being eclipsed,” he recalls. “That’s a dime a dozen. I filmed a pasture, to see the effect of the eclipse on the animals, the darkening of the shadow across a field.” For the Minotaur-god scene, Richard Winn Taylor II, a special-effects consultant who had worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, recalls finding a location in Alaska where the shoreline was covered with dead trees leaning at an angle. “We came up with a way to shoot that at night, with flares on weather balloons, and then in post we’d add thousands of fireflies and bioluminescent fish.”
4. That material was beautiful—but Paramount began to get nervous about the lack of a formal schedule and a script. Taylor recalls a plan for a second-half love story set thousands of years ago; Ryan says they tossed around the idea of humans’ appearing only toward the finale, with the creation of language at the very end. “Some people had criticized Days of Heaven for not having enough of a story,” says Ryan, “but Terry would say, ‘I want to go more in that direction.’ He was interested in a nonnarrative style, the cinematic equivalent of how, say, Beethoven had structured his symphonies.” As Paramount waited and worried, Malick would send 40-page poetic descriptions of the imagery. “He’s such a great writer that you’d read it and go, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ ” recalls Ryan. “But in the end, I think Paramount was expecting an actual production start date.” As the studio lost patience, Malick called it quits—not just on Q but seemingly on directing in general. He’d spend the next twenty years away from Hollywood, his Salinger-like mystique and reputation growing as his silence lengthened.
5. In 1998, Malick reappeared with 1998’s war epic The Thin Red Line. “I doubt Terry intended to be away from directing for such a long time,” says Jack Fisk, who’s been the production designer on all of his features. “I have never asked him about that period, but I know he was writing and shooting film all along.” The Thin Red Line’s material is utterly removed from that of Q, but one can sense the natural world playing an aggressive role onscreen, from the awe with which it’s shot to the questioning voice-overs that appear to reflect a kind of sylvan Oversoul. At times, the film seems to be a war picture in name only; the director is as interested in a newborn bird on the battlefield as the ins and outs of combat. Martin Scorsese has called it one of his favorite films of the nineties.
6.The New World, Malick’s 2005 Jamestown epic, pits Indians who coexist with nature against British settlers who seek to tame it. Ostensibly a romance, it shows signs of that same nonnarrative approach—major plot points pass barely noticed as the camera lingers on rivers and woods and the angelic Pocahontas, played by Q’orianka Kilcher. The response was sharply divided, but those who love it really, really love it. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote, “Where other movies have fans, Malick’s produce disciples.”
7. Malick is famously private about both his life and his artistic process, so we can only guess at when he decided to return to Q in earnest. Producer Sarah Green reportedly got a revised treatment during preproduction on The New World. By July 2007, there was a script. The Tree of Life would marry the cosmic and natural journey of Q with a semi-autobiographical story centered around a Texas family not unlike the director’s own, seen through the eyes of the oldest child (played by Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult). Judging by one draft of the script, the director seems to have finally found the human connection he’d been circling around all those years ago: The flashback to the beginnings of time would be prompted by the existential crisis of a man who finds himself at odds with the world around him. Is Penn’s Jack a stand-in for Malick the wanderer? “It’s impossible for me to guess what is in Terry’s mind, but it is natural, as we get older, to think more of what came before and what may lie beyond,” says Fisk.
8. Shooting and editing in a style that highlights the fleeting nature of memory and avoids most narrative conventions, Malick now appears to have realized the lyric poem of creation he envisioned for Q, largely without compromises. (It’s even rumored that some of the old footage was brought out of storage and used in the film.) “He’s been moving toward this his whole career,” says Billy Weber, who worked as an editor on Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life. “I think he really decided to go for something radical this time. This is his most experimental film.” And not his last: Another film, starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, is already in postproduction, scheduled for a 2012 release.