Interview: 'The Tree of Life' Producers Dede Gardner & Bill Pohlad

One of the most polarizing films of 2011 comes to DVD and Blu-ray this week - Terrence Malick's spiritual work The Tree of Life. We had the pleasure of speaking with two of the film's producers, Dede Gardner and Bill Pohlad. The pair shared stories of the production, the future of the rumored The Voyage of Time spin-off and other high-profile films they've got in the works.

I asked Gardner and Pohlad if we might see an Extended cut or Criterion Collection cut of Tree of Life soon, but they have no immediate plans to release one. Both are interested in the idea of one, but it doesn't sound like that's coming any time soon, if at all.

Tree of Life's strength is in its ambiguity (read our Tree of Life review to learn more about that). It allows each viewer to experience the film in their own way by limiting dialogue and exposition. In addition, the erratic editing style keeps audiences unsure of what is next, much like the unpredictability of a child's mind. As different viewers have their own feelings about the film, we asked Pohlad and Gardner how they first interepreted it.

Pohlad: Everybody's coming from a different place and the movie treats them differently. Terry's growth as an artist has led him to a place where he is more interested in a kind of film that is more like, and he would never say this, is more like fine art... The first time I heard about it was Terry telling me about it ten years ago... The projects we get involved in have an emotional response... I could relate a lot to it.

Gardner: I was aware of what the intentions were and by the time I read the first draft of the screenplay I was a new parent. So, my own personal reaction to it was pretty acute and very profound for me. It made a lot of sense to me as I was navigating this very new world. I was very moved by it and it's really that simple actually... What resonated the most for me was this idea that if one could be conscious of how minute we are against the spectrum of time that we wouldn't waste time or energy or that of our children worrying about ego and legacy - and we'd be much more comfortable with the idea of just existing and loving.

Sean Penn Tree of Life

How did you respond to Sean Penn claiming he did not even understand his own character. How do you sell something like this to an actor?

Pohlad: In any situation where making a movie and working with a director, as an actor or anybody in the process you have to give over a certain amount of trust in the director. In some cases it's not that big of a deal because it's very clear on the page or the concept what it's all about. Terry's leaving it open on purpose. I don't want to speak for Sean, but I was there for the whole thing and we're all kind of close, but I think that comment was taken a little out of context. But if you ask Brad if he knew what was going on in every scene, he would say 'no' too. But that's the adventure of how Terry's movies get made, but a lot of great movies get made like that, whether it's Inception or other things. If you have to go in and tell the actor what their character is thinking and feeling and how they should do it, it's not going to be a very interesting film.

Gardner: First of all, I think an opportunity to work with Terry is meaningful, I would suspect, to a lot of actors. I think the script really speaks for itself. There was a document that people could get really moved by. Then there's going to be a conversation with Terry about being it and I have to believe those are meaningful to everybody who got involved.

What is your perception of the Academy and how it might affect a film like Tree of Life?

Pohlad: I really can't say that I don't like our films to win award, I do. But that's not in the decision-making process where you say maybe if we do this or maybe we do that. If you want Brad Pitt to win a Best Picture award for this, you cut it differently. You would make it more about Brad and the scenes that really drive that home. With Terry leading the way, that's not what it's about at all. Terry really stuck to making it right for the film, as opposed to making it a showcase for one actor or another. There are ways to make the film more award-friendly, I suppose.

Gardner: I never ever go into something thinking that way. It's a recipe for disaster. You have to believe in a story and the time and energy and love you are going to put into it because of the story and the people involved. You hope it gets seen and matters to some people, but that's the most you can hope for. Going into any project thinking about awards or accolade, you'll trip yourself up. That's dangerous.

The history of the film is kind of like a modern-day Apocalypse Now with all the pre-production and post-production setbacks. How do you deal with those kinds of bumps?

Pohlad: The production part of it was pretty straight forward and actually quite great. Very comfortable and easy-going vibe on set. The edit was a little more challenging, but it wasn't at all in the range. Terry knew what he wanted, so there was a lot of back-and-forth of what he was really trying to accomplish, so that was interesting.

Gardner: You just had to wait until it was finished. You couldn't reverse engineer that and create a release date or a festival debut and then decide the film is therefore finished. You have to let the film speak for itself. It's a difficult bar to maintain because it is a commerce-driven business, first and foremost, and there are release schedules and dates preferable to others and competition for screens, airspace, advertising, attention and what have you. But if you put something in before it's finished you undermine everything you've done before that.

Tree of Life Voyage of Time

What can you tell us about The Voyage of Time? Is it truly a continuation of that creation scene in Tree of Life?

Pohlad: I don't know exactly how to characterize it. It's certainly an outgrowth of Tree of Life - of that section of Tree of Life. He had a fascination to explore it in Tree of Life and wanted to extend that and also put it in an environment that can be appreciated on a more academic or educational format where people can appreciate it on its own without the family part. Other than that, I can't go too far with how that will end up, because you just never know with Terry. There's a lot going on. Terry is editing the Ben Affleck film, but he's a big multi-tasker.

Gardner: It's in process, so I wouldn't actually want to say. It's a slow and steady march that requires more footage, more thinking and more incubation. We hope it's new and fresh. You just hope to put something out there that people haven't seen before.

Dede Gardner runs Plan B Productions, which is also known as Brad Pitt's production company. We ask her how an actor balances being a producer and a star.

Gardner: Well Plan B was there even before Brad Pitt signed on to star. Brad's a real producer. We've made a handful of movies at this point. He's a serious cinephile. He cares deeply about movies and about the intention of the company, which is quite simply don't regret anything and make things because you believe in them and stories that haven't been told. I would say he has influence because he is a real producer, not because he is [Brad Pitt].

Plan B also has some big films coming up, like World War Z and Cogan's Trade. Gardner chimes in on the upcoming movies.

Gardner on World War Z: Again, we're trying to do something that hasn't been done before. It obviously has a genre element and there is a political story that we think is intelligent and hasn't been seen before. We are stitching together different endeavors that aren't commonly put into one film. That's what's behind it, plus a great admiration for Max Brooks' book and what we think can be said about the world.

Gardner on Cogan's Trade: The story is amazing and the way Andrew [Dominik] has adapted it and made it contemporary is fantastic. But we all had a pretty extraordinary time making The Assassination of Jesse James together. Getting to make another movie with Andrew Dominik, who we think is insanely gifted, just feels right.

Brian Pohlad is also developing a biopic about Beach Boys' singer Brian Wilson. He briefly discussed it in our interview.

Pohlad: I wouldn't consider it a Beach Boys film. What this movie is about is a human being, or a collection of human beings, but primarily Brian [Wilson]. He has a long and varied life. You could make a movie about five or six areas of his life and have interesting stuff. We wanted to focus on getting deep into his life and what it is all about without telling the whole story. It really is amazing. There will be Beach Boys music in it and Brian Wilson music in it, but it's a personal look at an artist and more importantly a human being who has faced a lot of tough struggles.

There is still plenty of juice to be squeezed out of The Tree of Life. Criterion Collection will inevitably release a special edition of the film and the potential for The Voyage of Time to blow our minds with a feature-length version of the creation sequence in Tree of Life is highly anticipated amongst fans of the film. But clearly these producers have other projects worth taking a look at in the next year or two.

The Tree of Life releases on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, October 11th, 2011. You can read our breakdown of the release that same day on the site.



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