Over lunch some 10 years ago, producer and financier Bill Pohlad witnessed something few of us will ever have the luxury of witnessing: a Terrence Malick pitch. At the time, Pohlad and Malick were moving forward on a Che Guevera project that never came to fruition, and over the course of three hours, Malick laid out the plan for his epic tale of of micro/macrocosmic meditation, “The Tree of Life.”
“It was refined but wasn’t so smooth that you didn’t realize how big and how bold it was,” Pohlad says of the pitch. “It was pretty memorable, but also I can’t say that it wasn’t daunting.”
Something like this naturally evolves considerably over the course of a decade, but going all the way back to that lunch, Malick always wanted to tell a tale of the universal juxtaposed with a small family in Texas. And of course, Pohlad needed to go over a few things again after having it first waft over him. And who can blame him? When you have a master filmmaker telling you he wants to tell the story of the creation of the universe and then shift to a family in the 1950s, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the abstract.
“It was really impressive,” Pohlad says, “but it wasn’t until I actually read the script, whenever it was, four, five years later, that it really kind of hit me emotionally.”
The film saw a long march to audiences to say the least. Pohlad eventually partnered up with Hollywood honcho Bob Berney to form Apparition, a new distribution company aimed at bringing quality art to a commercial audience. The first title announced: “The Tree of Life.” But Apparition was a short-lived dream. After a handful of releases, Berney abruptly left the company and it soon after dissolved entirely, with “The Tree of Life” left hung out to dry.
Then, in September of 2010, Pohlad brought the film to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Though, other than the whispers of Brad Pitt sightings that year, you wouldn’t have known it, seeing as it wasn’t part of the festival’s program. It was specifically there to be screened privately for Fox Searchlight Pictures, which had expressed an interest in the film.
“We had been living with the movie for many, many years and hadn”t shown it to that many people,” Pohlad says. “So you”re not sure how people are going to react. And so to have the Searchlight people really kind of be so passionate about it right out of the box, it was fantastic.”
An agreement was made with the paperwork left to be filed back in Los Angeles and soon, the announcement came. Fox Searchlight was in the Terrence Malick business, and a Cannes 2011 reveal was scheduled. By this time, anticipation for the film was at a fever pitch in the cineaste community. So an artist-friendly haven like Cannes made a lot of sense.
“I think, again, having lived with the film for that long and being in our cocoon, and then we go to Cannes and have that kind of reception, it was magical, for sure,” Pohlad says. “Even the boos or whatever that were so much reported, that wasn”t that frightening or anything. We always knew that it was not going to be a movie for everybody. But there was such a great buzz about it before and after the screening. And then certainly getting the Palm d’Or was just a complete dream.”
Pohlad couldn’t be happier with the handling of the film from Searchlight so far this year. The enthusiasm behind the project has been unmistakable all the way through theatrical and building even to tomorrow’s home video release. But more than that, “The Tree of Life” holds an interesting place in the studio’s unique slate of films this year.
Searchlight has built a brand out of “indie but accessible” over the years. But with “The Tree of Life,” Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” the studio finds itself in business with a crop of innovative, promising auteurs. It’s a very un-Searchlight slate in many ways.
“I can”t speak to what their mission is or what their group is thinking in going after each of the movies that they”ve gone after,” Pohlad says, “but I think it”s great. They did such a great job with ‘Tree of Life.’ That passion that I felt from them at Telluride that first day, you know, sustains itself even to this day. And I would like to believe that they”re kind of pushing ahead or leading the resurgence of people I guess being more open again to seeing challenging material.”
Around the time of the Cannes bow, and the inevitable press blitz that came with it, Pohlad wasn’t able to distance himself from things enough to offer a clear perspective. Now with some time in between, with the film’s imminent DVD and Blu-ray release, he takes some time to consider the long road of the film.
“I couldn”t be prouder of it,” he says. “And I don”t kid myself in thinking that it”s a movie for everybody or anything like that. In the video experience, you hate to lose the kind of scope of seeing it in the theater and all that. On the other hand, it may open it up to a whole new group of people who might have been intimidated about going to the theater based on things they had heard about it. Likewise, for people who have seen it, I mean it sounds like a pitch or a sale and I”m not trying to be that way, but to see it again and be able to pick up so much more than when they ventured into the theaters for the first time.”
Meanwhile, Malick is more prolific than ever. He has three films in the works, and for a guy who made as many in 25 years, from “Badlands” to “The Thin Red Line,” that’s saying quite a lot. After “The Tree of Life,” he’ll put out an as-of-yet untitled Oklahoma drama starring Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem next year. He’s collaborating with “The New World” star Christian Bale once again and there is an IMAX documentary, “Voyage of Time,” which will expand on the “creation of the universe” sequence from “The Tree of Life.”
Pohlad, of course — a filmmaker himself who sparked to the medium in the Cinerama days of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Grand Prix” — is delighted to see an artist of such unmatched scope with a fire lit underneath him.
“I”ve always defended that as being the mark of a true artist,” he says, “to be able to just kind of follow his own pace and his own heart as the work called it, so to speak. But now, all of a sudden to see him kicking into gear in this way, I think it’s great. Because I do think it comes from an honest place as opposed to feeling like, ‘Oh, I”ve got to do this because it”s my career,’ or ‘I”ve got to do this because of expectations.’ He”s doing it now because he feels really kind of, whatever, fertile or really creative and so he”s going with it.”
“The Tree of Life” arrives on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.