The Tree of Life (2011): Film Trivia

IMDB Trivia – The Tree of Life (2011)

  • The critic Jim Emerson got word of what Terrence Malick intended the sequence of dinosaurs to mean, by way of the visual effects supervisor in charge of that very sequence who is Michael L. Fink. Emerson describes what he learned from Fink; “The premise of the four-shot scene was to depict the birth of consciousness (what some have called the “birth of compassion”)-the first moment in which a living creature made a conscious decision to choose what Michael described as “right from wrong, good from evil.” Or, perhaps, a form of altruism over predatory instinct”.
  • The butterfly that landed on Mrs. O’Brien’s (Jessica Chastain) hands was not CG but a real one. One morning while both Chastain and Brad Pitt were rehearsing, Terrence Malickspotted it flying around. He got the crew and Chastain following it three blocks of Smithville, then got her to step into the middle of a street and hold her hand up.
  • Dissatisfied by the look of modern computer generated visual effects, director Terrence Malick approached veteran special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, who was responsible for the visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to create the visual effects for the film using bygone optical and practical methods. This marks the first feature film Trumbull has provided the effects for in 29 years, his last being Blade Runner(1982).
  • As with The New World (2005), Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki laid down a series of parameters (a dogma) to be used throughout the film:
  • Shoot in available natural light.
  • Do not underexpose the negative. Keep true blacks.
  • Preserve the latitude of the image.
  • Seek maximum resolution and fine grain.
  • Seek depth with deep focus and stop: “Compose in depth.”
  • Shoot in backlight for continuity and depth.
  • Use negative fill to avoid light sandwiches (even sources on both sides)
  • Shoot in crosslight only after dawn or before dusk; never front light.
  • Avoid lens flares.
  • Avoid white and primary colors in frame.
  • Shoot with short focal length, hard lenses.
  • No filters, except Polarizer.
  • In the eye of the hurricane, shoot with steady handheld or Steadicam.
  • Z-axis moves instead of pans and tilts.
  • No zooming.
  • Do some static tripod shots “in midst of our haste”
  • Accept the exception to the dogma (a.k.a Article E) – Article E however does not apply underexposure of the negative.
  • Emmanuel Lubezki explained Terrence Malick‘s approach to film by saying “Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance” but instead is used “to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential”. So the film, with Lubezki’s own words, is “meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume”.
  • An Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick‘s “crazy editing style”.
  • In August 2011, Sean Penn gave an interview to the French publication “Le Figaro” in which he was very critical of the movie and Terrence Malick‘s direction. Penn said “I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”i
  • When Jack (Hunter McCracken) is praying bedside, he says a few lines, stops, and then says more. Those pauses are Terrence Malick feeding lines to Hunter, who is just repeating them verbatim. This was edited in the sound recording.

Terrence Malick wrote a letter of instruction to every projectionist showing The Tree of Life. His requests were:

  • 1. Project the film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
    • 2. Set the fader on Dolby and DTS systems to 7.5 or 7.7 (higher than the standard setting of 7).
    • 3. With no opening credits, he asks that the “lights down cue is well before the opening frame of reel 1.
    • 4. Projection lamps should be at “Proper standard (5400 Kelvin)” and that the “foot Lambert level is at Standard 14.”
  • Some American theaters set up signs – warning moviegoers about the enigmatic and non-linear narrative of the movie – following some confused walkouts and refund demands in the opening weeks.
  • The scene with the bats flying in the evening skies was not computer generated animation. Shot in Austin, the bats under Congress bridge is a well-known phenomenon as one of the largest known bats population in the world, and they all live under a bridge. During spring and fall, the bats can be seen flying out in the evening to begin their daily hunt for food.
  • The town of Smithville, Texas was chosen because the practical structure houses still mirror the ’50s settings required by the film. It is one hour’s drive from Austin, Texas with a population of only 4500 people. While the crew was filming there, there was no additional lighting equipment being used and camera equipment was stored at a rented garage.
  • Terrence Malick wanted the interior spaces to be unlighted, so 3 houses were used in the main story, depending on the time of day and the position of the sun. The sun is always visible shining through the windows.
  • As was the case with James Horner‘s music for The New World (2005), much of the music composed Alexandre Desplat never made it to the final cut of this film. Even though he is credited as composer, only a few minutes of his music are heard in the film.
  • The tree of life that appears in the film is a gargantuan 65000-pound live-oak tree situated at Smithville, Texas. Below is a 19-second clip of the tree being moved into Smithville.
  • The origin of this film goes back to the late 1970s, when after Days of Heaven (1978) director Terrence Malick was working on a project named “Q”, that would explore the origins of life on earth. He abandoned the project, but this film contains elements from it.
  • In the childbirth sequence, The Orca sculpture at Bomarzo (Mouth of Hell) is shown. On the sculpture, an inscription reads ‘Ogni pensiero vola’, which can be translated as ‘every thought flies’.
  • Production designer Jack Fisk drew inspiration from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.1
  • Shipped to theaters under the code name “Oak”.
  • Over a million feet of film were shot and printed, with an average of 14,000 feet per day over 72 shooting days.
  • The book Mrs. O’Brien reads to the boys at bedtime is 1908 Macmillan edition of Rudyard Kipling‘s The Jungle Book.
  • The large swimming pool carved out of a natural setting is Barton Springs, a major tourist attraction in the heart of Austin, Texas.
  • Ranked at #79 on BBC Magazine’s “The 100 greatest American films”.
  • The most prominent genus featured in the dinosaur scenes is Parasaurolophus, one of the Hadrosaur “duckbills”.
  • Brad Pitt appeared in two movies that were both nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (Oscar) in 2012. Pitt starred and produced both this movie and Moneyball (2011). Jessica Chastain also appeared in two movies that were both nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (Oscar) in 2012. Chastain starred in both this movie and The Help(2011).
  • In September, 2018, Criterion released a new version of the film on Blu-Ray and DVD. New extended version is 49 minutes longer than original version. Some new characters appear but two longest sequences that are featured in this extended version are the visit from Mrs. O’Brien’s (Jessica Chastain) family and events in the family when Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) travels on his business trip.
  • R.L. (Laramie Eppler) can be seen reading a book by flashlight. The book is ‘By Spaceship to the Moon’ by Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt, published in 1952. Note that Jack Coggins is a different person from the Jack Coggins listed on IMDb.
  • Included among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.
  • Mel Gibson was considered for a role in this film.
  • Although multiple classical/orchestral pieces of music by Brahms, Mahler, Gorecki, Smetana, Holst, and other well-known composers are heard very prominently throughout the movie (sometimes even in their entirety, which is unusual for a film score), the soundtrack album released for this movie contains only the parts of the score written for the movie by Alexandre Desplat.
  • One of several pieces of classical/orchestral music appearing in this movie is “Vltava” (also known by its German name, Die Moldau/The Moldau River), one of a set of six symphonic poems collectively titled “Má vlast” and written by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. This piece also appeared in the trailer for this movie. It may be most familiar to some as the melodic basis for the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva.”
  • With a running time of 188 minutes (3 hours and 8 minutes) the Extended Cut of the film is Terrence Malick‘s longest film as of 2018.
  • In the extended version of the film, young Jack is seen looking at an article titled, “The Greatest Man in the World” that tells the story of jungle philosopher Albert Schweitzer. The magazine he is reading is the Oct. 6, 1947 issue of Life Magazine that features a young Franklin D. Roosevelt on the cover.
  • Much of the film parallels writer/director Terrence Malick‘s own life. Like Jack, he grew up with two brothers in rural Texas; their father, Emil, was an aspiring musician who went to work as a geologist for an oil company, and found an outlet for his artistic talent by playing the organ at his family’s church. Malick outlived both of his brothers: Lawrence R. Malick committed suicide in Europe at age 19 while studying to be a musician; and Chris Malick died in 2008 at age 60, several years after being severely burned in a car crash in Mexico that killed his wife. Both of Malick’s parents were still alive in 2011 when the film was released. His mother, Irene Malick, even attended the premiere, though Malick himself did not.
  • Jack O’Brien’s initials are J-O-B. In the Bible, Job was a man tested by Satan after his wager that Job only serves God because of His blessing. After losing his wealth, family and health, Job would rather curse himself than God. A passage from the Book of Job – “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” – is used to open The Tree of Life.
  • The Criterion Collection released an alternate version in September 2018. In the new version of the film, 188-minute The Tree of Life which is labeled as extended cut, new material comes in the form of new shots and scenes spread throughout the film. It involves a visit from the family of Mrs. O’Brien and an expansion of what happens when Mr. O’Brien travels abroad and Chastain’s character is left alone with her sons. There are also new characters included such as the brother of Mrs. O’Brien (who comes floating through town and, like his sister, has a lightness and joy with her sons and problems with their oppressive father) and Mr. O’Brien’s deceased father (whose tragic end clearly shaped the man his son would become). Besides Malick expands on young Jack’s relationship with one of the neighborhood boys – a background character in the original version – and his extremely troubled home life with a drunk mother (Robin Read) and violent father (Ben Chaplin). And in the present-day wanderings of middle-aged Jack, toward the beginning of the film, there is an expanded version of his life in the city (one that will remind some of Knight of Cups (2015)) that includes two women (Pell James, Lisa Marie Newmyer) who aren’t his wife.

IMDB – The Tree of Life (2011) Trivia


The Tree of Life (2011)

The Films in My Life (OnCriterion)


#942 The Tree of Life

2011 // USA // Terrence Malick

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt): ‘Toscanini once recorded a piece 65 times. You know what he said when he finished? “It could be better.”’ 

The sound of waves cresting. A Man’s whisper, soft and relaxed. A stream of light, or a fire, flickering against total darkness. The gate is opened, I stepped into the world of The Tree of Life, or should I say it engulfed me, wrapped me, assimilated me completely in joy and sadness, with grace and shame, beyond abstraction and infinity. It’s not merely a film, nor an art. It’s an experience, integrated into a part of my life, and my soul.


The choir singing with angelic music, the voice of mother (Jessica Chastain) gently explained ‘there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to…

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