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Waiting for Malick: The Tree of Life Should Open by Year's End

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 20, 2010 at 1:06AM

A new favorite sport among movie lovers is forecasting exactly when Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life will come out.
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Thompson on Hollywood

A new favorite sport among movie lovers is forecasting exactly when Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life will come out.

Buried in Todd McCarthy's delightful account of his first time on the New York Film Festival selection committee is how the programmers waited anxiously (as did Cannes' Thierry Fremaux) for the Malick movie that never came. McCarthy wonders if Apparition won't wait until Cannes next May to reveal the long-in-the-works film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

Well, even if River Road and Apparition owner Bill Pohlad is a wealthy man, he can't afford to wait that long. With the absence of departed Apparition exec Bob Berney, Pohlad has hired consultant Tom Ortenberg to release the picture, and the remaining Apparition staff in LA and NY (about 15) are kicking around until they do. Apparition sources say they expect to open the movie by year's end, but are waiting to get a firm date from the indecisive Pohlad, who in turn is unwilling to deliver any firm ultimatums to Austin-based Malick, who is therefore calling the shots. The cautious and slow Pohlad and the deliberate Malick are "a lethal combination," says one source close to the movie. "Terry's very nice, but he does whatever he wants." That's why nothing is happening.

Word is, Malick has not finished cutting the movie down from three to two and a half hours. (Back at the University of Texas at Austin, he lets film students take a crack at editing various scenes.) The film was submitted to the MPAA and received a PG-13 rating.

Another person with an investment in the movie is Pitt, who according to someone who has seen it, gives an awards-worthy performance, along with Jessica Chastain as his wife (Penn stars in the film's book-ends, apparently). The movie is technically gorgeous (shot by Emmanuel Lubezki), an experimental, non-conventional narrative, says the source:

"It's a mystical exploration of the meaning of life, a journey in which a microcosm of a family mirrors the world; the differences between man and woman, husband and wife, are mirrored against nature and grace. It will change the language of movies. It's a real event. People will say, 'what the fuck is this?'"

Jack Fisk designed the film, while Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) supervised the practical visual effects, and composer Alexandre Desplat assembled a classical score.

I wonder if Malick is stalling the inevitable: getting reviewed. This may be one reason why he's already prepping an October start for his next movie, a romantic drama set in Oklahoma with Ben Affleck and Rachel Weisz attached; Pohlad will produce, and Glen Basner's Film Nation is handling overseas pre-sales. Could this be a sign of a crack in the hitherto airtight relationship between Pohlad and Summit's Patrick Wachsberger, who raised overseas advances for The Tree of Life (which cost somewhat more than its original $32-million budget)? These territories are still waiting for their movie. Will they be happy when it comes? Summit plans to release Pohlad's Fair Game this November. Some sources predict that Summit will eventually release The Tree of Life too. Neither Summit nor River Road would comment.

Film fests can be unforgiving crucibles for bad word. But when a movie could use some explaining, as I suspect this one does, it needs festivals and the drumbeat of press they provide, especially if it has Oscar hopes. Again, this is the sort of movie that could use an award-season boost to gain some attention.

Meanwhile, Pohlad has also undermined some of his industry cred with the revelation that he plans to direct a movie, Genius, hoping to cast Penn in John Logan's adaptation of A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, which won the National Book Award. Pohlad made his directing debut with 1990's Old Explorers, starring José Ferrer and James Whitmore, followed by various industrials, commercials and docs before he turned to producing and/or financing such films as Penn's Into the Wild, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, and Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, among other things.

The Tree of Life has built enormous want-to-see among film cognoscenti. But when will they get to see it?

This article is related to: Awards, Genres, Headliners, Independents, In Production, Marketing, Oscars, Fantasy, Drama, Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, Summit, Apparition


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.