The Terrence Malick Blog

Emmanuel Lubezki on Terrence Malick


By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
January 16, 2011
Terrence Malick’s coming-of-age epic “The Tree of Life” has been shrouded in mystery since news of it surfaced in 2005. So it’s fitting that the first thing cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki says about the film is that, well, there’s not much he can say about the film.

“It’s very hard to talk about this movie because almost anything I say will reduce it and make it seem prosaic and simplistic,” he said.

But then the veteran cinematographer, whose credits include “Children of Men” and “Ali” and who collaborated with Malick on his “The New World,” goes on to say plenty, comparing the May 27 release to, among other things, a symphony and a novel.

Malick’s partly autobiographical tale centers on a boy growing up in the Midwest caught between the conflicting world views of his mother (Jessica Chastain) and father ( Brad Pitt) and a subsequent crisis he faces as an adult ( Sean Penn). Intercut with this story are grand images of nature, particularly elemental items like water and fire, as well as the cosmos.

Lubezki didn’t shoot the more abstract moments (though NASA was among the organizations that collaborated with the production). But even the traditional scenes with actors were filmed in a highly unorthodox way.

Whereas most movies use what’s known as “coverage” — cameras stationed in different places, with the idea of conveying a scene as you might experience it in real life — “Tree of Life” eschewed those conventions.

“Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance,” said Lubezki, who goes by the name “Chivo.” “We’re using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume, or like when you go into a house and it smells maybe like chocolate, and it takes you to your past.”

If that sounds esoteric and even a little weird, it should. Despite decades of experience, Lubezki acknowledges that “Tree of Life” was “like no set I ever worked on.” “Once you think you got the formula,” he said, “you realized there is no formula.”

But ultimately, he said, that unorthodoxy will pay off for filmgoers. “The movie is like great music. It doesn’t move you the way a normal movie does. It moves you from a very primordial place in your brain.”

Barry Pepper on Terrence Malick

I definitely have to ask you, you’ve worked with numerous filmmakers, numerous actors

Pepper: I just finished a film with Terrence Malick

Oh believe me sir, we’re getting into that. What I was gonna say was, with the Coen brothers, in the film community they’re “The Coen Brothers”, everyone knows them. They are so well respected, revered, and worshipped with film nerds, and with just the general public.

Pepper: Well I guess I’m a film nerd, because every actor has them on their wishlist of “must work with” filmmakers.

Exactly, 100% worthy. My long-winded beginning was going to—

Pepper: (laughs) I just got your shirt. That’s great, I wanna wear that on Letterman.

(I was wearing a American Flag t-shirt with the words Made In China beneath it)

When you find out that they’re interested in possibly working with you, are you jumping up and down? Could you sort of talk about A) what was your reaction and B) how did they find you to come to this role?

Pepper: In answer to the first part of the question: you know you go and work with other directors and they hear that you’re about to go and do a Coen brothers movie or you just finished a Coen brothers movie, it doesn’t matter who the directors are they’re like “Oh I love those guys” and “I love their movies.” Terrence Malick, just working with him after having done this, he asked about it or I had mentioned it or something, it came up in conversation and he said “Oh I can’t wait to see that movie.” And here’s a director that is considered this auteur, this genius, for many of the same reasons and he’s just also an equally tremendous filmmaker in that pantheon of filmmakers like the Coens are, and yet he’s enamored by the Coens’ work and their filmography.

So I think that’s pretty incredible. I mean I never even got a script for the Terrence Malick project it was just “where do I show up?”, and the same for these guys.

SALON: Javier Bardem on Terrence Malick

I’m sure you can’t really tell me anything about your role in Terrence Malick’s next film, but I still have to ask. You wrapped that recently, didn’t you?

We wrapped a month ago. I am not allowed to talk about it, as you know. Well, there are two things: I’m not allowed and I don’t have any idea. [Laughter.] So how’s that? It’s set in Oklahoma, and here’s the great thing about Terry: To my surprise — because I didn’t know him — he is as funny as hell. He has a great, great sense of humor. He made me laugh a lot. He is a great man, a philosopher. I’ve always been very grateful for his work, so when he gave me a call I said, yes, of course. It’s like with Woody Allen: He calls you and you go, “Where? When?” And of course they don’t pay you *beep* They take advantage of that! But it’s OK, you go there and you want to be part of the experience. Will I end up in the movie? Maybe not! Or maybe I am the star of the movie. Who knows? But that is the less important thing. The most important thing is to be there, to go through the experience of shooting with him.

OK, so what’s that like? You can tell me what Terry is like as a director without really talking about the movie, I suppose.

Well, it’s unique. He sends you some notes, and that’s it. Then you show up and he takes the camera and you never know what’s going to happen, ever. What time, where, when, with who. So you have to be so alive, especially when you’re playing a character like mine. I cannot really tell you what my character is, but it’s definitely a character. It’s not just me being natural. Hopefully! Maybe you’ll see it and it’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever done. But when you’re playing a character with certain behavior, with a very clear point of view, you have to be 24 hours with him. The way Terry combines reality and fiction is pretty amazing, very poetic. Things were coming out of the scenes unexpectedly, and some of them were amazing things, amazing reactions. Afterwards he would let me know, “That’s why I don’t write, because I would never have expected you or him to do and say that.” He’s like a hunter, and sometimes when you go hunting you don’t get *beep* Sometimes you get a big buffalo, man, and I saw Terry hunting a lot of buffaloes. When it works it’s pretty fantastic.

HITFLIX: Another Take on Malick by Ben Affleck

You transitioned from all this great success on “The Town” to almost immediately shooting in front of the screen with Terrence Malick. What was that like? Many would be intimidated to work with him or even interview him…

Affleck: I don’t think he’s going to be doing very many interviews on this one. (Laughs). [Note: Malick has rarely spoken to the press over his 40-year career.] It was very intimidating to work with someone you respect that much and especially someone who has a body of work that is to be as admired as his is. It definitely is an added burden. I dunno. I guess you wanna work as hard as you can every time you go out there, but I really felt daunted. Fortunately, he’s very gracious and serene and not at all like a sort of the “lord” or “genius” of the set or anything like that. I learned a lot about directing from him.

Can you say anything about what that project is about? It feels like it is draped in secrecy.

Affleck: Yeah, his theory, which I agree with — well, I think it’s his theory – I get the sense it’s that the more people know in advance about the movie the less they will enjoy it.. But I definitely think, although he’s never told this to me, that he doesn’t want me to say what the story is or talk about the movie too much. Although, I’m sure when the movie comes out I’ll be talking to you on the phone again. (Laughs.)

Ben Affleck on Terrence Malick

All I can say is the guy is definitely really private and I don’t want to betray any of that. Some people don’t mind but he’s not a guy who likes publicity. What I will say is that it’s for sure a master class. I’ve worked with a lot of different directors and have always tried to look for something to learn from everybody.

You don’t have to look with Terry. Everything you’re hearing and listening to it feels like, ‘God, I never thought of that’ or ‘I wouldn’t have done that’ or ‘I’ve never seen it that way.’ It’s like the best class you had in college or something, where it’s so wonderful to be there, it feels like you’re opening up your mind to see the world in different ways. And I’ve probably learned more from him now because I’ve directed two movies and I understand sort of the context, I guess.
More after the jump.

I’ve been an actor for a little while now and so I can really appreciate the difference between him and another guy. I can really understand how difficult what he’s trying to do is and admire how he’s doing it. It’s humbling. There’s definitely moments where you just think, like, ‘I will never be that.’ But still, it’s great to stand next to the guy and be privileged to hear him talk about how he sets up a shot. It’s an incredible experience and I’m learning a great deal.


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