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‘Tree of Life’ cinematographer: ‘It was like no set I ever worked on’

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It’s not many film productions that consult with NASA as they’re shooting. But then, not many film productions have Terrence Malick for a director.

As cinematographer Emanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki tells it, the shoot for Malick’s coming-of-age epic ‘The Tree of Life,’ starring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, pretty much made up its own rules as it went along. Then it broke those too. ‘Once you think you got the formula, you realized there is no formula,’ Chivo told 24 Frames in an interview. ‘It’s like no set I ever worked on.’

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There are plenty of reasons why that’s true. Besides the NASA factor -- Malick consulted with the space agency for footage of the cosmos and other grand imagery he used in the film -- there was the fact that he didn’t shoot actors in a conventional way. Or, sometimes, at all.

Though 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.

‘So the actors are performing the dialogue, but Terry isn’t interested in dialogue. So they’re talking, and we’re shooting a reflection or we’re shooting the wind or we’re shooting the frame of the window, and then we finally pan to them when they finish the dialogue,’ Chivo recalled.

The movie, which comes out in May, aims to tell of a spiritual journey using a sense of place, a long span of time and a set of striking elemental images -- and, oh yes, also is partly based on Malick’s own life. (An exclusive image from the film is above.) The idea, say those who worked on it, was not so much to tell a story but to create a feeling.

‘Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance,’ Chivo said.’ ‘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.’ (More from the cinematographer in Sunday’s Movie Preview issue.)

And how did the performers react to all this unconventionality -- like, say, the fact that Malick wasn’t always interested in what they had to say? ‘I think they thought we were insane,’ Chivo said. ‘Sean is a director, and I’m sure he wondered ‘Is this method something I want to learn or is it something I never want to repeat?’ For Brad I think it took him a couple of days or a week to get into the spirit.’

Dede Gardner, Pitt’s producing partner and a producer on the film, said a sense of elastic possibility is essential in making a movie like this as well as watching it. ‘One of the things you learn when you work with Terry is there isn’t one interpretation,’ she said. ‘Life’s experience is individualized, so why shouldn’t a film be?’

--Steven Zeitchik
twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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