Will the real Terrence Malick please stand up?

— When Jessica Chastain, the up-and-coming actress who stars opposite Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life," had a meeting with Ben Stiller a few years ago, the actor caught her off guard with an unexpected request: "Tell Terry I said hi," Stiller told her, referring to "Tree" director Terrence Malick.

Chastain assumed that Stiller was kidding. How on Earth would the star of comedies like "Dodgeball" and "Meet the Fockers" be on such casual terms with a reclusive, enigmatic auteur like Malick?

But he wasn't joking. It turns out Malick is a huge fan of "Zoolander," Stiller's 2001 send-up of fashion fabulousness — so much so that for Malick's birthday one year, Stiller dressed up as the character Derek Zoolander, made a personalized video card and sent it to the director. "I think 'Zoolander' is one of Terry's favorite movies ever," said Jack Fisk, Malick's longtime production designer, who has known him for nearly 40 years. "He watches it all the time, and he likes quoting it."

Love for a goofy comedy is one of many paradoxes about Malick, the film world's version of J.D. Salinger. The director dislikes being photographed, avoids public appearances — he skipped the premiere of his highly anticipated, long-delayed "Tree" last week here at the Cannes Film Festival — and turns down all interview requests (including this one), creating an impression of a cranky, precious artist.

But conversations with nearly a dozen friends and collaborators reveal a different portrait of the 67-year-old director who has made only five movies in nearly four decades: "Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line," "The New World" and now "Tree." They paint a picture of a complicated and contradictory man: painfully shy in public but jovial on his sets, gentle but fiercely driven. While he believes in the mystical, he nonetheless has a strong belief in science. Though he can be rigorous to the point of obsessive, he also has a childlike sense of wonder, the kind that might cause him to gaze at a nearby woodpecker or butterfly in the middle of shooting a scene.

And while his films are concerned with big ideas like the meaning of life and the nature of identity, his conversation is filled with talk about dogs and "downhome-y things," Pitt said in an interview. The perception of Malick as a lofty thinker, he added, is "at odds with who he is in daily life."

"When I first met Terry, I thought we'd be talking about film," Chastain said in an interview. "He's more interested in you and where you come from than spouting his ideas." Fisk added that the director can talk to anyone about anything, from the origin of asphalt to breeds of birds to life in North Africa. "He knows so much but he always makes you feel like he knows less than you do," he said.

Malick has been hailed as a genius by some and derided as pretentious by others for his first four directing efforts, which favor slow pacing, sweeping visuals and a contemplative tone to tease out human and natural moments, whether in a small-town church or a cross-country killing spree. So perhaps it was no surprise that "Tree" divided audiences when it screened in Cannes. Clearly, though, the film is Malick's most personal.

The director's opus, which comes out Friday in Los Angeles, follows a trio of brothers growing up in the small town of Waco, Texas, in the middle of the 20th century with a stern father (Pitt) and generous mother (Chastain), a circumstance that paralleled Malick's upbringing. We see their lives unfold not in conventional scenes but in morsels and snatches.

Based on a script that Malick worked on for at least a decade, "Tree" contains an unusual visual montage that suggests the creation of the world; it's an effects-driven piece de resistance that lasts about 20 minutes and features exploding stars, underwater microbes and even an interaction between two dinosaurs. With many philosophical queries posed in whispered voice-overs, the film not only has life cycles and family on its mind but religion and morality too.

At Cannes, Malick continued to perpetuate the aura of mystery that surrounds him. He flew into the city and went to dinner with Pitt and Angelina Jolie and the film's producers several times. He was even joined once by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox Searchlight is distributing his movie.

But Malick refused to walk the red carpet at the premiere, attend a news conference as directors here typically do or even sit for the screening. When the movie ended after 2 hours and 17 minutes, the closed-circuit projection on the theater screen cut not to the usual Cannes shot of the director standing to acknowledge applause but to an empty chair that was to have been Malick's. (A Fox Searchlight spokesman later said that Malick entered the theater at the end of the screening but did so covertly.)

At dinner in Cannes one night, Malick was recognized by several fans, according to a person who witnessed the incident. But when they asked for autographs, the filmmaker declined, saying he would prefer just to shake their hands. In Austin, where Malick is based, he is almost never recognized, said one associate, perhaps because few photos of him are in circulation. (The one that seems to be published most often was taken during production of "Thin Red Line," for which he was nominated for writing and directing Oscars.)

Malick surrounds himself with a small circle of confidants whom he has worked with for years, using them as a sounding board and conduit to the outside world. Few are more inside than Sarah Green, who produced "The New World" and was Malick's right hand on "Tree" as well. Green clearly doesn't like speaking for Malick but often winds up doing so anyway, describing how much he laughs and how everyone on set can feel comfortable talking to him; he is not trying to seem enigmatic, she says, but just wants to live a private life. (Which of course makes him seem more enigmatic.)

Certain elements of his personality are undeniable. Even Malick's close friends acknowledge that he can get worked up, and admit he has an obsessive side. He began collecting images for "Tree" nearly 40 years ago. He would write and rewrite pages of the script nearly every day on set, and rented multiple houses and had them outfitted identically so he could shoot the same scene at different times of the day.

Malick finished shooting "Tree" three years ago and then basically continued to edit it until early 2011. Five different editors rotated in and out, and Malick still kept working. "I've seen this film when it was 4 hours and then 31/2 hours and then down to 21/2 and then back to 31/2 and down to its present incarnation of 21/4 hours," Pitt said, his voice trailing off.

Last year, the film seemed to be headed for Cannes, but Malick wanted more time to work on it. He might have kept going, but Bill Pohlad, a producer who helped finance the film, and other friends urged him to wrap it up so the movie could be released.

Jacqueline West, who designed costumes for "The New World" and "Tree," says that part of the reason it takes Malick so long to finish is that no detail is too small for his attention. When they shot 2005's "New World," she and Malick had an hourlong discussion about whether Pocahontas should wear a blue dress in one scene. She also said that because Malick is so often thinking up new ideas on set, working with him requires being something of a "clairvoyant."

Others described similar experiences. "I would be in Paris, jogging in the park, and Terry would call and say 'I'm thinking of this music,'" recalled composer Alexandre Desplat, who worked on "Tree." "But he wouldn't say what he wanted; he would just say it's lovely but it should go more like Mozart and have more light. So I'd stop my jogging and go back to the studio to find more light," his voice suggesting that he wasn't always so sure what that meant.

Born in 1943 in Illinois, Malick split most of his childhood between Texas and Oklahoma before heading off to Harvard, where he majored in philosophy. He began his film career as a screenwriter before evolving into something of a wunderkind director. In his 30s, between 1973 and 1978, he helmed two acclaimed movies, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," the former helping to put Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen on the map and presaging both "Natural Born Killers" and the modern road movie.

Malick then disappeared from the film scene for an astonishing 20 years, writing unproduced scripts and living in Paris, among other things; even those close to him don't like talking about the reasons for his absence. He finally resurfaced in 1998 with the war film "The Thin Red Line." Along the way he divorced. He's been married to Ecky Wallace for about 13 years.

The 20-year absence, Pitt said, prompted Malick's media blackout. The director is not used to the modern way of promoting films, Pitt said. "He came back and he made the movies he always made, but now things had changed and he had to go out and sell it." This caused Malick to retreat further.

The director can indeed seem like a man from another time — every one of his five films so far is set in period (an upcoming untitled project with Ben Affleck that's currently in postproduction will be the first contemporary piece), and this movie in particular has a midcentury pacing, with many languorous evenings of boys playing outside until Mom calls them in for dinner. Malick resists the quicksilver pace of modern life, and at Cannes, Green said that the instant crowd reaction at a festival was the kind of thing that drives a meditative man like Malick crazy. His world view seems to have been forged in a time before the 24-hour news cycle, and certainly before irony pervaded popular culture.

"It's very childlike; there's a sense of wonder, and nothing sarcastic or dry about his sense of humor," Chastain said, perhaps also explaining the appeal of the straightforward slapstick of "Zoolander." "Even if a dog is funny he'll say, 'That dog is like a clown' and just start laughing so hard the camera will shake." In this sense, Malick may be somewhat like David Lynch, who in person gives off a Midwestern dorkiness that belies the complex themes of his films.

It's not, however, as though Malick doesn't try more radical techniques. The special effects in "Tree of Life" cost tens of millions of dollars, according to one person familiar with the production. And he can do deliberately disruptive things, like send a child actor into a scene he is not slated to appear in just to "torpedo" the situation, both Pitt and Chastain said. Malick even shoved a cameraman just as a scene was beginning to get him to mix up the angle, Chastain said.

While Malick's filmmaking methods can be aggressive — and indeed, his personality might have once had flashes of that too — Fisk said there is a mellowness now to the director. "I think Terry has gotten more relaxed. On 'Badlands' he described shooting a film as combat. But he's found a calmness inside. There was an anger and now that's gone."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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