Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardner on ‘Tree of Life’

The producers of Terrence Malick's latest masterpiece talk us through the production and even update us on World War Z!

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


We're a big fan of Terrence Malick's latest film, Tree of Life, here at CraveOnline, even going so far as to call it, potentially, one of "The Great American Movies." So it was a real treat to talk to Bill Pohlad and DeDe Gardner, who produced Tree of Life (available on DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow, October 11th) and worked closely with reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick. On this page and the next we'll discuss with them the challenges of making a film that wants to challenge you, why that dinosaur rumor leaked so early, why Sean Penn said he doesn't get the film, how they found then-unknown actress Jessica Chastain, and updates on World War Z and Malick's mysterious upcoming project Voyage of Time!

We start our interviews with Bill Pohlad, the founder and CEO of River Road Entertainment, and producer of such fine films as Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild and, naturally, Tree of Life.

CraveOnline: Listen, I loved this movie. Loved it.

Bill Pohlad: Great! That’s good to hear.


It seems like opinions on ‘Tree of Life’ seem really polarized. Half the people who watch it seem to think it’s possibly one of “The Great American Movies,” and the other half just seems a little confused.



Were you concerned about that when you started seeing cuts put together, or even from the script stage?

Yeah, no, I think… To be honest we didn’t do a lot of test screenings or anything like that. So there was work going on, on the film, and honestly by the time we got to Cannes we didn’t really know how people were going to react to it. But we obviously knew that it was not a straight-ahead, by the numbers film. It was going to be a challenge for a lot of people. But that’s okay. For me, if you’re not taking chances like that then maybe you’ll get a great popular response, but it might not be the most challenging or interesting project you could do either. When Terry [Malick] first told me about his idea for this and when I read the script, four or five years later, I was very drawn to it and emotional about it. But I also knew that it was kind of “out there,” and you kind of go in with your eyes open and hope for the best.


Did the idea evolve a lot from that first idea and script?

It evolved, yeah. Not radically. I remember his first description of it and it was remarkably similar to the finished film. […] It’s not unrecognizable by any means.


What was his original description?

It was kind of a three-hour telling of the whole story. It’s always been a challenge to put it into a couple sentences. He didn’t even try. It took the full three hours to get a sense of what he was talking about. But you could tell, again, that it was out there. That it would still have those elements of creation juxtaposed with a family in Texas. You could tell that his idea was unusual, extraordinary.


Did you follow the speculation of the film back when all we knew was that it had a dinosaur in it?

You mean how people were talking about it?


Yeah, just constantly talking about it on the internet: “There’s a picture of a dinosaur! What is it?!

[Chuckles] Yeah, we were aware of that, for sure. I don’t know what the theory was, but yeah.

We didn’t have any theories! We just knew there was a dinosaur. Was that intentional, were you trying to keep the mystery alive?

No, it wasn’t intentional. I mean, it was intentional in the sense that Terry likes to do things more low-key, and I think we all weren’t really interested in spitting things out, or trying to get people hooked by dribbling bits of information. That wasn’t intended. But we were in post for two years, so in the course of a lot of people coming and going and something leaks out about a dinosaur or whatever, you can’t do anything about it. I suppose we would have otherwise chose to keep it quiet, but it is what it is, and it got out there, and it was interesting to see people speculate on it. It was encouraging that people were so excited about what this film was going to turn out to be. That was great.


Was that a bad day when that dinosaur thing got leaked? Did anyone get chewed out, like, “How dare you! The dinosaur thing was a secret!”

[Laughs] No, I mean to be honest, in this day and age, we thought, “Wow, we’ve gotten off easy here.” Because a lot more could have happened along the way. Worse things have happened. I think, yeah, you kind of hold your breath to see how people are going to react to it, because that’s not the first bit of information that we would want to get out there, because as you know now, having seen the movie […] the dinosaur thing isn’t that big a part of the movie.


It’s more thematic than anything.

Yeah, but still, relative to the movie, the thought that the first big piece of news about the movie out there was that there’s a dinosaur in it is a little misleading. People are going to go, “Oh, what? Dinosaur?!” There’s something about that, that makes it a bigger part of the movie than it actually is.


Terrence Malick has this reputation as an “auteur.” As a producer do you stay out of his way, or is it very collaborative?

It was very collaborative. You know, the “auteur” thing means different things to different people, but I think a lot of people… Part of that whole thing is that there’s this difficult, artistic director guy out there who’s got a very specific idea of what he wants, and he doesn’t want any interference, and things like that. That’s not the way Terry is. He does have a very strong idea of what he wants, but his whole mode of operation is just the opposite. It’s not egocentric at all. Certainly any great artist, they have to have a point of view. They have to have a vision. They can’t be like, “Oh, whatever. What do you think?” and then bounce around like a pinball. They can’t be that way, and Terry’s not that way. He’s very strong. But also he’s not insecure about it, so therefore he’s not really defensive or worried, like if somebody says something to mess him up or overtake his idea. He’s not like that, so he doesn’t have that weirdness going on. He’s very open. We’d talk about it all the time. But again, Terry has a very easygoing way of doing it, so the talking is not super heavy, intellectual stuff. It’s all sort of feeling stuff, and talking to good friends just about your life or something, as opposed to talking about something very clinical about how what we want in the movie…


This is such a beautifully acted movie, and you discovered some people. Was the casting process a difficult one?

No. You know, finding the kids was clearly a challenge. Terry, though, because of his reputation and because he studies all of this stuff, had great leads on the main characters and who might play them, things like that. So it wasn’t difficult in that way. There were a number of people that we talked to about all the roles, and there was some back and forth on that, but not a lot, to be honest. You probably know about that whole Brad [Pitt] story.

Tell us again.

Well, there was a time actually, and it’s pretty well documented, that Heath Ledger was going to play that role.



We were all excited about that. It was going to be great. And whatever things happened, and Heath actually decided not to do it, just felt like he wasn’t ready for it at that time. So we started looking around for other things, and by that point Brad had already been involved for some time as a producer on it, and was very supportive of Heath and that whole process for the whole casting. But when Heath fell out, it was one of those things were we’re, like, looking across the table and going, “Uh, how come we haven’t considered this before? What about you?” And it just fell into place so easily. It sounds silly now. People would think, how could you not think of Brad? But again, the way Terry makes movies, it is very natural and very organic, and it’s not about, “Oh, we’ve got to get the biggest star in the world, or we’ve got to do this or we’ve got to do that with Brad in it.” It comes from a very organic place, and that’s how it happened with Brad eventually doing it. It wasn’t like we’ve got to do this, or we’re sunk. It was more like, “This would be great.”


You’ve produced a lot of Oscar contenders, and ‘Tree of Life’ certainly seems worthy. Is there a plan in place to market this cerebral film to the Academy?

Well, that’s more of a Fox Searchlight thing, obviously. We’d be involved, but it is really more of a Fox Searchlight thing. The main thing is, I think we’ve talked before about the whole Oscar thing, and we certainly don’t make our decisions or make the movie chasing those kinds of awards, particularly in this case. As I’ve said before, if we wanted to chase awards there’s a lot of things you could do with the movie to kind of push in that direction, but it was more about making the movie right for what it was, and to stand on its own and all that. I can’t say that we wouldn’t be happy if it got nominated or won any of these awards, but with a film like this it is so much about being true to the story, and the main intent, and the vision of the film, that you don’t really think of the awards. It would be nice, but it’s not really like we’re pushing for it. Not during the making of the movie.


That’s good… Real fast, last thing, when are we going to be able to see ‘Voyage of Time?’

Don’t know, to be honest. Terry’s been working on the Ben Affleck film, the one he did right after Tree of Life, and has a couple of other things that he’s excited about as well. But Voyage of Time is up there too, on his list of things he’s excited about, but it’s kind of overwhelming. Not for Terry, he’s actually able to multitask pretty well. He’s pretty intense when he’s in these creative periods, but I know that there’s a couple other things that just take precedence at the moment. But it’s still an interest [for] all of us to make it happen.


NEXT: DeDe Gardner on the whole Sean Penn thing, the casting of Jessica Chastain and 'World War Z!'

Our interviews continue with DeDe Gardner, the president of Plan B entertainment and producer of Tree of Life, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and World War Z.


CraveOnline: It’s interesting to me how polarizing ‘Tree of Life’ is. Some people just can’t see to sit down long enough to even think about it. Because it’s challenged. Were you ever concerned about that, or were just trusting in Terrence?

Dede Gardner: I sort of think that if you get concerned about before you’re out of the gate, you’ll never get out of the gate, you know? My feeling is that, and this isn’t unique for this movie, I just think if you set out to make to make things that aren’t challenging or difficult, then your more thank likely to just make a lot of crap.


Very true.

And if you’re going to do otherwise, then you might make something that people see, and you might make something that people don’t see, but you’ll never regret. It’ll always be something that you can sleep at night feeling like you raised the bar, and have been challenging to yourself and the people who wish to see it. You know?


Yeah, absolutely. Did you read recently that Sean Penn said that ‘Tree of Life’ confused him?

I did.

So did the movie change at all from how it was originally conceived…?

It always changes. That’s not an original situation for me, but I also… Sean was in camera and incredibly magnanimous. I think the quote got misconstrued. But there’s not a movie that started as one thing and was the exact same thing when it hit the screen. They’re always evolving, and that’s a sign of it actually being good. It stays alive, as opposed to being sort of leaden before you start making it.


A lot of producers don’t do interviews about their movies. The actors get a bunch of that work. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our readers are unfamiliar with what a producer really does. What was your goal throughout ‘Tree of Life?’

Well, I think it’s always a very collaborative medium, or I’ve found it to be in my short span doing it. I liken the job to protecting the film, sort of being a harbor for the film’s intent to reach the screen, and not get diluted or interfered with or altered for the wrong reasons along the way. That manifests itself in a million different ways, but at its core I sort of think that’s what I feel I was charged with, was protecting the filmmaker and the movie, and trying to see that the original intent was served. If that makes any sense…


It makes perfect sense, and alas, not everyone has that. Some people are much more market driven. How did ‘Tree of Life’ come to you? Was it already a script or did you talk to Terry?

We, Brad and I, were speaking to him years prior about a different project. In the course of that dialogue he brought this up as a project that was very near and dear to him, and that he was eager to see made and very committed to. We were quite quite struck by its description and his passion, and said, “Well, we’d love to be of help, producorially, in any way, shape or form that we can.” And so we were on as producers for a few years before the decision, kind of late actually in the game, relative to how long we’d been there, to begin it.


How did Terry talk about ‘Tree of Life’ at first? Was it just the themes or did he know how he wanted to portray the unusual progression of time?

You know what? I honestly tried to reconstruct that conversation because it was seven years ago. I just remember being struck by, and I’m not putting words in his mouth […] I was very struck by the idea of the details of individual lives against a spectrum much larger than that which we normally associate ourselves, or project ourselves. I thought, that seems worthy. If that can get pulled off, how extraordinary!


I was talking to Bill, and he was talking about how you didn’t have a lot of test screenings before you went to Cannes. Was there a lot of suspense? Was it vindicating when you won the Palm d’Or?

Well… [Laughs] It’s just extraordinary. It feels like such a privilege, and I imagine [it’s] not a moment I will repeat, but… Suspense… Well, you’re always – “I,” I don’t want to speak for anyone else – I’m always anxious. I’m always sort of hopeful that something you’ve spent so much time on reaches people and moves people, but quite honestly, [some] movies hit in the minute they get seen, and other movies hit over time, and take a lot of time to percolate and fertilize with culture, and time and era. You just have to feel good about what you did, which is going back to how I answered the first question. You have to believe in it and, I don’t know, this idea that what you put out there shouldn’t be difficult, in order that it then be received immediately and by the widest group of people, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We were in extremely talented company in all the other films [at Cannes], so it was just an honor to be there, and then of course, of course that response was so special!


I would like to talk to you about Jessica Chastain a bit. She had a big summer, obviously, with ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘The Help.’ She’d done some TV before but this was her big break. What brought her to you?

Well, she came in and auditioned, several times, and worked with Terry and talked about ideas and talked about life. I think she just struck him as the right essence for what he saw in the part, and that’s a very, I think it’s fair to say contrary essence to the part that Brad plays.

That feels like the whole theme of the movie, really.

Yeah, exactly. But, you know, there’s a lot you don’t know before you put people together, and that’s one of [Terrence Malick’s] innumerable gifts. Individual essences and how they would play against an opposite, and with a different one, one that he also has in his head for the part. Knowing the mask that comes out of those ricochets and connections is going to be worthy of dramatic treatment.


Where is ‘Voyage of Time’ right now?

We’re just working away at it! There’s a lot of footage that needs to be filmed over a long period of time, so that’s a slow and steady march.


I know you’re trying not to talk much about it, but we’re all very excited for everything Terry does.

[Laughs] Me too!


It’s weird because for so long he didn’t make anything, but lately he got the ball rolling.

Yeah, I guess it’s weird. I think if we all dove into the library and looked into musicians and painters and poets and authors, I think we’d find it less aberrant than this has been characterized. Certainly, people disappear and they go and whatever they do as artists, and also as people who are inhabiting their lives, that sometimes get very busy and complicated. But I don’t know that they ever stop creating, they just stop creating for the public eye. So from our perspective it sort of seems that they’ve gone off the reservation, but I can’t imagine that any mind that’s capable of the many things I’m thinking of would just shut off. I think they just made choices that, frankly, ultimately enable them to keep going.


I don’t want to linger too much on this because it’s not why we’re here, but how is ‘World War Z’ coming along right now?

Coming along! We’re in the home stretch, and it’s fierce and it’s amazing. The footage has just been amazing. It’s a complete whirlwind. A lot of fun.


This is going to be the big, epic zombie movie we’ve always wanted, right? The really huge one?

[Laughs] William, that’s the idea.


I just want to confirm! I don’t want to find out Brad Pitt’s just stuck in a cabin…

No, no. No cabins, I promise.


Is it a relief to be in production on ‘World War Z?’ It felt to us like it was in development hell for a long time.

Well, I guess I don’t know. Most of the movies I’ve worked on, you work on for a few years before they get green lit and sent into production. I think that there was a lot of expectation, and probably more chatter about it online so maybe there was more of a public awareness that it was in development than others, but the truth is, most movies I’ve worked on… Yeah, you’re slogging it out and trying to get the script right, and trying to figure out who should direct it and who should be in it, and that just by definition ends up taking years.