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THE TREE OF LIFE

The Design
Also joining in the dance was production designer Jack Fisk, who has worked with Malick on each of his films since BADLANDS, and most recently brought his grand sense of scale to Paul Thomas Anderson's oil epic THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

Fisk had known for many years that Malick was quietly working on a large-scale project that had something to do with natural history, but it was awhile before the director showed him anything on the page. "I think I was working on MULHOLLAND DRIVE at the time that I first heard about it,” the designer recalls. "Terry came in with about 20 pages of the script. He only talked about it being a small film about a family – and it was some time again before I realized it was also going to involve special effects and extensive nature photography. But with the live-action portion, I had my hands full. I knew Terry wanted to shoot in an unconventional way, to be spontaneous and natural.”

As production approached, Fisk searched for a Texas town that still retained a slower, quieter 1950s feel. He found what he was looking for in Smithville, about 40 miles outside of Austin. First settled in the mid-1800's, Smithville lies nestled at the eastern edge of the fabled "Lost Pines of Texas” and near the banks of the Colorado River. With its broad streets lined with sprawling magnolias, and its mix of Queen Anne, Craftsman and Victorian houses hosting ample lawns with children at play, Smithville could easily be mistaken for a time machine to the American past.

"Smithville looks like it hasn't changed in 50 years,” muses Dede Gardner. "And Terry wanted there to be no movie trucks or trailers anywhere in sight so that you could walk down any block and shoot. You'd wander around and see bicycles left on lawns, dogs roaming around the neighborhood, kids toys in the yard – it was an extraordinary place.”

Taking advantage of the tenor of the town, Fisk began creating the O'Brien house, and the backyard territory where the boys first encounter so much of life around the tree their father plants. Fisk explains: "What I wanted to do with the production design was to create a town that wasn't at all specific, that was more timeless, that was more like a childhood memory of the way things one were, a memory that could apply to everyone.”

To that end, says Fisk, "the sets are more about color and light than anything substantive. Color and texture are what the camera sees, and since Terry did not light the sets, the colors became very important. I always approach sets as a sculpture, like a work in progress that evolves. I don't go locked in with an idea.”

He continues, "My approach to the O'Brien house was from what I remembered from my own childhood. Terry's films also always have a lot of earth and naturalism so I try to incorporate the environment as much as possible. One thing I've learned from Terry is to always appreciate the amazing things that surround us.”

The sets in Houston, where a grown Jack O'Brien, moves through a world of finance and power in steel high-rises that pierce the sky, become the antithesis of Smithville. "The contrast of this little town with the big, modern city shows the life many of us find ourselves leading a generation later. It's a powerful image that in Houston, the trees are in the lobbies of big buildings instead of in the yards.”

Shooting also took place at Austin's Barton Springs, the State Capitol in Austin and amid the grain and cotton fields of Manor, Texas. The film's climactic scenes were shot in a variety of stark landscapes, including Utah's Goblin Valley, the Bonneville Salt Flats, Mono Lake, Death Valley, and Matagorda Bay Nature Park, the rustic shoreline where the Colorado River meets the Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout the production, Fisk says a kind of organic connection developed between all of the cast and crew, which allowed each of the film's different elements to combine in unexpected ways. "Terry never calls it his film, he always says ‘it's our film.' There's a sense that all of us are working together to create moments that become the big picture of the film. It's a great way to work.”

Also excited to work again with Malick was costume designer Jacqueline West, a two-time Academy Award® nominee who collaborated with him on THE NEW WORLD, and most recently designed the costumes for THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Says West, "There's nobody like Terry as a filmmaker. He's an artist and a philosopher, but he makes his ideas accessible to everyone like a painter, like Van Gogh. When I work with Terry, I feel like I'm working on something that'll endure.”

For West, this was especially true of THE TREE OF LIFE. "It was the most beautiful script I've ever read,” she comments. "I found it to be the most moving depiction of what it means to be part of a family -- how you're connected to those you've lost and all that's gone before and to what it all will mean when your own life ends. I'd never seen any of that put on paper in a movie script before.”

To prepare for the production, West researched films such as INTOLERANCE and NOSTALGIA. "I felt a timelessness with the project. I wanted to immerse myself in films that had kept their evocative qualities even after many years. This film needed a subtle touch,” says West. West has also worked numerous times with Brad Pitt, including helping to age him backwards in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. "I really enjoy working with Brad,” she says. "He calls me a ‘Method Costumer' because I like to dress characters from the inside out.”

This was the only way to approach the fluid world of memories at play in THE TREE OF LIFE. West was inspired by the title of the film itself. "The centerpiece of the movie to me was that tree in the O'Brien yard. I wanted the family to look almost like they grew out of that yard, too, so I tried to keep the colors very organic and muted like in nature,” she explains.

West continues: "For Jessica, her clothes are classic and simple to allow her character to shine through. For Brad I looked to a photo I found of Texas-based NASA engineers standing in the wind in soft, muted gabardines. I felt that in all the rigidity of his character, there was still a soft side that should come through in his wardrobe. But he has to be intimidating to the boys, so he's always in a suit. He never really undresses or exposes his inner self to his children.”

West collaborated closely with the actors and Malick in all her choices. "I made a little closet for Jessica with all the items we had picked and then she would just pull the clothes out that fit how she felt that day. It was a lovely way to do it.”

Chastain loved working with West in this way. "Jackie helped me to know my character in a way I couldn't even have come close to on my own. Everything she gave me were just the perfect choices,” says the actress.

For the three O'Brien boys, West allowed their outfits to echo one another. "They are definitely individuals but they are also brothers who have that kind of common thread, so I tried to keep the similarity going, and also that sense that they wore hand-me-downs from each other.” West saw Sean Penn's older version of Jack as standing in stark opposition to those boys. "The palette of the family is soft and almost sepia-toned, like a photograph, but Jack became an architect with very sharp lines in his life. I felt that a black suit created the right contrast to the earthy tones of his memories and Terry was in agreement. He loved the modernity of it.”

THE TREE OF LIFE also marks the fifth time that West has collaborated with Jack Fisk, with whom she has a nearly sy

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