The prospect of dealing with a mystery wrapped in an enigma enables movie marketers to pursue that most prized of industry assets – buzz. And there is no more mysteriously enigmatic filmmaker than Terrence Malick.
Malick’s latest work, The Tree of Life, is already the most-buzzed about project in recent memory. The filmmaker has made only five films since he debuted with the American classic Badlands in 1973; he took a 20 year hiatus from directing between his elegiac western Days of Heaven (1978) and the meditative The Thin Red Line (1998), so the six-year turnaround between his under-appreciated Pocahontas retelling The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life is veritably prolific. Like those films before it, The Tree of Life has become the subject of much anticipation and speculation with industry and audience alike.
The savvy manipulation of the film’s most enticing elements is a sage lesson in Canny Hollywood Marketing 101.
“I barely have any idea what The Tree of Life is about. (But) that’s a beautiful mystery I can’t wait to solve.”
- Obsessed with Film
During The Tree of Life’s production, information was scarce: a posting on the Female First site dated February 21st 2008 recounts a town meeting in Smithville, Texas, during which the film’s location manager John Patterson addressed citizens about respecting the privacy and security of Malick’s production. It is one of the few web-snippets to have emerged from the film’s shoot.
Upon delivery of a close-to-final cut in mid-2010 (Malick is notorious for fine-tuning his projects right up to release date), 20th Century Fox’s arthouse division Fox Searchlight held clandestine screenings of the film for industry power-brokers and influential media. Word began to filter through of audience reaction; what was thought to be a family drama set in the 1950s mid-west American ‘bible belt’ was emerging as something quite different – a brazenly ambitious, deeply spiritual journey through the past-life memories and modern heartbreak of one man’s soul. The blogosphere, ravenous for post-screening news on Malick’s opus, leapt all over an entry on the Home Theater [sic] Forum site which said the “creation footage is outstanding, absolutely jawdropping, and does indeed feel like 2001 (A Space Odyssey).”
Fox Searchlight, which parlayed the incessant interest in the film into a teaser trailer that has had over 1.5million hits on YouTube, was thrilled, but needed to maintain the momentum up to the film’s premiere (which is shaping to be at Cannes 2011, followed by a tentative May 27 in the US).
What emerged was a unique strategy – Fox steered the film’s (usually invisible) behind-the-scenes contributors into the media spotlight, thereby taking the focus off the details of Malick’s narrative and onto its merits as a groundbreaking technical achievement. On January 14, veteran cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki (Like Water For Chocolate; Ali; Children of Men) told the LA Times that "It's like no set I ever worked on."; in an interview with Vanity Fair, effects industry legend Douglas Trumbull (2001 A Space Odyssey; Close Encounters of the Third Kind) says he was wooed back into the filmmaking fold after 27 years by a conversation with Malick, in which the director decried the current trend towards overblown CGI work. (Trumbull allegedly said, “Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?”, to which Malick enthusiastically agreed.)
Ultimately, however, the strategy proved too potent. On March 8, UK-based site Little White Lies published a detailed interview with The Tree of Life’s visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, in which he confirmed musings that were circulating about several prehistoric sequences (“I can confirm that there are dinosaurs” ) and the breadth of Malick’s time-and-space visions (“...we paired up with some of the leading scientists in their respective fields, like Volker Bromm who specialises in Population III Stars, the first to theoretically form in the Universe”). The studio and film’s producers reacted swiftly, but many questions had already been answered; though yanked from the LWL site, at time of writing it was still to be found in text form elsewhere. Glass, who presciently stated the experience under Malick “was like no one else I’ve ever worked with or imagine I will work with again,” is facing lawsuits for breaching the tight non-disclosure agreement asked of the film’s cast and crew.
With just under three months until The Tree of Life premieres, Fox Searchlight has already positioned the film as an ‘event’ – admittedly not that difficult a task, given Malick’s exalted standing and the presence of stars Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. In the weeks ahead, the actors, including newcomer Jessica Chastain, will begin the promotional rounds (the reclusive Malick rarely fronts the cameras). Expect intellectual media outlets to hone in on the film’s spirituality (‘The Tree of Life’ is referred to as ‘God's wisdom’ in Catholic scripture Proverbs 3.18; the Bible says in Genesis 3.22 that man was cast out of the garden lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever). The most important phase of the pre-release campaign – managing the backlash that can develop when films too long in gestation and party to high industry hopes - will kick in.
In a detailed piece on Popmatters.com that chronicled the long history of Malick’s vision, an unnamed source said, “...you do feel as if you’re seeing something not only important, but bold and eternal. I get chills down my spine every time I think about it.” A worldwide audience made hungry by their own expectations awaits....
(Note – Icon Film Distribution, the Australian distributor of The Tree of Life, confirmed a July 7 release date but declined to comment further as they had not seen the film nor formed any preliminary release strategies.)