The odds of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life being crowned best picture next weekend are slim, but the film has already claimed the Golden Palm at Cannes, a fittingly arboreal award for a film that takes its trees seriously. In Malick’s fifth and most experimental feature, an oak tree towering above a shady lane in Texas is the portal through which the O’Brien family, headed by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, connects to the origins of the universe. Getting the oak prepped for the big screen seems to have been as demanding a task as reproducing the Big Bang. Under a veil of secrecy, tree scouts scoured the county surrounding Smithville, the small town that doubled for the Waco of Malick’s youth, searching for a tree that captured the director’s imagination, while also providing a wide enough spread for the three branch-swinging O’Brien boys to climb. As Terry Hagerty reported in the Bastrop Advertiser, the scouts arranged to excavate the 65,000-pound behemoth of their choosing and transport it across town in an oversized trailer. To ensure safe passage, every telephone and electrical wire in their path had to be temporarily removed as the towering cargo was inched toward the set. This willingness to upend the same natural order the film fetishizes, all while motivating a crew to achieve spectacular results, puts Malick in esteemed company, as many of the cinema’s finest filmmakers have gone to similar lengths to photograph the perfect tree.
The lineage of Tree of Life can be traced back, in part, to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s childhood meditation, The Mirror, both important works by directors who had the tree bug at various points in their careers. Before Kubrick transformed the English countryside into the ravaged landscape of Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket, he dispatched a scout to Spain to photograph and categorize 300 palm trees down to their circumference and foliage length. He then handpicked several dozen to be imported, at the reported cost of £1,000 per palm, and had them strategically planted within the frame of each battleground shot, padding out the scenery with plastic plants from Hong Kong. Concerned about the lives of the trees after production wrapped, Kubrick enlisted an associate to research new homes for the orphaned palms. Though England is far from the ideal climate, some healthy palms had survived for years in the West Country, and arrangements were made to ship the majority of the lot to Cornwall and Devon. The trees redistributed outside that region soon perished.
Cinema’s most devout tree enthusiast is undoubtedly Tarkovsky. (Film scholar Gerard Loughlin made a daring attempt to investigate the Russian master’s obsession in the essay “Tarkovsky’s Trees.”) Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, a documentary about the making of his final film, The Sacrifice, which he set in Sweden, offers a glimpse of the Russian master’s meticulous control of his environment. While blocking shots inside a house, he color-coordinates the furnishings down to the tablecloth and sofa cushions, all while speaking calmly through a Swedish translator. But when the blocking moves outdoors, he brusquely takes charge. Having already sacrificed precious time scouting a Bird Cherry tree “as white as a bride,” Tarkovsky is infuriated when the crew is caught planting a virescent mismatch. He mutters through his mustache, exasperated that he’s obliged to lecture Swedes about their own native landscape, let alone a simple distinction between green and white. The trees are ordered torn down.
Ingmar Bergman found himself in a similar predicament while scouting the Swedish wilderness for his Oscar-winning medieval drama, The Virgin Spring. Unable to find a lone sapling in a clearing for Max von Sydow to wrestle to the ground, an act of atonement before exacting revenge for his daughter’s murder, Bergman instructed his crew to plant one artificially in front of a majestic backdrop, immortalized by cinematographer Sven Nykvist.