Brad Pitt recently spoke with Variety’s Christy Grosz about his work on two best picture Oscar nominees, “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life,” and collaborating with one of the most reclusive directors in the business.
How did Terrence Malick convey his concepts for “Tree of Life” to you as an actor?
He would come in with three pages of single-spaced thoughts and maybe some dialogue. What he does is he gets up in the morning and just bangs on the typewriter for an hour, ideas for the day’s work. I learned as an actor to pick a few things from that consciousness notebook that he would give me, and I would start to build something around that.
He starts with a very dense script but (uses) that as a spring board to capture those truthful missteps. He would do stuff like push Chivo (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) before a shot just to put him off balance. We were in the car doing what I thought was a very important scene and all of a sudden he threw the dog in the front seat to create this chaos.
How did that work with the young actors?
I know the dialogue, at least as it is written, and Jessica (Chastain) knows the dialogue, but the boys don’t. He may tell them right before a scene, give them a response to aim for, but it’s very free form.
It was summer camp for them. They would brag when they had to go on set. Between takes they maybe had a little school or they would ride bikes down the street or play catch in the yard. He scoured all of Texas to find these boys — that’s one of his specialties.
There is that last scene where the boys are weeping out in that grass field. That was their last day of shooting. They were going to have to go back to their homes, and they lived in different parts of Texas. That was a real moment for them that can only come from the type of environment Terry creates.
What do you think compelled Malick to tell this story?
I hesitate to speak for him on that, but I know that it is deeply personal. He is a man who operates from religion, but he is also a man who has a profound love for science and philosophy. I know all these interests were pulling on him to find the story. These questions like, why are we here? Why are we so difficult with each other? Why can we not get above certain things? It’s this juxtaposition of the micro, this tiny story in Texas, with the macro of the universe.
Was there something specific about the story that drew you in?
It was that micro/macro that I was so taken with. If you look in a microscope and see a cluster of cells or tissue from the human body and then you look in a telescope out to the cosmos, there are similar patterns. What is that connection? There is certainly something bigger than we can understand.
Was it a tough balance to produce and star at the same time?
It’s actually a great extension of what an actor does already, just in an expanded role of fighting for the story. I still focused on budget and making the films with the pot of the money allotted. I find that it’s really a study in efficiency. If you have a scene that is very heavy on the costs and too heavy in conjunction with the rest of the scenes, how do you still achieve the scene but do it at a cheaper price?
Both films had a difficult path to the screen, but what made you stick with “Moneyball”?
The story itself is unique, these guys trying to level an unfair playing field. And when it all went caca, I had already put two years into it. I had done that before, and I have seen friends go through that where you have put in so much time and it just goes away. It just made me sick that that could happen on this one. I asked Sony to pick this one back up and I owe a big thanks to Amy Pascal because she did so when all conventional wisdom would tell you (otherwise).
Is there a tipping point that studios can strike where they can get a big-name star and still stay within their budgetary constraints?
George (Clooney) is doing it best; he is doing exactly that. The way producers get us actors on is if it’s something we love and have to do, we do it for a price and get the movie made. When I did “The Assassination of Jesse James,” it actually cost me money in the end. I paid to work on that one, and I think the film still lost money, but it was one of my favorites and one of the most rewarding to me.
The trade off is that when you get to a certain level, you can be passionate about a role and not really worry about whether it is paying your bills.
You can’t do them all like that but yes. There are a few very strong independent financiers that are more interested in content than profit. These guys like Bill Pohlad who did “Tree of Life” and Tim Headington and Megan Ellison are so important to what we do in the structure we are in right now. (Without them), harder-sell risk-taking films might not make it to the screen.
Actors like to observe human behavior. Is there any place that you can go anonymously and observe people?
It’s funny because I have thought about that. With celebrity comes a loss of freedom. But I’m surprised how much is banked either from previous experience or your own subconscious or what you pick up from your kids, so I have found no shortage in that well