The Philosophy of Brad Pitt

By Peter Howell

To get Brad Pitt to stop clowning around during a press conference is a feat unto itself.

Heís normally resistant to serious questions, especially when heís in the company of George Clooney, his fellow actor and close friend.

So it was something of a marvel to see Pitt holding forth this week at the Cannes Film Festival press conference following the world premiere of Terrence Malickís The Tree of Life, in which Pitt has a major role.

Pitt wasnít just talking seriously; he was leading the conversation.

Heís done a lot of thinking about this most thoughtful film that wrestles with manís place in the cosmos, which opens in Toronto June 10. Hereís what Pitt had to say in answer to a succession of journalistsí questions:

Whatís it like working with a director who works more like a French Impressionist than a ďnormalĒ linear, conventional director?

Yes, I could go on far too long about Terryís process but itís very, very interesting for us. The quick strokes were: our section of the story takes place in the í50s and Terry started by renting the entire block (of an Austin, Texas suburb) and dressing it as the 1950s ó therefore allowing us to walk outside and go wherever we wanted. He would have a couple of kids jumping rope outside.

His idea, even though he handed us a very dense script, is he never wanted to do what he called ďhammer and tongĒ a scene as written. He was more interested in catching what was happening on the day. Heís like a guy standing there with a butterfly net, waiting for that moment of truth to go by.

So the kids, themselves, were not given a script ó they werenít allowed a script. They had a closet of clothes and they put on what they wanted to put on that day and thatís what we shot in. And we would do two takes and Terry would also . . . get up every morning and write for an hour and give us pages in the morning ó single spaced, like three or four pages ó and we kind of developed something out of that. And I think because of that is why the moments are fresh, because they are not preconceived in any way.

The lighting: there was only one light in the house; everything else was natural light. One light over the table and everything was handheld. It was a pretty incredible experience. I donít know that I could do them all this way because itís exhausting, but you see what you get.

I want to add one thing. (Malick) does what he calls ďtorpedoingĒ a scene, and the youngest child he called ďthe torpedo.Ē And on the first take, weíre having an argument, weíll be going at it and raising our voices and doing as you do, and the second take, unbeknownst to us, he would just send in Ty ó the torpedo ó who would sit down at the table and suddenly it changed the whole tenor and tone of the scene. So this is something that would happen on a daily basis as well. Again, I could go on for a couple days, so Iíll cut it there.

What is Malick like? Does he eat, drink, etc.?

Yes, he even goes to the bathroom! Heís quite jovial, heís incredibly sweet, heís laughing most of the day over, like, when the dog would act up and bite one of us or something . . . He finds pleasure in the day is my point. And I think this is the difference between great directors and good directors ó is that he truly loves all his characters. In a very passionate way, he respects and appreciates them. Again, therein lies the difference.

Were there any autobiographical echoes in the script for any of you, especially in how Southern men and women choose to express themselves or not express themselves?

Well, I can speak a little about the Southern upbringing (Pitt was raised in Missouri) but, again, I find this film more universal. I hope it speaks to people of all cultures, as far as childhood and deciding who you are going to be as you grow at that point from child to young adult and you try on things and some things work for you, some things donít, and youíre being honed by the influences around you.

In this case, Terry designed it as the mother represents grace and love and all that is pure and good, and the father represents this oppressive nature . . . the nature that must survive and that will choke out another plant in order to do so. And the young child is trying both things on and figuring out what works for him and who heís going to be as he grows up. And thereís the bigger questions of the impermanence of life that I think we all go through.

Now, the Southern upbringing ó Iím making it a clichť, almost ó but there is truth to a purity and sweetness in the mother and a more ďfather knows bestĒ mentality, of father-as-provider. And in the film, here, you see the American Dream, as we grow up to understand it, is not working. The fatherís on the tail end of that. And thereís a lot of anger because of it and he, in turn, passes that on to his sons, inadvertently, unintentionally. I do think there are elements of the story that are personal to Terry. There were elements of the story that were personal to me but I donít think it mirrors or is an exact template for either one of us.

Share some memories of your childhood.

I grew up with Christianity. I remember questioning it greatly ó some things didnít work for me, some things did ó and just having a lot of the questions that the film presents, and I think thatís why it spoke to me as it does.

What did you feel you were making? When you saw it, what surprised you about it? What kind of impact do you think it will have in America, where there arenít many religiously themed films?

I was surprised by the structure, which I find quite ingenious. I think this marriage of the micro with the macro, I found most interesting, when he tells this micro story of this family in this small town in Texas, juxtaposed with the macro of the birth of the cosmos and cell-splitting and I find that quite extraordinary that there seems to be some parallel truths in there.

You play a strict father in the film. What is your own parenting style? Also, were any of the boys related to you?

(Smiling) No relation. I beat my kids regularly ó it seems to do the trick ó and deprive them of meals.

What did Malick tell you about this film in advance?

Yes, itís a leap of faith and thatís the point: thatís when these accidents are going to happen and you know youíre in great hands with Terry, so itís not that scary.

What elements of your religious upbringing could you use to give your character form?

I donít know if I thought of that specifically, just because itís internalized. But as far as a faith that I grew up with is being told that Godís going to take care of everything and it doesnít always work out that way. And when it doesnít work out that way, well, then youíre told itís Godís will. I got my issues, man ó you donít want to get me started! I got my issues. But many people find in religion something to be very inspiring and actually leads them to opportunities. I, myself, found it very stifling, as an individual, and a tightness to it that I think that the father character carried with him. More focused on what you canít do than experiencing and discovering.

Since Cannes is the most auteur-driven festival, the director should be here. Did he give you direction on how to present the film for him? What is the conversation behind the scenes of the festival when a director doesnít show up?

He sees himself ó I believe I can speak for him ó as building a house. I donít know why itís accepted that people who make things in our business are then expected to sell them. I donít think it computes with him. He wants to focus on the making-of and not the selling of the real estate. It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be a salesman.

You know how when you have a favourite song and you hear the band telling what itís about, describing the lyrics, and youíre immediately disappointed and you canít listen to that song anymore? No?

Aside from the chance to work with Malick, what attracted you to this story?

We were actually already on it as producers and the unfortunate thing about this business, sometimes, is that great stories have great difficulties getting made even when there are people involved like Terry Malick. Weíve witnessed a lot of really strong scripts go by the wayside and not get made and we wanted to ensure that this one did and so I jumped in.

I was a little hesitant about playing the oppressive father but I felt like the story was so important and to me it was really about the kidsí journey. I think about everything I do now my kids are going to see when they grow up and how are they going to feel, but they know me as a dad and I hope theyíll just think Iím a pretty damned good actor.

Can you talk about how you pick roles and why youíre not doing more blockbuster type films like Mission: Impossible types?

Donít count me out of Mission: Impossible! Iíll be there! Iím not that highbrow. You know, like the film, itself, you want to discover, you want it to be about something, you want to find something new . . . I always have. I want to find something different. Thatís been my focus. Also, I think about 10 years ago, I started thinking about my favourite films and they werenít the big commercial things; they were things that have a little more depth that were asking bigger questions or really, really funny.

I do like a comedy. Thereís some great comedy coming out of America right now . . . Iím thinking Zach Galifianakis and Jonah Hill and Danny McBride. The point is just to keep messing it up and I figure I only have so many more of these that Iíll get to do and I want to make sure it has some worth to me and has some worth out there instead of something thatís more disposable.