The winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year is only the fifth film in 38 years by Terrence Malick, a reclusive director who has not given an interview since the 1970s.
"The Tree of Life" has big stars, celestial spectacles and digital dinosaurs, but it is no one's idea of a summer blockbuster. Even more elliptical than Mr. Malick's previous two films, "The Thin Red Line" (1998) and "The New World" (2005), the film tells the story of a 1950s Texas family (the parents are played by Brad Pitt and the newcomer Jessica Chastain) whose oldest son grows up to be a morose Sean Penn. But it also tackles, metaphysically speaking, the origins of life and the history of the universe.
It's safe to assume that this project is also, for its fiercely private auteur, deeply personal. Some aspects correspond with the morsels of biography that have surfaced over the years: the Texas childhood, a strict father, the death of a brother. "I was shocked by how personal the story was when I first read it," said the production designer Jack Fisk, who has known Mr. Malick since they were film students. "But when I watched the film I just think how universal it is."
Mr. Malick strove for a documentary-style spontaneity on "The Tree of Life."
"It's more found than planned," said Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer. "Terry would say, don't worry about getting a piece of dialogue or an interaction of the actors, but try to get the feeling of the first time being in a room with them."
The mood on the set matched the subject of the film: a heightened alertness to the world. "When you're shooting with Terry, everybody's very aware of their surroundings," Mr. Lubezki said.
The film distinguishes the way of nature (the father) from the way of grace (the mother). Ms. Chastain interpreted her character as a personification of "the spiritual world," a contrast to the natural world, "which is all about survival of the fittest," she said, and which, in the movie takes the form of Darwinian natural selection and American bootstrap capitalism. It can be hard for actors to find their place within the flux of a Malick production. "Actually, he's an imperfectionist," Mr. Pitt said. "He finds perfection in imperfection, and he's always trying to create the imperfection."
Ms. Chastain recalled that when she told Mr. Malick she wouldn't have time to memorize the long monologues that he would present to her minutes before shooting, his response was that she should "just say whatever you remember because that'll be enough." But Mr. Malick's insistence on freedom does not preclude obsessive fine-tuning: after the shoot, he called her in - by her count, more than 30 times - to record new lines and re-record old ones. For special effects, Mr. Malick turned to Douglas Trumbull, best known for his work on "2001: A Space Odyssey." They set up a lab in Austin, Texas, where Mr. Malick lives, and essentially conducted chemistry experiments: photographing paints and liquids in tanks of water at high speeds, which produced images that could be digitally composited to resemble astronomical phenomena. "With computer graphics everything is based on some algorithm and there's often a predictability to it," Mr. Trumbull said. "Terry and I wanted randomness and irregularity."
Mr. Malick's work has long been discussed in philosophical terms - he was a Heidegger scholar - but "The Tree of Life," shown May 16 at Cannes and being released elsewhere in Europe and the United States at the end of May and early June, deepens and complicates an overt interest in spirituality.
Growing more radical with age, Mr. Malick now seems intent on finding a cinematic form flexible enough to encompass the big, unanswerable questions of human existence. "Every film now is almost a frustration, because Terry doesn't know if he's said enough," Mr. Fisk said. "But I also think he's finally making movies exactly the way he wants to."