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Fiona Shaw Talks Tree Of Life
'He made it because he knows it will last'

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Terrence Malick is cinema's elusive artist. His motion pictures - because no other term seem quite captures their photographic grace - may be slim in number but they're enormous in scope and ambition. From the sweeping Midwestern plains of Badlands and Days Of Heaven to the epic, no-man-is-an-island philosophising of The Thin Red Line and The New World, they're bold, beautiful and quite brilliant. His latest, The Tree Of Life, finally arrives next month with much fanfare but little concrete detail. Frankly we wouldn't have it any other way, but the chance to chat about the film with one of its stars, Fiona Shaw, was far too good to turn down. As she explained, "It was the most astonishing experience..."

Fiona Shaw Talks Tree Of Life

We're incredibly excited about The Tree Of Life. Do you know what it's about?
Yeah, I know what it's about. It was the most astonishing experience. [Malick] is the opposite of a director. He rang me up and said, "This is Terrence Malick, I'm doing a film and I wonder could you help me with it." He said, "I'd like you to write your own part." I said, "What?!?" and then I wrote this stuff based on the character he described. When we came to filming, he said, "Where would you like to film these scenes? Would you like to do them indoors or outdoors?" because he is so fundamental in his understanding of what he's doing that it doesn't really matter to him whether you film it in a garden or a kitchen. He has the thing in his head, it's not tied to a tiny schedule. He makes them with handheld cameras, in natural light in the town he's taken over.

What was the experience like shooting with the cast he'd put together?
I can't tell you entirely what it's about because it's about everything
We all lived in the houses of the town that we were performing in. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were in the house next door with their children. During the day we'd vacate our houses and they'd became exteriors in the film. It was the most holistic experience but I can't tell you entirely what it's about because it's about everything - it's about a family and it's about time and space. He's using the movie, of course, very filmically, which is how it should be used: not to tell a life story but a story that really stretches over decades and beyond.

It looks stunning. I'm amazed he blocks the scenes out more in terms of the location is because everything ends up looking so incredible.
Well, I think he shoots about 35 films and makes the one that he wants, but he kind of knows all along. What he's looking for is the accident: he wants the accidents to happen. I suspect he throws out a lot of magnificent work. I wonder how he cuts down major characters. I originally spoke more than any other character and I have no doubt I'm in it for two seconds but I hope it'll be the best of the two seconds that served him. He's like a Renaissance painter.

What advice would you have for audiences sitting down to the film?
You have to come to it with an open heart because I don't think he's necessarily trying to please us. It's probably a portrait of his family, probably a portrait of America. He's an amazing man. He's got that this heat that comes of him and when you're with him you just want to lurk all day. Few people have that.

What makes him tick?
Terry is like a Renaissance painter.
Well, you just want to be in his company. We used to go out to dinner - and he goes to bed very early - but Sean Penn and he and I would would all go out to dinner and it would be very entertaining. Terry just laughs and laughs and laughs and then goes to bed. He's the most contented sort of person you could meet. He's certainly not an ego in any kind but he is somehow a channeller of something very great. But he does just want you to hang out. He and Sarah Green, his wonderful producer, devoted years of their lives to this film and that takes huge amounts of money but they made it because they know it will last.

If I had the money I'd invest in him because I'd like to see what he did next.
Fundamentally, that's what he does. He thinks much like a philosopher, really. If the father in the film represents power and the mother represents vulnerability and the power of gentleness then that debate is ricocheting through every scene. I think he just read this medieval philosophy and applied it to a family story. T.S. Eliot did the same thing. It's the base of all art but I think you have to be a very, very good writer to be able to do it and he can.

Interview by Helen O'Hara


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