We often say that people are a product of their environment, that who they are as adults is dependent on where they come from. But often that is limited in meaning to the home they grew up in. What about what influence them? And then the generation before that? And before that? There are things that are shaping who and what we are that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years and each one of us is, ultimately, the end (for the moment) result of millions of small decisions being made by anyone and everyone who’s touched the lives of any of our ancestors.
That seems to be the premise behind the new movie from director Terence Malick, Tree of Life. The movie tells the story of Jack (Sean Penn) who is looking to deal with issues still lingering because of the complicated and dysfunctional relationship he had with his father (Brad Pitt), who was far stricter and much less emotionally available than his mother (Jessica Chastain). But Malick’s brush is broader than just the time between the 1960’s and early 21st century. So the movie also goes back to the beginning of the universe itself and explores many issues that he’s interested in dealing with.
The first poster is pretty simple and ties in nicely with the first trailer, both of which were released at the same time. It’s just a shot of an infant’s foot being held in an adult’s hands, as if the latter is examining that footprint and soaking in the preciousness of it. That’s a shot that is taken more or less from the trailer and which demonstrates the beginning point of the “tree” that’s in the film’s title.
The second poster is much more complex, though at the same time design wise it’s very simple. Instead of being just one or even a handful of images, fully 70 images are featured on the one-sheet, which acts as a sort of collection of stills from the throughout the movie. What it seems to be trying to do is showing that the movie’s story takes place over many generations and with some fantastically shot visuals. So we see shots of Penn as an adult, of his character as a child, of Pitt’s character, of the solar system and planets and more. It’s pretty fantastic in how it shows off multiple aspects of the movie at once and while it’s likely to attract people who are looking for complex, brilliantly shot narrative features it’s also just as likely to turn off people who are looking for something much more simple in their movies. Despite being “just” a collection of still images it’s probably one of the more artistically interesting one-sheets I’ve seen recently.
The movie’s first trailer starts out with some definite spiritual leanings, as shots of spinning stars and such play out as the voiceover talks about choosing between the paths or nature or grace. We then follow the young life of a couple boys from birth through the toddler years and into the pre-teens as they grow up. The focal point of that development is in how they relate to their father, played by Pitt. As little kids he’s loving and playful but as they get older he gets harder and more demanding, telling them how hard and tough they have to be in order to survive.
After a trippy kind of transition we see Penn, the grown adult version of one of those boys, who’s still wrestling with the psychological damage done by his father’s attitude. That’s not the end of the flashbacks, though, as the rest of the trailer mixes stunning photography of waterfalls and other natural landscapes with more footage of the children and a couple more shots of Penn.
It’s a stunning and powerful trailer that seems much more grand and sweeping than it’s two-minute running time would suggest. It conveys how Penn’s character is looking for bigger answers to overcome the issues of his childhood clearly while still promising more to come in the film itself.
The first official online presence for the movie was, interestingly, a Tumblr blog called Two Ways Through Life. The site featured more stills from the film that showed off its beautiful photography and acted as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure that let visitors decide which path to follow. It was interesting to see how many reblogs, follows and such each photo received by other Tumblr users and it’s just that sort of tapping into a community that was likely the goal of putting the site there.
The movie’s official website is, despite being from Fox Searchlight, a pretty sparse one. While there’s the usual mix of photos, news about the movie and such like that which Searchlight always puts on their sites there isn’t the other stuff that is often added to the site. The only thing that’s available in that top section is a “Synopsis.”
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A bit of online advertising but that’s about it. Nothing on TV and nothing anywhere else. And this isn’t the kind of movie that lends itself to lots of promotional partners so there’s nothing on that front either.
Media and Publicity
Many gallons of ink were spilled in covering casting and other production details all the way up to the movie’s non-appearance at Cannes 2010, something that was rumored but which never materialized because Malick said the film wasn’t ready. It was ready, though, when a release date was finally announced (Los Angeles Times, 10/22/10), amounting to just about the first official bit of news on the movie since it started.
While there was plenty of buzz about the movie as it went through its protracted production cycle, which included it not being ready for the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the first real bit of news that showed it was moving toward completion was the announcement Fox Searchlight had picked up distribution rights (Hollywood Reporter, 9/9/10) from River Road.
Another wave picked up when it was announced the first trailer would be debuting in front of the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan, which likely spoke to a similar audience of cinephiles.
The marketing strategy became the focus of some press (Los Angeles Times, 12/8/10) as the studio outlined the slow leak approach it was taking in releasing information and materials, seeking to create a sustained level of buzz and conversation about this long-anticipated movie as opposed to a few huge spikes and equally deep valleys.
The film’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, got some press for comments he made that this movie was unlike any he’d previously worked on (LAT, 1/16/11), comparing the way the movie looks to a symphony and saying it’s so powerful it will trigger memories in the audience in the same way a familiar smell does.
When the time came there was once again speculation (THR, 3/16/11) about it appearing at the 2011 edition of Cannes, something that seemed much more likely considering by this point the marketing for the movie was finally underway. That speculation was later officially confirmed as fact (LAT, 4/14/11).
That appearance included a press conference at which the director did not appear (LAT, 5/16/11), though he did show up later, and a screening that reportedly elicited boos (Entertainment Weekly, 5/16/11) from some of the people in the audience, something later accounts described as being limited to just a handful of people and not part of any sort of mass dissatisfaction among the audience with the movie.
Despite all that – or maybe because it elicited such strong reactions, something art is supposed to do – the movie won the Palme d’Or at the festival, something that might or might not mean positive things for its box-office prospects (Los Angeles Times, 5/23/11)
It’s really difficult to review the campaign without defaulting to words such as “etheral” and “impressionistic” and many such reviews and other early press of the movie have indeed used those terms in abundance. The problem is they certainly do apply here, since the marketing seems to be daring the audience to work through how dense and complex the story of the movie is before they can be interested in seeing it.
For those willing to wage that battle, though, there’s a lot to really enjoy here. The trailer is wonderfully interesting, giving just hints of the story while making it clear the movie’s story will be told more through visuals than through easy-to-digest narrative structures. And the second poster and Tumblr blog have kept people guessing and talking consistently with every new nugget that’s uncovered.
It’s certainly not a campaign that’s going to be drawing in casual fans. But those who are interested in Malick or in more complex movies in general there’s a lot to latch on to here.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 05/27/11 – The Los Angeles Times takes a look at just how difficult a sell this movie is to mainstream moviegoers, though I’d point out that any attempt to reach them would be almost futile.
- 05/29/11 – PRNewser rounds up a bunch of stories under the heading of asking whether this could be this year’s Inception, meaning a movie that has artistic aspirations but mainstream appeal. Considering the reactions coming out of Cannes I seriously doubt this.
- 06/16/11 – Searchiight took a video of directors Christopher Nolan and David Fincher praising the film and Malick that had been made prior to acquisition and used it to continue its post-release word-of-mouth.