Mystery man: Key collaborators on Terrence Malick's latest film discuss the invisible filmmaker

Terrence Malick is the invisible filmmaker. He never gives interviews and refuses to have his picture taken. Inevitably, this has created an air of mystery around him. There is a suspicion that he must be a Stanley Kubrick-like recluse: an eccentric visionary with strange foibles. However, speak to key collaborators on his most recent film, The Tree of Life (which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes and is released in the UK tomorrow), and what is immediately apparent is the affection in which he is held, and the eagerness that top technicians and actors all have to work with him.

The Tree of Life is largely set in 1950s Texas, although it flits about in time and includes a prolonged "creation of the universe"-style sequence. This sits alongside a very intimate portrayal of a small-town American family, the O'Briens (Brad Pitt is the father, Jessica Chastain the mother).

The actress

Fiona Shaw plays the Grandmother

Terrence makes you feel that you step straight from childhood into film-making and that there's nothing in between. He says things like, "Shall we do this scene inside or outside?" He is using mainly natural light. We were all living in those houses that became the set for the street of the town. I'd get up in the morning and go to work. He seems to shoot the world as it is. His entire language is so different to the often financial-based pattern of film-making, which is deadlines and terror of not getting things done on the day. When he first offered me the film, he said, "I wonder if you could come and help us."

I am not sure what preconceptions I had about him other than that he was a unique film-maker. I had never seen a picture of him. I didn't know what he looked like.

He is so utterly benign to meet. You realise that the force to produce these fantastic films is very deep within him because his manner is gentle.

What does he look like? He's tall, he has a beard and he's very smiley. I don't think there's any great mystery about him. He just wants to be getting on with what he does and not necessarily to be discussed as a person.

He wrote an enormous amount and asked me to write sections. So I wrote long speeches, of course none of which he used – which I also admired. He seems to boil the film down almost like a stew. He boils off anything he doesn't need.

The production designer

Jack Fisk

I was introduced to Terry by a mutual friend in 1972. Terry was looking for someone to art direct his first film Badlands. We got along instantly and he trusted me to go out to Colorado and begin putting the sets and locations together for his film.

Terry talked with me initially in 1976 about doing a film which I believe was to become The Tree of Life, but I do not remember the name. It was shortly after that meeting that he disappeared from Hollywood for 20 years.

When I heard Terry was going to make another film (The Thin Red Line), I was in Ireland with my daughter who was acting in a film in Dublin. Though we had only talked one time during his 20-year absence, I sent Terry a telegram saying I had just recovered from Days of Heaven [Malick's second film] and that I would love to work with him again.

Several weeks later, having not seen each other for about 20 years we met at the house of a mutual friend in California and soon I was off to Guadalcanal to see what it was like. It was like not a day had passed since we last worked together on Days of Heaven. I know he was shocked by the scale of the production and wished that film crews could be small like the one we had on Badlands. Over the past years he has worked to make his productions smaller and more intimate.

I often look to the work of Edward Hopper for inspiration. In his paintings he tells a story with few elements and I try to do the same. Terry and I were both kids in the 1950s so in a strange way it [The Tree of Life] didn't seem like a period film to me, but more a memory. I grew up in a small town in Illinois not unlike the Texas town portrayed in The Tree of Life. Terry and I have very similar references from early childhood and responded to many of the same images of the period.

The producer

Bill Pohlad

He is a great guy. Obviously, he has this reputation of being aloof and mysterious and all that, but when you meet him, he's just a regular guy, very easy-going. You wouldn't necessarily think that he's "THE" Terry Malick.

He doesn't write scripts in the normal format. He has his own way of doing it. It's like poetry in a way. When I first encountered him on Che, the Che Guevara project that he came close to making, it was a little disturbing. You had to figure the screenplay out – like, what are you trying to say here. We had many, many discussions. Neither of us ended up doing that project but it got us both to know each other.

Jessica (Chastain), Brad (Pitt) and Sean (Penn) would all tell you that it's a particular challenge but also part of the adventure of working with Terry that it is always evolving. In the morning, he might give you a set of notes or lines to work on but in the middle of a take, he will come up with something new.

You hear all this stuff about Terry not wanting to have his picture taken. You start to pigeonhole him with other difficult directors and you think, whoa, this could be a challenge! But the first day on set was a revelation. I remember him sitting on a chair in the O'Brien house, just laughing and smiling. He was doing very complex things but it seemed very easy and relaxed.

Bill Pohlad is the founder and CEO of River Road Entertainment. His previous credits include 'Fair Game', 'Lust, Caution' and 'Into the Wild'

The producer

Dede Gardner

Brad and I were speaking with Terry seven years ago about another project. In the course of our dialogue, he brought this project [The Tree of Life] up. We were on as producers long before Brad committed as an actor.

He works in a similar way to Michael Winterbottom – and we made A Mighty Heart with Michael. The priority is always to be shooting – and to allow for as much elasticity as possible. He is an extremely responsible film-maker. He goes into it knowing this is the time you have to make the movie and this is how long you have the actors for. All he asks for in return is, "OK, if I vow to understand that, let's within that be as free and liberated as we can be."

I was very pregnant with my second child when we were shooting. I was acutely aware of the day the second child was brought in and that whole scene where the elder boy realises he is not king of the universe. That meant a lot to me because I knew I was about to disrupt my son's life in a similar way.

I completely respect his decision not to speak to the press. It's something you know going in. It's not a u-turn. You respect it in the way you respect the range of friends in your life. Some are extremely private and some are extremely public. I respect the intent behind it which is very much respecting the audience – it's saying you figure out what it's about to you. I would never be so presumptuous as to tell you that. That's remarkable in this day and age of the blogosphere and Twitter.

Gardner runs the production company Plan B with Brad Pitt

The composer

Alexandre Desplat

We know Terrence Malick is a legendary, mysterious director. I've loved his films for years, from Badlands to The New World. It was really unexpected that I received a phone call from Terrence saying that he had listened to my music and wanted to meet with me. He is actually a very warm and kind man, very calm, very measured and very educated. He has got this dream-like tone of voice, soft and very gentle. He would talk to me about astronomy or French literature or Mozart.

The main goal, which he had never tried, was to have the composer write music prior to the editing because he wanted to edit to music. I would go to Austin (where Malick lives), sit with him at the piano, play around and dream about the film. The idea was that I would not see a structured movie.

He doesn't have an academic knowledge of music. I don't think he reads music very well or is classically trained but he has listened to music carefully enough to know what we mean when we talk about Mozart or Beethoven or Scarlatti. He knows the difference. And he can whistle or hum a Mozart sonata.

The cinematographer

Emmanuel Lubezki

We were almost like documentary film-makers, trying to capture the essence of those little moments that Terry needs to build a movie. It is not a traditional set where Terry blocks a scene and we are shooting the dialogue, shooting the blocking just to give information or a plot point. It's almost the opposite. Terry goes and blocks a scene and then he destroys it and creates as much chaos as he can. We create so much chaos and within that chaos, things that feel natural, feel real, start to happen – and those are the moments we are trying to grasp. Whether it's a moment of joy or the first step of a kid, they are not things you can set up. You can only find them.

'The Tree of Life' opens tomorrow

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