An Exclusive Excerpt from “The Making of Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE: An Oral History” (circa 2021)

Scott Bradley


On the 10th Anniversary of the release of legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, key participants shared their recollections of the process. In this excerpt from the piece, Brad Pitt and one of the Dinosaurs recall how a simple casting decision could have radically changed the film.

BRAD PITT: Well… I know Terry wouldn’t want me to share this… but you do know that he was originally considering one of the dinosaurs to play the father?

The famously idiosyncratic and experimental Malick did indeed want to cast one of the dinosaurs as the troubled patriarch in The Tree of Life.

DINOSAUR: When Terry told me this––and at that point I think I was the only one in the entire Mesozoic Era who had his telephone number––I thought he was crazy. But I was always getting weird phone calls from Terry. There was that one time… with the dinosaur rodeo.

During his twenty-year hiatus from filmmaking, between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick apparently considered funding a rodeo featuring Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus and many other dinosaurs. The Texas-born director was intrigued at the prospect of merging his interests in early life on Earth with concerns more directly related to his upbringing and background. However, this project never came to fruition.

DINOSAUR: I think the reason the dinosaur rodeo didn’t happen is because Charlie [Bluhdhorn, former Gulf + Western Chairman and longtime Malick partisan] told him, "Terry, this is the craziest fucking idea I’ve ever heard. Plus they’re extinct." I don’t think Terry ever quite recovered from that, because Charlie had given him carte blanche up to that point.

Malick’s dinosaur interests never wavered, however; indeed, he even sought a way to include them in his return to filmmaking––the adaptation of James Jones’s World War II novel The Thin Red Line.

KAYLIE JONES (daughter of novelist James Jones): [Malick] was very, very intent on respecting my father’s novel––but when he told me that he was writing the character of Private Witt [eventually played by Jim Caviezel] for a dinosaur, I had to tell him… and this was painful, because Terry is sensitive about his work… that I didn’t think that was a good idea. Terry knew there were no dinosaurs in my father’s novel, nor were there any at the Battle of Guadalcanal. That was a strange period for Terry––he was going through a divorce––so when he started talking about "the longstanding cinematic history of the Japanese being terrified of big scary reptiles," I just chalked it up to stress on his part. Thankfully… he changed his mind on the casting.

DINOSAUR: Caviezel and I have a weird history. Mel [Gibson] and I had a couple of meetings about The Passion of the Christ [2004], and that role went to Caviezel too. I’ve met Caviezel a couple of times. Seems like a nice guy.

Years later, when Malick embarked on his long in the works autobiographical epic The Tree of Life, amongst the first considered for the part of the Father was the Dinosaur.

DINOSAUR: When I read the script, I told Terry––and I don’t usually say this kind of thing––that I wasn’t right for the part. I’ve only done that once before: Steve [Spielberg] was crazy for me after we did Jurassic Park [1993] together and he wanted me to play Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List [1993]. I told Steve I was wrong for the part––and believe me, after some of the Sci-Fi Network movies I’ve done in all those years since? man oh man, do I regret losing those residuals. Still, I have to be true to my craft, and if I’m not right for a part, I’m not right for it.

PITT: It’s true. The dinosaur turned Terry down on playing the Father.

DINOSAUR: I think I saved my relationship with Terry by suggesting a workaround. I pointed out that [The Tree of Life] had some dinosaurs in it and I could play one of them. Terry seemed to like that idea, but was worried because apparently Brad had given a pretty brilliant reading as one of the dinosaurs and Terry had more-or-less promised him the part. Now… I don’t like to claim credit for decisions artists make or anything like that––I mean, I’m a dinosaur, my brain’s the size of a walnut! But I said one sentence to Terry: "Just switch the casting and have Brad play the Father and me play the dinosaur." And then… we were off…

art by Danny Jock