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Editor Michael Kahn interview

Editor interview – Michael Kahn

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The Tree of Life

Wrangling the Reality of Terrence Malick

Editor Mark Yoshikawa on ‘The Tree of Life’

by Bill Desowitz


Nothing could fully prepare Mark Yoshikawa for The Tree of Life, not even the previous experience of editing Terrence Malick’s last film, The New World.  That’s because the recent Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner (now in theatres through Fox Searchlight) was an even more unconventional project for this iconoclastic director.

“People have suggested that Terry’s made a new language of cinema, or a new way of storytelling with Tree of Life,” Yoshikawa says.  “It sounds so grand, but it’s not what Terry was after.  He just didn’t want to make a movie where you knew where it was going in the first 10 minutes or the first half-hour.  He didn’t want a standard presentation, and his main concern was not to seem intentional in any way.”

Indeed, The Tree of Life is a free-form, existential journey that captures fleeting moments of life.  It primarily focuses on a Texas family in the 1950s, setting up a tension between nature (personified by Brad Pitt’s conflicted, talkative father) and grace (personified by Jessica Chastain’s peaceful and quiet mother).  It’s bookended by a present-day segment about the alienation experienced by the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), a successful architect haunted by childhood memories.  Early on, sparked by a moment of grief, the film suddenly leaps to a birth of the universe segment that addresses the meaning of the cosmos.

Malick utilized what Yoshikawa calls a “relay system of editing.”  Billy Weber began during production; then Daniel Rezende relieved him; then Jay Rabinowitz and Yoshikawa came aboard during early post about the same time in 2009.  “He stayed on for about four months, and I stayed on in Austin, Texas for most of 2009 and Hank Corwin came on during some of that time while I was there,” Yoshikawa relates.  “And then in the beginning of 2010, we moved to Los Angeles for the mix but we were still editing.  At that point, we were hurrying to make the Cannes Film Festival.  But then we decided not to rush it, and I was on until last September: Terry wanted me to ‘land the plane.’  The way it was scripted, it was sectioned off, so everybody worked on everything.  It was always in a state of flux and the finished film just happened to be where we ended up.”

Naturally, Yoshikawa had a lot of conversations with Malick, but the enigmatic director (currently in post on only his sixth feature in nearly 40 years) spoke mostly in metaphor about the essence of a scene rather than a direct cut.  “But he also talked to us about performance, making Brad not feel like a movie star,” he adds.  ”But if something went in and felt like it was placed by us, a match cut or a reverse shot, then Terry would take it out.  He didn’t want the presence of the editors’ fingerprints on it.  That is why he always had Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] and Joerg [Widmer, the camera operator] grabbing bits that we could never really use for traditional coverage.  It was very challenging.

“I think it was a really interesting way to go, because that’s what lends the film a flight of thought or a memory––something that you can’t put your finger on,” Yoshikawa continues.  “You can’t piece it together in a linear form.  You can just remember bits of young Jack [played by newcomer Hunter McCracken]…stealing a nightgown and then having to face his mother after that.  What are these feelings?”

One of the techniques that Malick extended from the New World experience was shooting the same scene in different locations, so they could fragment it and “cubize” it (a cinematic form of Cubism).  This offered multiple perspectives of the same shot.  For instance, when the mother takes a walk and reflects among the tall trees.  It’s like a retracing of steps.

“And the Avid is great for that,” Yoshikawa explains.  “To take the essence of a scene, break it down into bits and move them around like puzzle pieces allows unexpected juxtapositions.  The way they shot it with the Steadicam, there weren’t traditional takes; they just let the kids run free.  They were out there trying to capture life, so you had to jump cut and grab whatever was real, whatever was true in one take, and then see how it cuts with another one that also seems like real emotion or real action.  If I had to describe a cutting method, that’s how we worked: whatever felt real to Terry.”

The Tree of Life

One of those moments that Yoshikawa fondly recalls working on is a scene in which the mother goes into town with two of her sons and they notice some convicts.  “We called these ‘Buddha sights’, when young Jack would see the ills of the world or death or illness,” Yoshikawa continues.  “Before that, they’re doing funny walks and then they see a lame man with a limp who looks back.  Then Jack’s face changes; he didn’t want to feel like he was mocking somebody.  It’s one of those strange moments that everybody has: ‘Oh, what was I doing?’

“And if you watch that cut, it’s not the same city; it’s not even the same brother that he’s with.  He’s with [the middle son] R.L. [Laramie Eppler] doing the funny walks acting like drunkards.  But then that scene of the lame man was shot with the youngest brother for a different scene.  But I was playing with different thematic ideas of the kids in town, and, almost by accident, connections were made and I had the same immediate reaction as everyone else: ‘Oh, gosh, that’s a good cut.’  I like that little bit of disconnect that makes it feel like memory or a dream.  Not all the dots are connected and you’re making some leaps in thought.” 

Yoshikawa says he found it liberating not to have to worry about the continuity, adding, “Of course, a lot of people are going to wonder why it doesn’t have more of a story and something more to hold on to––but I’m glad that people are responding to it.”