CANNES: Q&A With Bill Pohlad, Producer And Financier Of Terrence Malick's 'The Tree Of Life'

What a difference a year makes. On the eve of 2010 Cannes, Bill Pohlad’s plan to build Apparition into a powerhouse specialty film distributor was dashed by Bob Berney’s stunning decision to take an out in his contract, just as Pohlad and the Apparition team were boarding flights to Nice. A year later, Pohlad is back not as distributor, but producer and financier of  The Tree of Life, the Fox Searchlight/River Road film that is hottest ticket on the Croisette. Here, Pohlad addresses his experiences at Apparition and collaborating with Terrence Malick, and the increasing role that high net worth individuals play in empowering prestige filmmakers to realize their visions.

DEADLINE: Bob Berney’s exit prompted you to shutter Apparition. Will you get back into the distribution game?

POHLAD: I don’t know. I always remain open. But right now, I’m concentrating on this film, and the other productions and development we are doing. We’ve got a couple of great things going here. I always stay open to things, but there’s nothing actively going on after Apparition.

DEADLINE: You return with The Tree of Life, which probably has the highest level of wanna see of any picture here. What made you decide to fund this, and how far back does that decision go?

POHLAD: Pretty far back. One of the first things we got involved in was the Che project, when Terry was going to direct. That’s how we met. One day we went to lunch and he told me the story of Tree of Life. It was a three hour pitch, basically. It was an amazing project but I was just getting my feet on the ground with Che, which was itself a major project. Terry has a different way of approaching things that I was just getting used to. Jumping into something else with him sounded so huge and overwhelming, that I was like, uh, yeah that sounds great Terry. Good luck. He wasn’t ready anyway at that point. Neither of us ended up doing Che but we stayed in touch. He sent me the script four or five years ago, I loved it. By then, I knew Terry’s writing style, so I wasn’t shocked by it or put off by it at all. I thought it was emotional, really amazing. I committed then.

DEADLINE: Four years is a long time for a movie to get made. What is that like, when you’re also its financier?

POHLAD:  The only issue was last year, when we thought we were going to be ready for last year’s Cannes. We were basically on the plane. Terry and I and we were there at the edit suite and the minutes were ticking down, when we had to be finished. And it just felt rushed. After all this time, having so much anticipation, simply in our own minds, we just didn’t want it to go out half-baked. We decided we just couldn’t do it. As for the rest of it, it wasn’t as bad as people might assume.

DEADLINE: Oliver Stone last year rushed a cut of his Wall Street sequel and he and Michael Douglas looked back on it with regret for not having enough time to present the best cut on a global stage. How much did Tree of Life benefit with more seasoning?

POHLAD: I don’t know that I can say that, at the moment. Whether it’s Terry me, or the others who’ve been in the middle of it for four years, after awhile you lose perspective. You’re doing the best you can and we made the right decision because we needed more time. How much incrementally we benefited, I don’t know. People might see it and say, you needed more time, or less time. We just tried to make the right decisions as they came along.

DEADLINE: If you own a baseball team, which your family does, you might expect to have a say in how the team is run. When you are a creative producer who finances films made by auteurs, how much creative decision do you have or want?

POHLAD: It’s different on each project. I want creative involvement, it’s just how I do things. I have enormous respect for Terry and his process, but he was very collaborative and it was a great experience. We treated the whole thing like friends, there was no pointing at contract clauses. It was all about what was going to be right for the movie. I think there was a lot of mutual respect.

DEADLINE: Compared to Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, how does your involvement differ?

POHLAD: Both Into the Wild and Tree of Life are great examples of collaboration. Both had very strong filmmakers, but I was very happy. You go into a Terry Malick project with your eyes open. You are not thinking you’re going to run the show or tell him what to do, because then you wouldn’t be allowing him to do the things that attracted you to his artistry in the first place. But there does have to be give and take, and I felt that from Terry. That’s not to say we always agreed. If the roles were reversed, would the movie be different? Yeah, but Terry is the filmmaker and if I’m a good producer, I need to know where that line is, in trying to impose my will as opposed to the filmmaker’s.

DEADLINE: Is it tricky straddling that line between nudging an auteur to pick up the pace and becoming intrusive?

POHLAD: Yeah, but Terry and I would have long conversations about the cut, content, all that. He knows I’m not in it strictly for the business. Sean believed that too. It’s just the way I like to be and if I wasn’t that way, I wouldn’t have done this movie, we would have pulled out of it. That hasn’t always worked well, there have been situations where it did not work very well at all. But you just learn from those and move on. I wouldn’t put Tree of Life or Into the Wild in that category, at all.

DEADLINE: Which did you find most gratifying, writing checks as a film financier, or as the owner of a distribution company?

POHLAD: That’s a funny question, I’m not sure I’d be willing to answer it.

DEADLINE: Let me put it differently. You distributed a bunch of films through Apparition. What’s the most rewarding and trying parts of funding a distribution company?

POHLAD: Distribution was more of a business, that was the motivation. With Bob Berney there, I wasn’t pretending to be a distributor that I knew which movies to go with. I certainly had an opinion on what kind of movies we wanted to do, but beyond that, I wasn’t pretending to be a distributor. I’m personally committed to the producing and filmmaking business. It wasn’t the same with distribution.

DEADLINE: Upon reflection, is there something that could have been done differently to have made Apparition succeed?

POHLAD: Yeah, but I don’t know that there’s any one particular thing that one would do differently. Individual decisions, again without trying to second guess somebody, but clearly individual decisions, you would have made those differently, no question about it. There was too much aggressive thinking that we had to make a statement, or we’ve got to go for that movie. Clearly, some of the movies that came out of that thinking didn’t pay off, but that happens. I don’t like second guessing. The unfortunate part of Apparition is, it got scuttled before it had an opportunity to prove whether what we were doing would have been sustainable.

DEADLINE: Was that a tough one to get over?

POHLAD: Yeah. Yeah. It could never not be.

DEADLINE: Neither you nor Bob Berney have ever really said why he left. There were rumors that he
didn’t have the autonomy he felt he needed and couldn’t move quick enough on films like The Kids Are All Right. Was there something specific that created a rift?

POHLAD: Not that I was ever aware of, aside from reading speculation in the press after the fact. The suggestion that Bob didn’t have enough autonomy is a myth as far as I was concerned. We have a history and a philosophy of hiring good people and allowing them to do their jobs without undue interference. That’s the basis under which Bob worked and additionally, we formed the company around Bob Berney. In my view, Bob had the autonomy to run Apparition, as evidenced by the moves we made early on.  But different people can see things differently and I allow that Bob might have felt otherwise. The real problem I had was really the way in which the move was made. When he so abruptly left, the company lost its captain and there was no clear person internally or externally to see through what we started. My day to day focus was and is on River Road’s business. Last year, for example, when Bob left we were actively seeing through production, and/or working very closely with distributors on Fair Game, The Tree of Life and developing projects like Genius.

DEADLINE: In the four years between when you agreed to finance Tree of Life until now, the indie business bottomed out, and $30 million-plus auteur films have really gotten squeezed. If you bought Tree of Life now, would you make it the same way, or insist on a lower budget and expedited process?

POHLAD: I’ll tell you that in a month or so. We made those decisions at that time. Obviously I’ve always believed in Tree of Life, from the script to the finished movie. I believe just as strongly in Terry. So you just go with that. You’ve got to believe, and take some chances. Otherwise the film doesn’t get made, or it gets made a different way, with me trying to be overly aggressive and changing the project. I believed in Terry’s vision and it was always about trying to balance that artistic vision with reality. We’re about to see how it works out.

DEADLINE: When you back a picture that doesn’t have a traditional narrative, how hard is it to get a Brad Pitt and Sean Penn to surround Jessica Chastain and the rest of the cast?

POHLAD: They definitely have a high degree of respect for Terry. Brad and Dede Gardner were involved as producers long before Brad was going to act in it. He and Terry had gotten to know each other. I worked with Sean on Into the Wild and he had worked on The Thin Red Line. There were mutual friendships and it all just worked out. We didn’t go out looking to land Brad Pitt, or the biggest star in the world. We were trying to find the right person for it and when a number of things happened that changed things, Brad was finally like, Oh well, how about me? It wasn’t his idea but we all just kind of looked over and said, well, why aren’t we talking about this?

DEADLINE: High net worth individuals have become a lifeline for the prestige film business. Without Megan Ellison, it’s possible Paul Thomas Anderson’s next film wouldn’t be getting made. People like yourself are the ones willing to take a leap with a great filmmaker in a conservative time, fully aware the might not make their money back. It almost seems like, instead of putting a wing on a museum, you empower auteurs. Do you look at yourself as a hardnosed businessman, or a patron supporting a worthwhile form of art?

POHLAD: Neither. I’m not a hardnosed businessman. I come from a family where my father was a great businessman. I learned a lot from him, but I can’t say I have the same make up as him. At the same time, I’m attracted to the business because of filmmaking, and not because of the numbers or the desire to make a big score. But I don’t consider myself a patron. In other forms of art, I am that, but not in film. People who aren’t in the business always ask me, “What is it? Should I be investing in this?” I say, you should go in with your eyes open, and a lot of times, you are being a patron, by supporting new filmmakers. You shouldn’t think you’re going to take a ton of money. But that’s not what I was in it for. I’m not naïve, I know that’s how Hollywood gets its money and that its lifeblood is people who come in from the outside and want to be involved in the film business. They throw righteous money at it for awhile, get to be around it, and eventually they walk away. Usually unhappy. That wasn’t what I wanted. I was trying to make it long term. Once, we might have stretched a little more to make our mark, but now we feel we can’t do stupid things, because we won’t survive them. Just being a patron, that can’t sustain itself. I don’t know how Megan Ellison or others want to handle it, but that’s not for me. You’ve got to find a business model that works if you want to last.

DEADLINE: You must have scripts submitted to you all the time. Can you describe your decision making process, what factors informs what you say yes to?

POHLAD: Not much better than when I started and people would ask me what films I wanted to make. Now, at least I can point and say, like these other movies we’ve been doing. Hopefully I’m somewhat smarter about will work and won’t. We don’t have to do something stupid in an attempt make a mark. We want projects that will stand the test of time, but can be viable in the marketplace as well. We’re not selling out but we’re certainly fine tuning our formula. If you are making movies that have no chance to succeed, you’re not helping anybody. It doesn’t help the industry, to make a bunch of movies that lose, and that nobody wants to see.

DEADLINE: You started in this business by directing, and you’re getting back in the chair for Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, based on the Scott Berg book. What made that the right one?

POHLAD: It has been something I wanted to do since I last directed. But 10 years ago, I knew I had to concentrate on producing if I was going to last. I don’t like to create the impression I always wanted to be a director. Then, you’re second-guessing your directors. I was always looking for things, though. John Logan and I had worked together on Corialanus, the Ralph Fiennes thing. He had written the script on spec for himself and I loved it. We were excited about doing it together. I connected personally with that script.

DEADLINE: How do you make the subject of a book editor a visual treat?

POHLAD: John has done a great job of that already. It’s about book editing, obviously, but more about the relationship between two guys, really. Different styles of creativity, what constitutes creative genius in people. It’s not two guys making red lines on paper, it’s more a relationship story. And it’s set in the late 20s and 30s in New York, so for me there’s a lot of visual appeal. I’ve got some ideas.

DEADLINE: What will have to happen to make this a worthwhile Cannes for Tree of Life?

POHLAD:  After four years of keeping this to ourselves, we don’t know how people are going to react. What’s being attempted is a different way of storytelling. A positive reaction is what you hope for. Cannes just seems like the perfect place for Tree of Life, given Terry and his history. The general vibe is, that’s the place to go with a film like this. Seeing people be able to relate to it would be great.

DEADLINE: When you say, a different way of storytelling, can you be more specific?

POHLAD: I’m not trying to be difficult, but I can’t, really. Tree of Life is not a movie you can sum up in a short sentence. It’s just different. I think in some ways it’s like a great piece of art, in the sense that it won’t be the same thing to everybody. It’s not a definite black and white story where you’ll go, I liked that or didn’t like that. People will bring their own sensibilities and experience to it and come away with a perspective that’s unique to them. They won’t walk away and all have gotten the same thing out of it.


Here is the film’s trailer:

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