After the release of Days of Heaven (1978), Malick began working on a project entitled Q, that would explore the origins of life on earth. He ultimately abandoned the project. During development of an early version of Che, Malick pitched the concept to River Road Entertainment head Bill Pohlad. Pohlad agreed to finance the film. However, Malick struggled to get the project off the ground. During a meeting between Malick, his producer Sarah Green, and Plan B Entertainment, Malick brought up the project. Ultimately, the decision was made for Plan B to finance the project. In late 2005, after the release of The New World, the film was officially announced. Heath Ledger was set to play the lead role, but dropped out. Ultimately, Pitt replaced Ledger. By March 2008, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Hunter McCracken, and Fiona Shaw rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and took place throughout Texas, Utah, California, Arizona, Hawaii, Iceland, Italy, Chile, and Palau. According to Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, as with The New World, he and Malick laid down a series of parameters (a dogma) to be used throughout the film. In an October 2008 interview Jack Fisk, a longtime Malick collaborator, suggested that the director was attempting something radical. He also implied that details of the film were a close secret. Dissatisfied by the look of modern computer generated visual effects, Malick approached veteran special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, who was responsible for the visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to create the visual effects for the film using bygone optical and practical methods. According to Lubezki, Malick actually consulted with NASA for footage of the cosmos as well as other grand visuals. As was the case with James Horner's music for The New World, much of the music composed Alexandre Desplat never made it to the final cut of this film. Even though he is credited as composer, only a few minutes of his music are heard in the film. The film was shipped to theaters under the code name Oak. Malick wrote a letter with specific instruction to every projectionist in showing the film.
The film stars Pitt, Chastain, Penn, Eppler, Sheridan, McCracken, and Shaw. The cast find the perfect tone for scenes of a few seconds or a minute, and then are dropped before a rhythm can be established.
Simon says The Tree of Life receives: