Out on a Limb

The search for the perfect cinematic tree.

The Shawshank Redemption.
The oak tree where Andy Dufresne famously stashed his loot in The Shawshank Redemption remains so beloved that it became the centerpiece of a “Shawshank Trail” tour sponsored by the visitor’s bureau in Mansfield, Ohio

Photograph by © Columbia Pictures.

The odds of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life being crowned best picture next weekend are slim, but the film has already claimed the Golden Palm at Cannes, a fittingly arboreal award for a film that takes its trees seriously. In Malick’s fifth and most experimental feature, an oak tree towering above a shady lane in Texas is the portal through which the O’Brien family, headed by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, connects to the origins of the universe. Getting the oak prepped for the big screen seems to have been as demanding a task as reproducing the Big Bang. Under a veil of secrecy, tree scouts scoured the county surrounding Smithville, the small town that doubled for the Waco of Malick’s youth, searching for a tree that captured the director’s imagination, while also providing a wide enough spread for the three branch-swinging O’Brien boys to climb. As Terry Hagerty reported in the Bastrop Advertiser, the scouts arranged to excavate the 65,000-pound behemoth of their choosing and transport it across town in an oversized trailer. To ensure safe passage, every telephone and electrical wire in their path had to be temporarily removed as the towering cargo was inched toward the set. This willingness to upend the same natural order the film fetishizes, all while motivating a crew to achieve spectacular results, puts Malick in esteemed company, as many of the cinema’s finest filmmakers have gone to similar lengths to photograph the perfect tree.

The lineage of Tree of Life can be traced back, in part, to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s childhood meditation, The Mirror, both important works by directors who had the tree bug at various points in their careers. Before Kubrick transformed the English countryside into the ravaged landscape of Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket, he dispatched a scout to Spain to photograph and categorize 300 palm trees down to their circumference and foliage length. He then handpicked several dozen to be imported, at the reported cost of £1,000 per palm, and had them strategically planted within the frame of each battleground shot, padding out the scenery with plastic plants from Hong Kong. Concerned about the lives of the trees after production wrapped, Kubrick enlisted an associate to research new homes for the orphaned palms. Though England is far from the ideal climate, some healthy palms had survived for years in the West Country, and arrangements were made to ship the majority of the lot to Cornwall and Devon. The trees redistributed outside that region soon perished.

Cinema’s most devout tree enthusiast is undoubtedly Tarkovsky. (Film scholar Gerard Loughlin made a daring attempt to investigate the Russian master’s obsession in the essay “Tarkovsky’s Trees.”) Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, a documentary about the making of his final film, The Sacrifice, which he set in Sweden, offers a glimpse of the Russian master’s meticulous control of his environment. While blocking shots inside a house, he color-coordinates the furnishings down to the tablecloth and sofa cushions, all while speaking calmly through a Swedish translator. But when the blocking moves outdoors, he brusquely takes charge. Having already sacrificed precious time scouting a Bird Cherry tree “as white as a bride,” Tarkovsky is infuriated when the crew is caught planting a virescent mismatch. He mutters through his mustache, exasperated that he’s obliged to lecture Swedes about their own native landscape, let alone a simple distinction between green and white. The trees are ordered torn down.

Ingmar Bergman found himself in a similar predicament while scouting the Swedish wilderness for his Oscar-winning medieval drama, The Virgin Spring. Unable to find a lone sapling in a clearing for Max von Sydow to wrestle to the ground, an act of atonement before exacting revenge for his daughter’s murder, Bergman instructed his crew to plant one artificially in front of a majestic backdrop, immortalized by cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

Even when trees hit their marks in an ideal location, as if summoned by the director, nature’s way isn’t always enough. Michelangelo Antonioni, who claimed he didn’t want to limit himself by “photographing only natural colors” in his Technicolor debut, Red Desert, ordered the trees in the background of a shot to be painted white, which would register as grey on screen, to illustrate the effects of industrial pollution. Ladders were mounted and workers coated the 40-foot trees throughout the night. When the notoriously fastidious director objected to the trees’ appearance in the morning light, the shot was scrapped. The effect proved toxic only to the mood on the set. Certainly the groundskeeper at Maryon Park was bummed when Antonioni had the tree trunks painted black and green, as well as the expanse of grass upon which David Hemmings photographed a couple’s mysterious embrace in Blow Up. “I got effects you cannot get in laboratories,” Antonioni boasted to Rex Reed.

The analog days of the paint can have yielded to the boundless options for fine-tuning in the digital realm. The kaleidoscopic foliage overflowing across the computer-generated planet Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar, particularly the missile-chopped Hometree, had the power to enthrall environmentalists worldwide. Free of nature’s limitations, Peter Jackson was able to execute his vision of the Ents, notably the John Kerry-esque elder, Treebeard, as they marched through The Two Towers. Documenting hardwood warfare through such sophisticated means was unfathomable to earlier generations of technicians, as evidenced by the clunky walking trunks in the 1950s B-movie From Hell It Came. (Vast improvements had been made by 1982, which gave us the still-frightening child-snatcher in Poltergeist— “I don’t like the tree, Dad”— but when it comes to creepy trees, the Jitterbug dance sequence, mercifully pruned from The Wizard of Oz, remains the creepiest example of all.)

Fantastical CGI trees of the imagination and spooky puppetry have their place, but there’s still nothing like the real thing. The oak tree where Andy Dufresne famously stashed his loot in The Shawshank Redemption remains so beloved that it became the centerpiece of a “Shawshank Trail” tour sponsored by the visitor’s bureau in Mansfield, Ohio, where the production was filmed. During a storm last summer, however, high winds split the tree in half, a harsh reminder to pilgrims of the oak’s impermanence.

Tourism officials in New England have greater cause for concern, as the fate of the region’s entire forest population—namely the spruce, birch, and maple trees that attract scores of big-spending “leaf peepers” each fall—is under threat. With local temperatures expected to rise as high as three degrees within the next 30 years, according to a report in Slate, will the brilliant autumn colors of Vermont captured so exquisitely in Alfred Hitchcock’s underappreciated light comedy The Trouble With Harry be there for future generations to enjoy? Filmmakers at the midcentury mark seeking postcard views of New England might come up empty-handed, if the most dire predictions come to pass. And yet this was the predicament Hitchcock found himself in nearly 60 years ago, at the midpoint of the 20th century.

What began as a testimony to the perfect piece of tree casting soon unraveled into an odd but fascinating jumble of footage, making The Trouble With Harry the great cautionary tale for directors seeking authenticity in unpredictable woods. For anyone who’s seen the exquisite establishing shots of the tree-lined hills of Vermont, captured in VistaVision by longtime Hitchcock cinematographer Robert Burks, and wondered how the director allowed such phony-looking prop trees to substitute for the real ones in the soundstage close ups, the answer is simple. After the establishing shots were taken, a storm rolled through the region and stripped the leaves from the trees, grinding production to a halt. Hitchcock, a taskmaster who thrived under controlled studio environments, was finally breathing country air, yet with only one half of his location shots in the can, the overcast skies and depleted trees prompted an undignified retreat to the Paramount back lot to finish work indoors. As the exterior sets were prepared at 5555 Melrose Avenue, coffin-sized boxes filled with leaves gathered from the mountain range they fled finally arrived. The real leaves were ready to be affixed to the fake trees, one by one.