Crest of a Wave: Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master

Outside of superhero franchises, no other feature release of 2012 reached the levels of anticipation of The Master. With some critics ready to call endgame on the medium of film, we need directors like Paul Thomas Anderson more than ever

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 30 Oct 2012

According to David Thomson, cinema’s great dissident critic, the putrid stench of death hangs in the air at your local multiplex, commingling with the more familiar funk of nacho cheeze and acne-faced adolescents. “Film is not dead,” Thomson writes in a recent issue of The New Republic, “it is just dying. This morbidity is familiar to us all.” Paul Thomas Anderson, director of The Master, this festival season’s most thrilling spectacle, clearly hasn’t received the memo.

“There’s always going to be a way, right? There’s got to be,” the 42-year-old filmmaker tells me from his office in Los Angeles when I ask about Thomson and other critics’ recent premature obituaries for the medium. “But, as Neil Young says, maybe that’s a hippie dream.”

Anderson’s sixth feature looked like it too was going to be a dream after Universal Pictures balked at its script and budget. The project was eventually nurtured and independently bankrolled to the sum of $35m by Megan Ellison, the 26-year-old daughter of Silicon Valley giant Larry Ellison, who’s recently been ploughing her future inheritance into smart and daring projects from some of the world's finest auteurs, including the upcoming films of Wong Kar-wai and Kathryn Bigelow.

Perhaps one reason Universal was reluctant to get behind Anderson’s film is its subject matter. It concerns Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic, sex-obsessed marine who, after he's spat out of the Navy at the close of WWII, stumbles through a series of peripatetic misadventures. A stint as a department store photographer is cut short when he inexplicably beats up one of his customers and a job as a farmhand harvesting cabbages ends with Freddie being chased across a furrowed field by pitchfork-wielding migrant workers after his potent homemade booze poisons a co-worker. It’s while on the lam for this crime that Freddie stumbles into the life of avuncular charmer Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aka the Master, Svengali of a self-help religion that looks remarkably like an early incarnation of Scientology.

It’s easy to understand Universal’s unease. Attacking the celebrity-endorsed religion from inside the Hollywood citadel would be a bit like reading The God Delusion in the Vatican’s lobby. During the feverish online build-up to The Master’s premiere at Venice Film Festival, Anderson’s film was widely rumoured to be the cinematic equivalent of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis’s exposé in The New Yorker. Those expecting a vicious takedown of L. Ron Hubbard’s enterprise are likely to be disappointed.

“Nowadays, if people get a whiff of what you are doing they kind of have impressions about what it should or shouldn’t be,” explains Anderson when we get on to the furore that was the lead up to The Master’s release. “When it comes to Scientology, I think the expectation is that you should somehow attack it. That was never what we were doing, it was never what we were talking about doing or thinking about doing, we just had other things on our mind.”

What Anderson did have in mind was a love story. “I was always thinking of it as just two people that meet, seemingly in the middle of their lives, they look at each other and they have this intense attraction, as friends, as drinking partners, as master and servant. And having that work both ways, not just that the Master is the master and Freddie the servant, but Freddie is kind of the dog that’s leading on the leash.” It’s this bromance that lends The Master its beautiful melancholic streak: these crazy kids just can’t work it out. “The Master can’t be exclusive to Freddie because he’s got to take care of so many different people," Anderson explains "and it’s not as if it’s in Freddie’s nature to commit to anyone because his history says if I commit to you you’re just going to leave or someone’s going to get hurt.” So, basically, it’s kind of a homoerotic remake of When Harry Met Sally.

We’ve been here with Anderson before. Fiery relationships between older and younger men drive the narratives of almost all his films. There’s the bitter creative differences between a porn director and his well hung leading man in Boogie Nights; There Will Be Blood sees a cold-hearted oil tycoon waging war against a slimy evangelical preacher with dollar signs in his eyes; while Magnolia, Anderson's epic collage of overlapping soap operas, is scattershot with a seemingly endless supply of father-son conflicts. Does PT have daddy issues?

“I just keep coming back to it, really not intentionally at all, it’s just gravity – an accidentally on purpose type of thing,” the director confesses. “Whatever it is in my life or in me or in the way I came out – my relationship to my old man was very strong and very important to me – it just seems to come back when I write these things; I can’t get away from it. Sometimes you’ve got to just accept the things you can’t do anything about. That sounds like a postcard but it’s just that you start writing and these things start to come out of you and you have to listen to them.”

What’s interesting is that as Anderson has got older his alliances with his protagonists has shifted. While Boogie Nights was told primarily from the younger man’s point-of-view, The Master is more even handed. Does he see himself identifying with his older characters more as time marches on? “I’m a father myself,” he laughs. “I’ve got three kids, so I’m getting pretty far past my prodigal son phase.”

Another explanation for Anderson’s sympathetic rendering of the Master character might be that a megalomaniac with hordes of people hanging on his/her every word isn’t too far removed from his own profession. “Oh sure, trying to convince somebody to follow you and dress up and march around the room?” he deadpans in his soft San Fernando Valley drawl. “There are a lot of similarities to being a movie director. You’re working with all these people and some days you’re just making it up as you go along hoping no-one will notice.”

Characters like the Master, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis’s oil-man in There Will Be Blood), Barry Egan (Adam Sandler’s combustible salesman from Punch-Drunk Love), and Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds’ porn director in Boogie Nights who refuses to switch to video tape when the bottom falls out of his industry) are all driven to be the best they can be in their chosen fields. It’s easy to guess why Anderson is drawn to these fiercely independent self-made men: they are kindred spirits.

“My girlfriend [former SNL regular and Bridesmaids star Maya Rudolph] would agree. She would definitely call me a strong individual,” he says with a knowing laugh. “I’m proud of the path that we’ve taken, for sure (and when I say we I mean all the people I’ve worked with since the beginning, we’ve all worked together.)”

And this path has become increasingly idiosyncratic. The criticism of Anderson's early films was that they were too indebted to other filmmakers. Hard Eight’s script riffed on David Mamet; Boogie Nights' dizzying Steadicam shots were lifted from Goodfellas; and Magnolia’s sprawling narrative was laced with the DNA of Robert Altman. Post Punch-Drunk Love this criticism stopped; with that surreal, violent, and often hilarious romantic comedy he’d found a visual grammar and a filmmaking voice all his own. “I hope we’re not doing the same thing as when we started out, we’re kind of getting more confidence and swagger and strength to do the things we want to do. You can be independent but everything is always a compromise as well, just by the nature of making a film. But hopefully you can just add up the compromises and you can live with them, and you get enough of what you were after that you can feel good.”

If there’s a major flaw to Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre, it's a gender imbalance. While rewatching Magnolia and Boogie Nights recently all the damaged, substance-abusing wives, mothers and daughters seemed to blend into one pathetic whole. Female actors would be better off looking for juicy parts in a Michael Mann movie than in one of Anderson’s. The brilliance of Amy Adams’ sly turn as Peggy Dodd, the Master’s heavily pregnant wife and the steely linchpin of his operation, just might absolve these previous sins. “She’s dynamite,” says Anderson when I mention Adams’ mesmerizing performance. “I love her work and wanted to work with her for a long time, she can do it all. And I mean do it all: singing and dancing. She's more like an old time actress when they could do everything, they could sing and dance and do both dramatic or comedic parts. They don’t make them like that so much any more.”

2012 is looking to be a particularly good year for the subtle, subversive group of filmmakers that burst on to the scene during the mid-90s alongside Anderson. David O. Russell, who released his first film, Spanking the Monkey, in 1994, two years before Anderson’s debut, Hard Eight, is likely to be fighting it out with Anderson for Best Director at the upcoming awards pantomime with romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook (released 21 Nov). Anderson’s more fastidious namesake, Wes, whose debut feature, Bottle Rocket, was released within weeks of Hard Eight, also had a great year, with critics and audiences falling for the undeniable charms of Moonrise Kingdom, the director's paean to first love and outdoorsmanship. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s next project, meanwhile, is being financed by the same angel who put up the cash for The Master. “I don’t know those guys personally,” says Anderson. “I’m not friends with them, but I know of them and I’ve met them and I definitely feel a part of them in a generational sense that we’re all working and creating on a similar wavelength. And we grew up watching the same movies so there’s definitely something to that. There’s so much good stuff going on, it’s crazy. Anybody who’s going to complain about movies not being good is not watching enough movies right now.”

The Master plays exclusively at Odeon West End in London from 2 Nov (screening from 70mm) before opening nationwide 16 Nov. Distributed by Entertainment UK