There is a certain expectation when meeting Paul Thomas Anderson. A “serious filmmaker” that is adored by film critics and film aficionados alike, his filmography reads off like a greatest hits list: From his gambling themed directorial debut Hard Eight, to porn industry odyssey Boogie Nights (his breakthrough), the multi-tiered ensemble drama Magnolia, the Adam Sandler art house drama Punch Drunk Love and period epic There Will Be Blood (which garnered Anderson his first Oscar nomination for director), the Californian filmmaker has blended class, style and gravitas in his works.
Famously coy in his attitude towards the media, one would imagine Anderson to be an eccentric artiste or (even worse) pretentious snob. Yet while in Sydney promoting the release of his latest movie The Master at the Cockatoo Island Film Festival, what is revealed is a laid back, slightly jet-lagged, regular “dude” with cigarette in hand, never afraid to quote The Big Lewbowski and an always bemused reaction towards the subject heavy questions thrown his way.
Then again with a film like The Master, such questions should be expected. Set after WWII, the film focuses on Freddie Quigly (Joaquin Phoenix) a mentally unstable veteran who finds solace in “The Cause” a cult-like movement lead by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.
Consistent in Anderson’s work is the subject of religion. Raised Catholic, Anderson described his time in Church as “dull, which is too bad because it’s not dull. The stories they were telling were good stories, they just…the music was kinda boring”. Yet despite his current irrelevance for religion, there is no denying the effect his early religious instruction has on his work today. Magnolia was rich with Catholic themes of sin, guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Then there was There Will Be Blood, where Daniel Day Lewis’ savage atheist oil man faced off against Paul Dano’s huckster preacher with the oil boom playing backdrop to their savage rivalry.
For Anderson the subject of religion in his work is not only coincidence, but in regards to The Master it’s a subject that doesn’t belong at all.
“It’s funny to hear you say religion is a big part of my films” said Anderson. “I just don’t think of it that way. It’s like you’re talking about someone else’s films. It’s weird. I completely understand what you’re saying, but from my point view it doesn’t even feel like it applies…maybe because Scientology is a religion now, but Dodd’s is not a religious leader. He’s not starting a religion the way it is in our film.”
“It’s funny to hear you say religion is a big part of my films...I just don’t think of it that way..I completely understand what you’re saying, but from my point view it doesn’t even feel like it applies." - Paul Thomas Anderson
Early reports indicated that Dodd was based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and with that came the unfair “Scientology movie” tag that understandably annoyed Anderson. “I thought that we were making something pulpy, honestly” was Anderson’s answer to the motivations behind his latest film.
The tenacious assertion that The Master was to be a film about Scientology saw original studio Universal Pictures drop the project, no doubt to stay clear of any controversy. It was a decision that left Anderson reeling, with his long gestating follow up to There Will Be Blood taking another hit while adding more mystery to this mysterious project.
“It’s a blow to your momentum and a blow to your ego” revealed Anderson. “It’s hard, because you have to get everybody together for a certain time and you have to gamble with everyone’s time, and you’re usually gambling along with a studio that is leading you along because they may or may not do it. They make you think it’s gonna work out, but it just drags on for months on end. Ultimately it never feel good to be heartbroken or rejected, but it doesn’t turn into ‘We’re never gonna make it.’
It’s just: ‘Who’s next?’”
A change in studio also saw a change in lead actor, with burgeoning leading man Jeremy Renner dropping out due to a scheduling clash with The Bourne Legacy. Replacing Renner was two time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix, who stepped in front of the camera for the first time since his disastrous 2008 faux-documentary I’m Still Here where Phoenix played an unshaven, unkempt version of himself as he pursues a rap career, becoming the butt of jokes and a pariah in the eyes of Hollywood.
In casting Phoenix, Anderson was confident he could offer a comfortable creative environment bereft of the usual bells and whistles found on a Hollywood set, not to mention one hell of a role that Phoenix took to with intense brilliance.
“He was hungry to start again” said Anderson. “I felt silently confident because I knew what Joaquin was getting away from when he made that film. I think he was trying to get away from being in films where you stand on a marquee and say your lines.”
“I felt really silently confident that what I was going to offer him was not just gonna be a return back to that, you know what I mean? And he didn’t know for sure. He had seen my films and we knew each other a little bit, but he could have gotten there and…I just knew how we would work. I really had an instinctual feeling that he would feel comfortable working with Phil and me and all of the people I’ve worked with on all of these films. I just kind of knew he was gonna like it, that he would feel comfortable because it’s not restrictive, it’s pretty loose and it’s not about fucking visitors on the set, or press kits and shit like that. I felt really confident that he was going to be happy, and I dare say he was. Because I did feel I wanted it to be good for him, I wanted a good environment for him to work, because I could see his frustrations that many actors go through.”
"I really had an instinctual feeling that (Joaquin) would feel comfortable working with Phil and me and all of the people I’ve worked with on all of these films. I just kind of knew he was gonna like it, that he would feel comfortable because it’s not restrictive, it’s pretty loose and it’s not about fucking visitors on the set, or press kits and shit like that.” - Paul Thomas Anderson
The Master comes 5 years after There Will Be Blood, a long time between drink that his fans and Anderson himself was not comfortable with. “We thought after There Will be Blood we’ll be able to kind of cash in, but it was not the case. It was back to square one”
Hoping not to have history repeat itself, Anderson is already hard at work on his next project, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, a late 1960s set stoner-crime-story which already has Robert Downey Jr attached to star.
“It’s coming along pretty good” revealed Anderson. “It’s hard, but it’s fun…just to work so intimately with somebody else’s writing fucking makes you feel like it’s a learning lesson. Really like going back to school. Just watching someone spill with words and moving them around and how they can do it…it’s like a master class for sure. It’s really humbling…it’s less like writing for me and more like ushering something, like an editor. So it’s a different thing entirely, which is fun. It’s great to mix it up and not make something from scratch. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Right now it’s The Master that is Anderson’s highest priority. A shoe-in for well-deserved Oscar nominations come January, The Master exemplifies Anderson as a filmmaker of consistently high quality yet one who fearlessly tackles unconventional subjects, an always welcome combination and alternative in our box-office obsessed times.