OSCARS Q&A: Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson is a genuine auteur, a writer/director who works when he wants, makes what he wants, and is considered now to be one of the film industry’s true talents. His list of films is small but significant: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia to Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and now The Master, just six films in 16 years but all winning wide critical acclaim. He has five Oscar nominations, mostly for screenplay, but he did score his first directing nod for There Will Be Blood. He hopes to continue the trend with The Master, though the film has polarized audiences, something that surprised Anderson but doesn’t necessarily disappoint him. How that translates into awards is anyone’s guess, but don’t say Paul Thomas Anderson is making movies you can easily dismiss.

AwardsLine: There have wildly different reactions to the movie. Is that something that you wanted?
Paul Thomas Anderson: It’s really interesting; it’s not something I expected. The final stretch of finishing a film, you find yourself in a kind of hypnosis that you made something that you understand and therefore everyone else will understand. And it’s an insane assumption, but it happens. And it’s temporary. I’m always surprised by the reactions, but this one in particular seems to have a real interesting messiness about people’s responses. I suppose the worst thing in the world would be pure ambivalence, and to have any attention paid to you is nice. Even if it’s negative.

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AwardsLine: There are so many different themes in the film, but a lot of attention has been on the Scientology aspect. If anything, it’s the beginnings of that, but it’s not really Scientology as it is now. Was part of the attraction to the story the notion of people looking for some kind of connection?
Anderson: A lot of it, but those are the kinds of things that you discover after you’ve started writing. In many ways, it’s about trying to find ways to justify what I’m writing. Maybe you read something that got into your head a long time ago, and you find it coming back out of you. My dad came back from World War II, so there was an attraction to that era on a surface level in terms of cars and music. Anything that I was reading or learned about L. Ron Hubbard kind of tied into this era. It was very clear that (Scientology) was a result of a postwar hangover. And I read a line somewhere—I wish I could remember so I could give them credit — and it said something like, “Anytime is a good time for a spiritual movement to begin, but a particularly strong time is after a war.” It felt like a particularly good hook. It’s good for you as a writer when you get something like that to hang your hat on, to help guide you with what you’re doing.

Related: Mike Fleming’s Q&A With Steven Spielberg

AwardsLine: Are you still discovering things about this movie as you talk about it?
Anderson: I would like to think that there’s something in the human personality that resents things that are too clear. It’s impossible to walk into a movie and not have a plan, but it’s best when you’re executing a plan and your eyes open to a lot of other things that are there. It makes it interesting; it makes it fun to go to work every day. That’s why we didn’t do too much talking about what we were doing, except to really focus on the intense love affair and friendship between these two guys. On that note, I remember reading a great book called Pacific War Diary by James J. Fahey. He talked about his absolute admiration for his masters and commanders, and when he would switch over to a different ship, how disappointed he was when he didn’t get a good master. It was hard for some fellows coming back from the war because they missed having someone telling them what to do. To suddenly be let loose and be of your own devices was incredibly difficult for a lot of guys. They really missed the comraderie and the kind of focus their lives had at sea.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Ben Affleck

AwardsLine: The symbolism of the ocean and the water is a big part of what you have in this film.
Anderson: That (opening) shot is never anything I could have imagined as a writer. I just want to know: Is it inside or outside and what are they saying to each other? Anything like that is a product of being on a boat and seeing that water, so beautiful and blue, and turning the camera on. Months and weeks later in the editing room, it just feels right to put it in there. Now in terms of it working for the story, it’s kind of self-explanatory. Freddie is so clearly more comfortable at sea than he is anywhere else and to use them as little chapter dividers or kind of transitional devices (makes sense). So much of our film is so claustrophobic and interior that having a breath of fresh air is nice, even as a palette cleanser.

AwardsLine: When you cast Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, did you get exactly what you thought you’d get or did you get more?
Anderson: The expectation is that any actor will give you everything, and even if they give you everything, perhaps that isn’t right for the film, no matter how hard they’re trying or their commitment is. But what he did was way beyond what I expected. The gulf between little black words on a white piece of paper and being on set in costume is huge! It’s this vast gulf, and he just filled it. I don’t even remember what I thought of Freddie Quell way back when I was writing him. I just know what he’s done now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a pretty great performance; I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I love it!

Related: OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actor Race

AwardsLine: People are also pointing to Phoenix’s comments about awards season.
Anderson: I don’t think there’s an actor out there — and I know lots of them — that feels comfortable when performances get turned into sport. But that doesn’t take away from the excitement or privilege of winning an Academy Award. Actors can be competitive, they have that gene for sure, but my experience with actors is that they are actually incredibly generous people who have a skill and a job that they really like to do, which is playing make believe. They’re more comfortable when they get to be somebody else, and having to appear as themselves can be very uncomfortable.

  1. There is very little debate about the extraordinary talent that Mr. Anderson possesses but I am one of those audience members that this film polarized.(LOL)

    I am not sure Mr. Anderson knows how to finish a film or at least his third act (for those who think movies come in three acts) or his last half, whatever.

    He leaves so much to be desired. I don’t want happy endings or even closure with any film but his films just seem to fall off of a cliff. Great subject, great premise great movement but then you know, they just…

    1. Generally love Paul’s (mostly earlier) stuff, but for a filmmaker who has wowed us with some of the best movie endings ever (Boogie’s money shot, Magnolia’s amphibians, and There Will Be Blood’s bowling alley scene) this one left something to be desired. Wish the 3rd act were stronger, a bit more like it was in the script–tension-filled.

    1. Nonsense. I haven’t seen THE MASTER yet, but THERE WILL BE BLOOD was willfully derived from Kubrick and John Huston. It’s common knowledge that Anderson screened THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE constantly to keep Daniel Day Lewis on track. The opening of the film has direct roots from 2001, imagery, music, and the rest. The best directors (auteurs) keep their sources obscure and don’t ‘borrow’ from obvious, popular works. As a start try Haneke for a modern auteur.

      1. Haneke borrows a lot from Pasolini. Get off your high horse. All great directors have clear antecedents.

        1. “Get off your high horse.” Clever. Stealing is stealing but the best steal (borrow) from obscure sources, not iconic and popular films. The entire issue comes from the absurd comment that PTA stands alone. The notion that all artists ‘steal’ or are influenced is true but the blatant use of another’s performance is a distraction to the audience. A work must stand up to it’s harshest critic to be valid and this is particularly true to a filmmaker that has the aspirations and talent that PTA has. A great example of ‘borrowing’ is the homage to Brando at the end of RAGING BULL. It can be done in an honest way. Quit making excuses.

  2. Completely agree. He has this maturity and sophistication that is otherworldly, especially considering his age. All of his films possess a moral dialogue that no other American director really ventures to explore. I have found every one of his films completely unique, and completely engrossing. Not one has left me without some deep moral conundrum to contemplate afterwards, and that is the mark of a true artist.

    1. Brilliant movie.

      And yes, we should all judge movies by their friggin’ BOX OFFICE.

      Ugh. Your comment is everything that’s wrong with Hollywood.

  3. I loved THE MASTER and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but i’m hoping PTA will tackle comedy next. You can tell he wants to do one, he should just go for it.

  4. @ari

    Obscure? Hmm. Oh, you mean like the Let There Be Light, the obscure war documentary Huston directed in the forties that heavily influenced The Master? You sort of just unintentionally complimented PTA with that, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to spin it because you guys feed off from being contrarion.

    1. What ‘guys’ are you referring to? There are strict rules against plagiarism in writing and journalism. Check out the tragedy of Jerzy Kosinsky. DuChamp’s Mona Lisa mustache is an example of proper ‘homage.’ The mustache in THERE WILL BE BLOOD is fake. Inspirations should be
      just that, inspirations. The overt stealing of another’s work is criminal (Heath Ledger from Michael Keaton) but Hollywood rewards this. There is a lot of fine work in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but it is tainted because of the source of the ‘inspiration.’ That’s all.

      1. EVERY SINGLE FILM borrows from another. Every single PAINTING is influenced by another. PICASSO was influenced by others, for God’s sake. Are you a MORON?

        1. Moron? What’s that supposed to mean? Your simplistic note is completely off topic. Of course, works are influenced by others but we are speaking of more than influence. Respect and honor that apply to the other art forms don’t seem to apply to film and certainly not to the readers of this forum.

  5. @mike jevons – So what it wasn’t a “huge hit”….neither was Shawshank Redemption or Blade Runner or a ton of other movies that ultimately became classics. I don’t think this will, but to use box office as a means to dismiss it is juvenile….so by your rationale Transformers 2 must be an all-time classic considering it made crazy $$.

    Why don’t YOU just go away……I’d rather a director “polarize” attempting something new/different instead of the same ole same.

  6. First of all I am a great admirer of PTA. So much has been written about the meaning of this film and the relationship between these two men. But it’s all imagined, it is not up there on the screen. To me it was like scenes were just missing that could have developed a stronger narrative and not left us to just assume something without any real hint that it is true.

  7. Great viewing, regardless of one’s opinion, at the Cineramadome.
    Missed the Jack Parsons character. Maybe a little too wild for the earthbound narrative?
    Next movie maybe?

  8. “Tyler Perry ‘s films reflect a sublimated conflict of the american dream, the Black struggle and the continuing quest for humanity. with imagery and confrontation of stereotypes, his cinematic contribution had pushed us forward even as we resist them.”

    See how easy it it si say bullsh*t like that about a bad filmmaker?

    Anderson is a sucky naked Emperor. Period.

  9. Go away Paul?

    No – keep staying away Mike Jevons.

    Folks, there are “three” “act” films and there are films that continue to live beyond the imposed structure and beyond the screen.

    1. Agreed. The three act structure is not the be all and end all of stories. The story should have the structure that that particular story requires.

  10. Great performance by Joaquin, and the rest of the ensemble, the film however while it had an intriguing first act, just became to repetitive in acts 2 and 3, and didn’t really go anywhere. Frankly it was boring. I wish movies were more like sports. It’s ok to tell Kobe Bryant he had a bad game. He’s human and it happens. But when it comes to art….”Ah, you see, you just didn’t GET IT!!!”

  11. Truly beautiful film with lots of memorable moments. Beautiful direction and cinematography. Joaquin was fantastic!

    But, NOTHING HAPPENED!

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