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.
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.
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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!
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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.