Interview: Paul Thomas Anderson 'Master Class'

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.
Arts Editor and Senior Writer (many years until 2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't want to talk about Scientology.

You can't blame him, of course. It's a controversial topic in Hollywood at the best of times, but the five-time Oscar nominee (for There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights) has particularly good reason to keep shtum. His new film, The Master, is loosely inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, a fact that has come to dominate discussion of the picture.

The film follows Freddie Quell (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile, alcoholic and horny WWII vet. Eventually, Quell meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new movement known as 'The Cause', who takes him in and attempts to help him adjust to post-war society. 

By Anderson's own admission, it's relatively slight on plot, but it's a fascinating and occasionally confounding film all the same.

I had a chance to talk with the legendary director while he was in Australia to promote The Master, and managed to kill the vibe within minutes by asking about Scientology. Oh, well.

First of all, Paul, congratulations on The Master. You must be thrilled with the response it's gotten so far?
Mmm-hmm. Amazing. Great.

In the film, followers of The Cause believe they can see back through time into their past lives. As the director of this period film, to what extent can you relate to that?
In the sense of looking into the past?

Yeah, and in that interest in time travel.
It's a huge, huge interest for me. You know, when you're standing on a film set, and you're surrounded by people dressed in period costume, cars of the era and props from that era... it's a form of time travel, I suppose. But ultimately it's not, you know? [Laughs] And that's frustrating.

Sometimes... I remember when we started this film, we were talking about shooting some war footage. Showing some things with battleships that might have happened with Freddie. I'd written some stuff out, based on real stories I've heard, and there was a certain point where it all seemed so monumentally complicated and expensive – not to mention completely unnecessary for our story – that I remember thinking, 'you know, we'd probably be better off spending all our time and money trying to build a time machine'.

We probably would have had a better chance of pulling that off than we would have had of shooting these epic battle scenes with the budget we had. We probably should have just started doing that and not even made the film.

[Laughs] Are you a sucker for time travel movies?
Back To The Future, I love that. I haven't seen Looper. Is that out here yet?

Yeah. It's fantastic.
Yeah, I can't wait to see that. But I've never been super huge on time travel movies. I love a book called Time And Again, I think they made a film of it but I'm not sure. I like the idea of closing your eyes and time travelling, and how memories that we have are a form of time travel, and ultimately how depressing it is that there is no such thing. You know? That you can go back to find that lost love, but... she's not there. I think we've all dealt with that kind of thing before.

Do you think people in post-war America were more inclined to close their eyes and think about the past than previous generations might have been?
Hmm... sure. Particularly if they'd lost someone during the war. When all you're working with are pictures of a loved one, all you can do, if they're not there anymore, is look at those pictures or close your eyes and imagine them there, I would bet.

But I think there were probably also a lot of people trying really hard not to close their eyes and have memories, particularly some of these soldiers and sailors that were coming back. A lot of them, rather than close their eyes, would rather drink themselves to sleep, so that they were blacking out, so they didn't have to remember anything. So I guess you get a mix of everything.

But that hasn't gone away, right? That's still going on.

Yeah. People will always react to things differently. But The Cause's – and by extension, Scientology's – belief in past lives seems to relate very closely to an actor's ability to create and internalise a backstory for their character. Do you think that's one of the reasons Scientology has been able to take root in Hollywood?
Give me your theory again?

Belief in a past life – being able to close your eyes and visualise a past life, in the way that followers of The Cause and Scientology are able to – is similar to the way an actor will visualise a backstory for their character and become that character. Do you think there's a connection between Scientology's belief in past lives and its appeal to actors and creative types?
... Not really.

Fair enough. When you encounter someone who believes in Scientology, or any new age religion like The Cause, does it discredit that person in your mind, or do you tend to be pretty open-minded?
I'm pretty open minded, I'd say. You have to go a long way to really confuse me... where are you from, by the way?

I'm from Brisbane. How's your time in Australia been so far?
Good! Amazing, in Sydney. Great weather and a great hotel right underneath the bridge, right across from the Opera House. That was amazing. But now, unfortunately, it's kind of gloomy down here in Melbourne.

Sorry to hear that. Melbourne's weather tends to change quite quickly, though, so it'll get better.
That's what they say, yeah.

There's obviously been a lot of talk about the L. Ron Hubbard influence on The Master, but you've said it's not about him. Is it 'not about' L. Ron Hubbard in the same way that Citizen Kane is 'not about' William Randolph Hearst, or is it really not about him?
Oh, fuck. I don't know. I don't really give a fuck anymore.

Did you anticipate that it would cause so much discussion?
Umm... I don't remember.

Okay. Freddie is the main character, anyway. Do you think the film is more about his probem, his sexual compulsion, than it is about Scientology or any other religion?
Do I think it's more about sexual compulsion than about religion?

Yeah. Do you think it's more about Freddie and his issues than it is about Lancaster and his cure?
I think it's more about Freddie. I wouldn't say it's about sexual compulsion.

Lancaster Dodd obviously believes Freddie has a problem. Did you do a lot of research into Freddie's condition? Was he suffering from something specific, in your mind?
Definitely post-traumatic stress disorder of some kind, I would say. I think that's pretty clear in the film. I mean, he gets thrown into a VA hospital, and you wouldn't end up there unless there was a real reason. Most of those guys, they hit the ground running. You come back from the war and unless you've got something going on they throw you into a VA hospital.

Joaquin Phoenix's performance is incredibly physical. To what extent was he following your direction there, and to what extent was he making it up as he went along?
He brought everything, you know? It's his job to take it from being black letters on a white page and make it something that's alive. He came up with everything, I have to say. I had very little to do with it. I mean, I wrote it, to begin with, but what I wrote is not as good as what he did.

Do you find that a lot with actors, that they bring things to the role you couldn't have foreseen?
Definitely! All the time, hopefully. Yeah, for sure, hopefully. If you get really good ones, they do that, they surprise you and they make it more full bodied and complicated and colourful. Yeah. Yeah. Or they interpret something in a way you never, ever thought of, and that's always great. Sometimes it's the other way. They do something that's just completely ridiculous and outlandish, and you have to measure up if it's right or not.

Yeah. The relationship between Freddie and Lancaster is at the heart of the movie, and it's kind of a father-son relationship, which is a theme you've come back to a few times. What is it about that father-son dynamic that interests you?
... I don't know. I don't know. I wish I had an answer for you, but I just don't know.

Do you think it is a father-son dynamic?
Not really. I consider it more of a friendship. They're about the same age, pretty close in age. Obviously The Master's having trouble with his own son, so it probably helps to have somebody around who is plugging up that hole for him. But I never really looked at it as a father-son thing. It was more of a friendship. A love affair.

Yeah. Visually, one of the things that's so interesting about The Master is that it's shot on 65mm film, but it's not what you would traditionally consider an 'epic'. Was that part of the appeal of using that film stock?
That's exactly right! Yeah, that was the appeal. It just looked right. It felt good.

There's been a lot of discussion about how you're taking on something of a Stanley Kubrick influence with this film, whereas before, people tended to compare you to Robert Altman. Do you agree with that? Do you even think about shit like that when you're making a movie?
Well, there are some times when you're out there... Jack Fisk, a production designer I work with, we'll go out and we'll be shooting a scene at magic hour, and I'll look around and say, 'this looks like a fuckin' Terry Malick movie!' And I'll look at Jack and he'll start laughing, because Jack did it, you know?

[Laughs] Yeah. Just before we let you go... Lancaster Dodd seems to suggest that people need a master of some kind, whether that's religion or something else. Do you think that's true, or do you think people can determine their own lives?
Well, I don't see how there's a difference.

... Right. So you're saying Freddie could be under...
We all need other people, don't we? Everybody does. No one can be alone. Right? 

Sure. But when Lancaster says to Freddie, if you can figure out a way to live without a master...
He'd be the first person in the history of the world. Right.

Do you think that's true?
I do. Do you?

... I suppose, yeah. It might be nice to think you can have complete control over everything you do, but everybody needs other people to some extent.
Yeah. For sure! I definitely think so.

Well, I think we've gone over our time, but thanks for taking the time to talk. Best of luck with the film.
Yeah, thank you very much.

The Master is in cinemas today.

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