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The Master

Joaguin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master."

Film director Paul Thomas Anderson talks about his new film, the era it seeks to capture, and working with Joaquin Phoenix

Paul Thomas Anderson is as surprised as anyone at initial reactions to his new film, The Master. “It’s amazing the way people are reacting to it,” he says. “We were proud to have made it, but to have people grabbing it and talking about it…I don’t know what’s going on.”

As the creator of Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, Anderson has attracted a fervent cult, and expectations have been strong for his first film in five years. But for its limited opening last weekend, The Master set a record for per-screen average for a live-action film. It pulled in nearly $750,000 per screen, a staggering amount for an R-rated arthouse movie.

Whether it retains that kind of interest when it goes into general release this week is another story. People who have heard, for example, that The Master is a thinly veiled attack on Scientology are likely to be disappointed, even if the character of Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is obviously inspired by L. Ron Hubbard.

Set primarily in 1950, The Master focuses on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in his first film since the mockumentary I’m Still Here, for which he tried to persuade the world that he was abandoning acting to become a rap star). Since the end of the war and his service in the Navy, Freddie has been sinking deeper into alcohol-fueled dissolution, haunted by bad memories and unfulfilled by civilian life.

That’s when he stumbles onto a yacht where Dobbs is celebrating the wedding of his daughter. As opposite as can be, the two connect, though not so much that their partnership is assured as Dobbs tries to make Freddie a convert to “The Cause,” his grand scheme to interpret and salvage the human soul.

At a press conference for the film’s recent premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Anderson proved adept at avoiding the questions he would rather not talk about. Asked about the absence of announced guest Joaquin Phoenix, for instance, he shrugged—“Too unpredictable”—before changing the topic to the questioner’s recording device: “I have that same tape recorder at home!” A Toronto reporter’s painfully polite attempt to get him to talk about the Scientology connection hedged so much that Anderson let the question stand as its own answer.

Reframed as a question about cults in the post-war era, he did say that he didn’t intend The Master as a film about cultism as much as that zeitgeist. “There’s a mix of a tremendous amount of optimism, but an incredibly large body count behind you,” he said. “How can you feel great about being victorious with so much death around? It gets you to a spot where you’ve got to figure out where all the bodies [went], and that creates situations where people want to talk about past lives, they want to talk about what happens after you die and those kinds of ideas that the Master is putting forward—that time travel’s possible, accessing things that happened to you in other lives are possible. Those are great ideas, I think, and they’re hopeful ideas, and they’re the kind of stuff that was fascinating to write the story around.”

Though at the age of 42 Anderson wasn’t around when most of its films were made, he is an enthusiastic fan of classic Hollywood. “I just keep [Turner Classic Movies] on all around my house, 24 hours a day,” he said. “I put it on the kitchen and it’s always on. Even if I’m not watching anything, just to let it soak into your veins and wash over you.”

While The Master owes some inspiration to the 1946 Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives, the scenes of Freddie‘s difficulties returning to civilian life draws from a film many audiences have probably never seen, John Huston’s repressed documentary Let There Be Light.

“A lot of Hollywood directors were commissioned by the war department to do films during the war,” Anderson explained. “Frank Capra did one in the field, John Ford obviously did a lot. Huston decided to do one about the VA hospitals dealing with soldiers coming back. The War Department took one look at the film and said, ‘Absolutely no way we’re showing this to anybody.’ Because it had this graphic footage showing you what these fellows were coming back with. There’s stuff we ripped off line for line from that film—it was the best source we found to show what these VA hospitals were like at that time.”

Another nod to classic Hollywood style came in his decision to film most of the movie in 70-millimeter, a format that had its heyday in blockbusters of the 1950s and 1960s. But while it gives images in The Master a striking clarity, Anderson’s initial impulse was more iconoclastic. “It’s always fun when you take a piece of equipment and use it in a way that it’s not supposed to be used,” he said. “It’s usually used for epics with lots of battle scenes and stuff like that. [Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.] and I didn’t know what we were getting into—we were just messing around with cameras and trying to find something that looked right.

“I just did an interview with someone who asked me what audiences should be looking for to get from a 70-millimeter film, and that’s all wrong. Ideally you’re just doing something that gives you your best shot at make-believe or time travel, that charms people into thinking you’re seeing something that actually happened. And everything we shot with this camera felt like that, like something that happened 50, 60 years ago. There was always a sense [on set] of trying to do something classical.”

Another striking element of the film is the muted, almost atonal score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, with whom Anderson also collaborated on There Will Be Blood. “In our initial conversations, we talked a lot about how we both liked the sound of clarinets. It started from that. He did some things with woodwinds, we tried them on to see how they fit with the film. It’s hard to describe how it all came together ’cause he’s slightly disorganized, I’m kinda disorganized, but it all comes together at the last minute.”

Another question Anderson sidestepped was the issue of The Master’s reception at the Venice Film Festival, where it was given a major award that was then rescinded on a technicality. It still came away with Best Director and a shared Best Actor nod for Hoffman and Phoenix.

While having nothing but praise for his two stars, he dropped a hint that Phoenix can still be, shall we say, surprising on set. Discussing a scene in which Freddie and Dobbs are jailed, Anderson said that when it came time to shoot he and the actors weren’t entirely sure where they wanted it to go. “We knew that probably Freddie would not want to be in a jail cell, so on the first take Joaquin went crazy. You have to be concerned for your actor’s safety, but you also have to be concerned that you’ve lit the scene properly and have film in the camera so that if anything does happen…”

Watch the trailer for The Master

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