Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master
What master do you worship?
Does your master have a name — God, Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Great Spirit, Creator, Father, Mother — or remain nameless? Is He/She/It an abstraction — love, light, power — or have you met? Has your master sat across a table from you and asked you to account for your transgressions? Did you stare your master in the eyes without blinking?
The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature film, is an epic, 70mm story of tiny details that plays out viscerally on the most complicated expanse imaginable:
The human face.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a snarling, feral WWII veteran and drifter, wears a mask of rage and horniness that is as grotesque and primal and pained as few visages in recent memory (Klaus Kinski comes to mind — and more recently, Keira Knightley’s surprising and transformative performance in A Dangerous Method).
As Lancaster Dodd, the larger-than-life leader of a patch-work psychoanalytic self-help group/cult called The Cause, Phillip Seymour Hoffman projects calculated empathy and logic. He is a rational thinker, a questioner, a dreamer, an Orson Welles-ian bullshitter with perhaps just as much rage and madness as Freddie Quell, though he’s created an outlet for his boundless energy — birthing a new religious movement that seeks to explain (and control) the hearts and minds of its followers.
The Master is not about L. Ron Hubbard, except it is, except it’s really concerned with something else altogether.
Yes, The Master is about many things — spiritual yearning and myth-making, showmanship and epic cons, PTSD and Freudian monkey-men — but at its core, The Master is a love story between two men with titanic egos and wills, who seem at first glance to be diametric opposites yet may simply be shadows of each other. This master-servant duo wants to control and be controlled, explain and be understood, and from their very first meet-cute moment on a docked ship it’s clear that these men are too volatile and white-hot to make their relationship work. Hearts will be broken, minds will be fucked.
Where There Will Be Blood followed a silver miner who struck oil and eventually wanted to own the world, The Master explores the mining of the mind, and the world isn’t what Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd wants to own — he seeks to possess the will of Freddie Quell, a haunted man who is a mystery to himself and can’t possibly be owned (and is therefore all-the-more desirable to Dodd). In that regard, Freddie is the world to Lancaster, and Lancaster is the world to Freddie — two unknowable, uncontrollable men who each possess vast, secret knowledge…that might just be worthless.
Filmmaker: When you first conceived of The Master, before you had a script, was there always a Freddie Quell, who would be an entry point? Or did you first think that you would begin with the Master?
Anderson: No, there was always Freddie. He had a different name at the time, but he was just a character who was roaming around, a character roaming in different episodes that I was writing. [A character] a little bit in search of a story.
Filmmaker: What was his initial name?
Anderson: Oh, I’m not going to tell you because I’m going to use it sometime.
Filmmaker: Does that happen a lot with your films, that there are names that don’t get used?
Anderson: No, no, not really. But this time it will, because it’s a nice name. A good character. It’s like, you know, having a little tiny drawer, not a big one, that has miscellaneous chargers and shit in it. And sometimes, every once in a while, you can reach in it and go, “I’ve got a piece that fits over here.” It’s not a big drawer; it’s small and kinda limited. But you can salvage things for spare parts and hopefully those things can evolve in new ways.
Filmmaker: Do you save everything?
Anderson: I do. The benefits of cut and paste, you know? One of the greatest inventions on the face of the earth — cut and paste.
Filmmaker: Someone told me once, I don’t know if this is true, that Joyce Carol Oates has drawers, filing cabinets, that are alphabetized. And if you go to the letter S, you might find all these references to snow — things she plans to use down the road and just doesn’t throw anything away.
Anderson: That’s more organized than I am. I have [something] similar, but it’s much messier.
Filmmaker: Do you see the film as an unrequited love story? What does Lancaster Dodd want from Freddie? Does he even know what he wants from Freddie?
Anderson: Salvation, probably. [He] wants to save him, I suppose, and hug him and hold him in his pocket, but he probably also wants that thrill of being bitten by him, that kind of thing that happens in certain relationships. Is it unrequited love? What does that mean exactly, unrequited?
Filmmaker: Well, I mean, I was very moved by their final scene. There’s such intense emotion there from Freddie from the get-go. It is a mystery and perhaps shouldn’t be answered, but I just wonder what Lancaster was hoping to receive from Freddie and wasn’t getting.
Anderson: Well, you’ve seen people in a relationship that was very strong to them, and when that relationship ended they were never exactly quite the same afterwards. They were never able to fully trust or embrace or invest in another person again. I wonder if it was sort of along those kinds of lines. Once you’ve lost that love of your life or that person you are connected to, somehow you’re in a different place the whole rest of your life. You’d be very, very lucky if you had anything like it again. I’ve seen that happen with some friends and people I know. They’re changed forever from a relationship that didn’t work out. I could see that kind of applying to this too, maybe.
Filmmaker: Was the intense emotionality of that scene something you knew would form the core of the story? Or, were you surprised to find it and out how powerfully it played?
Anderson: I was surprised to find it. You know, I think I was probably at some point in the writing a little bit insecure, just wondering, is there enough? Is there enough to the story? And, ultimately I had to kinda go, “Yeah, yeah, there is.” There is enough, you know, because it’s sort of an instinctual thing. It’s kinda scary to just truly invest in these two characters without some kind of razzmatazz, but perhaps that is its own razzmatazz if things are going well, you know? So, these characters always kind of navigated me toward what the end would be. They did the work themselves for me.
Filmmaker: As far as the razzmatazz you referred to, if this had been a story that you’d taken on just after Boogie Nights or Magnolia, do you think the structure of the narrative would’ve been different?
Anderson: After Magnolia? Well, I mean—
Filmmaker: Or before you were a father, when you were still in your early 30’s, late 20’s?
Anderson: I don’t know. I mean, Punch-Drunk Love came out around that time when I was at that age. There’s not a ton of razzamatazz going on there. That’s a love story, and you have to either invest in the characters or not. So I’ve been in that territory before. I suppose that was more of an honestly good, old fashioned, straightforward proper love story. That seems like ages ago now.
Filmmaker: [Laughs] When you were researching the early part of L. Ron Hubbard’s career, did you always know that you wanted to come in post-World War II, at the foundation of Dianetics? Or, did you have interests in earlier periods like the Jack Parsons OTO periods?
Anderson: I read about that stuff. It was never that interesting to me. It didn’t ring my bells that much. But, it was interesting to read about.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a bit about working with your d.p., Mihai Malaimare? How was that relationship different than working with Robert Elswit, who has shot so many of your films? Or was it quite similar in a lot of ways?
Anderson: It was very, very, very, very different just because it was like bringing somebody [new] into this band of people who have worked together for so long. It was like importing a foreign exchange student into this nasty, noisy household, and he did great. [Laughs] He survived. And held his own and contributed so much. It was fun. Yeah, it was weird at first to not be working with Robert, obviously. We did tests and sort of messed around and finally found a pretty good way to communicate with each other and stuff, so that was good.
Filmmaker: Since you didn’t have the shorthand from a pre-existing relationship, how did you guys first begin? Talk about the script? Shot list?
Anderson: I don’t remember exactly. We just had lunch together and started chatting about everything — probably a lot of things other than the film, you know. We were doing these tests at Panavision, just shooting stuff, because the best way to get to know him was just putting lights and the camera up — it was almost like practicing together, playing together. That was the sort of way into it. There was very little talk about shot lists or that kinda stuff. It’s more just getting in there and doing it, really. I mean, I try to avoid philosophical talks and things like that. They can get scary and dull really, you know? [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Do you think there is an obsession in film culture right now with format? When you were making Boogie Nights or Hard Eight, were people as obsessed with what you shot on? Today it’s, “Oh, this was on the Alexa,” or, “This is 70mm.” Is that just part of the dialogue now? And what do you make of that?
Anderson: There’s a lot of chatter about it, which I think is nice, maybe. But what do I think of that? Is it drowning out the actual films?
Filmmaker: I wonder.
Anderson: I don’t know. You never really heard that much talk about that stuff when I was starting out. But by that same token, that was a when it was just like a miracle [to make a film]. How did you get money? Where did the financing come from? And [that] dominated conversations. People were [interested in] figuring out new ways to finance films. But, I don’t mind the discussions. I don’t mind hearing ‘em, but you know what? I just remembered this great story that [the editor] Dylan Tichenor would talk about. He was a TA at NYU, running these classes, and [they had] this camera. I think it was like an Arri IIC, or something like that. And he said every class somebody would raise their hand and say, “Can you put it on a Steadicam?” And there was no Steadicam [in the class]! This was like, NYU, year one. “Could you put it on a Steadicam?” And I just want to say like, [Makes hitting sounds] “Enough. [Laughs] What do you care? I don’t know. Does that answer your question?” Do you know what I mean?
Anderson: Sometimes now, when [Dylan and I] want to get under each others’ skin, [we will say], “Can you put it on a Steadicam?” [Laughs]
Filmmaker: As much as I love the movie, I’m also really compelled by the teasers and one-sheets that have come out preceding its release. What is your involvement with the marketing? Do you enjoy getting your hands into that?
Anderson: I do. I like it. [Editor] Leslie Jones and I, mainly more Leslie than me, started putting these pieces together when we were doing Punch-Drunk Love. We were doing these little tiny things we called scopitones. They were just ways to use pieces of the film that we liked but didn’t have a place for in the movie. It was just something to do when you kinda didn’t want to work on the film for an afternoon — just messing around.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about your on-set working relationship with the three leads: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams? Was it very different as far as what they needed from you and what you gave to them?
Anderson: They’re three very strong-willed individuals, but, ultimately, there was nothing drastically different. They all have a good concentration and it felt like we were in it together. Everyone played nicely together. So I never felt like there were huge discrepancies between [what the different actors] needed. Amy had a hard job too — she had to spend a lot of time lingering in the background being the dutiful wife. She was a trooper because I think [while] that can be very exciting, sometimes, you want to get in there and mess it up. I think if you’re an actor you have an instinct to want to do a little bit more sometimes. So that probably was frustrating for her, but she never voiced it to me.
Filmmaker: To me, it seemed like she was making the film her own. I mean, I saw a Lady Macbeth there.
Anderson: Absolutely. She is fucking dynamite.
Filmmaker: And then Joaquin. A good friend of mine, a guy named Colin Spoelman, who lives in New York and who makes whiskey and moonshine, had the pleasure of coming out and working with Joaquin on how to make whiskey. Was that an idea in preproduction that you had? Did Joaquin say, “I want to learn from an expert how to make this stuff?”
Anderson: No, we were all trying to figure out how to make booze and we’re all too stupid to do it. And so, [assistant art director] Ruth [De Jong] was like, “We need an expert. And I found somebody.” Honestly, we were like, good, because [production designer] Jack [Fisk] tried making this booze that almost killed Joaquin and I.
Filmmaker: You were the official taste testers?
Anderson: Yes. It didn’t really work out, so we called in for professional reinforcements. He was great.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about another actor who’s so present in the film and yet has so few lines, Jesse Plemons? I really felt for him. I realize it’s a completely fictional character, but I thought about L. Ron Hubbard Jr., who in my readings about L. Ron Hubbard always seemed like sort of a tragic figure. Jesse to me is that same kind of wonderful son living in the shadow of an iconic father. Can you talk about Jesse and sort of working with him and how you came to cast him?
Anderson: I can’t remember the exact route of casting Jesse. I think Phil was a big fan of Friday Night Lights, and he knew Jesse before I did. And [casting director] Cassandra [Kulukundis] mentioned him and somebody we worked with, Karen Ramirez, was working on Friday Night Lights down in Austin, and so she knew Jesse too. It was just this perfect storm of things. He’s a great actor. There was more for him to do in other versions of the story. We shot a couple of extra bits, but ultimately they didn’t make it in. But he was so dedicated. Talk about sitting in the background and having to listen to your dad go on and on and on and on and on — that’s what he did with such discipline, you know, for the couple of months that we were doing it. I feel like I owe it to him to give him some more to do next time, not that he wasn’t earning his pay. He’s fucking great.
Filmmaker: Last thing, just a quick question which sort of speaks to that. When you are editing a film and there are the bits that have to go, is there a circle of people you sort of entrust with cuts of the film to show? I read an early draft of the script and the film’s obviously a bit different.
Anderson: It’s pretty tight. We have a nice tight circle of trust. I mean, [editor] Leslie Jones for sure is probably the queen of the cast, her and [producer] JoAnne [Sellars]. But every day Leslie and I just go back and forth about what to do and where things might go. Ultimately the relationship I have with Leslie is pretty, pretty tight and it’s between us. She’s great to work with. [Editor] Dylan [Tichenor] was off doing something else, but he was a part of it, too, checking in and being again a part of what the decisions were. And then, yeah, friends and family. My sister has sort of been a strong part of that stuff in [terms of the] script and screenings and things like that. But, ultimately everybody’s only so helpful to a certain point, you know, because it all kind of boils down. They can push you in the right direction or steer you if you’re starting to float away from shore. But, it kinda comes down to that moment when you have to decide about things that are going to be there or not be there. And hopefully, you don’t regret too many of those decisions. Hopefully you feel like you did the right thing. There’s not a lot I miss that’s not in there, you know? Maybe one thing.