Interview: Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master, Scientology and Tom Cruise
Maker of There Will Be Blood returns with the best American film of the year
Five years after Paul Thomas Anderson’s uncompromising drama There Will Be Blood, he returns with another astounding work. James Mottram speaks to him about The Master, its links to Scientology and showing the film to Tom Cruise.
Just six films into his career it’s reached that point where a new work by Paul Thomas Anderson is a major cinematic event. His last movie was 2007’s stunning oil drama There Will Be Blood; before that 2002’s intimate romance Punch-Drunk Love. It’s a work-rate from the 42 year-old writer-director that the late Stanley Kubrick would’ve recognised. “It’s a bad habit to get into,” admits Anderson, his beard now flecked with grey, when we meet in a Venice hotel ballroom. "I’d like to be a little more productive in the next few years."
Then again, it’d be churlish to complain when Anderson keeps delivering at such an unparalleled level. His latest, The Master, is unquestionably the best American film of the year. It’s also one of the most controversial – with central character, the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. While the Californian-born Anderson has made no attempt to deny the link, he wants to make it very clear that The Master has little to do with Hubbard’s contentious religion.
“I knew we weren’t making a film about Scientology and I knew it wasn’t a Scientology movie,” he explains. “I’m not dumb, but I was probably a bit naïve not to expect a kind of [reaction]…it’s a word that causes such curiosity in people. People’s eyes light up and they get very interested in it.” Of course, adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Scientology’s most famous follower, Tom Cruise, worked with Anderson on his 1999 epic Magnolia. So has Cruise seen the film? “Yes, I showed it to him. We’re still friends and the rest is between us.”
The film’s furore certainly did it no harm when it premiered in Venice, winning Anderson Best Director and Hoffman and co-star Joaquin Phoenix a share of the Best Actor prize. Oscars now seem inevitable for this superbly realised tale, set in 1950, that follows the relationship between Dodd – who runs a self-help movement called ‘The Cause’ – and Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a volatile WWII navy seaman who has been unable to settle back into civilian life since returning from duty.
‘I read a lot of stories about these guys in the war who were great soldiers, because they liked having a master, they liked having a commander, telling them where to go, and what to do,’ says Anderson, who also took dialogue from John Huston’s 1946 vet hospital doc Let There Be Light. ‘When they came back and they didn’t have that, they hungered for it again. They just needed somebody to tell them what direction to go, particularly if a natural direction for them wasn’t to raise a family. They didn’t have anybody to kill or beat up!’
Shot on rarely-used 65mm film, The Master has a glorious old-fashioned feel to it – although there’s nothing quaint about the return of Phoenix to our screens, four years after his last feature Two Lovers. “I think Phil said something, as a point of admiration: ‘Joaquin would be great [in the role of Freddie] because he scares me.’” Understandably, Anderson’s in full admiration of what his leads went through. “I would imagine as an actor, you’re constantly on a high wire.” Something that aptly, is exactly what watching The Master feels like.