Paul Thomas Anderson: "I still get excited"
It’s hard not to psyche yourself out before an audience with Paul Thomas Anderson.
One of the most intriguing and talented contemporary American auteurs, ‘PT’ Anderson (above left, with Joaquin Phoenix on the set of The Master) is understandably adored for bringing audiences modern classics like Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia and of course, There Will Be Blood. His rich characters and striking formalism are embellished with stunning aural and visual sequences. This filmmaking alchemy continues in his sixth feature, The Master, which draws on the history of L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology as the settling for a truly spectacular character study of a drunken, damaged soul, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and his friendship with his titular ‘saviour’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
As TheVine sat down with the director in Sydney one recent sunny afternoon – Anderson apologetically struggling with jetlag, and weighing up his options now coffee had ceased to have any effect (“do you try a white wine?”) – life was definitely imitating art in the idolatry stakes. And yet humble and softly spoken, Anderson quickly transforms from a filmmaking god into a considerate cinephile; someone who admits that such hero worship gives him a ‘stomachache’.
--I wanted to start with saying welcome to Sydney, where your film career began, if only in name [PTA's first film, the crime thriller Hard Eight, was originally titled Sydney].
They wouldn’t let me call it that because they thought people would think [the film] was about Sydney Australia. I thought that was ridiculous.
We gamble here too!
There’s casinos here, right?
There sure are. Congratulations on The Master - your sixth feature and your fifth collaboration with Philip Seymour Hoffman – can you two still manage to surprise each other after all these years?
Good question. Yeah, yes! And we wouldn’t be doing it if…yeah, great question! I hadn’t thought of it that way. We wouldn’t be doing it if [that wasn’t the case]. I can only speak for my point of view, [but] he does still surprise me and he makes me hungry to work with him and see what he does and comes up with. [The Master] was something that I came up with because I wanted to spend more time with him. We’d worked together a lot, five times. But it was never enough. It was a supporting part or something like that. It never felt like we’d gotten super dirty enough together. And probably in some selfish way, if your best friend is an actor, they’re elusive because they go off to work and he lives in a different city than I do. So I wonder if, underneath, it was just a way to grab hold of him and be closer to him for a period of time.
Well you also succeeded in getting [Philip Seymour Hoffman] to sing again (after Mangnolia) – is that how you get him out of his comfort zone?
No! I like him in his comfort zone. Because he takes care of pushing himself out of his comfort zone. Usually invading somebody’s comfort zone is an exciting thing with another actor; it’s not something that a director should do. It’s like getting into a position with Joaquin where you know you’ve gotta concentrate; you have to pay attention, you have to be listening closely. At its best, you’re going to do something that feels very, very, very intimate.
This is your first collaboration with Joaquin, though I understand you’ve been wanting to cast him for years. What won him over this time?
Probably it was the part. The part was right and it was the right time in his life. Joaquin is a good actor in that way; he does make choices based on his life and what’s good for him, not just like what’s a good career move. So this was just the right time.
These are two powder keg lead performances -- in that regard, do you consider yourself an actor’s writer? You consistently give rich characters over to the actors.
You know, when I started writing, when I was making a short film, I had John Reilly and Philip Baker Hall and I kinda learned from them, because they both taught me that actors don’t read any of the writing in scripts, they just read their lines [laughs]. And I remember thinking, “OK, so in other words, don’t just write a bunch of stuff. Be very economical. Don’t write what they’re feeling. Don’t try and pretend like it’s a novel. Just give them very simple things so that they can do work.” That was good advice that I’ve tried to follow. So sometimes, the less writing you can do, the better.
Amy Adams’ [playing Master’s wife Peggy Dodd] is astounding as almost a Lady Macbeth figure. What did you give over to her?
It’s like, the distance between here and there is huge; between what you write down and what they do.
Is that exciting as a writer/director?
Very! Very exciting. Especially if it’s good; what they’re doing is right. And sometimes it can’t be so clear right away. You shoot films out of order – you start with the end at the beginning and weird things happen like that – but you kinda know it, you know? Like when you see somebody in a costume when they’re standing there and doing something and you kinda know when it feels pretty good.
There’s alchemy at work.
There’s a skepticism about Scientology which some people will bring to this film no doubt, but what struck me is that you take a more historical view of Dianetics. What was it that most grabbed you in your research of those early years?
Just the way it was formulating, the way that it was building. The idea they had – it’s not a particularly new one – but just that the problems you might have in your life may not just be about this life [but] possibly another one. I liked that. I liked…the beginning of anything is always really interesting because it’s the start! You feel everybody is excited about possibilities, hopeful and optimistic and everything feels like a discovery.
There’s a real energy….
It struck me that the time travel and the past lives aspect is a perfect analogy for a filmmaker. In your films you’ve traveled through time to create these amazing characters. Is that something that you brought to the project?
Yeah for sure. When people start talking about time travel it doesn’t feel that far off, because if you’re making a film about another era, you’re trying to do the best you can. You’ve got to reach back and put yourself in that time. Who says time travel is impossible? It’s like, it is, until it isn’t! You know?
I was remembering Tom Cruise character Frank Mackey in MAGNOLIA – infamously calling for people to “Seduce and destroy.” I wonder if you consider same holds for your characters here – is it a leitmotiv?
No. I think that’s different. I do. I don’t see Master that way at all. Master seems – at least in our time of the film – much more open to learning and discovering. [Dodd] seems less cut and dry about what he thinks. Maybe as he goes along and faces more opposition, he has to shore up and become more rigid in what he thinks. Maybe in the sequel he’d end up more like [Frank Mackey].
How you like to consume films: do you like watch them multiple times?
I’m terrible. The ones that I like I watch over and over and over again. Yeah. I don’t see as much new stuff as I should.
Bad Santa. I must have seen Bad Santa more times than anybody should. The Big Lebowski. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Surely there are those who have drawn the life-imitating-art comparison with Master, and the fealty that your fans feel towards you and your work. Is that something you’ve reckoned with?
It’s not lost on me the similarities between being a film director and what the Master is going through. You’re convincing somebody to come along on some crazy thing that you’re going to do for three months, and you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re going to pay them not that well; you’re going to feed them not that well, but hopefully you’re going to have fun. Yeah, you have to kinda kick yourself up into a state of frenzy and hopefulness that you’re going to get something good. Yeah, it’s very similar.
But that’s with your filmmaking compatriots. What about your fans worshipping at the altar of PT Anderson?
Well there was a review [where] Peter Travers said that. Ohhh! I know what he meant, but it kind of gave me a stomachache! [Laughs]
I understand you sat at the foot of your own master– Robert Altman in A Prairie Home Companion. What was that experience like?That was sort of one of the best summers of my life. For a number of reasons. My girlfriend was pregnant with our first child, and we were making this film, and Bob was sick…
Are you just a sponge in that situation?
You definitely shut up and [laughs]. You definitely don’t talk more than you need to, for sure. But he was pretty frail at the time. That said, I was there just in case anything happened, and he was getting chemotherapy on Thursdays. So everybody kind of expected Friday would be a tough day, [but] he never missed a day; he never missed a moment. So yeah.
Wow. If that’s not a lesson in tenacity…
Sonically your films have always been really intriguing, but this ongoing collaboration with Johnny Greenwood especially so – how are you two developing?
[Laughs] You know he’s coming here? Yeah, Radiohead is coming down here. Gosh, I don’t know, I’m trying to think.
Have you been worshipping at the altar of Johnny Greenwood?
I definitely have! For sure! It’s hard to be his boss. [Laughs]
Well, he only looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. [Laughs] He’s so great. He’s so great!
When I grew up making films, John Williams’ music for Steven Spielberg’s stuff or Bernard Herman – they went hand in hand. And I loved that, and I always thought that’s how a film should be. So having Jonny’s sounds over our films…every time his music comes on I’m incredibly proud and excited. It’s still something to be proud of when I watch the film. It’s hard to stay excited about what you’ve done – maybe the way you’ve lit it or something like that – you sort of get slightly nauseated by it. But when Johnny’s music comes on, I still get excited. It’s a kid kind of feeling.
Read our review of The Master here on TheVine.