Friday, September 28, 2012
Interview: Toronto Star
Paul Thomas Anderson, director of The Master, an accidental auteur: Howell
Source: The Toronto Star
September 28, 2012 | Peter Howell
I was starting to think Paul Thomas Anderson was “processing” me, much the way cult inductees are in The Master, his cerebral workout of a new film.
Having played the “maybe” game for an in-person interview all during TIFF, which eventually became “maybe not,” word was that the elusive Anderson was suddenly available for a telephone chat.
Then the appointed hour comes and goes, and there’s no call from PTA and no immediate explanation from either his Canadian or U.S. publicists for his absence.
Ninety minutes later, a misdialed telephone is blamed and a contrite Anderson is on the line: “Hey Peter, it’s Paul. Sorry about everything.”
Apology accepted. And it immediately occurs to me that much about Anderson is open to wild interpretation in the wake of The Master, a film that resists easy analysis.
The story of an uncommon bond between a feral sailor (Joaquin Phoenix) and a cerebral cult guru (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a father-figure dynamic common to Anderson’s work, right back to his 1996 debut Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney).
But the nut of The Master, his sixth feature, doesn’t crack open as easily as Anderson’s earlier films, which also include There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights. There are long passages that don’t necessarily lead anywhere, the female characters are blurred, (especially Amy Adams’ whore/Madonna figure), and the resolution is unconventional, to say the least.
It’s consequently been hailed as a masterpiece by some critics (me among them), a misfire by others (Roger Ebert for one) and a vexing puzzle by still others (see Jim Emerson, Scanners blogger).
One thing is for certain: The Master is the most-discussed film of 2012.
Which leads me to my first question for Anderson: Is there anything he would consider as an incorrect interpretation of his film?
“No!” he answers. “You can’t tell someone that their opinion is wrong.”
Well, you certainly could. It happens all the time on the Internet. But Anderson acknowledges that he’s “heard the chatter” that The Master requires more than one viewing to really get, and it pleases him.
“I love it; it’s exciting. I’ve seen films that I absolutely could not stand when I saw it. Or I just thought, ‘I don’t know what is going on here.’ Then five years later, you see it and you can’t believe you missed something or what were you thinking? Or the opposite: You see a film, and you think the heavens have opened up. Then a couple of years later, you’re not quite sure what the hell’s going on, what were you thinking?
“Films should be like that. That’s great. They’re moving, living things. In different situations they’re different, you know? You walk into the theatre expecting something, or you’re in a bad mood, or you’re in a good mood — you’re open to anything. There are just too many issues going into a film to strike everybody as a (immediate) win, you know?”
Anderson is equally open-minded about such technical issues as screen size and celluloid-vs.-digital, despite being widely depicted of late as an industry throwback at the tender age of 42. He chose to film The Master in 70 mm celluloid, which in the advancing digital world is like shooting still photos with old Polaroid stock.
But to Anderson going 70mm was just a simple esthetic choice, one he thought fit the inner grandeur of The Master. He clearly loves 70mm, but he also sounds as if he could just as easily have shot The Master on an iPhone.
“Do you like a movie more if you see it on your phone or you saw it in a big theatre in 70mm?” he asks.
“I don’t know. You see something on an airplane, some small story, and it just connects to you. You’re in a mood where you feel lonely or happy or whatever. (The Master) has had such an odd thing with people. They love it, they don’t like it, they like it better a second time, they see it a third time and they reverse their opinion.”
He’s bemused by all the discussion of what appear to be magic-realist elements in the film, such as the sudden appearance in a movie theatre of a telephone brought to Freddie by a theatre employee. This film is set in 1950, long before cellphones and era when most phones were confined to a wall or desk.
“I think it’s a very long cord,”Anderson says, and the smile is almost audible. “They called their local home depot in 1950 and got an extra long cord.”
OK, then, but what of the film’s recurring water imagery, the shot of a ship’s wake that keeps repeating?
“Ha, ha! Those water shots are just nice. Sometimes you do things that you think are a good idea. Other times, you just hope that some feeling hits you when you’re putting the film together. You have to follow that.
“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know where it comes from. And you’ve got to listen to it.”
He doesn’t see himself as an auteur, a term critics often use to describe a director who possesses not only a distinct style, but also a challenging one. His personal touchstone when making The Master was the films of Raoul Walsh, the journeyman maker of hundreds of films in many genres from 1912-63.
“You know, I got into Raoul Walsh a lot. His style, which is a very straight forward nuts-and-bolts director. I mean that as a high compliment, just the directness of his stories. I read his biography and his biography is just as nuts and bolts as his directing. It’s pretty great.”
If there’s anything of the auteur with Anderson, he would regard it as accidental. I remind him of the dictum, often attributed to Sigmund Freud, that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
“Sometimes, but a bunch of different cigars could add up to a tree, you know what I mean?” he replies.
“I’m not trying to be arty or elusive or anything. Where we come from in the editing room can sometimes be intellectual, but more often it’s pretty instinctual. More often, if you looked under the hood, you’d see how amazingly disorganized and confused we all were.”
He talks about what happened when he tried to get arty while making There Will Be Blood, his 2007 oilpatch epic. The film garnered eight Oscar nominations (including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Anderson), eventually winning two, including Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis.
“We didn’t have that much money for effects and stuff, and we talked about doing some crazy things like a lot of different digital paintings like cities and towns off in the background and stuff.
“And (art director) Jack Fisk said something that was so on the nose. He said, ‘We don’t need that. We have Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s the best special effect you can have.’
“That really stuck with me. It’s true. Whatever style is there is about whatever is going on with the characters. Those are my favourite things.”