Monday, October 01, 2012
Director Paul Thomas Anderson on this fall's most buzzed-about film, "The Master."
PTA's answers transcribed by Martin Cohen
On what he was originally setting out to explore in making the movie.
PTA: You know, I’ve had pieces of this story for about ten years and after TWBB they kind of resurfaced, and it seemed like it was kind of time to dig in to them and see if they meant anything. The main thrust of the story was this sailor, back from the war and the kind of aimlessness that he had, connecting with this other character that I had that made a lot of different twists and turns and over the course of a couple years became what he turned out to be, Lancaster Dodd.
Describing the psychological state of the post-war period.
PTA: Well, confused, and heartbroken, and soulbent, probably. I mean I wasn’t there, that’s my guess. My father was there and he came back and he had troubles of his own to navigate. And people that I knew, his age, had things lingering around for a long time. This isn’t a particularly new idea, but just the kind of difficulties of sending a bunch of young guys off to do some real dirty work and then asking them to come back and be upstanding and normal. That dismount back into reality has got to be incredibly difficult, we see it right now.
On the hopefulness of “The Cause’s” belief system.
PTA: It means that there’s something else after you die, that basic premise is very hopeful. It doesn’t mean that when you’re dead, you’re dead, it means there’s something else. Around this era you get something like “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” again a kind of hopeful idea: “ghosts aren’t scary, maybe they’re just trying to be friends. Little critters in the night wandering around wondering where they are.”
On whether he believes “when we’re dead, we’re dead.”
PTA: I sure hope not.
On characterizing the central dynamic between Freddie and Dodd.
PTA: Well, just a friendship, I think. I can see the father/son thing, for sure. I think all the comparisons work. At it’s simplest level it’s just a friendship between two men. One supposedly in complete command of all of his faculties and the other wrestling with them openly and aggressively. They’re drinking pals, too, and they’re scoundrels together sort of moving through this life. But they have that kind of nagging thing that most of us have had when you meet someone and you could’ve sworn you know them from somewhere else. That kind of friend that just as you’re thinking of them and they call, you know?
On the co-dependent needs of a master and disciple.
PTA: You can’t have one without the other. I don’t know if it’s even in the film, but it’s kind of every master’s hope that the student will grow bigger than the master. Or in a father/son relationship, even. I don’t know that they get to that spot.
On how he describes “The Cause” to people.
PTA: Well, it’s a movement. I can see the implication that it’s a cult, it’s the will of one man and that kind of defines a cult. I think at that time, coming out of WWII, the whiff of anything remotely cult-like or fascist was immediately stepped upon just because of recent history. The idea of it not being a cult is a thing where you really have to consider those characters and what they believe, you have to kind of be with them. I don’t think Lancaster Dodd believes he’s a “cult leader.” There’s a kind of negative implication to that. From his point of view, and by extension my point of view, he’s really desperate to help people and help himself. So what’s the difference between a cult and a movement? I don’t know, we can go for a long time discussing that.
On whether the power of a cult or religion lies in desperation.
PTA: Perhaps from time to time, I think you get desperate and you get scared, and you think “lord, if you’ll only just let me pass this test, I swear to you I’ll follow you.” Sure, I think there are desperate moments people get into when they turn to religion. I’m not an expert on this, but people hear stories that come out of religions that connect to them and help get them through their daily lives. And long may they wave, that’s okay. But sure, from time to time desperation can lead to that and that’s okay too.
On what it is about religion that keeps him coming back to it in many of his films.
PTA: I don’t know the answer to that. I was raised Catholic, and I remember going to Church on Sundays (we didn’t go real regularly, we were kind of mid-grade Catholics), and I was always bored to tears by it, through no fault of the stories that were being put in front of us. Later in life when I found these stories in the Bible, these were really good, blood and guts stories. They were kind of like action film stories, but the way they were always presented to me was sort of dull and kind of like homework. So I don’t know, maybe there’s just this deep well of stories that I’ll always keep coming back to that are great highlights of people and how people have lived for thousands, millions, trillions of years?
On what he makes of the Scientology comparisons now that people have actually seen the film.
PTA: Well, they’re there. We’ve never denied it. I think we’ve always been very upfront about the influence of L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of Dianetics. I think Scientology is a slightly different thing, and as I’ve said: there are some similarities but there’s a lot of differences too. If you’re going to short change Scientology, you’re going to get it wrong if I were to say that this is a film about Scientology. Because it’s not, it’s not even close. That would be a completely different film. I’m not quite sure what this film is, but one thing I know is that it’s this sort of love story between these two characters and that’s the thing that we’ve always talked about, and what we talked about when we were making it. Our conversations about Scientology were very very few. But the similarities are there.
On his reported changing views on Scientology while researching the film.
PTA: Well what I meant by that was there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there on the internet, as we all know. But there is a lot of good stuff out there. You can just see the kind of knee-jerk reaction that people get when the topic of Scientology comes up, and I think sometimes it’s just that: pretty knee-jerk and dismissive. If you’re investigating something, you’re investigating because you have an interest in it, you care about it. You start to see some other things about it, and you can see the point of view that most Scientologists have which is that they feel persecuted. They feel picked on, which is not a good place to be. It’s got to be a hard thing to believe in something and just have a lot of people naysay that.
On Tom Cruise’s reaction to the film.
PTA: As I’ve said, it’s between us.
On the idea of people either believing in him as a filmmaker or being skeptical.
PTA: Ohhh boy (laughs). Skeptics are great, believers are great. I can’t think of a film that everybody likes, I wish I could. That’s kind of what makes horse races, as my dad used to say. We’re in a neat spot where these films that we made, a lot of people love them, a lot of people scratch their heads, some people get actively aggressive towards them, and I love that. We certainly don’t seek it out, but it’s great to make a film that people are excited by and are talking and arguing about.
On his ardent devotees.
PTA: It’s amazing, it means that you’re connecting with someone. It’s encouraging, and exciting, it couldn’t be better.
On where his career will go in it’s second act.
PTA: Second act? Golly. I have no game plan except to try to keep making this interesting for myself and try to keep moving forward, to never stay in the same place creatively for too long. Keep being nervous and scared, and not get too comfy. That’s what I’ve tried to do all along and it always feels better that way to go to work and be on a tightrope and not be so sure. It’s a great thrill and a great privilege, and I hope we can keep scaring ourselves.
On one thing that scared him in the making of “The Master.”
PTA: Just every day going to work, the combination of hoping something good happens, hoping it all hangs together, hoping you can see it through to the end. I have a hard time articulating exactly the kind of nervousness you get. I think it has to do with when you go to make one of these kinds of films, you can either design every shot beforehand and write it all out in your room, get there and just sort of paint by numbers or you can look for a thrill of discovery, confusion, sort of keep asking yourself questions, and that’s a more interesting place to be.