Listen to the audio here. (Starts at the 17:14 mark).
Transcription by Le_Ted
And so to Paul Thomas Anderson, oscar-nominated for writing and directing Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There will be Blood, his 2006 film of oil prospecting, greed and American ambition at the very beginning of the 20th century. His new film The Master is strictly mid-century, concerning Freddie Quell, a troubled former World War II naval serviceman who in a fog of uncertainty, anger and booze, falls under the influence of Lancaster Dodd, a man with a belief system and a following known as "The Cause." A man who bears certain biographical similarities to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Dodd allows Quell to work for him, but he wants to sort him out too.
(17:54 - 18:37: Dialogue from the film trailer: "Why all the skulking and sneaking? You've wandered from the proper path, haven't you? The problems that you've had." "I don't have any problems, I dunno what I've told you, but if you have work for me to do I can do it." "You seem so familiar to me." "Well, what do you do?" "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man . . . hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.")
Some fine grandstanding there from Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It's a fascinating, handsomely crafted film but reactions to it are strong. People want to argue over it: "What is it about?"Broadly, there are those who believe, as I do, that it may not have a conventional narrative but boy is the ride interesting, and the mood and the ideas it raises stay with you. And then there are others who find it pretentious and/or confused. Before the release, the anticipation of The Master was that it was all about Scientology. So did director Paul Thomas Anderson welcome that interest, or did it raise the wrong expectations?
It was irritating, I think, more than anything else. But you couldn't spend too much time thinking about it. Because it's all just minor chatter, mainly on the Internet, stuff like that. We've never run up against that before, we've always been able to just go make films and make them quietly and make them in the bubble and you know, people that are interested are, you know, kind of interested. But that word just seemed to peak everybody's interest and create all kinds of buzz and scuttlebutt, that was to a certain extent inaccurate but no, it never felt to me like, "Hey, that's great, we're really gonna get people out to the theater." No, not at all.
And you began, the whole sort of germ of the idea began with an interest in the mood in that particular period of post-war America, rather than an individual, or what?
The era is interesting to me but I had this character, Freddie Quell, who was a sailor, and I'd written some stuff with him. He didn't really have an era, initially it was just stuff that was based on John Steinbeck's life. So, and that era's more late thirties, mid-twenties to late thirties. Anyway, when the kind of idea that came to incorporate this kind of character of Lancaster Dodd, who was vaguely influenced by L. Ron Hubbard, then, the sort of era became a little bit more focused, where to place these characters: Sort of after World War II.
And what did you find when you eventually settled it there: What did you find intriguing about that time?
God, all of it. Starting with a kind of victory, but at what cost? Obviously a lot of lives, a lot of damage and a lot of sadness. A lot of death, a lot of question marks around for people. So, you have this kind of push of optimism but this cloud of tragedy over everything. I don't know, when I was growing up I saw World War II films and everything was very heroic, you got this sense growing up where I come from, in America, this sense that we won something. We did something great, how could anybody be sad about that? Obviously it was quite different as I grew up and I got older, I realized that's not how it was.
'Cause it's really interesting, if you look around the books, the non-fiction books that were very successful at the time, there was something, a sociological study called "The Lonely Crowd,"I think, that was about the different types in America, the inner-directed and the outer-directed types. Clearly, there was a lot of concern. Okay, it's clearly post-Freudian as well but, a lot of concern about quite what the American psyche was at the time.
Yea, do you think that's because of the war or do you think that's, psychoanalysis was starting to reach a slightly more mainstream-
I think it's all those things together. Perhaps -
Oh yea -
And all the bounty of material goods that are coming in. One gets a sense of the Freddie Quell character being a troubled, obviously extremely troubled soul but that, could that also be a sort of metaphor for America, not quite sure which way it's going?
Yea, I mean, I don't get into metaphors too much. That stuff should take care of itself but I was just thinking about advertising in, stuff that I'd seen researching this film either in science fiction magazines or in mechanical magazines that was reaching out mainly to men, young men, who clearly were probably bottling up what was going on with them. That there could be self-help books, not just Dianetics but a billion others. I don't remember the names of them but you could see all these . . . that there was, almost hidden in the back of the pages, like you could buy x-ray glasses to see girls naked and take a pill to get big muscles. There was also little ads for helping you with your problems. Probably something that you were not supposed to say out loud. You felt mentally confused? You were probably meant to have big muscles and stand-up straight!
And, the whole question of subjectivity in your film, which is one which arouses a lot of discussion from people who try and nail down "What it's about." There's one particular scene which has caused, most critics seem to bring it up in their reviews which is where you are in a party and suddenly the women are naked. With no warning, whatsoever. Now it is possible, I mean, I'm not asking you to give an absolute reading but it is possible that at many different points in the narrative you may be shifting the perspective possibly to inside a character. Is that right?
Sure! Absolutely. It is probably so much more messy than you can imagine, never being able to make up our mind exactly what story we were telling. You know, "Whose point of view are we occupying?!" And that's okay! You know, normally you're really supposed to make the decisions and choices and sometimes, not figuring it out and kind of doing what feels right instinctually ends up feeling a little bit more elastic, liquid-y.
And that's something that, obviously you have a script, most of it is written down but you allow for a degree of improvisation, when you've got actors of that caliber that's going to produce good things too. But you also allow scenes to play different ways, take a number of different takes, that kind of thing?
Try to, yea! I mean, certainly if it's not working. [It's] so hard to know, usually you can watch something and feel like it's absolutely, really going well. Take a few days away from it and you stop it and you review it and you realize that you, whatever, that your taste has gone completely out the window and you've kind of gotta revisit it and do it again. Then again, you can have an impulse that says that this is right and this is very good and you are right. And you get something very quickly. A friend of mine told me the other day that I sat in his kitchen and I was telling him what film I was gonna make about three years ago. And for all this roller coaster that we went on with this film, trying different things, not trying things and messing around, he saw the film finally. He said, "That's exactly the movie you told me you were making three years ago." So that was funny to hear.
Those people who found your film challenging, I think, worried that they didn't feel that, if you like, the plot was coherent or they couldn't see that - for them, the narrative -
I don't blame 'em for that! I mean, we're pretty low on plot!
Well, do you think plot is overrated?
Sure! I'll say yes! (laughs) You know, unless I paid fifteen dollars for a movie and then, I want plot. It's hard to do. It's hard, it's hard to give a film momentum. And I think our film doesn't rely on any kind of . . . you know, we do have plot, I guess, but nobody pays attention to it.
The critic David Thomson was actually in the studio a few weeks ago talking about his book. I mean, he's quite critical of your film. He feels that you were making it up as you went along (laughs).
(laughs) Well wait a minute! What the hell else do you do but make it up as you go along? I mean: That's what you do! What's he going on about? I mean, that's insane. Doesn't he make it up as he goes along? If you write something . . . You're making this interview up as you go along, I'm making up my answers, I can't, I'm - I'm missing a piece here. I wanna know what he said more directly, that's so, like -
I think maybe -
We're all making it up as we go along!
I think maybe he was pointing to a rather more sort of conventional, old style Hollywood filmmaking where a story had a more predictable arc.
I see, I see.
I suspect. Now, okay, your choice to film in 65 mm: Appropriate to the period, obviously. I mean, does it matter if the audience doesn't see it because presumably only a minority of the audience are going to see it in 70 mm.
Yea, no, I mean, does it matter? If you're into that kind of thing you'll probably love it. You know, you'll be able to feel a slight difference but ultimately, no. Listen, I've loved movies that I've watched on my phone, I hate to say. And I've loved movies that I've seen in theaters. I mean, it's a hard thing nowadays and hopefully the people that love to go to the movie theaters love to go to the movie theaters and we, hopefully, kind of, presented this option that if you wanna dig it this way, it's there for you. I prefer it, I enjoy it, I think it's a more well-balanced meal, just in terms of the way that it kind of comes through the projector and the light and things moving around and - I prefer it but certainly doesn't mean that you're not gonna like the movie if you have to see it another way. It also doesn't mean you're gonna like it anymore.
Yea but I can't imagine what The Master will be like on a phone.
(laughs) No, hopefully not too bad! It shouldn't matter. I remember like, seeing these guys hovered around a garage and watching Saving Private Ryan on this little teeny black-and-white TV and these guys were just loving the film. In a parking garage in South America. And they were completely into it, they didn't need a big screen. They didn't need whatever hi-fi sound and all that. They were just digging the film.
Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master goes nationwide, certificate 15, from next week.