By Simon Miraudo | November 5, 2012
Paul Thomas Anderson's reputation is such that merely uttering the titles of his six feature films should be enough of an introduction. Frankly, the press shy auteur would probably prefer his work speak for itself. He's enjoyed a nearly unprecedented run of creative success since making his debut with 1996's Hard Eight (aka Sydney), which was followed by Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. The writer-director looks set to add to his five career Oscar nominations with new movie The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled WW2 vet who falls under the spell of an L. Ron Hubbard-esque religious leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
I spoke to Anderson about giving Phoenix his first role since his fake flame-out, reuniting with Hoffman, The Master's surprise relationship to Anchorman, rumours of the project's abandonment back in 2010, and whether or not he's gotten used to spruiking his pictures. Hit the 'Play' button below to hear the interview, as well as excerpts from Jonny Greenwood's score.
SM: We first heard about The Master a few years ago, but production was halted at that time. Obviously there's a happy ending to the story: the film is out, and it's great. But can you illuminate us a little bit as to why the project didn't move on back in 2009/2010?
PTA: Well, it did move on. It's kind of what happens in this day and age. When something gets reported on the internet, it gives the appearance that we were maybe further along than we really were. It's kind of as simple as that. It's kind of the first time we've had to deal with that kind of thing. The same thing happened on There Will Be Blood. We were just trying to get the script right and get the film up and running, and that's the normal course of events on every film we've made. It's just when it becomes public knowledge - about the movements of it - it creates the impression that we were starting and then stopping. It's just the natural life of a film; that's really all it was.
SM: Interesting. Well then, in that early stage, were many changes made to the script? To the characters? Was the story taking us in a different direction?
PTA: You know, that's a really good question. I'd be very curious right now to go back and look at what it was a few years ago. I think there's going to be some details that are different for sure. But, ultimately, it's probable pretty close. That's the irony of all this. You spend a couple years writing, and you end up back at the first draft. You could have just quit.
SM: Well, better to be safe than sorry, I'm sure.
SM: The film concerns a particular religious movement of dubious intentions called "The Cause," which clearly takes inspiration from real-world cults and religions. It reminded me of a great book called When Prophecy Fails, which is based on real events as well. I'm interested to know, in your research, if you discovered anything that surprised you about people who lead, or belong, to these groups, and that you wanted to depict in the movie?
PTA: Surprise? I don't know. Yeah, I suppose, if you're not part of a movement you can look at something, and we've all had this horrible negative feeling of wondering, 'Why?' "What are you up to over there? Why would you ever do that?" A kind of way of portraying people like zombies or something. It's just not like that at all, is it? It's just not. It's real people with lives and questions. Things are always more complicated than turning your nose up at somebody who's into something.
SM: Absolutely, and I think you convey that really well in The Master. Now, James Franco has come out recently saying he talked you with you about potentially starring in it, and for a while there it seemed Jeremy Renner was attached. What was it about Joaquin Phoenix that convinced you he was the right man for the lead role of Freddie Quell?
PTA: The kind of intensity and sort of dangerous fun he brought to that character. It really was an issue of timing, because I've been trying to get Joaquin in a film for years. He was ready to work and it was the right timing, more than anything. Just kind of clear that he was going to be a great match for Phil too; for Phil Hoffman.
PTA: Me too.
SM: I must be one of the few people who thinks it's fantastic.
PTA: Yeah, not enough people saw that film. I hope people discover it or get interested in looking back at what he was doing there. I think people were more aware of the making of it than the actual film.
SM: Absolutely, and the Letterman appearance, of course. There was some footage in the trailers and some early clips that were released that didn't end up in the final cut. How close to release do you allow yourself to wrap up the editing and lock the picture?
PTA: Good question. Well, let's see: I guess we started showing it in August, and we were done editing the picture part of it a couple months before that. Most of it was done; there was just probably some final decisions we were making. Maybe one or two scenes. Are they going to be in? Are they going to be out? One or two shots. You kind of mess around with that stuff until somebody pulls the plug, or you put a self-imposed deadline on yourself. There's no way to win on those. Sometimes you miss things, and sometimes you don't.
SM: Sure. Nothing that drastically changed the makeup of the movie though?
PTA: No, nothing drastic at all. All the drastic stuff had already been dealt with for a while. It was just diddling and finishing up sound and music and stuff. We spent the better part of the summer doing that part of it. The fun thing with this is right when we were done - two days after we had our first print - we showed it, which was a really exciting way to do it. I'd never been able to do that before. Usually you finish a film, and you've got to wait until a distributor figures out what they're going to do with it. We just took a different route this time. It's sort of the most fun I've ever had releasing a film.
SM: Excellent, I'm glad to hear that. You mentioned music earlier, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood is back to do the score, as he did for There Will Be Blood. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but is it true that you sent him pictures of Ron Burgundy from Anchorman for inspiration?
PTA: [Laughs] Umm, no! I sent him pictures of Ron Burgundy because I didn't want his flutes in the film. He kept trying to put flutes in the film that didn't sound right.
SM: It was more of a caution then.
PTA: No, it was more of a demand! It was more of a direction. I kept saying, "Please, I don't like these flutes," and he still kept doing it. So, the only recourse I could take was to send pictures of Ron Burgundy. He finally got the message.
SM: It's a powerful message indeed.
PTA: [Laughs] Yeah.
PTA: Yeah, as many reasons as you can think of to make a film - maybe you want to tell a certain story, or you like the era - the biggest reason for this film, for me, was to make something with Phil that we built from the ground up. Like you said, we'd worked together before, and it was a couple weeks here, or ten days. It never felt satisfying enough. I wanted to work with him on a larger scale and in a deeper way. I would just start sharing pages with him and showing what I was up to. It was a great way to work.
SM: In your earlier films, I really enjoyed the way you explored Los Angeles - certainly, as an outsider with my opinion - and utilised Largo performers like Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Paul F. Tompkins. Would you ever consider a film that explicitly dealt with the world of musicians and comedians?
PTA: Well, that's a good idea. Let me think about that. That's a really good idea. That's a dark world. You know, Judd Apatow made a great film called Funny People that came out a few years ago. He's a sort of expert on that world; I thought he did a great job of capturing how certifiably nuts stand-up comedians are and could-be. That's a crazy world.
SM: OK, well potentially you could do the sequel to that.
PTA: Right. I wouldn't mind that. A chance to work with Adam [Sandler] again. That'd be great.
SM: Oh of course; I think we'd all like that. You are returning to LA for Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon's book. I'm a big fan of that. How's progress looking on that?
PTA: Pretty good. Thanks for asking. Slow and steady, but good.
SM: Excellent. Finally, I was very excited to learn I'd be speaking with you, and you've not done much press in the past. I promise I won't be offended by your answer: is that a process you've now gotten used to, or is spruiking the film something that doesn't quite sit right with you?
PTA: Well, it's nothing personal, but it doesn't quite feel right. But that's OK. It's funny, you know? In this day and age there are so many films out there, you gotta get out there and tell people about it. It's the age old thing; people hawking their stuff has been around since there's been stuff. So, it's OK. It's fine. It's hard when you're a long way from home, but it's nice to be here. We had a great time in Melbourne, at The Astor theatre. That felt like I was home for a second. We had the 70mm screening; you felt like everybody who was really into that kind of thing was in the same place at the same time, which was great. I felt bad, they had to turn some people away. I felt like, "God, there's not that many of us that feel this kind of crazy and nerdy about 70mm and old movie palaces," and we were all in the same spot. That was cool.
The Master arrives in Australian cinemas November 8, 2012.