Transcription by Isaiah Lester
The Master is a fictional biopic about a masonic writer and teacher that seduces a troubled, Naval Veteran into a cult like religion called “The Cause”. Which has a history and a process much like the late L. Ronn Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.
Interviewer: Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in the Master. Writer and Director Paul Thomas Anderson was in London last week on a family vacation and took time out to talk about the film and previous pieces like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. Usually on this program we talk to directors on the eve of release so, meeting several weeks after the premier of The Master, I wondered if his relationship with the film changes the further he gets away from it.
PTA: Yeah, probably not on like, breaking up with someone or that kind of pain immediately following, ya know the break up? But, each day that goes on its distance and you inevitably, around this time, the only thing…only solution is to keep looking forward, not still rummage around in the past. That’s why, for me, always in that kind of down slide of the last couple of weeks of editing, I find myself writing more and more and more whether I know it’s the next thing I’m going to do. It’s sort of just like a little bridge back into kind of normality. Because, inevitably too; your life kinda, through the course of the film over the past year, has kind of been drastically different from your normal day to day existence. So, it’s about dismounting back into that too.
Interviewer: And one of those decisions directors have to make is you’re doing all these premiers and these opening are whether or not to watch the film. Because normally you see the people involved just slipping out after the first couple of minutes of the premier but, do you ever watch it right through or watch large parts of it again?
PTA: No, [Laughs] God no. I head for the exit as fast as possible really. Um, it kind of brings a certain frustration, ya know? You wish…I see live performers each night do something; whether it’s playing in a band or in the theater. You can see that there’s still a charge east night because, inevitably something will be different. It’s alive and this things over. So, yeah; make straight for the bar, make straight for dinner, get out of there, there’s nothing to do. It’s certainly even harder when people say they loved your film, that’s almost as hard to take as people saying they hated your film, it’s just like “Go away’.
Interviewer: Another aspect of that is whether to read the reviews or whether to read the box office returns in various countries. I mean directors take different views of that. Some people look at everything and some people don’t look at anything. Where are you on that?
PTA: Somewhere in the middle. I mean, I like to read the reviews for sure when it first comes out; as much as you’re kind of stark to look at them with one eye closed and one eye open, you’re holding it back like it’s about to explode in your face, it’s kind of like that. And, when somebody says something good, it gives you charge and particularly if it seems as if somebody is writing about it with care. But, it’s fleeting too, and I used to just sort of, just throw them away, whether they were good or bad. Something about it just ruffled my feathers the wrong way. I just didn’t know how to take it really. But now, it’s great. Particularly, with this film it was so, at least in the states, sort of polarizing. Yeah and box office returns; it’s a part of the game so, I don’t pay attention as much as I do with a lot of the other stuff ya know, because inevitably, you have distributers who are going to take care of it. I have sort of discovered now that, the life of a film is the life of a film. There is a lot that you can do to get to an audience and kind of, to a certain extent, once that happens, the game is up.
Interviewer: The reception, to some extent, effects what you can do next. You just check that you haven’t made Heaven’s Gate or anything that’s going to have a serious effect on your career.
PTA: Yeah. I mean, hopefully...listen; for the most part, it’s a bit of a bet, to a certain extent, that’s been covered. Hopefully you’re working in a budget range that, in the worst case scenario, no one’s gonna loses their shirt. Ya know? They might lose a cufflink at its worst, something like that. Ya know, this film will do alright. I don’t think anybody will lose their shirt but, it’s funny, at least in the states and I think it may be similar here from what I heard today; In the main cities it does quite well and then you sort of reach out to a wider audience in American, it doesn’t do quite well. I don’t think it was anything unexpected. You know of course there is that feeling when you see these box offices success that make 100 million dollars. It’d be great to make one of those one day. We will see.
Interviewer: At the risk of never getting a good review from a critic again, have you ever learned anything from a critic?
PTA: Well I would say there are a couple of critics, particularly in the states, a couple films back on Punch Drunk Love, there was a critic that I actually know quite well and he wrote a review that was good and he had some slight criticisms about it. I disagreed with him at the time. I thought “Well, no that’s not what I was trying to do and I don’t really see where he is coming from. Years later it kind of kept creeping into my mind as a kind of valuable judgment on film. Not that I would change it a lick. It was what we did and everything else but, that much distance I could see; okay I get it, I get what you’re saying, I get how that part didn’t function for you. But, more than anything, with this film, what was so great reading some of the reviews is that everyone was different. Normally, sometimes you get…there is sort of a standard kind of template for a review. Basically, I am going to tell how I really feel pretty quickly up here, and I’m going to take the rest of my word count and just describe the plot, and then at the end I’ll kind of wrap it up. It’s so dull. But this, we were getting them first in Venice, and everyone had something different to write about, which was so to think people responding to it that way.
Interviewer: And to give credit to the critic, who was that American critic on Punch Drunk Love?
PTA: It was David Ansen. David Ansen, that writes for Newsweek.
Interviewer: Have you told him you agree with him now?
PTA: Yeah [laughs].
Interviewer: And he presumably looked very smug, did he?
PTA: [laughs] no. No. Well yeah, yeah he did. He looked very smug.
Interviewer: In the review, inevitably, and you always knew this, the question is or isn’t it about Scientology and people arguing that. You always knew that was going to happen and just, you had to have an attitude to that as a director.
PTA: Yeah, for sure. Initially it was sort of just this buzzing fly that bothered you. Listen, it’s like the definition of the word about, ya know? Is it like is it “about” Scientology? No, if it was about Scientology it would be a different movie. But then you go out there and try to drum up some business for it and this question kind of keeps coming up and the sort of premise put forward. The way that I think about it is that stuff goes away ultimately, it’s got to. I have seen it before with films that we made where ultimately whatever that chatter is, it becomes inconsequential, in the long run. Hopefully that film, this film, sits there and is dragged off the shelf in 20 years by somebody that has no thoughts about this kind of rummaging we are doing about Scientology and all this stuff, and pops in the DVD and goes “Look at this movie”.
Interviewer: There would be both reasonable, legal and artistic reasons why saying that it wasn’t based on Scientology but, on that spectrum which was it more of?
PTA: I don’t know if there would be legal reason’s ultimately on saying if it was based or not. Because, I don’t think there would be technically. Because, you know, where I come from, you can say what you want about anything.
Interviewer: [laughs] in this country, you can’t say anything about anyone.
PTA: [laughs] where I come from. We are more advanced over there ya know? So no, ultimately that doesn’t matter. I kind of think its more selfishness thing. As a writer, if you tie your hitch to that post and you’ve got to tell that story, then there are details you’re going to have to get right. Inevitably that’s too much work for me. I was more interested in kind of taking a lot of the pieces of what I saw of L.Ronn Hubbard’s life and aspects of his character and using them at my own advantage to create something new. In the reality of that world, if there is any kind of legal threat, I probably would say “What can I do to avoid that”? I certainly don’t want to get into that, ya know?
Interviewer: I have always thought this about a lot of your films. There is that kind of epic quality to your imagination, even Cigarettes and Coffee; that had a lot going on in it for a short film. There were multiple storylines. I suppose the exception is Punch Drunk Love which is a much tighter film. But, in general across your career, these are big, complex films aren’t they? That’s what you want to make.
PTA: No, not at all. I mean, it’s like. Ya know I completely understand what you’re saying but I almost feel like you’re talking about someone else’s films. I can see that about There Will Be Blood that’s an epic ya know?
Interviewer: Magnolia is an epic as well isn’t it?
PTA: I guess it is. Yeah, I guess it is. It’s just so long ago I don’t really think about it.
Interviewer: The Master is an epic, they really are.
PTA: No, come on. Honestly I think to set out to say “I’m going to make an epic” or anything like that, that’s just crazy. But, inevitably these story seem to get a little bit bigger or grow beyond what I thought they were going to be. When we set out with this film I really thought it should feel like a sort of pulpy story, like an old film noir. I think a lot of it does feel like that and a lot of it is a chamber drama. But what happens is, and this is something you don’t even really…or I don’t really think about, is that there is such a variety of locations over the film. They move from here, to here, to here; that gives a feeling of epicness that’s unintentional [laughs].
Interviewer: Paul Thomas Anderson. The Master is in cinemas nationwide.