Saturday, September 15, 2012

Interview: SF Gate

Paul Thomas Anderson on 'The Master'
Sunday, September 16, 2012 | Pam Grady
Source: SF Gate

Freddie Quell, the character Joaquin Phoenix plays in Paul Thomas Anderson's epic drama "The Master," is a World War II veteran with a fierce case of post-traumatic stress and an unquenchable thirst. He is a master mixologist of ingredients that were never meant to be blended together or imbibed, a bootlegger manufacturing rotgut out of pure poison.

"So much of it is borderline ridiculous," laughs Anderson during a chat at the Toronto International Film Festival the afternoon after "The Master" made its Canadian debut. "We'd read these stories about guys who thought somehow that they could pour pure alcohol into the bread and sort of squeeze it out and that would somehow make it not tear your stomach apart, and I thought, 'That's great! I've got to get that in the film.' And then when you really dig underneath it, basically, the real story is, 'Yeah, we knew idiots that would do that, and those were the guys that tore their stomachs apart, that were s-ing for days and weeks after that.'"

"You have to imagine Freddie as like a superhero character who can actually do that and survive."

Freddie's mix mastery, and the fact that he's a stowaway on a voyage from San Francisco through the Panama Canal to New York that Philip Seymour Hoffman's L. Ron Hubbard-like Lancaster Dodd has organized, are what initially piques Dodd's curiosity, setting into motion an intense relationship between the two men as Dodd applies his "process" (akin to Scientology auditing) to Freddie in a bid to help him conquer his inner demons.

Anderson returns to filmmaking five years after his critically acclaimed "There Will Be Blood" as a conquering hero. At the Venice Film Festival, "The Master" came away with the Volpi Cup acting prize shared by Phoenix and Hoffman and the Silver Lion for best director. Early screenings have been packed. An August benefit screening for the Film Foundation at San Francisco's Castro Theatre (a venue Anderson holds dear) sold out the 1,400-seat movie palace.

For the gorgeous 70mm film, which shot largely at locations in the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Crockett, Berkeley and particularly Vallejo's decommissioned Mare Island shipyard, this is only the beginning of what looks to be a busy awards season, a happy result for a film that began with Anderson slowly developing the character who became Freddie Quell.

"I had a character, a different character," Anderson says. "He had the same last name, Quell - I'd been writing stuff for that character for a long time. Some of the things were doing John Steinbeck's life, like stories of him leaving Stanford and going to work in the beet fields and blah, blah, blah. I had a lot of great stories from that. I had some stories with Jason Robards. I just like collections of things."

"I was kind of like in search of a story, in search of a kind of venue," he continues. "I had a situation where he snuck on a boat - he ended up on some boat that he didn't belong on - I had variations on that. And there was this master of ceremonies who wondered, 'Why are you on my boat?'

'Messing around'

"It was all kind of vague like that - I was just sort of messing around writing, and then about four or five years ago, I started becoming more specific, 'What is this? Where are these pieces going?'"

To Freddie's story, he married what became Lancaster Dodd's in what he describes as a case of reverse engineering. As a writing exercise at one point, Anderson filled out a Scientology personality test. The Scientology part was not the point - the exercise was to answer the test's questions as a character. When he was done with it, he recognized the character.

"I was obviously answering in the voice of a character that was similar to Freddie, so I had that with no intentions and no place to go," he says, but then his fascination with Scientology founder Hubbard opened up a new avenue for his story.

"I've always really liked L. Ron Hubbard as a character, this much larger-than-life character who was so inventive," Anderson says. "His life was so incredibly packed full, like one day of his life seemed to be years of somebody else's, and there's something sort of great about that. At the time, I really didn't want to get into some number where you're telling the L. Ron Hubbard story, but just sort of using it as a springboard to go into another thing."

Fraught relationship

That other thing turned out to be the story of the offbeat, fraught relationship between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, a product not just of a screenplay, but of Anderson's close collaboration with his actors, a process of discovery for everyone involved, including the filmmaker.

"I wouldn't say we ever really had it all together," says Anderson. "It was like the most kind of movable script I've ever gone into a film with, really not exactly sure what was going to work, lot of bases covered and lots of possibilities out there, but clearly like knowing there was a centerpiece with their first processing thing."

"There's the first time they meet. There were enough strong scenes like that along the way that we had mile markers, but within that, there was so much liquid kind of searching and still improvising and figuring it out that it made it kind of exciting not to know."

The director also had the great pleasure of witnessing two actors at the top of their craft burrow under their characters' skin, becoming Freddie and Dodd as they navigated Anderson's complex story. The accolades Phoenix and Hoffman are collecting are no surprise to him.

"There is a middle scene, that was really like, for a director, all you have to do is get two cameras and point them at them, and you're not sure what - it's just like, hold on tight, there's so much dialogue, so much back and forth, you just have to get out of the way," Anderson says. "Just make sure the lights are on.

'As fast as you can'

"That volume of pages, I think at some point, I think Phil said, 'You can't even act this. You just have to go down a mountain as fast as you can and hold on tight,' which is kind of great," he adds. "There's so much to do, and you have to do it all. You actually can't throw any of your ideas in there, you're just trying to remember it all and get through it."

The Master (R) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

1 comment:

  1. Get daily ideas and instructions for making THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS per day ONLINE totally FREE.