Good film, just don’t mention the ‘war’: interview with Paul Thomas Anderson
I assumed acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson would be happy to discuss correlations between his new film, The Master, and the Scientology movement on which it was partly based. I was wrong.
He would have known.
He would have known before he landed in Australia to promote his new
film. He would have known before he yelled “action”. He would have known
before he started working on the screenplay.
Acclaimed writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master (which
opens in Australian cinemas November 8) has been associated with the
word “Scientology” since the vaguest outlines of its storyline surfaced.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a character inspired by
L. Ron Hubbard. Dodd is the flamboyant leader of a movement called ‘The
Cause’ who takes on the challenge of reforming drunkard Naval veteran
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) through various unorthodox measures
based in part on techniques described in Hubbard’s 1950 book on
Dianetics, as Anderson himself has stated.
The film’s links to Scientology go well beyond overarching themes or
peripheral ideas. The early years of Scientology took place on Hubbard’s
boat, a former cattle trawler called ‘The Apollo’. A significant chunk
of the film is based on Dodd’s former cattle trawler, ‘The
Aletheia’. Hubbard operated a counselling centre in Phoenix. So does
Dodd. Hubbard referred to Scientology as the “religion of religions”.
Dodd refers to his movement using exactly the same words. Hubbard
labelled dissenters “squirrels”. Dodd uses the same (somewhat obscure)
slur. Hubbard bought a mansion in England and moved management of his
‘religion’ there. Same as Dodd. The list goes on and on; check this Daily Beast story, written by a former Scientologist, for a detailed comparison.
So Anderson would have known.
He would have known he’d be asked questions about to what extent the
film is based on real-life. You can understand my surprise, then, when,
after asking what I thought was a straight-forward question about
whether The Master was entirely fictitious — prompted by an
apparently erroneous disclaimer in the credits — his face scrunched up
and he snapped back “that’s like you know, the Munchicans, fuckin’, I
don’t know. What are you getting at? Come on.”
The Master is meditative and beautiful. Despite
interior-heavy set design it is lusciously shot (like all Anderson’s
films), very well acted (ditto) and has an elusive, airy quality, with
lots of space to breathe in and reflect on the characters. Examine the
end credits and you’ll see a familiar couple of sentences (these words
are par for the course) stating that events depicted on screen are
entirely fictitious and not in any way related to real-life movements or
I ask Anderson whether this statement is 100% accurate. Suddenly the
air gets a little tense. He looks annoyed, like I’d just prodded him
with a stick or put a banana in his car’s exhaust pipe. “No. What do you
mean? You know the answer to that!”
And he’s right. I do know the answer. But the PR circuit —
which, as I soon discover, Anderson is obviously not completely
comfortable with, at least in relation to talking about his own work —
doesn’t rest on assumptions and implied knowledge. You ask questions.
You get people talking. You create a discussion.
I expected the highbrow, intuitively skillful auteur whose stunning body of work includes Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007) would be happy to talk about — at least cover off on — the film’s links to the controversial religion and its founder.
I was wrong.
To be fair, when myself and four other journalists trundled into the
42-year-old director’s hotel room, the first words he spoke after
“hello” were “I think I’ve hit a wall.” When one of my colleagues asked
whether the PR circuit was tiring, Anderson half-joked “you fucking do
Responding to Anderson’s reverse-question about what I meant by
asking about that bit on the credits, I say the film couldn’t have
existed, could it, without the Scientology movement. He pauses. For an
uncomfortably long time.
“Could this film exist without the — I mean I don’t know.” He mentions the Munchicans. Grumbles. Asks me what I’m getting at.
I say he’s drawn correlations. Connected bits of the film to the movement of Scientology.
I say Scientology is like the elephant in the room, which seems
obvious given the tetchy tone of the conversation. This interview
suddenly feels very “don’t mention the war.”
But if there is an elephant in the room, Anderson isn’t acknowledging its presence.
“There’s no elephant in the room,” he retorts. “I’ve been nothing but
forthcoming and forthright about what this film is inspired by. I’ve
said it over and over again and I dare say you’ve probably read it,
right? So it’s completely clear what we’ve done. When I made There Will Be Blood,
nobody wanted to talk about Edward Doheny. How come? How come you
didn’t want to find out the details about Edward Doheny that were
similar or dissimilar? Nobody fucking cared.”
He’s got a point, but Anderson is smart enough to understand why the
world’s most controversial religion, populated by some of Hollywood’s
biggest stars, is a hotter topic than the life of an oil tycoon who died
The elusive nature of Anderson’s responses mirrors, in a sense, his
approach to developing the character of Dodd, who hovers like a jolly,
slightly nutty spectre around the film’s edges. Vivid but vague.
Presented as more mystic than man.
The role is well played by the ever-bankable Seymour Hoffman, but
seemed to me cautiously developed — as if Anderson were aware the
character’s actions would inevitably draw comparisons. That people would
one day construct connections due to real-life baggage. I ask him if
that in any way affected his writing process.
“No. You’re assuming that you have your feet on the ground or you’re
thinking about doing an interview when you’re writing something and
that’s no way to write.
“You just have to write what’s coming out of you. You can’t really
give a fuck about anything like that. You have to submit yourself to an
auto-hypnosis and get to that place and really not give a fuck. Really.
You have to…. What are you — I don’t know.”
At this point, I feel a bit like one of those straight-as-a-dial journalists Bob Dylan played verbal ping pong with in Don’t Look Back (1965), asking him questions about the meaning of Blowing in the Wind. But the truth is, Paul Thomas Anderson does give a fuck. You can tell that by the pin-precise manner he folds the frame, the deftness of touch he brings to The Master and the graceful manner with which he develops the characters’ relationships.
After the interview, in the elevator on the way down to the ground
floor, I think maybe it’s true. Maybe Anderson didn’t consider any
real-life baggage when the wrote the film. Then I think…
Nah. He would have known.
The Master’s Australian theatrical release date: November 8, 2012.