Monday, November 12, 2012

Interview: Popcorn Taxi

Paul Thomas Anderson: How To F*&k Sandcastles
Source: Popcorn Taxi

Let’s set the scene.

Paul Thomas Anderson has arrived in Australia the day before. He’s jet lagged out of his skull, and has had a full day of interviews with journalists eager to discuss his new film, The Master which opens today across Australia.

After being cooped up in a hotel room all day, he’d had enough – and out onto the deck that runs along the front of Sydney’s The Sebel Pier we went.

It was a round table discussion, from right to left, it was Matt, representing Ezy DVD and Matt from Matt’s Movie Reviews, and yours truly, Oscar Hillerstrom, talking to Paul Thomas Anderson about his film.

Both Matts had first go on the questions, and because they really went ‘in there’ I took a slightly more relaxed approach, seeing as PTA was dead on his feet (after us, it was a nap for an hour, and the then launching the Cockatoo Island Film Festival) and that it was a lovely day. A serious filmmaker, who makes serious movies – is in fact just a normal guy after all. Enjoy a brief glimpse into the mind of the mind that made The Master.

Warning: in case you didn’t get this from the heading of this post – it gets a little sweary.

PTA You mind if I wear my shades? I’m not trying to be cool.

EZY DVD Go for it. So this is your first film without Robert Elswood as your DOP. You could work with any DOP in the world, so why Mihai (Malaimare, Jr) and what was it about his work that you thought, he’s the right man for the role?

PTA Well, the films that he made with Coppola. Youth Without Youth. Have you seen Tetro?

EZY DVD I haven’t seen Tetro.

PTA They’re good. I mean, whether you like them or not, there’s so much filmmaking going on. You can just feel the excitement. Whether that’s coming from Coppola or Mihai or both. I guess there was a choice of working with somebody who was younger or someone who had been around. It seemed to me to work with someone younger who was just starting out.

MMR This is your second film now where the subject of religion plays a vital role in the story. What is it about religion that is important to your stories and does your Catholic upbringing play a role in that?

PTA Ha. No. I don’t fuckin’ know. When we would go to church on Sunday I was just sort of bored. It was so dull, which is too bad because the stories they were telling were good stories. The music was kind of boring. I didn’t like confession either. Something didn’t feel right about that because I never really had the guts to tell them what I had really done wrong so I was always making stuff up that was maybe half as bad as what I had done. You weren’t gonna go in there and tell them you were jerking off or something like that.

It’s funny to hear you say ‘religion is a big part of your films’. And I guess it is, but i just don’t think of it that way. It’s like you’re talking about someone else’s films but I completely understand what you’re saying. From my point of view it feels like it doesn’t even apply, which is weird I know, because it’s there.

I think it’s maybe mainly just There Will Be Blood because that was pretty clear with a preacher and all that. But I don’t think of it as it applies to this film because maybe Scientology is a religion now, but he’s not a religious leader, he’s not starting a religion the way it is in our film and this portion of the story.

OSCAR I’d like to hear about the connection between real life stories and your storytelling. We have Jason Robards’ tale from World War Two in a particular scene early in the film, and also obviously stuff from the early times of L. Ron Hubbard. When you come to fucking a sandcastle, when does that become something that’s like, ‘oh, this was something here, it’s going to be part of this story’, it’s going to be an edge to my character that way. Or is it just, ‘this is what happened’ and I want it to be a part of the fabric of this particular tale.

PTA Well, sometimes it’s reverse engineering; like hearing that story that Jason Robards talked about was something that stuck with me and it’s something you write down. And the reverse engineering part is that it’s good enough to wanna film or have that in there and something grows around it just to lead to that moment. And the sand castle getting fucked, it’s as simple as I wrote out ‘Freddie’s on the beach during World War Two’ and that was all we had. And we just went to the beach and started shooting stuff for the day.

Jack Fisk had seen this picture of sand dolls,’sandies’ they would call them. that sailors would make. And so Joaquin was being Freddie and it sort of seemed like the first thing he would do is try to fuck it. So that kind of stuff just happens. You have to count on it. Well, you can’t count on it but you hope that enough things are put in place that you can get stuff like that. It’s funny, you have ‘Freddie sits on a beach’ and never in a million years did I think we’d end up with him fucking a sand doll. It just doesn’t occur to you. I wish I had been that good of a writer to write that down. It never works that way.

EZY DVD The first time that you tried to get the film up with Universal and it got dropped, how did you react? Did it make you even more determined to make the film or not sure whether you’d get this off the ground?

PTA Never that. I mean, sad. It’s a blow to your momentum and a blow to your ego. It’s hard and precarious because you’ve got to get everyone together at a certain time and you have to gamble on everyone’s time and usually you’re gambling with a studio who’s usually leading you along because they may or may not do it, they make you think that ‘no, no, it’s going to work out’.

It’s just things that can kind of drag on for months on end and ultimately it never feels good to be heartbroken or rejected. But it doesn’t turn into ‘oh we’re never gonna make this’, it’s just like, ‘who’s next’. If anything it’s a nice rejection to have. It somehow fuels you up. We thought after There Will Be Blood  we’d be able to cash in, but that’s just not the case. We were back to square one. I felt like I was a freshman again, which is good. It’s a great place to be at. Having to box out and try to scrounge up the cash to make a film.

MMR I thought that Joaquin Pheonix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were just amazing in the film. Phillip you’ve worked with previously but Joaquin, this is the first time you’ve worked with him, and it’s been a few years since he’s been on the screen. So what was it like working with an actor like that?

PTA Good. He was hungry and I felt silently confident because I knew what Joaquin was getting away from when he made that film. He was trying to get away from being in films where you stand on your mark and you say your lines. I felt silently confident that what I was going to offer him was not going to be just a return back to that. And he didn’t know that for sure. He had seen my films and we knew each other a little bit. But I knew how we’d work and I had an instinctual feeling that he would feel comfortable working with us, me and Phil, and all of the people I had worked with on all these films. I just knew he was going to like it and feel comfortable because it’s not restrictive.

It’s pretty loose and it’s not about fucking visitors on the set and press kits and shit like that. I felt really confident he was going to be happy and I dare say he was. I wanted a good environment for him to work in. Because I could see his frustrations – that many actors do go through, feeling like I didn’t sign up to this business or job to get into this thing where I feel like I’m just remembering my lines and there is no excitement to it. He’s made two other films since we shot our film so you’ll see him. He’s not going to go anywhere for a while until he gets bored again.

OSCAR  Traditionally, a movie maker pitches an idea, the studio gives you money and you make the movie. But you’ve developed a process and a style of filmmaking, which is, ‘this is my artistic output and you can take it or leave it as a studio’; but also  this ‘take it or leave it’ applies to the audience member.  What would you say to directors out there who feel the fear of ‘how am I going to get my movie up?’. At what point did you personally say, ‘fuck it, I’m going to let that go and I’m going to do what I want to be an artist, and if I can make a movie that’s great, but if I can’t that’s fine too’?

PTA You’re giving us much more credit than we probably deserve. I thought for sure this was going to be a big hit. I know what you mean though. I think you have to be willing to work at a budget range that’s responsible, which is pretty easy for us. We’re not too expensive. Probably we could be even cheaper than we are. You’ve made me think.

EZY DVD I want to ask you about the online campaign with the roll out of the teaser trailers. There’s a lot of content in there that didn’t make the final cut. Was that deliberate or was that just the way it worked out?

PTA We were just messing around doing those things because we knew that stuff wasn’t going to make the film but it was great. And some of it was, that horrible thing where you see a trailer and think, ‘I don’t need to see the film anymore’. Everything is there. And it was probably a way to use good material. It wasn’t A+ material that was good enough to be in the film, but it was strong enough to create something to promote the film, and it was a way for stuff to be seen that never would have gotten out there and so you didn’t have to do that horrible thing. You know that feeling, ‘why do I want to see the movie now?’.

EZY DVD It made me wonder how long the initial cut was.

PTA Not much longer. There’s never one big long cut. We dump things over as we go and some things come and go. The longest it ever was was like 2:45, but we knew it wouldn’t be that. We always knew it should be about 2 hours or 2:15. So it was never like having a four hour cut where you put everything in. Sometimes you get to a scene and you get there and it’s just not good and you don’t even bother with it.

MMR So the film is set just after World War Two. What do you think it is about that time in American history, that a figure like Lancaster Dodd could flourish and have a following? Is there anything about that time that makes him more prominent than say today or twenty years before that?

PTA Less skepticism probably. If someone came along like him today would we go for it? Maybe. I don’t know. Talking about past lives and ESP becomes popular, psychoanalysis and all that kind of stuff. So it was a little bit of right place, right time.

MMR Do you think there could be a fragility from all the horrors of war?

PTA Yeah, for sure. Definitely. Curiosity about what you’ve gone through or what just happened. Even if it’s just the distance we have now, looking back on it and realising. I dare say they knew what they were doing. New shit had come to light, man.

OSCAR I remember you talking to Henry Rollins about Boogie Nights and saying the goal of the porno movie is to give you a boner. What was your goal for The Master?  It seems like an interesting dissection of character, of life. For one character, life’s too much and the other character, life is not enough – that could be one interpretation of the film.

PTA That’s nice. I never thought of it that way or said it quite like that. I thought we were making something kind of pulpy, honestly. That’s what I tried to get down. It should probably be a bit shorter than it is, but I thought like two hours was a length of some of the noir films. It’s just kind of punchy and hard and a lot of momentum forward.

The film’s probably a bit more episodic than I thought it was going to turn out but that’s okay. I think that’s good. It makes it a little more liquidy. A little harder to grab hold of, which is good.
I think it should just feel like that booze that he drinks. Like if porn is a boner, this should just feel like a sip of something that burns your stomach, that maybe makes your head a little bit bubbly. Like if you could concoct a drink that made your stomach and your chest burn like a shot of tequila but made your head feel like you had champagne, that would be a great feeling for the film. It’s weird, talking about food. I remember talking about There Will Be Blood, we said it should feel like steak and vodka. We had this mantra to ourselves. It’s weird.

EZY DVD With your editors you often sort of alternate between Dylan Tichenor and Leslie Jones. Is that due to availability or do you think their editing strengths lie with the material?

PTA Good question. They are different. It’s availability and mixing it up. I love working with both of them. I’ve never really put my finger on it. No one’s ever asked me that before. Fuck, come back to that. I don’t want to waste your time searching for an answer that’s great.

MMR I read a couple months back that you’re going to be doing an adaptation of Inherent Vice. I’m just wondering, how’s that coming along?

PTA Thanks, it’s coming along pretty good. It’s hard but it’s fun. Do you know his work at all?


PTA You should check it out. Just to work so intimately with somebody else’s writing makes you feel like, it’s like a writing lesson. Like going back to school. Just watching somebody’s skill with words and moving them around. How they can do it? It’s like a masterclass for sure. It’s really humbling. It’s less like writing something, feeling more like ushering something or an editor. So it’s a different thing entirely. It’s great to mix it up and not be creating something from scratch. So we’ll see how it goes. Not quite sure if anything will come of it. Hopefully.

OSCAR It sounds like the process you have set up is ‘play time for actors’. By the looks of things, Joaquin threw himself into the role,  smashing historic toilets and letting rip, but also being in character. Do you ever feel a bit guilty where you’ve created this environment where people can really lose themselves?

PTA Fuck no. Why would I feel guilty?

OSCAR Because you know they love it. But at the same time, there’s possibly some damage that’s being done.

PTA No, it’s all just pretend. You know, Joaquin’s a big boy and everyone wants to have fun doing what they’re doing and i think Joaquin’s version of fun is probably different than other people’s. But I would hate to give the impression that it’s a play ground for actors too, because that can get into dangerous territory, when you get into endless improvs and people making shit up and it goes on forever. We would call them Horrible Jazz Odysseys. And sometimes we call cut and say ‘that’s a jazz odyssey, stop, everyone stop!’.

That’s too much acting going on. Too much improv. Because it can be that. A bunch of stoned people playing the same note over and over again. It’s not in service of anything. And you can feel those days where the crew checks out, everyone’s glazing over, thinking, ‘we got good stuff yesterday. It seemed like everyone was doing something specific, why suddenly now are we in this jam session that’s one guitar solo too many?’. So it can’t just be this playground. You have to have some rules and restrictions and guidelines to play in, otherwise you get a jazz odyssey.

EZY DVD I have to ask. The Mattress Man commercial was in one shot. Was Phillip Seymour Hoffman padded up?

PTA Well it’s not great mystery. It’s a visual effect. An amazing visual effect. There’s a kind of seamless blend between Phillip and a stunt man that’s done to create the movie illusion that Phil jumped off. I’m not giving away some big secret of cinema history or anything like that. But I still don’t know how they did it. I was there and it still gets me every time. And that’s just these 30 nerd technicians up at ILM up in San Francisco that can play with their computers and get it to do something that i don’t understand. It looks really good, doesn’t it?

EZY DVD I was watching it over and over again just yesterday, and I can’t see the cut.

PTA Neither can I. No. It’s as simple as having Phil walk up and do it and get to the moment where he finishes, and you sort of have to find a pose that you get into, and then there’s a monitor and there’s a stuntman. You match his clothes as close as you can, and hopefully they’re the same build and all that kind of stuff and he jumps and tumbles over and when he lands on the ground he freezes. That’s the hardest part of the caper. The stuntman has just smashed his face into the ground and has to stay there like that. You sort of have that moment, put Phil into that position, and he stands up and they blend it and get it stitched together. Yeah.

EZY DVD That’s a wrap.

PTA That’s a wrap? Great. I’m gonna try and get some rest before we go over there. Nice talking to you guys.

EZY DVD Enjoy tonight.

OSCAR Congratulations on the film. Loved it.


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