Monday, February 04, 2013

Interview: Making ‘The Master' with Producer JoAnne Sellar

Welcome to the second installment of "Making The Master," our series of in-depth interviews with some of the minds behind "The Master." We've been talking to many of the production's principal players (including writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson) that helped bring the film to life and today we have an interview with the PTA's longtime producer JoAnne Sellar. Even though she's currently pulling double-duty opening "The Master" in countries around the world and gearing up for "Inherent Vice," she was kind enough to carve out some time to for this conversation. JoAnne spoke to us about the origins of "The Master," how the film changed in the editing room and why the collapse of the mini-majors almost sunk the film. Enjoy. 

Cigarettes & Red Vines: So I know you’ve been working with Paul for a really long time. Can you just tell us how you first got started with him?
JoAnne Sellar: I kinda got to know him when he was making “Sydney” or “Hard Eight” because my husband Daniel Lupi was a Line Producer on that. So I got to know Paul through Daniel and he gave me a copy of the “Boogie Nights” [screenplay] which I kinda flipped out about. And at that time they were looking for someone to produce it with John Lyons who produced “Sydney,” so I came on board. So we kinda ended up becoming partners together and I went onto [produce] all his other films.

Producer can mean lots of different things on a film production. So for anyone who hasn’t seen you right by Paul's side in the “Magnolia” doc “That Moment,” can you talk a little bit about what your role is on Paul’s films?
I mainly do just work with Paul. While he’s thinking of the project, formulating his next project, he’ll talk to me about what he’s thinking about doing and we’ll talk it through, [then] we begin researching. He begins writing and he’ll show me scenes or pages as he goes along. We’ll discuss actors and locations and all those kinds of things as we’re getting a project together. And then my job is to find the money to make the film along with his agent. Daniel Lupi, who’s another producer of Paul’s, will prepare a budget and we'll go out to get the financing, [eventually] hire the crew and start preproduction. My job is really to facilitate, putting Paul’s vision onscreen and trying to get him everything he needs in order to do that while also being responsible to whoever’s financing the movie by trying to keep on budget and schedule.

So really everything.
I’ll also see a project through the whole editing stage and then be part of the whole marketing stage until the film gets released in the cinema and beyond, really. Because now, for example, I’m still dealing with “The Master” because its being released all over the world. So for each release, Paul does press or I’ll do a bit of press. Luckily, Paul is in a position where he can oversee all the marketing materials in each of the different countries around the world so if someone wants to do a new poster or something like that, they have to get his approval and input.

And that’s not usual for most directors to have that level of input on the marketing is it?
No, I guess for auteur directors at Paul’s level it is but [they're] few and far between, really.

Of all of Paul’s films, which was the most difficult one to actually get into production?
Both “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” equally.

What do you think it was about those projects that made them so difficult to get financed? A little bit bigger budget than Paul’s previous films or the period setting or...
No, because the budget for “There Will Be Blood” was pretty slim. I think it was [because it was] an epic kind of production and it’s not an automatic for a studio. It fell between being a small independent and a studio picture, so for a studio it was kind of a risky project because it doesn’t read naturally on the page like it was going to be a big blockbuster. And it was too rich for an independent film.

But then it ended up doing so well so I’m surprised “The Master” had as hard of a time as it did finding financing. "There Will Be Blood" did pretty well at the box office, it was a big Oscar player, it was a cultural touchstone.
Yeah, it made like $40 million and it was so well received critically, it got 8 [Academy Award] nominations which I think is fantastic. Then we set out to make “The Master” and at that time when we were making it, Paul was originally writing the film for Universal on spec. So by the time he’d finished writing it, the industry seemed to have changed a lot during that time. The mini-major [studios] were kind of falling apart like Paramount Vantage and Miramax...

And Warner Independent...
And what was happening was that a lot of these private equity funds, like billionaires, had their own companies that had started up. We were originally going to make the film the first time around a year before we actually made it. And it was gonna be set [and filmed] on the east coast at that time. But we were racing against the clock because we had an end date on Philip Seymour Hoffman. He had to go [by a certain date] because he had a play commitment in Australia that he had to honor. So we did manage to cobble together the financing from five different financing entities. But it was hard because a lot of the places you used to go for that kind of film weren’t available anymore and also the market at that time was really difficult. But basically Paul didn’t feel the script was ready in the time slot that we had, so we decided to postpone [the film]. At that point we went back to the people that were going to be financing and said we were going to postpone and start again next year.

And in the interim time that’s when I met [Annapurna Pictures founder] Megan Ellison, she was a huge Paul fan and she loved the script and just was our guardian angel. She was like, “No, I’ll come in and finance it all,” which was music to our ears! And she was a fantastic partner and we went ahead and made it with her. It was a great experience, she’s very filmmaker friendly and just super supportive and great.

I’m a huge fan of Annapurna and pretty much every film they’re producing right now. It seems like Megan went to all of my favorite filmmakers and said, “What's your dream project? Alright, let’s do this.”
Yeah she’s gotten great praise because she’s such a champion of these directors. And you have these projects that aren’t mini-budgets but they’re not studio pictures, so they fall in between because there’s no one really out there financing these [types of films] except for Megan and Indian Paintbrush and a few others.

So when did Paul first come to you with The Master and what was your initial reaction to it?
He doesn’t really come to me with anything [fully formed]. While we were working on “There Will Be Blood,” he started to talk to me about how he always wanted to do something based on the Freddie character and he wanted to do something set post-WWII. Separately to that, he was very interested in the start up of Dianetics and kinda fascinated with the very early days of persons like L. Ron Hubbard, but obviously not wanting to make a whole statement on Scientology, that wasn’t the purpose at all. And he kinda melded the two together. He had read somewhere that the perfect time for these philosophical groups to start up is that time [just] after the war when you have all these lost souls looking for something to cling onto. And during that time, these groups start to [spring up]. So he used those two things and formed it into what became “The Master.” But it was a long process of talking it through and getting to that point.

And the whole thing where it was labeled a Scientology Movie happened because the script had gotten leaked on the internet and basically became known as the “Paul Thomas Anderson Scientology Movie” which was really frustrating because it clearly isn’t that. And Paul just said, "We’ll let it speak for itself when it gets released." And it did. As soon as it came out, all that kind of talk stopped. It was just a little bit infuriating beforehand [because the Scientology talk] wasn’t founded, really. To me, that’s really the subtext of the text. The same way the pornography is the background to “Boogie Nights” but it’s not about pornography.

How much of all that hoopla affected production? Did you have to shield Paul from any of that stuff?
No, not really. Some reporters tried to talk to me about it but I didn’t really entertain it, I was just trying to get the film made. And it didn’t affect the shooting in any way, it wasn’t like we were being hounded by the Church Of Scientology or something like that. [laughs] Those were all just rumors.

It was nice when the film came out and the conversation immediately changed.
Yeah, it was a relief to move on from that and talk about what the film is actually about.

As Paul’s process has gotten more a little more instinctual over the years, how has that changed your role on the film? It seems like he doesn’t stick quite as rigidly to his script, how does allowing him the space to find the film affect the production?
He kind of changed [his process] around the time of “Punch-Drunk Love.” When I [first worked with Paul on] “Boogie Nights,” it was his second film and he’d had the film in his head for years. He had made the short [“The Dirk Diggler Story”] and [during filming] he was super, super precise to the script. He had everything completely mapped out in pre-production, even down to a shot list of what he was going to be doing every day, which is I would say, over prepared in some ways. [laughs] But it’s great for a producer because you know exactly what to expect. And he was pretty much the same on “Magnolia.” But on ‘Punch-Drunk’ he approached it in a more free form manner where he had the script but there was quite a lot of improvisation.

It was the year of the [proposed] actors strike and we knew we had to let Adam [Sandler] go and then we were going to come back and shoot some more footage with him because he had to finish up something on another film. That’s how we had planned it but the actor’s strike didn’t happen so we were able to actually shoot more. So it gave Paul this wonderful position where he had shot most of the film and he was able to go away and edit it. Then he was able to go back and shoot more stuff that he felt he needed. But it would be very hard to repeat that situation because it would be very costly to shoot like that to have to [break and then] bring the whole crew back.

But we hadn’t planned it like that, [it was all] because of the actor’s strike, so it was kind of a fluke. [By this point in his career] he’d become more confident as a director as well and I think he liked this more organic approach to shooting, [he was being] less rigid on himself. But for me and Daniel [Lupi] it’s, in a way, harder because you have to allow that that’s going to happen but you don’t quite know what’s going to happen. So you have to prepare that he may want to reshoot stuff as he goes along, which he does, and he may need this or that. So it’s much more freefall but not crazily so. We still have a structure and a schedule [that we stick to] but because we know him so well, we just allow for that when we budget it.

And it still seems like it’s done responsibly so that it’s all accounted for beforehand and just allowing that little bit of room to play around.
Yes, totally. And he also takes a long time in post-production but he really finds the film in post.

The way Paul works is very counter to how most movies are made as far as publicity goes. Not a single picture of anyone in the cast came out until that first teaser was released nearly a year after shooting. What was it like working on a production that was so secretive?
Well, most of his films have been that way. He’s always liked a very closed set. We haven’t had press on set, we don’t do EPK’s, so I’m just so used to working in that way. And Paul very much likes to control how the film is presented to the world in terms of when the first stuff goes out and how it’s going to be marketed. He did all those early teasers himself and they were the first things that went out there about the film. Then he started doing those 70mm screenings and stuff. It’s all very planned. It’s just something that we deal with when we’re in post rather than in production.

The teasers were a huge deal when they came out and received a lot of attention. They’re so different from most of the standard movie marketing you see out there.
Yeah and I think the fact that you hadn’t been saturated with stuff along the way made it even more special.

From the teasers to the secret screenings to the festival appearances were all very planned. What was it like working with the Weinstein Co. on actually getting the film out there?
It was a positive experience. They knew how Paul worked and we were all obviously very up front. We had a lot of meetings with them in post-production about what Paul wanted to do and they were supportive of that so we worked together. Paul did the teasers on his own and he cut a trailer and then they had their input and it went backwards and forwards with Paul finishing it up. With the poster, Paul always works with [designer] Dustin Stanton and Dustin came up with some stuff. He did the teaser poster and [Weinstein Co.] came up with some ideas for the main poster and Paul liked that idea. So it was actually a pretty collaborative process.

I imagine you saw many cuts all through post-production but do you remember when you saw the finished film for the first time? What was your reaction to it?
Hard to say because I was literally seeing cuts every week. To me there wasn’t really a final cut, I was in so deep at that point. I’d seen so much as we went along and I’d seen it grow into what it became. There was a point where we’d taken some earlier stuff out, we’d shortened the beginning and taken some stuff out of Freddie’s back story. The film wasn’t working, it was off balance but because we were all in deep at that point, we couldn’t exactly work out what it was. It was clear you needed to have as much back story as we did [so we reinstated some of that stuff]. Times like that [are exciting], where you go, “Oh that works now!” But there wasn’t one ‘Aha!’ moment because I was seeing so much stuff as it went along.

The script on the FYC site is pretty substantially different from the finished film. There are entire sequences in the script that aren’t in the film and vice versa, the stuff where he goes off to see cousin Bob, etc. Was any of that in the final shooting script when production started?
No! Cousin Bob wasn’t in the shooting script. I don’t know what they put up on their website.

Must’ve been an older version.
No, cousin Bob was a while back from there. [laughs] It did change quite a lot from the shooting script to what we shot but not to the degree you’re talking about. There were flashbacks, stuff you see in the teasers like Freddie jumping off the ship and that type of thing, scenes that were part of Freddie’s story while he was at war. But when Paul put the cut the film together, he realized he didn’t need all that and it wasn’t important to telling the story, which was really hard because we had such fantastic footage. But I thought it was pretty interesting how he used it because it’s quite unusual to use shots that you don’t use in the final cut in the teasers and trailers.

One of the most interesting things about watching the film for the first time is seeing that some of the most iconic moments from those trailers -- like the “Tell me something that’s true!” from the jail sequence -- are not in the film! But you kinda feel like they're still there.
You’re like, “Well, was that in the trailer or was that in the movie?” I thought that was very clever of him, yeah.

Did he know when he was cutting those teasers if any of that footage was still possibly going to be in the movie? Or did he know it was all cut stuff?
I think at that point it was already cut stuff.

It seems like “Inherent Vice” is getting started up sooner than later. I’m super excited that we won’t have to wait another 5 years for his next movie.
I know! So am I.

Can you talk about where you guys are at now with that project?
We're just putting the financing together and the plan is to start shooting in late April. That’s the plan.

Fantastic. So casting probably very soon?
Yes. Everything should be very soon in order to start shooting then: late April/early May kinda thing. I’m sure you’ll be hearing some stuff very soon.

Feel free to drop us a line anytime with that kind of stuff. We will always be receptive to that kind of thing.

Last question: what’s the biggest difference in working with 26 year old Paul vs 42 year old Paul?
He’s definitely more mellow. It might be the fact of aging but he’s also got 3 kids now. I also think that as he’s become more confident as a director, he’s a bit more relaxed about the process... although he’s still as much a control freak about everything as much as when he was 26. [laughs] So that didn’t change, which I’m sure is the thing that makes his movies so great because he’s so precise and knows exactly what he wants and fights tooth and nail to get it. He doesn’t have to fight so much anymore because he’s proven himself.

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  1. Great interview. Wonderful job with this!

  2. Great job guys! Really looking forward to the next one.

  3. Thanks a lot that was great.

    What was the movie Paul was writing on spec for Universal????????

  4. Great interview! Thank you for all the work you do for the site.

  5. He was writing The Master as a spec for Universal

  6. Thanks again for the great interview. Who will be in the next installment? Maybe Leslie Jones or Peter McNulty? That would be interesting.

  7. A Jack Fisk interview would be incredible. Thanks again guys.

    1. It definitely would be. Stay tuned. :)

    2. Oh WOW THANK YOU. I've been wanting to read an in-depth Fisk interview about PTA for so long.

      You're the man Modage.

  8. Looking forward to Jack Fisk. Great work and thanks for the insight/inspiration

  9. This series is fantastic!! Thanks a lot for these interviews, great work! :D

  10. That pic above of Sellar and PTA from the side is really awful. It doesn't even look like him. He looks 70 yrs old. Kinda freaking me out.

  11. Head over to to read their review of The Master blu-ray. Overall they gave the release a 4.5 outta 5. Not bad. Now if we could just get rolling on a Sydney and Punch Drunk blu-ray release the collection will be complete.

  12. please do an interview with mihai malaimare aswell!