Q&A: Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a genuine auteur, a writer/director who works when he wants, makes what he wants, and is considered now to be one of the film industry’s true talents. His list of films is small but significant: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights,and Magnolia to Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood,and now The Master, just six films in 16 years but all winning wide critical acclaim. He has five Oscar nominations, mostly for screenplay, but he did score his first directing nod for There Will Be Blood. He hopes to continue the trend with The Master, though the film has polarized audiences, something that surprised Anderson but doesn’t necessarily disappoint him. How that translates into awards is anyone’s guess, but don’t say Paul Thomas Anderson is making movies you can easily dismiss.

AWARDSLINE: There have wildly different reactions to the movie. Is that something that you wanted?

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: It’s really interesting; it’s not something I expected. The final stretch of finishing a film, you find yourself in a kind of hypnosis that you made something that you understand and therefore everyone else will understand. And it’s an insane assumption, but it happens. And it’s temporary. I’m always surprised by the reactions, but this one in particular seems to have a real interesting messiness about people’s responses. I suppose the worst thing in the world would be pure ambivalence, and to have any attention paid to you is nice. Even if it’s negative.

AWARDSLINE: There are so many different themes in the film, but a lot of attention has been on the Scientology aspect. If anything, it’s the beginnings of that, but it’s not really Scientology as it is now. Was part of the attraction to the story the notion of people looking for some kind of connection?

ANDERSON: A lot of it, but those are the kinds of things that you discover after you’ve started writing. In many ways, it’s about trying to find ways to justify what I’m writing. Maybe you read something that got into your head a long time ago, and you find it coming back out of you. My dad came back from World War II, so there was an attraction to that era on a surface level in terms of cars and music. Anything that I was reading or learned about L. Ron Hubbard kind of tied into this era. It was very clear that (Scientology) was a result of a postwar hangover. And I read a line somewhere—I wish I could remember so I could give them credit—and it said something like, “Anytime is a good time for a spiritual movement to begin, but a particularly strong time is after a war.” It felt like a particularly good hook. It’s good for you as a writer when you get something like that to hang your hat on, to help guide you with what you’re doing.

AWARDSLINE: Are you still discovering things about this movie as you talk about it?

ANDERSON: I would like to think that there’s something in the human personality that resents things that are too clear. It’s impossible to walk into a movie and not have a plan, but it’s best when you’re executing a plan and your eyes open to a lot of other things that are there. It makes it interesting; it makes it fun to go to work every day. That’s why we didn’t do too much talking about what we were doing, except to really focus on the intense love affair and friendship between these two guys. On that note, I remember reading a great book called the Pacific War Diary by James J. Fahey. He talked about his absolute admiration for his masters and commanders, and when he would switch over to a different ship, how disappointed he was when he didn’t get a good master. It was hard for some fellows coming back from the war because they missed having someone telling them what to do. To suddenly be let loose and be of your own devices was incredibly difficult for a lot of guys. They really missed the comraderie and the kind of focus their lives had at sea.

AWARDSLINE: The symbolism of the ocean and the water is a big part of what you have in this film.

ANDERSON: That (opening) shot is never anything I could have imagined as a writer. I just want to know: Is it inside or outside and what are they saying to each other? Anything like that is a product of being on a boat and seeing that water, so beautiful and blue, and turning the camera on. Months and weeks later in the editing room, it just feels right to put it in there. Now in terms of it working for the story, it’s kind of self-explanatory. Freddie is so clearly more comfortable at sea than he is anywhere else and to use them as little chapter dividers or kind of transitional devices (makes sense). So much of our film is so claustrophobic and interior that having a breath of fresh air is nice, even as a palette cleanser.

AWARDSLINE: When you cast Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, did you get exactly what you thought you’d get or did you get more?

ANDERSON: The expectation is that any actor will give you everything, and even if they give you everything, perhaps that isn’t right for the film, no matter how hard they’re trying or their commitment is. But what he did was way beyond what I expected. The gulf between little black words on a white piece of paper and being on set in costume is huge! It’s this vast gulf, and he just filled it. I don’t even remember what I thought of Freddie Quell way back when I was writing him. I just know what he’s done now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a pretty great performance; I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I love it!

AWARDSLINE: People are also pointing to Phoenix’s comments about awards season.

ANDERSON: I don’t think there’s an actor out there—and I know lots of them—that feels comfortable when performances get turned into sport. But that doesn’t take away from the excitement or privilege of winning an Academy Award. Actors can be competitive, they have that gene for sure, but my experience with actors is that they are actually incredibly generous people who have a skill and a job that they really like to do, which is playing make believe. They’re more comfortable when they get to be somebody else, and having to appear as themselves can be very uncomfortable.

It’s A Crowded Year For The Lead Actor Category

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

If there’s one race this Oscar season that bears watching closely it’s best actor. Ridiculously over-crowded, we could actually easily fill this category two or three times over. This is a year where, in the case of the leading men, they have all come to play and some truly deserving performances might not only not make it to the finish line, they are in danger of not even making it to the starting line. The field is that strong and is topped by a pair of actors who stand a real chance at grabbing their third Oscar, but nothing is certain, especially in a late-breaking group brimming with career-best turns. Here’s a rundown of the contenders and their current place in the race.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Twice a best actor Oscar winner for My Left Foot (1989) and There Will Be Blood (2007), Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln, one of the most recognizable figures in world history. There are all sorts of landmines he had to avoid, and some have even criticized the vocal choices he made (this is not the Disneyland version of Lincoln), but Day-Lewis nails it like he belongs on that $5 bill and certainly earns as least a share of frontrunner status here.

Denzel Washington plays an airline pilot with a substance-abuse problem in Flight.

Denzel Washington, Flight

Washington is another two-time winner (Glory, Training Day) but might have topped even those roles with a bravura turn as a troubled drug- and alcohol-addicted pilot who becomes a media hero just as his own demons threaten to do him in. Playing drunk has always been a ticket to the Oscars, but Washington manages to add a strong human element in a riveting performance certain to gain the attention of his fellow actors.

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

The ever-unpredictable Phoenix made waves and won critical praise for working without a net in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s-set drama about a young man caught up in the early days of a religious cult. Reminiscent of something Brando—or even Day-Lewis—might have done, Phoenix, in a minicomeback, shows again he has acting chops second to none. Even his recent comments disparaging the whole Oscar campaign process likely won’t prevent him from landing in the final five.

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Cooper could easily score his first Oscar nomination for this heartfelt, alternately funny and sad portrayal of a man returning home after spending time in a mental institution. Cooper shows new sides of a talent only hinted at in previous movies but must compete against more flamboyant roles. A Golden Globe nomination for comedy is assured, and the film’s popularity could help push him into the final five at Oscar time.

Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock

It always helps to play well-known biographical figures, and Hopkins is the perfect fit as Alfred Hitchcock. Voters are suckers for this type of role. Hopkins, a four-time Oscar nominee and a winner for Silence of the Lambs (1991) hasn’t been in the race since 1997, and Hitch could be his ticket back.

John Hawkes, The Sessions

Breathing Lessons, the documentary short about the life of Mark O’Brien, a disabled man who had to live in an iron lung, won an Oscar, and now Hawkes plays the same man as he attempts to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). Hawkes hits the bullseye with a performance that is dramatic but also surprisingly funny, and he could get his second nomination in just two years after landing in the supporting category for Winter’s Bone in 2010. An actor’s dream role, Hawkes’ performance would be a slam-dunk nomination in any year but this one. Searchlight’s ability to keep the movie front of mind in the race will determine his fate.

Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables

Taking on one of musical theater’s quintessential roles, the never-nominated former host of the Oscars could find himself sitting front and center for his portrayal of Jean Valjean in the movie version of the hit Broadway musical. Allowing Jackman to show off his considerable musical talents, with even a new song written for him, is something the Academy has long awaited, and this could be a performance that resonates for the likable and popular Jackman.

Richard Gere, Arbitrage

As a manipulative and slick Wall Street player, Gere delivered his best performance in years, one widely acclaimed by critics. But in a highly competitive field, will the small theatrical/VOD release find enough of an audience to deliver his first-ever—and long overdue—Oscar nomination?

Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour

Lured out of retirement after 14 years, this iconic French star (A Man and a Woman) has the role of a lifetime as a man dealing with the rapidly declining health of his beloved wife. At 82, Trintignant is enormously moving, but can this intense drama about an aging couple break through to enough voters who could find the subject matter wrenching to watch?

Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson

Many think Murray was robbed of the Oscar for Lost in Translation, his only previous nomination, and a nod for his crafty and unexpected turn as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt could make up for that slight. Voters love seeing comic actors turn dramatic, and Murray nails the role, but mixed reaction to the film could hurt his chances of making the final five this time.

Also in the mix…

Jack Black, Bernie

Going against type Black, like Murray, impressed critics, but will voters remember this early spring release?

Ben Affleck, Argo

He did a fine job as Tony Mendez, but the Academy is more likely to recognize Affleck in the directing and producing categories and feel they can spread the wealth to other actors in this competitive year.

Tom Holland, The Impossible

Although only 14, Holland carries a big emotional load trying to put his family back together after a devastating tsunami, but will voters think he is too young to be in this category?

Omar Sy, The Intouchables

Sy upset favored Jean Dujardin last year for the Cesar award, but can lightning strike twice for this engaging actor? He’s an Oscar longshot, to be sure, but definitely a Golden Globe possibility.

Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch

Gyllenhaal is terrific as a cop patrolling the rough streets of South Los Angeles, but playing the good guy isn’t always to best way to win Oscar attention.

Matt Damon, Promised Land

Damon is earnest and very fine but more likely to land another original screenplay nod than to crack the best actor circle this year, plus the film is coming out very late near the end of the voting period, which hurts the buzz potential.

Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained

Foxx is always formidable, but the Quentin Tarantino film could be a challenge for older voters, hurting Foxx’s chances of repeating his Ray Oscar triumph.

Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Waltz, the supporting actor Oscar winner from 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, is moving up into the lead category for another role in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Time will tell if he has as much success in lead as he did in supporting.

Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi

Carrying the film on his shoulders, Sharma hits a lot of the right notes but is overshadowed by the sheer scope and visual magic of Ang Lee’s epic.

Alan Cumming, Any Day Now

Cumming is great, but the film is just too small to make a dent here. Independent Spirit Awards are a definite possibility.

Frank Langella, Robot and Frank

See Alan Cumming.

Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs

Jones stood out, but the buzz has faded. His best shot is now in the supporting category for Lincoln.

Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone

A terrific new actor, but his costar Marion Cotillard will get all the awards love for this intense drama.

Clint Eastwood, Trouble with the Curve

There could be sympathy for what might be Eastwood’s final leading role, and he’s in great form, but his trouble with the “chair” at the GOP convention and the movie’s quick disappearance might have negated that.