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.

Q&A: Philip Seymour Hoffman on The Master

This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a theatrical director, a film producer, and a board member of the Labyrinth Theater Company. But above all, he’s an actor, and a relentlessly inquisitive one. Much like the cult leader, Lancaster Dodd,  he plays in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Hoffman is continually deconstructing flawed souls on the stage and screen: An accused pedophiliac priest (Doubt), the suicidal Willy Loman (Broadway’s Death of a Salesman), and Truman Capote (Capote) are among the many. Meryl Streep once told the New York Times about her Doubt costar: “One of the most important keys to acting is curiosity. I am curious to the point of being nosy, and I think Philip is the same. What that means is you want to devour lives. You’re eager to put on their shoes and wear their clothes and have them become a part of you. All people contain mystery, and when you act, you want to plumb that mystery until everything is known to you.” In The Master, Hoffman imbues the puzzling depths of his guru with a warm, paternal nuance while exposing Dodd’s violent, drunken underbelly. Of utmost importance for Hoffman was syncing with the dramatic rhythms of Joaquin Phoenix’s delinquent Freddie Quell, who is not only his protégé, but his doppelganger as well.

AWARDSLINE: How did Paul prepare you for the role?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: It doesn’t work that way, where Paul prepares you. He’s a writer, so he’s writing all the time. The screenplay was an amalgamation of many things he was writing through the years and then eventually, he had a screenplay. He sent it to me four years out from shooting it. I was part of a development process with him of the story and the character. He had a plan and knew what he was going to do, but I was the guy he was bouncing it off of for a while because I was going to play Lancaster. So that’s how I prepared for the part, talking about and ruminating about it. It was a journey we both took together; it’s just that his job was a lot bigger than mine.

AWARDSLINE: How did Lancaster Dodd change between drafts? Because when we meet him and Freddie, they’re at turning points in their lives.

HOFFMAN: The character didn’t change so much, it was more what to put in, what to take out, what to concentrate on. Early on in the development, these two men always had a relationship where they were polar opposites but mirror images of each other. That was something that was making itself known, and there was a love story in that. That the idea—that the turning points in your life are so profound; they mean so much that they’re almost not real. They become these memories or dreams when something is so epic in your life. Or a person you met that’s changed your life so much, you don’t see them anymore. They become mythical. So if any changes happened, it happened inside that paradigm. Those were the themes. And then what was buttressing all of this was the venue which was the early ’50s; based on a Scientology-like movement, based on an L. Ron Hubbard kind of guy from that time. Anytime we got too far away from the core relationship of these two men, and their journey and what they were going to do to each other, and how they were ultimately going to reveal each other—which is the most profound thing—it was no good. The more detailed we were about the movement, the script got away from itself.

AWARDSLINE: How does Paul work with his actors? Does he know exactly what he wants, or does he give you the breadth to do what you want?

HOFFMAN: It’s very clear that he knows what he wants. You see his movies and the details in his movies are astounding, and that’s good for us. You know you’re being taken care of as an actor because the detail around you is so great. He wants the actor to do their job. He has a real respect for actors. If someone can act well, that means a lot to Paul. He holds that very high, and he doesn’t want to get in the way of that. He only says what he feels he needs to say, but ultimately he has said everything before we start shooting. He’s very good at casting. He has an energy about him on set. No, he’s not a micromanager when it comes to the acting. I think the one thing about Paul is that he’s not predictable. The only thing that’s predictable is don’t try to predict him. He might shoot a scene that you thought would take forever, and it goes quick. Then there’s a scene that you thought was small, and he shoots for two days. He’s going to go where the bigger stuff is happening.

AWARDSLINE: The audience reaction to The Master has been divided. Why is that?

HOFFMAN: I really don’t know, to be honest. I think it’s divided a lot of critics.This one really baffles me, because I think the movie is full of emotion and feeling from beginning to end, like Paul always is. I don’t know how you watch the movie and feel distant and cold, as opposed to those who are taken away with it. It’s all heart and primal, gut feeling. It’s all need, love, aching, and craving from the beginning to the end. People have a lot of opinions about the movement: “Is it based on Scientology?” Or people have an opinion about the characters or how Joaquin is as a person. People project all over this more than any film I’ve ever done. (Laughs.) I hear people say things, and I’m like, “Wow! That’s not even something that crossed my mind in making this movie!” I think that’s what it comes down to: The movie allows you to project on it. There’s stuff going on in The Master that one reacts to, that one distances themselves from. I think people take themselves out of it, because there’s something about the movie they don’t want to be involved with. That’s my gut feeling.

Q&A: Amy Adams On The Master

When it comes to straddling comedy and drama, few performers possess the range and commercial longevity. Count Amy Adams as one of those few. In the afterglow of her Oscar-nominated turn as the filter-less Southern-fried Ashley in 2005’s Junebug, Adams continues to rally Academy voters for her somber roles (her suspicious nun in 2008’s Doubt and her Gaelic gal in 2010’s The Fighter) as well as families for her Disney films (last winter’s The Muppets and 2007’s Enchanted). In her latest role as Peggy Dodd, the woman behind Philip Seymour Hoffman’s philosophical cult leader Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Adams brings a fierce gravitas to every scene she’s in, even when she isn’t speaking. When deconstructing her process, Adams is literally speechless: “The mystery of working with Paul is part of the wonderful experience. You have to invest in the moment and invest in the experience. Of course, you can ask questions. But I always find that living the experience is the answer.”

AWARDSLINE: You can play comedy and serious drama equally. Was achieving this dynamic something you and your talent reps planned or was it serendipity?

AMY ADAMS: It wasn’t so much that we sat there and had a strategy meeting. I finished The Muppets and was looking for what I would be doing next, and The Master presented itself. I do like to challenge myself and have it feel like different experiences in developing characters. Then I went from The Master to Superman. So it’s something I’m looking for from project to project rather than an overall strategy.

AWARDSLINE: What did you do to prepare for the role? Peggy has this Amish appearance, not to mention being controlling.

ADAMS: Yes, she does have a puritanical, buttoned-up way about her. Paul saw her as omnipresent and wanted her around even if she wasn’t involved in the action of the scene. This helped me in forming the character.

AWARDSLINE: How does Paul work with his actors? Does he rehearse a lot?

ADAMS: Paul’s process is immersive and actually quite fluid. There’s no particular technique or category to throw it in. We didn’t do a lot of rehearsals, at least I didn’t. There are conversations. I would love to have anecdotes and easy answers, but it’s so immersive that you come out of it—you don’t feel the same, and you can’t figure out why. It’s a wonderful confusion, so it’s very hard to put your finger on the experience.

AWARDSLINE: As widely reported, the film is inspired by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Did you read up on Dianetics or did you just leave it to the script?

ADAMS: I left a lot to the script. I read Dianetics before and for some reason I remember it being a self-help book. I really let Paul guide me. I paid more attention to the era, to figure out women’s roles and their place in society. It’s changed so much over the past 100 years, so that’s always fascinating to me when I’m revisiting the past: To see where women were at that time. I read this book a while ago, The Feminist Mystique, and I remember the author talking about women’s roles during post-war (in which The Master is set). Peggy was clearly a bright and educated woman and her being behind a man was a much more powerful thing than for her being out on her own. So that’s what I went back to: The idea of there being limited options for an intelligent, ambitious woman.

AWARDSLINE: The fact that she can speak out at dinner and exclaim, “We can’t trust Freddie” proves Peggy isn’t a second-class citizen.

ADAMS: No, she’s not a second-class citizen. But at that point, I also try to stay very mannered because I’m in front of the children, and it’s important that I give Lancaster the respect. I’m not yelling at him nor am I manipulating him as I do at a different time in the film where I’m much more direct. Several times when we’re in private, there’s a different Peggy than the one in front of his children where she maintains a level of respect and hierarchy; an arena where she doesn’t want to offend him or push the wrong button.

AWARDSLINE: Let’s address the elephant in the room: That scene where you…[Ed. note: Peggy aggressively fondles Lancaster after a drunken soiree in an effort to discipline him.]

ADAMS: (Laughs.) Really take control of him!


AWARDSLINE: Yes, it’s a bold scene because you’re getting your man back in order.

ADAMS: That scene let me know a lot about who Peggy was, and mercifully, we only had to do it in two takes.

AWARDSLINE: And what was it that you learned about her?

ADAMS: There was a coolness to her that I found so interesting in the writing. I wish I had the script in front of me, so I could say it in Paul’s brilliant words about rinsing her hand off and reaching over to the towel, and that was the whole thing to me: She’s a girl, and she’s going to do what she needs to do to get the job done. That was the scene that made me go, “Oh, O.K. I get her.”

AWARDSLINE: What’s your interpretation of Lois Lane in the upcoming Man of Steel?

ADAMS: I grew up with Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, so I didn’t want to try and be that version. Zack (Snyder) said that he wanted to play for more realism. There’s definitely still banter (with Superman). She’s tough, modern, and more contemporary. There’s also a lot more action than I’ve seen in my career.

AWARDSLINE: You’re also prepping to play Janis Joplin?

ADAMS: It’s still in development; I’ve been talking to people about that over the last couple of years. It’s one of those that is scary to think about, but I often say, “If it isn’t scary, I shouldn’t be doing it,” so I’m typically scared before I start everything.