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.

Supporting Actor Category Full Of Scene-Stealers

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

In a year when the leading actor race is full of major heavyweight contenders—many going for their second or third Oscars—the supporting actor category is no less competitive and also chockful of major names in the hunt for another Oscar. With certified leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Russell Crowe, Ewan McGregor, and Matthew McConaughey in the mix, the supporting contest is easily one of the most fascinating to watch. And it begs the question: What really is a supporting role? Is it playing a major title role in The Master or could it be just one 5-minute scene as a cancer patient in Flight? Is it a collective award for a trio of scene-stealing roles in one year, such as John Goodman’s 2012 résumé indicates, or will it honor a return to critical acclaim for a legend like Robert De Niro who hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since 1991? Whatever the case, this is the starriest group of contenders we have seen jockeying for best supporting actor in many years. Here’s a rundown of the major players.

ROBERT DE NIRO |SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

As Pat Sr., the obsessive-compulsive father and Philadelphia Eagles fan, two-time winner De Niro wowed critics and immediately elicited strong Oscar buzz for the first time in a couple of decades. He hasn’t been nominated since 1991’s Cape Fear and hasn’t won since 1980’s Raging Bull. Now he’s back in the supporting category where he first triumphed in 1974 for The Godfather Part II. Will history repeat itself? He’s a hot contender to do just that.

Tommy Lee Jones plays abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.
Tommy Lee Jones plays abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.

TOMMY LEE JONES | LINCOLN

As the spirited and scene-stealing political powerhouse Thaddeus Stevens, Jones livens up the film with a rip-roaring turn that puts this leading actor squarely in the hunt for a second statuette in the supporting category. He won for 1993’s The Fugitive and was last nominated five years for the first time in the best actor category for In the Valley of Elah. His acclaimed turn opposite Meryl Streep in the summer release Hope Springs further enhances his chances of scoring another Oscar for his mantel.

John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.
John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.

ALAN ARKIN |ARGO

Playing the veteran Hollywood movie producer called upon to create a fake film in order to help some hostages out of Iran, Arkin drolly nails the role and gets the laughs in Ben Affleck’s otherwise serious thriller set against the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The veteran star finally won an Oscar in this category six years ago for Little Miss Sunshine after being AWOL from the Oscar competition for a record 38 years. But he’s back with a vengeance, and somehow one Oscar just doesn’t seem enough for this beloved actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic leader of a cult in The Master.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic leader of a cult in The Master.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN |THE MASTER

As Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a cult-like religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s drama, Hoffman is riveting and every bit the match for Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddy. But in order to avoid Hoffman and Phoenix competing for votes in the same category, the Weinstein Company is campaigning Hoffman in supporting, which gives him a meaty opportunity to swamp the competition. Polarized reaction to the film among some voters could hurt his overall chances, but a nomination seems like a no-brainer.

EWAN McGREGOR |THE IMPOSSIBLE

McGregor is another leading man going for his first dance with Oscar as the real-life father and husband who searches desperately for his wife and oldest son when their family is divided after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. With one highly emotional scene to boost his chances, McGregor strongly delivers in a role to which any father will relate. And there’s a lot of them in the Academy.

JOHN GOODMAN |ARGO & FLIGHT

Goodman has had an embarrassment of riches this year with scene-stealing roles. He was particularly well-received in Argo as the real-life Hollywood makeup man who helps the CIA pull off a daring plan to rescue six Americans in 1979-Tehran and as alcoholic/addict Denzel Washington’s enabler in Flight. Unfortunately, both roles are being campaigned by their respective studios, and he’s in danger of cancelling himself out. Every actor should have this kind of problem.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO |Django Unchained

DiCaprio, a three-time Oscar nominee and certified superstar could compete for supporting honors as the deliciously villainous slave owner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s wild ride of a western. The Weinstein Company recently moved costar Christoph Waltz up to lead actor, where he will square off with star Jamie Foxx, leaving the supporting field in the film largely to DiCaprio (though Samuel L. Jackson could also be a small fly in that ointment once the film is more widely seen by voters).

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY |MAGIC MIKE

Leaving behind a string of romantic-comedy roles, McConaughey completely reinvented his career with a series of strong, offbeat performances in 2012, including the murderous hitman in Killer Joe, the Texas prosecutor in Bernie,and a pair of well-received performances in movies that debuted in competition at Cannes, The Paperboy and the upcoming 2013 release Mud. But it’s his flashy strip-club veteran Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike that has put him in the supporting actor conversation.

JAVIER BARDEM |SKYFALL

He already has one supporting Oscar for playing evil in No Country for Old Men, but could Bardem be the first Bond villain ever to win an Oscar nomination? As the sexually ambiguous Silva, a wicked mastermind of all things bad, Bardem brings real dimension to what could have been a comic-book portrayal in lesser hands. In doing so, he lifts everyone’s game in the most successful James Bond film yet.

RUSSELL CROWE |LES MISÉRABLES

Oscar-winning leading actor Crowe gets to once again show his dramatic chops as Javert, the singularly focused policeman who hunts down Hugh Jackman’s Valjean in the musical Les Misérables. What might really make voters stand up and take notice is Crowe’s singing ability here, and that can be a real plus for Academy voters, who love to see their Oscar winners stretch.

Also in the mix…

BRYAN CRANSTON |ARGO

With costars Alan Arkin and John Goodman already standing in line, Cranston’s equally terrific turn as a CIA boss might get lost in the crowd.

DWIGHT HENRY |BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

A baker in his native Louisiana, Henry is a non-pro who knocks it out of the park as the suffering dad of young Hushpuppy stuck in the middle of a crisis on the bayou. Against stiff marquee competition, he probably has a better shot at success at the Independent Spirit Awards.

ALBERT BROOKS |THIS IS 40

After being robbed last year for going evil in Drive, Brooks is back in familiar territory as Paul Rudd’s needy father in this terrific adult comedy. He nails it, as usual.

HAL HOLBROOK |PROMISED LAND

Holbrook has a couple of strong scenes, including a heartfelt monologue, but he might not have enough screen time, though the same problem didn’t seem to hurt when he was nominated for Into the Wild a few years back. His few moments in Lincoln and veteran statusalso bolster his case.

MICHAEL PENA |END OF WATCH

Playing a good cop on patrol in Southeast L.A., Pena is every bit the equal of costar and partner Jake Gyllenhaal, but the distributor doesn’t want them competing in the lead category. Having Pena in supporting might confuse actors who could want to put him in the upper category with Jake because of the size of the role.

EZRA MILLER |THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

Miller was evil personified in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin,but he’s truly a revelation here in a complex turn in this fine drama about real teens. In a year with less competition, he would make the cut.

BILLY CONNOLLY |QUARTET

Connolly is vibrant as part of the ensemble of great actors in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, and voters could single him out, but it’s a longshot.

WILLIAM H. MACY |THE SESSIONS

As the priest confidante of the horny but physically challenged Mark O’Brien, Macy gets the laughs, but the film really belongs to his costars.

NATE PARKER |ARBITRAGE

As a street-smart kid who helps star Richard Gere out of a jam, Parker gives the role three dimensions, but his chances for a surprise nomination are slim with this killer group of contenders.

JAMES GANDOLFINI |NOT FADE AWAY

As a 1960s Jersey dad trying to discourage his son from musical ambitions, Gandofini is once again working with David Chase and back in the home territory of Tony Soprano but showing a completely different side of his talent. Getting the film seen could be a problem.

IRRFAN KHAN |LIFE OF PI

As the older Pi telling his story in flashbacks, this acclaimed Indian star is effective and low-key, but most of the emotional stuff is left to his younger self, played by Suraj Sharma.

GARRETT HEDLUND |ON THE ROAD

Hedlund shows off real star power, along with other things, as the mystical Dean Moriarty in the Jack Kerouac adaptation. He’s a breakout, but Oscar will likely have to wait for another year.

JAMES BADGE DALE |FLIGHT

With just a single scene as a cancer patient, James Badge Dale makes an indelible impression that has fellow actors singing his praises. But at five minutes’ screen time, it’s the longest of longshots.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN |SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS

Walken’s dog-napper of a con steals the show from his costars, and the Oscar winner is always respected by fellow actors. Don’t discount his ability to break through, but CBS Films will really have to campaign him.

JOHN TRAVOLTA |SAVAGES

Oliver Stone’s Savages seems to be on the sidelines this awards season, but attention must be paid to Travolta’s corrupt and deliciously slippery DEA agent, his best work in years.

ANDY SERKIS |THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

With another performance-capture turn as Gollum, has this actor’s Oscar time finally come? Judging from past Academy voting habits, don’t bet the farm on it.