The Master: Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson
In the wake of World War II, a restless America emerged. It was a time of unprecedented national growth and aspiration, but also of rootlessness and lingering disquiet and the combustion of these contrasting elements sparked a culture of seeking and questing that continues into the 21st Century.
Young men returning home from the incomprehensible darkness of war forged a shiny new world of consumerism and optimism. Yet, many longed for to find more from life, longed to grasp onto something larger than themselves, something to halt the anxiety, confusion and savagery of the modern world.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature film, The Master, unfolds a vibrantly human story inside this atmosphere of spiritual yearning on the cusp of 1950. The film follows the shifting fortunes of Freddie, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, a volatile former Naval officer unable to settle down into everyday life, and the unpredictable journey he takes when he stumbles upon a fledgling movement known as The Cause.
Coming to The Cause as an itinerant and outsider, Freddie will ultimately become a surrogate heir to its flamboyant leader: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. And yet, even as The Cause probes the mastery of human emotions, the camaraderie between Freddie and Dodd will mount into a fierce and intimate struggle of wills.
The first feature film shot using 65mm film stock in several decades, The Master is brought to life by a devoted cast and crew who have crafted a visually alluring and emotionally provocative portrait of three people pursuing a vision of betterment.
Paul Thomas Anderson, a multiple Academy Award nominee, has set each of his films to date at the edge of emotional, familial and historical frontiers. His first film Hard Eight followed a hard-bitten pro Las Vegas gambler who takes a hard-luck loser under his wing with unforeseen results. This was followed by Boogie Nights, about a group of adult film industry workers who construct an unconventional family; Magnolia, an interwoven tale of personal crises that connect on one magical night in the San Fernando Valley; and Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic comedy about a lonely businessman’s flummoxing encounters with love and terror.
His most recent film, There Will Be Blood, journeyed into turn-of-the century California for the epic tale of a prospector who transforms himself and an entire town through the pursuit of oil. With The Master, Anderson became intrigued by the birth of a new kind of patchwork American family that arose out of the upheaval of World War II: those of alternative spiritual factions and newly established religions.
From Eastern asceticism to Dianetics, the early 1950s became a time when many began to build grass roots communities devoted to realizing grand visions of human potential. “It was fertile ground for telling a dramatic and engaging story,” Anderson says of his fascination with this time of cultural upheaval and spiritual adventurism. “Going back to the beginning of things allows you to see what the good intentions were; and what the spark was that ignited people to want to change themselves and the world around them. Post-World War II was a period when people were looking forward to the future with great optimism but, at the same time, dealing with quite a lot of pain and death in the rear view mirror.”
He continues: “My father came out of World War II and was restless his whole life. It’s been said that any time is a good time for a spiritual movement or religion to begin, but a particularly fertile time is right after a war. After so much death and destruction, people are asking ‘how come?’ and ‘where do the dead go?’: two very important questions.”
That propulsive “why?” drove the creation of Freddie, who is adrift in his life and spiraling into an intoxicated, lusty oblivion when he first encounters Lancaster Dodd, a Navy man himself who believes he has uncovered some compelling answers about how humankind can overcome its darkest animal nature.
With Freddie at its center, the story turned deeply personal, tracking his twisting and turning path through The Cause, a path at once rebellious and loyal, hopeful and destructive, uncertain and passionate, and rife with dreams and fantasies that began to pierce through the realism of the narrative.
Producer JoAnne Sellar, who has collaborated on all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films since Boogie Nights, remembers watching the project go through a creative evolution. “Paul was very interested in the idea of what war does to you–and how by 1950, you have all these men coming home who have to find their way in the world again. It was a time of lost souls looking for answers, and the way that led to the formation of these new spiritual groups, Dianetics among them, really fascinated Paul. Of course, Paul was not interested at all in making a non-fiction film – that’s not his point of view. His creation of The Cause may have been inspired by his research, but the story took him entirely in another direction from there.”
“It became Freddie’s tale,” Sellar continues. “In a sense, Freddie is the classic outsider who comes into a community and changes it–and what results is a kind of tragic love story between Freddie and Master. Freddie longs to be part of something bigger than himself, yet can’t commit. And Master yearns for Freddie to be the son he never had, yet can’t quite make that work.”
Anderson says he did a lot of historical reading from the period, from Steinbeck to L. Ron Hubbard, but notes “unless you are making a non-fiction film or biography, hopefully the line gets blurry between research and imagination.”
Indeed, as the script went through multiple progressions, imagination took over and The Cause came to life as its own distinctive entity, a proxy family that finds itself vulnerable to all the powerful forces and tricky dynamics of blood relations. Each scene was rife with the
dichotomies of rivalry and love, aspiration and confusion within its main characters.
“When I look at the film now, I see Freddie and Master as two people who are desperate to stay together and connect with each other,” remarks Anderson of the pair. “I think they see strength in each other and also feel a desire to help pick up the other’s weaknesses. I see both as generous men with very different ways of communicating what they have to give.”
As the final script came into view and then to life on the set, it became a kind of fever dream of post-war themes – themes of searching for an authentic sense of family, faith, success and connection–unfolding in a never before-seen setting. Says producer Daniel Lupi, who has
worked on all of Anderson’s films from the beginning of his career: “This script reminded us a lot of Boogie Nights, because while that film might be set in the porn industry, it’s really about the relationships between the members of an unusual family. The Cause also is a complicated kind of family.”
While the creative elements percolated, further support arrived in the person of producer Megan Ellison, who founded Annapurna Pictures to champion director-driven films with distinctive visions like Anderson’s. “Megan Ellison appeared like an angel who swooped in and said, ‘I love this project and let’s do it,’” recalls Sellar. “That’s when things really began to happen.”
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