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Good film, just don’t mention the ‘war’: interview with Paul Thomas Anderson

I assumed acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson would be happy to discuss correlations between his new film, The Master, and the Scientology movement on which it was partly based. I was wrong.

Paul Thomas Anderson

He would have known.

He would have known before he landed in Australia to promote his new film. He would have known before he yelled “action”. He would have known before he started working on the screenplay.

Acclaimed writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master (which opens in Australian cinemas November 8) has been associated with the word “Scientology” since the vaguest outlines of its storyline surfaced.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a character inspired by L. Ron Hubbard. Dodd is the flamboyant leader of a movement called ‘The Cause’ who takes on the challenge of reforming drunkard Naval veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) through various unorthodox measures based in part on techniques described in Hubbard’s 1950 book on Dianetics, as Anderson himself has stated.

The film’s links to Scientology go well beyond overarching themes or peripheral ideas. The early years of Scientology took place on Hubbard’s boat, a former cattle trawler called ‘The Apollo’. A significant chunk of the film is based on Dodd’s former cattle trawler, ‘The Aletheia’. Hubbard operated a counselling centre in Phoenix. So does Dodd. Hubbard referred to Scientology as the “religion of religions”. Dodd refers to his movement using exactly the same words. Hubbard labelled dissenters “squirrels”. Dodd uses the same (somewhat obscure) slur. Hubbard bought a mansion in England and moved management of his ‘religion’ there. Same as Dodd. The list goes on and on; check this Daily Beast story, written by a former Scientologist, for a detailed comparison.

So Anderson would have known.

He would have known he’d be asked questions about to what extent the film is based on real-life. You can understand my surprise, then, when, after asking what I thought was a straight-forward question about whether The Master was entirely fictitious — prompted by an apparently erroneous disclaimer in the credits — his face scrunched up and he snapped back “that’s like you know, the Munchicans, fuckin’, I don’t know. What are you getting at? Come on.”

The Master is meditative and beautiful. Despite interior-heavy set design it is lusciously shot (like all Anderson’s films), very well acted (ditto) and has an elusive, airy quality, with lots of space to breathe in and reflect on the characters. Examine the end credits and you’ll see a familiar couple of sentences (these words are par for the course) stating that events depicted on screen are entirely fictitious and not in any way related to real-life movements or people.

I ask Anderson whether this statement is 100% accurate. Suddenly the air gets a little tense. He looks annoyed, like I’d just prodded him with a stick or put a banana in his car’s exhaust pipe. “No. What do you mean? You know the answer to that!”

And he’s right. I do know the answer. But the PR circuit — which, as I soon discover, Anderson is obviously not completely comfortable with, at least in relation to talking about his own work — doesn’t rest on assumptions and implied knowledge. You ask questions. You get people talking. You create a discussion.

I expected the highbrow, intuitively skillful auteur whose stunning body of work includes Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007) would be happy to talk about — at least cover off on — the film’s links to the controversial religion and its founder.

I was wrong.

To be fair, when myself and four other journalists trundled into the 42-year-old director’s hotel room, the first words he spoke after “hello” were “I think I’ve hit a wall.” When one of my colleagues asked whether the PR circuit was tiring, Anderson half-joked “you fucking do this!”

Responding to Anderson’s reverse-question about what I meant by asking about that bit on the credits, I say the film couldn’t have existed, could it, without the Scientology movement. He pauses. For an uncomfortably long time.

“Could this film exist without the — I mean I don’t know.” He mentions the Munchicans. Grumbles. Asks me what I’m getting at.

I say he’s drawn correlations. Connected bits of the film to the movement of Scientology.

“Yeah.”

I say Scientology is like the elephant in the room, which seems obvious given the tetchy tone of the conversation. This interview suddenly feels very “don’t mention the war.”

But if there is an elephant in the room, Anderson isn’t acknowledging its presence.

“There’s no elephant in the room,” he retorts. “I’ve been nothing but forthcoming and forthright about what this film is inspired by. I’ve said it over and over again and I dare say you’ve probably read it, right? So it’s completely clear what we’ve done. When I made There Will Be Blood, nobody wanted to talk about Edward Doheny. How come? How come you didn’t want to find out the details about Edward Doheny that were similar or dissimilar? Nobody fucking cared.”

He’s got a point, but Anderson is smart enough to understand why the world’s most controversial religion, populated by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, is a hotter topic than the life of an oil tycoon who died in 1935.

The elusive nature of Anderson’s responses mirrors, in a sense, his approach to developing the character of Dodd, who hovers like a jolly, slightly nutty spectre around the film’s edges. Vivid but vague. Presented as more mystic than man.

The role is well played by the ever-bankable Seymour Hoffman, but seemed to me cautiously developed — as if Anderson were aware the character’s actions would inevitably draw comparisons. That people would one day construct connections due to real-life baggage. I ask him if that in any way affected his writing process.

“No. You’re assuming that you have your feet on the ground or you’re thinking about doing an interview when you’re writing something and that’s no way to write.

“You just have to write what’s coming out of you. You can’t really give a fuck about anything like that. You have to submit yourself to  an auto-hypnosis and get to that place and really not give a fuck. Really. You have to…. What are you — I don’t know.”

At this point, I feel a bit like one of those straight-as-a-dial journalists Bob Dylan played verbal ping pong with in Don’t Look Back (1965), asking him questions about the meaning of Blowing in the Wind.  But the truth is, Paul Thomas Anderson does give a fuck. You can tell that by the pin-precise manner he folds the frame, the deftness of touch he brings to The Master and the graceful manner with which he develops the characters’ relationships.

After the interview, in the elevator on the way down to the ground floor, I think maybe it’s true. Maybe Anderson didn’t consider any real-life baggage when the wrote the film. Then I think…

Nah. He would have known.

The Master’s Australian theatrical release date: November 8, 2012.

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    Stephen
    Posted November 11, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    This interview tells us a lot about the interviewer, but not much about the interviewee. I don’t blame Anderson for getting tetchy.

    Why not just take the bleeding obvious as bleeding read, and engage with the director about the art and entertainment values of his movie?

    It’s not even all that important that Scientology provides the religious props.

    You could make a similar movie (if you dared) about the mind-bending tactics of Christianity or Islam.

    Or, compare with the indie movie “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene”, also about the damage of cults.

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