I can’t quite describe my reaction when I heard that Paul Thomas Anderson was coming to Australia to promote his new film, The Master. He’s my favourite modern day director and Magnolia (released in Australia in early 2000) is a masterpiece. On 24 October 2012, I took the day off work and flew to Sydney for a chance to spend 15 minutes with Paul and ask him a few questions. It was an honour to be in the company of such a gifted filmmaker and here’s what he had to say…
Matt: The guy standing in front of me is not THE god but he is A god as far as I’m concerned. He’s the man who brought us Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, Magnolia. Mr Paul Thomas Anderson, welcome to Australia.
Paul: Yeah, thank-you.
Matt: Is this your first time in Australia?
Paul: No, it’s the third time. Boogie Nights we came down for and then I came for a vacation in 1999.
Matt: Now you’re an acclaimed filmmaker with 5 Oscar nominations but I’m curious to know with a film like The Master, how easy is it getting that off the ground? Getting the funding for it?
Paul: Difficult. I thought after There Will Be Blood, because it did so well and we hard a lot of hardware that we came away with, that it would be very easy but it’s a miracle anytime you get a film made. For some reason, getting the cast together for this one was difficult. They never come together quite how you expect they’re going to come together but they end up being just how they should, if that makes sense.
Matt: The actors you’ve worked with have often gone on and won awards like Tom Cruise, Burt Reynolds and Daniel Day Lewis. Now here we have both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix being discussed as possible Oscar contenders. What’s your secret? How do you drag out these magnificent performances from these already accomplished actors?
Paul: They’re pretty great without me. You can write a scene really well and do all the other traditional things that get you there but you’d be surprised how much of a contributing factor scheduling can be. A performance can be like an athletic event. If you’re asking someone to come in and deliver something, it takes a high degree of concentration and physically takes something out of them. It’s as small and as incremental as managing hour-to-hour what they’re doing and what they’re up against.
Sometimes an actor will go and do a film and the director won’t tell them how many shots they’re going to need to do a scene. So they have to spend an enormous amount of energy in anticipation of what may be asked of them rather than being clear about how to schedule the day. It helps you invest in what you’re doing and not just throw a bunch of things at the wall and overcrowd it and get tired and grumpy and sick of making a movie.
Matt: I know you would have been asked about this a lot already but the use of 65mm in this film. The last time I saw one of those films was Hamlet back in 1996. Why this particular film?
Paul: Did you see Baraka?
Matt: No, I didn’t.
Paul: You’ve got to see that. That is a great film that was shot in 65mm. There’s another film which is a sequel to that called Samsara that is coming out that you should really find. People talk about Hamlet as the last film and these guys with Baraka have shot more 65mm than anybody else.
Anyway, it was a decision about what looked right and what seemed to evoke the period. It was never like “we’re always going to shoot in 65mm”. It was more a question of trying to find cameras and lenses that gave some feeling to the film that looked right. Those were the ones that did it. It wasn’t a selling point on anything like that. It was just as simple as finding what looked and felt right to us.
Matt: It’s interesting that one of the themes in Boogie Nights is in the porn industry with film giving way to tape and so now here we are in 2012 with film giving way to digital.
Paul: Yeah, I know. I feel like Jack Horner in that film!
Matt: So going forward do you have plans to continue to try to use film if at all possible?
Paul: It doesn’t matter. I’d like to be able to use whatever we need to tell the story and do it right. The cameras we were using were 30 years old and lenses that were 40 and 50 years old. We even used lenses that were nearly 100 years old. But we also used gear that’s brand new. So I don’t care what it is. The drag is when things go away because there’s no one to take care of them.
Matt: So many movies get made around World War II in the 1940s and it feels like it’s a period of history that’s been done to death but this film here is set in the early 1950s in America which I think is an unexplored time in terms of cinema. Why did you choose this particular era to set this film?
Paul: I don’t know why. There are obvious reasons like sexy cars and sexy songs and sexy wardrobes… but that’s not why. It helps though. There was a thing for me in that my dad was in the war and he came back. There’s a gravity that brings you to a story and it’s hard to put your finger on why.
Matt: I saw this film only for the first time yesterday with a friend of mine and we discussed it for about an hour over lunch. We went in thinking it was going to be referenced to the Church of Scientology and so forth but for us it was really more of a character study. Joaquin Phoenix’s character seems so aimless, so directionless and he latches onto the Philip Seymour Hoffman character as this father-type figure. Tell me – are we on the right track?
Paul: That’s exactly the right track! It’s not big on plot, this film. There’s not a lot of plot but hopefully we make up for it with an abundance of character.
Matt: But with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, what is it about him that keeps drawing him in? His wife, his kids keep saying to get rid of this guy but he keeps him around, he keeps wanting him there. What’s drawing him in?
Paul: He wants to fix him. If he’s proposing that he can make people happy, wouldn’t it be great if he could make this person happy and assimilate into society or into a family. It’s not just that selfish motivation of using him like a guinea pig or a mantelpiece project. I think he deeply feels connected to him and excited by him. It’s like the way any of us are drawn to the deep loves in our lives. It doesn’t matter why. You just are.
It’s hard to resist that kind of thing despite better judgement or advice from outside people. They say “you cannot be in this relationship, it’s going to hurt you” but you look at them and say “what do you know?”
Matt: The sexual themes in the film are interesting. It seems to be something that Joaquin Phoenix’s character thinks about a lot. It reaches a point where we’ve got something I never thought I’d see on screen with Amy Adams masturbating Philip Seymour Hoffman in the bathroom. Why did we go so intimately into the sex lives of these characters?
Paul: Weren’t you happy to see Amy Adams jerk off Phil? (laughs)
Matt: It was a great scene.
Paul: Well that’s why you do it. Because it’s a great scene.
Matt: Let’s talk about the music. Jon Brion’s work I loved, especially with Magnolia, but here you have Jonny Greenwood who you used on There Will Be Blood. What were you looking for with the music in this film?
Paul: The films I grew up loving and that made me want to make films had great music. Music wasn’t the afterthought. It was clearly a partner with the film like what John Williams did with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and what Bernard Herrmann did with Alfred Hitchcock. Everything was given equal weight and it kind of moved together. I just thought that’s what you were supposed to do.
Working with Jonny is like having another actor like another Joaquin or another Phil. He’s someone who can contribute to the overall experience and draw the audience in.
Matt: We have a change of cinematographer here. You used Robert Elswit on all your previous films but you’ve brought in Mihai Malaimare Jr here. What was his background? Why did you get him in for this project?
Paul: I liked the work he did with Coppola. I don’t know if the films made it down here but they were smaller films that Coppola has been making like Tetro and Youth Without Youth. They’re real small and experimental and there was a kind of youthfulness to it. Maybe it was what Coppola was doing but it felt like he was back to being experimental and taking risks and there was some excitement in those films that I felt coming through that made me want to reach out to Mihai and get to know him. It was great.
Matt: It’s been five years since There Will Be Blood and it was five years before that going back to Punch Drunk Love. Please tell me we’re not going to wait another five years for something from you.
Paul: I hope not, no. That was never the idea. After There Will Be Blood I went to Phil and said I’ve got a great idea. I’ve got a collection of these pages and let’s make a date and three months from now, go make this film really quickly. It all went out the window because he had theatre engagements here in Sydney… right down the street actually. The next year we couldn’t make the film and all that momentum changed and was lost. At this point for us it’s just trying to find a way to get everyone back together again.
Matt: So sticking with the same ensemble?
Paul: Yeah, the same people behind the scenes as well. Hopefully it won’t be five years.
Matt: Well The Master is about to be released in Australian cinemas and thank you so much for speaking with me this morning.
Paul: Thanks for coming down.