We’re not sure about you, but “The Master” is hovering near the top of our must-see list for the remainder of 2012. Though he has only made six features thus far (including his latest), Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation. Known for creating deeply personal, sprawling, ambitious films — from his breakthrough with 1997’s “Boogie Nights” (which he made before turning 27) to 2007’s pièce de résistance “There Will Be Blood” — he is the rare auteur whose uncompromising visions have always managed to find a place within the studio system. As his films have taken longer to coalesce (five years apart for the previous two pictures) the anticipation grows into a cinematic event among his feverous fans. It’s been a long road in driving his latest to the screen (an older iteration at Universal with a different cast for one), but from the looks of the trailer, it will have been worth the wait.
"The Master," a film whose title we may have inadvertently coined, is a 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic intellectual known as "the Master" (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose faith-based organization begins to catch on in America, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter who becomes his right-hand man. Amy Adams co-stars as the Master’s wife Mary-Sue Dodd while Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty and Jesse Plemons appear in various supporting roles. The film will once again be scored by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (who also scored ‘Blood’) but will be the first shot without Anderson’s regular DP Robert Elswit, instead lensed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., best known for shooting Francis Ford Coppola’s recent films.
If you’ve heard about the film prior to now, chances are you know it was shot (at least partially) in glorious 65mm and that Hoffman’s character bears more than a surface resemblance to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. On the occasion of the first full-length trailer, we thought it would be a good time to dive into what we know so far about the film and see what a little digging might uncover. We are, after all, hopelessly inquisitive men and women, just like yourselves.
"You are an everlasting spirit, Freddie."
The first thing that's striking to those people closely following the film is how similar the narrative of the trailer is to the one presented in the 2010 leaked screenplay which was thought to be a very rough nuts-and-bolts draft (and indeed some of the dialogue was unfinished, with "TBD" notes). Though the script has reportedly been heavily reworked since that draft, it feels very similar to what was on the page then which feels doubly impressive considering how raw it originally read. A former sailor in WWII with an apparent “nervous condition,” Quell (Phoenix) seems to be struggling hard to assimilate himself back into society when he meets The Master (Hoffman). He has a serious drinking problem that causes him to black out and get into fights, leading Dodd’s wife Mary-Sue to wonder if he’s “past help. Or insane.” Some may argue that the original script was a two-hander between Quell and “the Master," and the trailer focuses more on Quell, but the original story and trailer still seem to suggest a battle being waged for the pupil's soul.
Recently a blogger uncovered that the inspiration for the psychological exam from the first teaser comes directly from a John Huston documentary called “Let There Be Light” about soldiers who suffered psychological wounds from WWII. The latest trailer opens similarly, with a disconnected voice telling Freddie and the other discharged Navy men, “There will be people on the outside that will not understand the condition you men have. Now upon your shoulders rests the responsibility of a post-war world. You can start a business: filling station, grocery or hardware store, get eight figures of land and raise some chickens. If the average civilian had been through the same stresses that you had been through, undoubtedly they too would have developed the same nervous condition.”
Anderson had reportedly also been interested in making something based on the life of filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., who had been in the army in his early '20s, and some of those details may have found their way into this character. “He was interested in my teenage years when I was in and out of prison and the army.” Downey Sr. said, “And I think he thought at one time that that kinda stuff might be interesting. He's heard a lot of stories from me. I remember talking about that. He's talked about it other times but he's got a lot of thoughts on his mind, he's always thinking."
With shots of Phoenix's face pressed against a window or contorted into a twisted smile, Anderson seems to have tapped into something previously unmined by the actor. (Probably worth noting that he’s also gotten career best performances out of Adam Sandler and Mark Wahlberg.) And speaking of Sandler, Quell also has shades of previous Sandler’s character Barry Egan from “Punch-Drunk Love,” who had trouble relating to other people and was prone to fits of rage. The tracking shot of Freddie running at 1:30 in the trailer even recalls a similar shot in ‘PDL’ of Barry outrunning the blonde brothers. But whatever the inspiration may be, Phoenix looks revelatory in the role and we can’t wait to see his performance in its entirety.
“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man. Just like you.”
The introduction of The Master to Freddie was already glimpsed in the second teaser (cut by Anderson himself) and is featured in slightly abbreviated form here. What’s interesting to observe in this longer cut of the trailer is that Dodd doesn’t seem to have any malicious intent for Freddie, he genuinely wants to help him. If his intent is to brainwash, it isn’t apparent here. Mary-Sue tells Freddie that she inspires her husband and he was up writing all night. The two are also seen riding motorcyles in the desert (in a visual nod to Jonathan Demme’s 1980 Howard Hughes film “Melvin And Howard,” one of Anderson’s favorites). Dodd’s writings include a book called “The Split Saber” which dedicates in the inscription “as a gift to Homo Sapiens.” PTA fansite Cigs & Vines points out that the photo of Dodd taken presumably for the book’s jacket directly recalls the image of Hubbard on the cover of “An Introduction To Scientology.”
“Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion, otherwise you only have the will of one man, which is the basis of a cult,” a man tells Freddie, while Dodd stands by idly. In fact he seems almost defeated or embarassed when his philosophies are challenged and it’s his wife Mary-Sue who appears to be pulling some of the strings. She bristles at “having to explain ourselves” and proclaims that “the only way to defend ourselves is to attack” which has always been the Church of Scientology’s modus operandi. Dodd’s questions to Freddie also seem like a page directly from the Church’s Oxford Capacity Analysis, a personality test given to potential members. “Are you thoughtless in your remarks? Do your past failures bother you? Is your life a struggle? Is your behavior erratic? What are you running from?” And in the line that supposedly gave Tom Cruise pause, Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie, “He’s making up all this as he goes along. You don’t see that?”
In light of a recent high-profile divorce, we can already see the media running wild with speculation about “The Master” being an damning indictment of Scientology — and certainly there is some of that as we’ve pointed out — but Anderson always has something more ambitious on his mind and that was clear from the original rough-draft screenplay (skewering Scientology wouldn’t be particularly new ground anyway, “South Park” covered that pretty brilliantly back in 2005.) As co-star Laura Dern told Slate last year: “In terms of the subject of the film, and all of the films he makes, he dances so comfortably in the gray. When he takes on the subject matter, any subject matter, he is there to examine what it offers; not just take anything down. It’s funny when people think filmmakers are irreverent. It’s like, ‘Ooh, what’s he doing? I heard the movie’s about dot dot dot.’ They go, ‘I bet he’s really going to attack it.’ In fact, he tries to uncover what he loves. What the worth is in something.”
Remember when people assumed “There Will Be Blood” would be some kind of George W. Bush-slamming treatise on oil and capitalism and what they got was a father/son character study? Chances are, there are going to be plenty of Hubbard-like qualities in Hoffman’s character and they shouldn’t be dismissed. But Anderson is a filmmaker smart enough to know that using real life as a jumping off point is going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than your standard biopic. And we’re thankful for it.
Color & Sound
We were wrong when we said that the first thing you probably noticed in the trailer was the focus on Phoenix’s character, because the first thing that anyone is likely to notice watching the clip is the truly breathtaking cinematography by Mihai Malaimare. The colors pop in this thing unlike anything we’ve seen since the Technicolor era, which is perfect for the 1950s-set film. Anderson’s fans may have been concerned initially that DP Robert Elswit — who had shot all 5 of his previous features — would not be returning, but clearly those worries were unfounded. Though Malaimare’s work until now has primarily been shooting digitally for Francis Ford Coppola, “The Master” will reportedly utilize a mix of 65mm and 35mm film. And to be completely fair, Malaimare's work in Coppola's "Tetro" was stunning regardless of the format.
65mm is a high resolution film format used by epics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia” and is the predecessor of the 70mm IMAX format (which loads horizontally like most film reels, instead of vertically like 65mm). The rumors of shooting in the large format were confirmed months ago when Anderson sent an image of the 65mm negative to Cigs & Vines to tease his fans, though we’re still not sure what the percentage split is. We’re still unsure on the aspect ratio of the picture, as the trailers have all been released in 1.85:1 while all his previous features have been in 2:35:1 but we suppose the taller format might suit the period better. Fans have already picked up on a few possible homages — the aforementioned “Melvin And Howard,” Freddie hanging freely over the edge of the ship recalls a similar shot in Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” etc. — but we’re sure like his previous work, this will be something all his own.
As long as we’re diving deep, Xixax, a PTA-focused message board, also pointed out that the name of the ship (glimpsed at the :45 mark in the trailer) is the Aletheia, which is a Greek word translated variously as “unclosedness,” “unconcealedness,” “disclosure” or “truth.” The literal meaning of the word is “the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident” and it also implies sincerity as well as factuality or reality. The font it's written in also appears to be the same font as the film’s title on the poster. The music at the beginning of the trailer is Jonny Greenwood employing another unsettling piece of original music while the back half of the trailer utilizes Jo Stafford’s 1950 hit “No Other Love.”
Basically, if seeing the words “Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson” after all these years didn’t give you a little buzz at the end, we’re not sure what to tell you. For us, it was 2 minutes and 37 seconds of cinematic bliss and October 12th can’t come soon enough. We’re sure there will be lots more to talk about once the film starts to unspool — there have been rumors of Venice, NYFF or an Austin bow and also rumors that it will skip the fall film festival route completely — and we can’t wait to get into it. Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.