Since it was first announced back in 2009, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s latest has been one of the most highly anticipated films over the past few years among cinephiles. For two years, production on the project that would come to be known as “The Master” was shrouded in secrecy. In fact, Anderson who hasn’t made a film since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” didn’t speak a single word about the project publicly until just weeks ago. And cast/crew were also told to keep mum on details. But the veil has finally been lifted this as “The Master” had its official debut in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
The 1950s set story centers on the relationship between a charismatic individual known as The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a deeply troubled WWII vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who joins the former’s upstart religion known as The Cause. Despite confounding expectations (particularly to those who expected some kind of Scientology-skewering treatise), the picture has garnered some extremely positive reviews including one from our own Oli Lyttlelton who called it, “an undeniable progression in the career of one of our most gifted directors.” It was clear from the surprise screenings across the US over the past few weeks that this would be a somewhat difficult film for mainstream audiences to swallow but should be one that film fans will be chewing on for quite some time.
To help shed some light, writer/director Anderson was on hand in Venice along with Phoenix and Hoffman for a press conference where the trio — well, moreso the duo as Phoenix remained mostly silent — answered questions about their dense and dazzling film. “Every time I set out to write one of these things, I think they’re going to be different than the last one we make,” Anderson continued with self-deprecation. “And maybe it’s kinda the same.” But where his previous films have mined father-son dynamics (even when both are surrogates), his new picture explores a different kind of relationship between Phoenix’s and Hoffman’s characters.
“I look at these guys not like father and son. They’re a little more like, not even master and servant,” the filmmaker explained, saying he saw the relationship between the leads as more of a romance. “Like, look at the love of your life, you know? It’s great territory for a story. Because these kinds of relationships end up being a bottomless pit that you can keep going back to [and] hopefully it provides good stuff.”
The filmmaker amassed a wealth of material during the shoot, many scenes which have been included in various trailers are not found in the finished film. This is nothing new for Anderson — a featurette entitled “Blossoms & Blood” comprised entirely of alternate takes and scenes from “Punch-Drunk Love” was included on that film’s DVD — whose style has grown less rigid and more fluid with each film.
To find the structure of “The Master” he let the characters dictate the form. “I think we were just trying to tell a love story between these guys. And we had a lot of scenes that weren’t about that and we just took ’em out and the narrative, for whatever the narrative ended up being, just ended up being driven by these two guys and their love for each other.”
Hoffman, who has appeared in every one of Anderson’s films sans “There Will Be Blood” spoke about the freedom the filmmaker gives the actors while on set. “Paul gives you a lot of leeway. I think [he]’s a fan of what an actor does,” he said. “Anyone who’s intelligent or talented understands that things are gonna come from a lot of different places so hopefully some of those things come from the actors. I don’t think Paul’s somebody who boxes you in.”
For how elliptical the narrative may appear on the surface, Hoffman described the story in simple terms. “It’s the age-old story of a man who needs guidance, finds a mentor, they become co-dependent, the man leaves, and the one who is actually hurt is the mentor.” While The Master is a showboat and on the surface, a very charming and respectable figure, Freddie is wild and untamed so the bond formed seems at first unlikely until their roles are explored more deeply. When asked what Hoffman thought the characters saw in each other he shot back, “I don’t think they see something in each other, they feel something in each other.”
“I think they identify with each other,” Hoffman continued. “They’re coming from different places but they’re more the same, they’re both wild beasts I think. One of them has just tamed it somehow and he’s trying to teach other people how to do that. But ultimately that’s where the doubt comes in, where the whole reluctant prophet thing comes in. Ultimately, he wants to be wild like Freddie is, so there’s this real attraction there over those two things: wanting to be tame [his inner beast] and wanting to be wild. I think that’s basically what life is.”
While Phoenix stayed mostly quiet during the press conference, Anderson spoke effusively about having wanted to work with the actor for a long time. “When I was writing the film I was thinking about Joaquin being in it,” he said. “I’ve asked him to be in just about every other movie I’ve made and he’s said ‘no.’ Cause he’s a little bit of a pain in the ass. But it’s worth it. And he said ‘yes’ this time. And thank God he did.” As for the other two-thirds of his main ensemble, Anderson said of his longtime friend. “Phil I just expect him to be there” and that Amy Adams was someone whose varied roles he’s also admired over the years.
“Amy was somebody that since I saw in ‘Catch Me If You Can‘ and ‘Enchanted‘ and ‘The Fighter,’ I knew I just loved her work and I asked Phil how she was to work with and he loved working with her.” Adams natural sweetness is thrown out of balance in a few standout scenes in the film that had journalists questioning whether her character was the one pulling the strings. “Is she the master? I think yeah, sure. She is,” the filmmaker said waving off the directness of the question. But fearing misinterpretation, he opted to leave the film open to speculation. “I don’t know. It goes back and forth I suppose like any relationship, comes on top, comes on the bottom. That’s a dance that goes on in any relationship. Who’s the master?”
Other than the Scientology angle (which seems overblown now watching how The Cause is portrayed in the film), the other most oft-discussed topic for “The Master” has without a doubt been the director’s decision to shoot in 70mm. The large film format was mostly used for big technicolor epics in the 60s and 70s but has been largely out of fashion in recent decades. Anderson’s decision to resurrect the format in the face of the digital revolution seems like a stroke of defiance. But to hear him tell it, he was just following his instincts.
“We’d been messing around, trying to find something, to see maybe what the film would look like. We were just messing around with cameras and Panavision recommended this big huge camera that’s as big as this desk. And we tried it on for size and it looked great,” he said before adding that “we didn’t really think it through because the camera broke all the time and made a lot of noise. You can still hear the camera rolling in the film, we just put fan noises over it so you couldn’t tell that it was the camera.”
As anyone who has seen “The Master” can tell you, it was worth the effort. The film looks absolutely stunning, regardless of screen size, the images in the film have a sharpness not matched by anything outside of IMAX. The filmmaker concluded that “It just seemed to feel right.”
“The Master” opens on September 14th.