Paul Thomas Anderson’s Beautiful Struggle: Trump, Retirement, and Death Made ‘Phantom Thread’ One of His Hardest Films

It’s safe to say “Phantom Thread” was one of the most difficult production experiences of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. He started shooting his ‘50s period drama on the day of the presidential inauguration; during the shoot, leading man Daniel Day-Lewis decided to retire; and on the last day, Anderson learned that his longtime friend and mentor Jonathan Demme had died.

“The world was a very, very different place than it was when we started writing this story,” Anderson said, in a conversation from his room at the Crosby Hotel in New York. Recalling the start of the production, his voice became so soft it sounded as though it could break at any moment. “It didn’t make it easy to look at your country on fire, and you’re telling the story of a self-consumed egomaniac,” he said. “But that was the situation we were in.”

Yet the intimate saga of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), Anderson’s prickly British dressmaker, didn’t transform into an avatar of modern-day concerns. Instead, as the fussy loner finds his match in insuppressible new muse Alma (Vicky Krieps), the movie becomes an unexpected paean to surviving the travails of creativity through companionship, as she forces her way into Reynolds’ insular world. Anderson, who spends years tinkering with uncompromised movie ideas, has certainly faced a similar challenge in his own trajectory.

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Having fathered four children with wife Maya Rudolph over last 12 years, his personal and professional allegiances have grown more complicated. “I think you make a choice of a certain life, to share that with somebody, and to start a family, or not to do that,” he said. “That’s pretty fucking black-and-white right there.”

No prior Anderson protagonist invites as much scrutiny into the filmmaker’s own life. He’s unlikely to find much in common with the frumpy stoner detective of “Inherent Vice,” the quasi-Scientologists of “The Master,” the oil barons in “There Will Be Blood” or the porn stars of “Boogie Nights.” For the first time, Anderson seems to have channeled some of his own sensitivities into a singular character, one whose commitment to his artistry runs counter to his relationship with the world. “I’ve thought about this a lot because it keeps coming up,” he said. “Sewing by its very nature requires a kind of patience and focus that I don’t have, but I have it for sure in other ways.”

“Phantom Thread”

If anything, Reynolds may represent Anderson’s creative ideal. “If you came and saw what my desk looks like, you’d be like, right, he’s not Reynolds Woodcock,” he said, and chuckled. “I mean, I am not meticulous at all. I’m really impatient.” Anderson may be dodgy about the parallels, but he unearthed more of himself than even he may realize. Despite Reynolds’ precision with a needle, the man frequently loses his patience with anyone he deems a distraction, including Alma and Cyril, his icy business partner and sister (Lesley Manville). It’s not a stretch to see echoes of Anderson’s disinterest in promoting his work, much less digging into its thematic concerns.

As Alma gets into the habit of bugging Reynolds while he’s in the midst of his designs, or tossing out the last word of every snippy argument, “Phantom Thread” goes through that miraculous transformation of genres as only a PTA movie can: It shifts from brooding drama to comedy. Given the precision of the storyteller behind the camera, this happened by design.

“One of the funniest things you can have is somebody who takes themselves seriously, whether it’s Ron Burgundy or Reynolds Woodcock,” he said, drawing an unexpected parallel with Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” character. “That lends itself to humor. Those are the funniest bits. Seeing somebody so serious and so self-consumed, which is kind of inevitable in the business of fashion. It’s kind of like a prerequisite at times.”

Nevertheless, that’s exactly how Anderson often comes across. He tend to address his process in only the vaguest terms — showing how he maintains a unique alchemy to his approach, and how little he enjoys talking about it. His movies frequently feel like living creatures that come alive the longer you watch them, developing in ways you would never expect.

Good luck getting him to demystify that. He declined to go into specifics about scenes left on the cutting room floor. (“The magic is trying to preserve what’s there,” he said, though that hasn’t stopped his actors from singling out some excised scenes).

He described his writing process as “a really funny combination of way too much overthinking about backstories, and then way under-developed, never spoken about, just pure instinct, just see something and come up with an idea.” In other words: “It’s such a mess about how we get to things sometimes… Some come really easily and quickly, they just happen as instinctual ideas. Others are belabored, eaten up, and way overworked. It’s just part of the process.”

He gets especially dodgy when asked about Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement plans, a subject that cast a long shadow on the movie’s release. Day-Lewis’ fleeting rationale for this outcome hints at Anderson’s own current mindset. The renowned Method Actor has described his decision as related to being “overwhelmed by a sense of sadness,” and even went so far as to say that the emotional downturn impacted Anderson as well. The pair forged a deep bond on the set of “There Will Be Blood,” sharing an evident commitment to burrowing inside their work at all costs, and now both seemed to be paying a price.

Anderson sounded at once in denial about Day-Lewis’ decision, and devastated that “Phantom Thread” could have something to do with it. “He’s always talked about it,” Anderson said. “It’s not even new, you know?” Of course, when Day-Lewis released a statement announcing his plans over the summer, it brought a new degree of finality to the decision. “I’m burying my head in the sand with the whole thing, honestly,” Anderson said. “I have to take it seriously because he’s serious and that’s what’s going on, but I’m trying not to say the possibility that we might not be able to work together again.”

“Phantom Thread”

He declined to elaborate on his discussions with the actor. “I’m not about to create even more mystery about it,” he said. “I think he’s been pretty clear about it and I’m not in the position of betraying someone’s trust, even if they had shared something with me.”

Anderson tends to his wind his way through interviews by either folding them into the subjects of his movies, or by embracing the random tangents that some interviewers toss his way (hence recent stories about his thoughts on “Star Wars” and his free Netflix account). He evades pressure to get political, or to address the climate of the film industry as a whole. In this case, he has no interest in digging into the sexual harassment scandals rocking the business.

“It is the last thing I’d like to think about,” he said, but acknowledged that his movie — which explicitly involves male-female relationships in a workplace environment that cross more than one line — may provide some window into the nature of that struggle. Even here, however, he discussed it through the framework of the story, and it all comes down to the provenance of the word “mannequin.”

Recalling the 1987 Andrew McCarthy movie of the same name, Anderson noted that “a mannequin is something that has no moving parts, it stands still in the window. Now, go back to the ‘50s, and the mannequin was actually the moving model. They were referring to a flesh-and-blood woman who was moving around as a mannequin. Somewhere along the way, these words were interchanged so that these plastic things that didn’t move were called mannequins and a model became a real flesh-and-blood person.”

The evolution of that term spoke to the contrast between the treatment of women as objects of fashion and the occasional tendency to push back. “There are probably a million other designers who would prefer the women not to say anything at all, just to stand there,” he said. “That was maddening to me. More times than not, there’s a real give and take in relationships between the model, the muse, the mannequin, and the creator.”

In extracting aspects of Reynolds’ character from the biography of Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, he found a vessel for the movie’s central clash of personalities. “The kind of requirements that were put on these women were all about this discipline, and the discipline of serving the creator,” he said, “but the stories that we read that were most fascinating were the relationships Balenciaga had with the women who would bite back.”

Ultimately, “Phantom Thread” works around Day-Lewis’ outsized presence, until Krieps — a genuine discovery whom Anderson plucked from hundreds of possibilities — becomes the movie’s true centerpiece. “She had that thing where if she wants you to know what she’s thinking, she’ll make it very clear in her words, her face, her body language,” Anderson said. “But if she wants to make you guess, you will have no idea what’s going on behind her eyes.”

Vicky Krieps in “Phantom Thread”

That struggle between understatement and clear direction lies at the heart of all Anderson movies, and his tendency toward perfectionism trickles down into his distribution approach as well. Ever since he forced The Weinstein Company to release “The Master” on 70mm, Anderson has continued his crusade to make his movies available on pristine film prints. For him, it doesn’t matter that the number of theaters committed to showing movies on film around the world has dwindled; that only simplifies the process.

“It’s not that many phone calls,” he said. “It used to be impossible. We know pretty much everybody that runs film, and that kind of makes things a bit easier. At this point, it’s a tight group of people.” For instance, he added, “You know you can call The Metrograph and say, ‘Hey, make sure to run it on a seven,’ or, ‘How’s it look?’ You actually, genuinely can have a personal connection to the majority of projectionists in this country and Europe.”

Any discussion about Anderson’s unorthodox distribution beliefs leads to conversations about the nature of the marketplace. “You’re not going to get me to take a shit on Netflix!” Anderson said, with a shy laugh, perhaps aware of likeminded theatrical purist Christopher Nolan’s condemnatory remarks earlier this year. “Would I ever go into business with Netflix? Well, I don’t know. I suppose.” He acknowledged that his colleague Scott Frank recently developed the Western series “Godless” for the platform. “I don’t know how you make an eight-hour movie,” Anderson said. “But are two-hour movies good for Netflix? Don’t know. Don’t think so.”

He drew a distinction between committing to the presentation of his own work and the shifting industry. “It’s not even a fight; it was more like calling people and the appetite was there,” he said. “It’s never been a chore. There is no thrill that’s as unbeatable as sitting in a movie theater when it’s big and loud.” He clarified: “I’m old,” said the 47-year-old filmmaker. “I’m set in my ways. That’s how I like my product.”

Ironically, Anderson dipped into the arena of digital distribution two years ago with “Junun,” an experimental concert documentary featuring longtime collaborator Jonny Greenwood (who scored “Phantom Thread”) and several Indian musicians, which was released on the streaming platform MUBI just days after premiering at New York Film Festival. “It was kind of hilarious,” Anderson said. “We made it for fun, and we put it out there in a way that we thought was interesting, but fucking nobody’s seen it.”

Anderson fought for final cut on his debut “Hard Eight” 20 years ago, and he remains devoted to developing movies aligned with his aesthetic. However, his mentors have steadily dropped out of the picture. He lost his close colleague Robert Altman over a decade ago, and the closing dedication of “Phantom Thread” to Jonathan Demme speaks to that filmmaker’s ongoing relationship to the director over the years.

Paul Thomas Anderson


“Demme was my man,” Anderson said, noting that he described “Phantom Thread” to him the last time they spoke. Word that Demme was fading reached the “Phantom Thread” set in late April, a few days before he passed away. “It was a really melancholy day to be sort of celebrating at the end of this really challenging film we’d worked really hard on, and here we had this really terrible news,” Anderson said. “I could hear his voice ringing around in my head, being really happy for me for finishing the film.”

As he drifts closer to middle age, Anderson may sound more wistful and solitary than before, but it hasn’t altered his commitment to the medium. “What I do is deeply important to me,” he said. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. It’s the only thing I could see myself doing.” The beautiful struggle involved in getting his movies made has shown no signs of wear, though he insisted that the challenges of “Phantom Thread” amounted to business as usual. “I didn’t feel any less pressure than I normally do,” he said. “The amount of panic and fear and excitement that goes into any day of shooting is the same. Always.”

“Phantom Thread” opens theatrically on December 25, 2017.