Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Elswit made a name for themselves as one of cinema’s strongest director-cinematographer duos with a run of acclaimed films that included “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” and “There Will Be Blood.” The latter won Elswit his first and only Oscar for Best Cinematography. The two artists took a break for “The Master,” shot by Mihai Mălaimare Jr., and their reunion on “Inherent Vice” left Elswit thinking their partnership was over.
“God, I don’t know what it is anymore,” Elswit said last year about the state of his collaboration with Anderson. “It’s like a bad married couple. Unpleasant. I don’t know [if we’ll work together again]. Probably not. You know, it depends on how he feels. I would do it again…I didn’t enjoy myself on ‘Inherent Vice’…It was a combination of me and Paul just not getting along, and I can be as immature as him.”
Anderson went on to serve as his own cinematographer for “Phantom Thread,” his most recent theatrical release. The Focus Features-backed drama was released without a cinematographer credit as Anderson viewed the process as a collaboration with his crew and not himself solely being the DP. What did Elswit think of Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” cinematography? The answer is provided in Adam Nayman’s new book “Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks” (now available for purchase).
“Well I know how he did it because it’s the same people I work with, it’s the same crew,” Elswit says of “Phantom Thread.” “He just threw a lot of smoke in the room. Which he never would let me do, he never let me smoke a set. Not that I wanted to — I mean, he wanted it for a scene. But I think he shot tests and he knew enough that he didn’t know enough. But with the modern stocks you can do minimal low lighting and you can lower the contrast and shoot all the detail you want, just by adding smoke. I can’t imagine I would have done it that way and I probably could have talked him out of it if he wanted to.”
Elswit continues, “But yeah it was a period film, it was okay and had really good locations. I enjoyed the film. I just…if I’d shot that movie I would not be happy with it ending up looking like it looked, that’s all. But I liked the movie. I actually like it better than anything else I’ve done or he’s done with me or without me. I like it more than “The Master” and I like it more than “Inherent Vice.”
Nayman’s “Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks” includes new interviews with top Anderson collaborators such as Elswit, composer Jonny Greenwood, costume designer Mark Bridges, producer Joanne Sellar, editor Dylan Tichenor, and “Phantom Thread” actress Vicky Krieps. Head over to the Abrams Books’ website to purchase the book.