Magazine article Screen International

Serving the Master

Magazine article Screen International

Serving the Master

Article excerpt

Rumours flew about the subject of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film during production. The director and his producer tell Andreas Wiseman about the real journey behind The Master.

Prior to its world premiere in Venice -- and a handful of preview screenings -- speculation was rife that Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was a controversial reflection on the Church of Scientology. But the film has proved to be a far more nuanced and ambitious work than the rumours suggested.

The writer-director's follow-up to 2007's multiple Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood tells the story of a damaged Second World War veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who strikes up an unexpected and complex friendship with Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic founder of a quasi-religious cult (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in post-war America.

The Master's genesis was as fascinating and unpredictable as the relationship at the heart of the film. Potential financiers, distributors, key creatives, locations and even the film's format all changed during its five-year journey to the screen.

"After There Will Be Blood, Paul initially met with Universal, who paid him to write a spec script," explains JoAnne Sellar, who has produced Anderson's six features to date alongside Daniel Lupi. "However, the project wasn't fully formed in Paul's mind and as he likes to take his time to write, it wasn't until 2009 or 2010 that he delivered the script."

'Joaquin and Philip working together was the most exciting thing to me'Paul Thomas Anderson

The script Anderson had been working on was not the Scientology exposé that many had assumed. It was in fact a combination of a number of elements the director had long been fascinated by, including Phoenix's character Freddie Quell, war stories from his father and the actors Jason Robards and Robert Downey Sr, the lives of John Steinbeck and L Ron Hubbard, unrealised fragments of There Will Be Blood, and a fascination with the fertile and disjunctive post-war period.

"It was a process of collecting stories and hoping they found a home with other things," recalls Anderson. "Jason Robards told me a story about coming back from the South Pacific after VJ Day on a ship which had run out of booze, for example. The crew broke into the torpedoes to get at the grain alcohol fuel. The soldiers would collect fruit from the islands and mix it with the 180-proof grain fuel to make 'torpedo juice'. That was quite common. Robards also woke up on the mast of the ship one day, teetering on the edge [in reference to a remarkable scene in the film]. I always wanted to get that into a film. And yes, John Steinbeck worked the sugar beet fields in California during Prohibition."

The post-war era was a key inspiration to Anderson, Sellar recalls: "Paul became fascinated by reading about the time. It was a period when all kinds of lost souls were re-entering society after being at war. They were without money and were drifting along, not knowing what to do with themselves. A number of philosophical organisations became crutches for them -- a dysfunctional kind of family."

By the time Anderson delivered his script, the financing landscape had already begun to significantly shift in the US: "Universal had undergone a lot of changes," Sellar says. "There weren't many players making big-budget or medium-level art films anymore. A lot of the indie majors, like Miramax and Paramount Vantage, with whom we'd done There Will Be Blood, and Warner Independent, had closed shop. There was a big lull in the type of people who would want to make our kind of film."

The project went into turnaround. But its inherent strength meant a number of established companies were still keen to back the film, including River Road and Warner Bros. When Philip Seymour Hoffman's other shooting commitments meant the production would have to start rolling sooner rather than later, however, Anderson decided the production wasn't quite ready and he would take more time to work on the script. …

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