INTERVIEW: Paul Thomas Anderson [Director of The Master]

On Wednesday 24th October I was lucky enough to represent Graffiti With Punctuation in a round table interview session with the director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master, Mr. Paul Thomas Anderson. He is one of the most talented and most respected filmmakers of his generation and admirers of his films (myself included) claim them to be amongst the greatest American films ever made.

Paul was in town to promote The Master, his most recent ‘masterpiece’. Later that evening he would be introducing the film at the opening of the 1st Cockatoo Island Film Festival and the following night he would be conducting a Q&A session at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne, where the film would be screened in the desired 70mm format.

Shane A. Bassett  [SB] (a reviewer for the Central Coast Express Advocate), and Jamie Watt [JW] (writer for AskMen) joined me for the roundtable.

SB: When I first spoke to Jeremy Renner he was disappointed that he wasn’t in the THE MASTER. Was he considered for Freddie? Did he audition?

PTA: Jeremy didn’t really audition. We were talking and there was even a moment three or four weeks into pre-production, but the script wasn’t ready and we had to call it off. By the time we got started again Jeremy was off doing other films – multiple films – and the script had taken a different path. You know, in the life of a film every one of them is different but what ends up happening is usually the right thing.

SB: He told me he wanted to work with you again. Do you think in the future you will have a role for him?

PTA: For sure. Without question.

AB: How was it working with Joaquin, considering this is his first film since ‘I’m Still Here’?

PTA: It was great. I remember when I worked with Adam Sandler he just had his first flop. It was called ‘Little Nicky’. It’s great to work with an actor when it feels like they have entered into something new or just messed themselves up, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It was clear that Joaquin had just had it with being in films in the regular way. It was clear to Phil (Seymour Hoffman) and I when we were writing the film, and Joaquin was doing ‘I’m Still Here’, that he was acting out against having to go “hit your mark and say your lines”. That rejuvenation that obviously happened to him paid off. He worked with James Gray a lot, and I know James a little bit. He said to me: “He’s just totally different, he just seems like he’s enjoying it so much more”. He probably only got to that by going through what he did on ‘I’m Still Here.

AB: How much of his character was brought by him and how much of it was down to your direction and the script?

PTA: All of it was him. All of it was him. Really.

SB: You recall a lot of the same actors over all of the movies you have done. It was great to see Melora Waters’ name in the credits, providing a voice. Is that because you know that they won’t let you down with your screenplays or do you write specifically for actors such as Phil?

PTA: Well this was very specific for Phil, but I am always eager to work with new people. With Amy and Joaquin, that was new. Sometimes it gets nerve-wracking; you’re trying to get to know somebody and do this intimate thing together and it takes a little while to work out how to talk to each other. You don’t have to do that with somebody you have worked with for fifteen years. You don’t have to be polite and just get on with it. For somebody like Melora we had some stuff for her on camera that just didn’t make the film. Sometimes that’s the way it works. You need someone to sing a song and bring in an old friend.

JW: There’s another highly charged interpersonal relationship between two male characters like there was in There Will Be Blood. Is there something that keeps you coming back to these dynamics in the relationships?

PTA: Yeah, for sure. Dramatic situations seem to crop up out of these kinds of relationships. I hope it doesn’t seem like we’re being repetitive, though.

SB: Is it a compliment to you, being a powerful filmmaker, to learn that you’re making your audience feel uncomfortable?

PTA: Yeah. Absolutely. But it shouldn’t be that the audience is throwing their hands in the air and saying: “what the fuck is this?” When I go and see a horror film I like participating with the film, having the shit scared out of me and feeling on the edge of my seat. Shouldn’t it do that? It should do that, for sure.  I like to think audiences are uncomfortable but satisfied at the same time. Sometimes you see a film and you’re just uncomfortable. That’s not good.

AB: I think on another level where some audience members might be made to feel uncomfortable is through the score. Now, I loved Johnny Greenwood’s scores in both THE MASTER and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but this one reminded me of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and I have always thought that the music accompanying the sequences where Barry is very bewildered and anxious was what was happening inside his head. I got the same sense here with Freddie. Was that considered?

PTA: Music can be alienating to a wider audience. You could be right. Johnny is not making music that is really easy, but it can be abrasive and untraditional film music, but I always grew up on movies where the score was a big part of it. There was no difference between a film and its music. They jam together and they are one unit, attacking you, like Bernard Hermann stuff. I always thought that’s how it was supposed to go. It’s not what you think of when you think of a Woody Allen film, but we’re definitely invading your space with the music.

SB: There are quite a few years between your films. Was that planned?

PTA: No, it was never planned. When we finished THERE WILL BE BLOOD the idea was to go straight to work again on this film. I went to Phil and said: “Lets make a date and we’ll start”, but he had commitments in theatre for the next year and a half so that changed and then by the time we were ready we couldn’t get the cash. So these things are never by design. They just never turn out the way you planned. It’s mad to me that it’s been that long since we made a film, but that’s alright.

SB: And you’ve met Stanley Kubrick, I believe. How was he?

PTA: It was very brief so I can’t really talk with any authority. I don’t have any strong memories; it was the luck of the moment. He was actually very skeptical. He was polite about BOOGIE NIGHTS until he realized that I wrote the film too and he was then warmer. For him directing the film wasn’t enough, but if you also wrote it he was a little bit more welcoming. That’s what I remember.

AB: The desired 70mm projection has been the source of discussion here in Australia. Very few cinemas can screen it in that format, which is unfortunate, but what made this the story to shoot in 65mm on film?

PTA: It is just as simple as the way that it looked. It evoked a great feeling. It’s the worst marketing tool you could come up with, let’s shoot in this dying format. We were just testing old equipment and gear, and when we tested this format it felt right. It would not have mattered if we shot it on an iPhone and it looked like that, we would have used it. If anything you had to talk yourself into something that was going to be difficult. They’re big cameras and they’re clunky. It was a decision based purely on instinct cause it evoked that period pretty strongly. There’s something nice about using something that’s 40 to 50 years old. You’re kinda hoping that the DNA and little bits of dust and dirt that’s been there for a long time get into your film. That there are ghosts and critters that occupy what you’re doing and rub off on your film somehow. It’s always nice to use that kind of stuff. More fun than shooting with an iPhone.

JW: What was it about post-World War II America that made it a breeding ground for movements like The Cause?

PTA: I read a line that somebody said: ‘Any time is a good time for a spiritual movement to begin but a particularly good time is after a war’. There are so many shell-shocked people wandering around wondering where they loved ones went. There’d be movements that would say: “What about here? They’re in the next life. You can talk to them.” ESP becomes popular. Ouija boards. I don’t want to think somebody is gone for good. None of us do. I think it’s that.

SB: Have you changed and developed as a director since HARD EIGHT and BOOGIE NIGHTS? How?

PTA: Just more confidence. The amount of miles makes you more comfortable with what you’re doing and probably less desperate. At the same time that bites you from behind, because the second you think you know what you’re doing and you get comfortable, it all goes upside down again. You have to make sure you’re not getting too comfortable, keep scaring yourself. Inevitably you don’t have to do that because something is going to present itself to you that you can’t handle and that’s all the fun. It’s more fun when it’s dangerous.

SB: Have you thought of directing a lighter film or a comedy? You showed a bit of flair with some SNL stuff you’ve done. Do you think you’ll go the other way to what you have been doing?

PTA: Yeah, hopefully. I was talking the other day; I would love to make a film like AIRPLANE. It’s just funny. Its not trying to say anything other than: “this is funny”. I’d like to try and so something like that. I was just as excited by seeing that film as I the day I saw STAR WARS. Are you kidding me? You can do this in a movie? You can fuck around and make jokes for an hour and a half.

SB: So what is up next?

PTA: I’m not sure. I’m still trying to figure it out.

I urge everyone to watch The Master - it is in cinemas November 8 – and if you haven’t seen some of his earlier films, to seek them out too. You will some day thank me.

Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22