Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master's Master

Talking 70mm, Joaquin Phoenix, and researching Scientology for his sixth and most anticipated film

Paul Thomas Anderson, <i>The Master</i>'s Master
Illustration By Steve Brodner.

"I've made six movies, and I feel like I'm only just finally figuring out how this business fucking works," Paul Thomas Anderson says on an unseasonably mild August afternoon in the Astoria section of Queens, where later tonight he will preview his latest film for an invited audience at the Museum of the Moving Image. The movie is The Master, Anderson's first in the five years since the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, and one of this year's most feverishly anticipated cinematic events—a must-see status attributable to Anderson's vaunted standing among serious film buffs, to the secretive nature of the production (at a time when we know far too much about most movies before we see them), and, mostly, to the film's subject matter: the early days of a self-help religion that bears more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology.

For Anderson, the Queens screening is the latest stop in an impromptu coast-to-coast tour that has included surprise public showings of The Master in Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and San Francisco, weeks before the official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Those sneaks have sparked torrents of favorable Internet and social-media buzz, along with the all-too-predictable musings of the blogosphere's Oscar-season soothsayers that Anderson's film is "difficult" and "challenging"—in other words, not your typically pandering, sugarcoated year-end Hollywood pap. Most remarkably, all of those screenings have taken place in cinemas equipped to project Anderson's film in his preferred format: the large-frame 70mm film process whose exceptionally clear, vivid images were once the gold standard for Hollywood's big musicals and historical epics, and which hasn't been in regular use since the VHS era (and hadn't been used at all since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996).

This is partly what Anderson means, I suspect, when he says he has finally figured things out. In short, he has gone rogue. As we stroll through the streets around the museum, he recalls the battles he once fought with New Line Cinema (which produced and distributed Boogie Nights and Magnolia) over everything from poster to trailer design and how, on The Master, he has simply done everything himself, creating his own teasers for the movie and uploading them immediately to the Internet—and yes, even screening the film publicly without the approval of his new distributor, Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein Company
Paul Thomas Anderson once again teams up with Philip Seymour Hoffman (above) in his sixth film.
Courtesy NewsCom, Alec Michael, Globe Photos, ZUMAPRESS
Paul Thomas Anderson once again teams up with Philip Seymour Hoffman (above) in his sixth film.

"We had this idea to do a bit of a road show, because we just didn't know, theatrically, how often we'd be able to play in 70mm," he says, settling into an outdoor table at one of the neighborhood's many Greek bistros. Anderson stumbled upon the format—the ancestor of IMAX—while doing camera tests with his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., and felt it was the right fit for the film. Now, together with his post-production supervisor, Erica Frauman, he has been compiling lists of 70mm cinemas and, when necessary, dispatching technicians to make sure the projectors are in full working order. Of particular interest, Anderson says, was showing the film at least a few times in grand, single-screen movie palaces, including Chicago's Music Box and San Francisco's Castro, where, due to the brass tacks economics of first-run film distribution (which favors multiplexes and nationwide chains), The Master would be unlikely to play during its actual commercial run.

"I have to say, it's been great to play there, but it's exciting how many commercial theaters are going to play it in 70," Anderson adds. And if that all seems like a lot of fuss for a movie that mostly takes place in small, nondescript houses, apartments, and offices, The Master nevertheless conjures an epic feel. It's a movie whose ideas are as big as any David Lean landscape.

Anderson yawns, stretches, and runs his hands through his already unkempt hair, which, coupled with his outfit of an open-collared checkered shirt, board shorts, and desert boots, gives him the appearance of a wayward, landlocked surfer. "It's a hair-of-the-dog day for us," he says in reference to a late night on the town in the company of his assistant director and executive producer, Adam Sommer, whom he hadn't seen in several months. Anderson officiated at Sommer's wedding, he tells me. "I'm an ordained minister for Rose Ministries of Las Vegas, Nevada. My sister was getting married and wanted me to preside, so she gave it to me for Christmas. She did it all online." No wonder, I say, he finds himself drawn to religion as a subject.

Seen one way, The Master is Anderson's second film in a row about a self-appointed prophet starting a congregation, after There Will Be Blood and its hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who agrees to let the oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) drill on his family's land in exchange for the money he needs to build his Church of the Third Revelation. In The Master, the savior and the businessman are one and the same: the charismatic Hubbard surrogate Lancaster Dodd (played with great Wellesian flourish by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself in one early scene as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher," and, above all, "a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man."

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Great article! But wayy to much spoiling!!


"The final meeting between Freddie and Dodd is as breathtaking as the much-celebrated one between Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview—only this time, it is words and conflicting ideologies, not bowling pins, that strike the fatal blows." 


Come on! You just ruined the last scene. Completely ruined it. Wtf?

RhumbandCoax 1 Like

I have been reading a great deal about COS recently (as well as LDS Church). P.T. said in this article, "I've always thought Hubbard was a great character, so interesting and larger than life, and kind of impossible to ignore." It's true, love him or hate him. I've been hoping for someone to come along with a biography of LRH on film for some time, as he was a truly fascinating, and uniquely American character. Try reading  Russell Miller's book 'Bare-Faced Messiah" to get the story, warts, lesions, sores, and all. Though no longer in print it can be found on the ex-scientologist website,


"Researching Scientology"???   Please, Mr. Foundas, come up with more accurate headlines in the future.  The consensus among film critics is that this film fails as an expose of Scientology.  The filmmaker's idea of how he "researches" Scientology is go to to YOUTUBE?????  What a joke. What about reading some of Hubbard's books, watching his filmed interview done in the 60's and TALKING TO THE NUMEROUS PEOPLE WHO WORKED WITH HIM IN THE BEGINNING WHO ARE STILL ALIVE?  Further, his idea of researching Scientology is to read newsletters of someone INTERPRETING Scientology?  Not just going to the source of it?  Who cares about someone's interpretations?  Any Tom, Dick or Harry can interpret it, and if they get it wrong, then Anderson gets it wrong.  Bhuddism, Christian Science, and yes, even Christianity, are not, today, what their founders created, because of people's interpretations and alterations of them.   Would you have found Jesus in a suit of armor, slicing and dicing Arabs in the Crusades? 


Okay, here's the straight skinny on how this film relates to Scientology:  Anderson figured he'd make some MONEY and AWARDS by riding on Hubbard's and Scientology's coattails, by having some very superficial similarities to them, albeit distorted similarities, but enough to be recognizable and start a lot of word of mouth because Hubbard and Scientology are so popular.  This sells movie tickets.


So Anderson's ploy is purely a self-serving effort, with no earnest attempt to "research" either Hubbard or Scientology or Dianetics and truthfully explore these subjects in a film.  With no scruples about altering reality, Anderson's simply an opportunistic coattail rider on the fame of immensely popular philosopher and the world's fastest growing religion.  No scruples about altering reality: Anderson is soooo Hollywood.  This is why film critics agree that the film fails as as expose of Scientology, and why they, and audiences find it aesthetically well done, but "puzzling".  It doesn't make sense because it has no connection to reality.  


 @spikeheimowitz  "immensely popular philosopher and the world's fastest growing religion"


Apparently Scientology is worried.


@spikeheimowitz " it doesn't make sense because it has no connection to reality." Are you seeing the irony here? If not, let me know and I'll spell it out for you..


@spikeheimowitz  I really feel that you and some others fail to see the point.  The film is not about Scientology nor is it meant to be an expose.


What you're saying would be similar to if a director was saying that they always found messianic stories fascinating so they looked into what the basis of Christianity was and some of the earliest things related to that and then wrote their own messianic story - and then someone (such as yourself) comes along and says, "This is an awful expose of Christianity!" and begins ranting about how it's not well-researched and whatever.  Somehow assuming it's meant to be some expose or is meant to be "capitalizing off of interest in the religion or individual" even though it doesn't have a character named Jesus Christ, isn't wholly founded in Christian beliefs or teachings, etc.


If somebody did that, most people would say that such an individual is out of their mind because they clearly missed the thematic elements at play in favor of seeing things so literally (and yet simultaneously not seeing that there's no literal correlation, including differing names/beliefs/etc. portrayed) that they no longer grasp the reality of the situation.  Because, in such a case, a film of that sort is not some "expose about Christianity" nor is it meant to be.  That is simply a jumping off point for the material due to the creator of the work being interested in that from a somewhat distant perspective.  And as material for inspiration alone (that is to say - since none of this is CLAIMING to be about Scientology outright), no "minimum" amount of research is necessary.


It sounds to me as though you have a personal investment in Scientology to the point that you're throwing around delusional or misguided claims about what the film is meant to be and you're doing so in defense of Scientology - not because it needs to be defended in relation to this film but because you don't understand what's going on with the film to begin with.  And then you have the audacity to act as though that's a problem with the film rather than yourself.


 @spikeheimowitz have you actually seen the film? I'm pretty confident PTA would do a bit more research on scientology that is implied... the guy is a genius filmmaker and his films reflect that.  Holes have appeared in your argument already since christianity was founded on the works of Christ interpreted by the experiences of the early followers of His claims such as the writers of the gospels and the letters of Paul.


 @spikeheimowitz "immensely popular philosopher and the world's fastest growing religion.."   HAHAHAHHA  More like drug addled con man/bad SF writer and the  "religion" where everyone's scurrying for the exits like roaches when the lights go on.


I was thinking, as over-the-top as Freddie is, he is probably tame compared to Tom Cruise, the Freddie in Anderson's own real life backyard, so to speak. Will that be an advantage or disadvantage for the film?


"We are the authorities on the mind." (Cruise referring to himself and his fellow clams.)

"I have never met a more intelligent, a more tolerant, a more compassionate..." (Cruise referring to his best friend, and fellow high school dropout, cult leader David Miscavige.)


Tom Cruise has met the "leaders of leaders" and not one has been more intelligent than David Miscavige? I guess that calls for some word clearing in the old Scientology dictionary.  Only Scientologists can know knowledge the way they do, and teach you how to trust in trusting, and important doublethink like that, that is so necessary to save this sector of the galaxy.

They are the authority on authorities, and since L. Ron Blubber was here since the beginning of time, and was almost run over by a freight locomotive on Venus etc.,  he was obviously the ultimate authority on authorities, and the one all other authorities should look up to.

It makes you an authority just to recognize this, that Hubbard is such an authority. By being a Scientologist, you become an authority on everything -- how to get people off drugs, how to prevent disease, how to "know," how to learn, how to be rich, how to smoke more to prevent cancer and then purify yourself using Hubbard's magick rundown -- "how to learn others to know better," as Louanne might say.

I'm hoping this film might inspire another good filmmaker to do a real Scientology story, and my three top picks are:

The Paulette Cooper Story.

The Marc Headley Story.

The Astra Woodcraft Story.


My pick would be:

The Lisa McPherson Story

BosonStark 1 Like

I'm so glad a good writer/director has finally made a film that is all about Scientology. Is Phoenix's character supposed to be Tom Cruise?

BosonStark 1 Like

It's pretty ironic really, but the element that could push an R rated movie like this to be a popular success, is the Scientology backdrop. Besides it being visually stunning and a very intriguing film, wonderful acting and all that, the fact is the TomKat divorce has put "cult" in the minds of more people. And, it still takes some daring to have done a film like this too, for anyone who knows anything about Scientology. I'm hoping it will be a spark. I want more people to be aware of what Dianutty was like in the early years.

I have no idea how much it would contribute to the success of the movie. While film goers at these special viewings may go in thinking about Scientology, and come out not talking about it at all, they are a slightly different audience from the general public.

I'm thinking of an R movie that had surprising popular success, Brokeback Mountain. The surprise audience there was women. What could they talk about? The love story. Void of the expected that you find in man/woman romances, it presented a tortured and poignant take on love, and straight women responded in droves. They were craving something unique, that oasis of pure unbridled passion, in forbidden circumstances.

I'm really glad to see this film come to fruition. I would say that 15 years ago, Anderson might have run into a different situation. However, the cult is falling apart. They have fish to fry on many fronts and are powerless. Fighting Anderson would have just brought more attention to the film.

Scientology wants to fictionalize and glorify Hubbard in things like the Ron Nutterpedia. This movie, it seems to me, is going to be cutting way too close to the bone, to reality. I can't wait to see it, and I can't wait to see the public's reaction to it.

Brokeback caused a lot of people -- the straight people who saw it -- to think about what it was like for gay people back 50 years ago. I'm hoping people will now think about what Scientology was like when it started, and be aware that it hasn't changed a great deal, only it has taken on more cloaking.

I'm kind of intrigued by the homoerotic subtext or bromance between the two main characters with Mary Sue being the lightning rod or whatever. That's one thing that would kind of deviate from the real Hubbard. I don't think guys, gay or straight, got attached to him that way, and most women (or men for that matter) regarded him as a father figure only. In the Parsons years, maybe he was somewhat attractive, but by the time he wrote Dianutty, yikes. Hubbard being repulsive looking was what allowed some women to deify him or at least keep him at arm's length.

Hoffman is an actor who probably rates a 0 on the gay sex appeal scale and it's hard to envision him portraying Hubbard as changing that. Even if Phoenix plays some twisted messed up weirdo, he's still a hottie.


This was interesting and I'm so looking forward to see the movie. I do hope a movie house near me will be able to show it in 70mm.


Good read!!  Thank you Mr. Foundas. 

LaLa104 1 Like

Looking forward to seeing this move. I think Hoffman and Pheonix are great actors and Amy Adams is always great as well.

Capt._Howdy 1 Like

Great article. I wish I could have seen it at the Castro, but I left the Best Coast for the Least Coast sometime ago.


Thanks Scott Foundas.


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