Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master's Master

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

Known by his followers as Master, Dodd is the author of a book called The Cause (modeled on Hubbard's bestselling Dianetics), which seeks to free readers from "past trauma," revert the mind "to its inherent state of perfect," and otherwise untangle the knots in the human psyche. This is accomplished through a series of therapies also capable—in the words of their humble creator—of ending war, poverty, and cancer. And when The Master begins, in a newly post–World War II America, Dodd and his teachings have already begun to amass a sizable following.

Into this world comes a drifter, a discharged Navy man named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who, it's clear from the start, isn't just another sheep to the flock. A rolling stone—or perhaps, more accurately, a manic pinball—trying to find his place in the world, Freddie first encounters Dodd when he stows away on his yacht in the San Francisco Bay. Before long, the sailor's prodigious moonshining and photography skills are put to use by the guru, who welcomes the challenge of taming the feral creature before his eyes.

"I think Master probably gets a real—what's the word I'm looking for—that kind of hunger that must happen inside him when he gets a whiff of low self-esteem off someone," says Anderson, who can't remember how he first started to work on The Master, except that "I've always thought Hubbard was a great character, so interesting and larger than life, and kind of impossible to ignore." (At no point before, during, or after the making of the film, Anderson stresses, did the famously litigious church make any direct or indirect inquiries about the project or otherwise try to inhibit its progress.)

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.

From there, Anderson likens his research process to a digressive Internet search that begins one place and ends up somewhere wholly unrelated, "like when you get on YouTube looking for a sports clip and now, three hours later, you're watching some old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." One of his Web finds was The Aberree, a Scientology-themed newsletter published from 1954 to 1965 by a Phoenix couple, Alphia and Agnes Hart, who were among Hubbard's early adopters. ("The most certain thing about Scientology is that no one can be certain what this 'Science of Certainty' will come up with next," reads the opening line of the first issue, leading off a discussion of the nascent church's efforts to legalize itself as a religion.)

"It really was the best possible way to time-travel, reading these newsletters," he says, "and to kind of get a sense of not just Hubbard, but the people who were really interested in the beginnings of this movement, because they were very, very hungry to treat themselves and get better, and they were open to anything. They were so incredibly optimistic."

So The Master is ultimately "about" Scientology in much the same way that Boogie Nights was about the San Fernando Valley adult-film industry of the 1970s or There Will Be Blood was about the California oil boom of the early 20th century. That is, it functions as a secondary concern, more setting than actual subject, more subtext than text. It is a way for Anderson to bring together an assortment of his typically idiosyncratic, iconoclastic characters and a conduit to larger themes of power and paranoia, domination and submission, free will and predestination. Indeed, no less than Anderson's previous film does The Master feel like a bold, somewhat cryptic meditation on underground forces that have shaped modern America. "Is it possible to live without some kind of master in our lives?" the movie asks, leaving it to us to decide.

For his part, Anderson is loath to see the movie as a variation on a pet theme. "Is it getting tired?" he asks when I say that Dodd and Freddie recall the surrogate father-son relationships in many of his films, beginning with the aging gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and his naive protégé (John C. Reilly) in Anderson's 1996 debut feature, Hard Eight. He prefers to think of his Master characters as unrequited lovers, a subtle, homoerotic tension that is triangulated in the film by the presence of Dodd's loyal, steely wife (Amy Adams). "But maybe that's just my way of dressing it up and thinking I was doing something different this time," he says. In any case, he seems happy that people—including us—are finally talking about something other than Scientology. "I've kind of loved these screenings we've had, because no one's talking about Scientology anymore once they see the film. They're just talking about how fucking good Joaquin Phoenix is."

And they're right. In his "comeback" role, four years after purportedly retiring from acting to pursue a career as a rapper (only to finally let the world in on his elaborate prank), Phoenix is nothing short of astonishing. It's a fiercely physical, animalistic performance that calls to mind the young Jack Nicholson—the one seen in Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—in its diabolical unpredictability, its paroxysms of emasculated rage.

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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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