The Master Screenplay: Scientology History from Several Different Eras Skillfully Woven Together


On Thursday, Marc Headley settled things once and for all. In a story he wrote for The Daily Beast, he showed conclusively that Paul Thomas Anderson’s script for The Master is about almost nothing but Scientology, providing 22 direct comparisons as proof.

Marc did a great job showing some of the parallels between the script and Scientology history. For example: From 1967 to 1975 Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard ran things from a former cattle trawler he refurbished as a yacht and renamed the Apollo; in the script, Lancaster Dodd (“The Master” character, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film) runs things from a refurbished cattle trawler dubbed the Alatheia.

Now that I’ve read the script myself, I can say that the parallells go even deeper than Headley indicated, and in this piece I’m going to talk about how not only the names and dates and places in the script echo L. Ron Hubbard’s life, but also how the narrative of The Master explores multiple eras of Scientology’s history to paint a compelling portrait of Hubbard and his enterprise (but I’ll do my best not to spoil the film itself).

First, I want to address the notion, often expressed at other sites, that the finished film Anderson is going to release in October SEPTEMBER! is likely to be substantially different than the script (or multiple versions of the script) which have been floating around for years.

We got leaked a copy of the script on Friday. We have no way of knowing whether it is an early or late version. We can see from the official trailer released last week, however, that much of what’s filmed has been preserved almost verbatim from the script we have. Take a look yourself. Here are some sample moments of dialogue…

And here’s the trailer, where you will see many of those lines preserved…

Also, having read the script, I can tell you that virtually every shot I see in that trailer comes right from the pages I’ve read.

So, with that out of the way, what’s the script about?

I’ll avoid the plot points of the film so as to prevent spoilers, but I can tell you which eras of Scientology form its backdrop.

1. Hubbard goes whole track. When L. Ron Hubbard introduced the idea of “auditing” (a form of counseling) with his 1950 book Dianetics, it experienced a brief fad as people around the country paired up to help each other remember what they had experienced as embryos or during childbirth. It was Hubbard’s contention that something your mother and father said during sex, or during pregnancy, could somehow imprint itself on your mind and mess you up for life. If you could go back in time and recover those memories, you could disarm them and improve your mental faculties in the present. Riding the popularity of that notion, for a couple of years Hubbard built larger and larger groups in places like New Jersey and California to meet the demand for his classes. But Hubbard wasn’t satisfied with this, and kept pushing further: if his “technology” could help a person recover memories in the womb, why not go back even further? Hubbard proposed that we are immortal beings and could, with his help, recover memories from countless past lives, going back millions of years. As journalist Russell Miller explains so well in his excellent 1987 biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, not everyone who had originally supported Dianetics was thrilled with the new emphasis on past lives and space opera. Hubbard was faced with the first of several splits in his movement. (Sample line from Dodd in the script: “We must Process The Whole of time. This Life and Pre Natal Cellular processing is not enough. We have Lived Many, Many, Many Lives. So anybody that is not processing the whole of time — is doing a disservice to man and Will Not Get Better. I cannot put it more simply.”)

2. A wealthy patron sours on LRH. Part of that early crisis for Hubbard was his involvement with Wichita millionaire Don Purcell. As Miller explains, Purcell was a godsend for Hubbard, who, in 1951, was reeling from his divorce from his second wife, Sara Northrup, and the battle over custody of their daughter, Alexis. The early fad over Dianetics had faded, his early foundations were failing, Hubbard was hiding out in Cuba, and the press was savaging him when Purcell offered a safe haven for Hubbard in Kansas. The science fiction writer went there and put his movement in Purcell’s hands. Before too long, however, that relationship had also soured, and Hubbard had to start over again, this time renaming his invention “Scientology” while he lived in Phoenix. (In the script, Dodd’s benefactor, a Park Avenue widower named Mildred Purcell, hosts a fundraiser and demonstration of Dodd’s latest ideas, only to have it ruined by a persistent skeptic, and Dodd reacts in a way that shocks Mrs. Purcell.)

3. The Sea Org and wedding bells. By 1966, while based in England, Hubbard was becoming so unwelcomed by American and British governments, he started a Sea Project to prepare for taking his operations off shore. The next year, he assembled a small number of ships, named himself “Commodore” of his armada, and set sail for the Mediterranean. In Greece he found such a warm welcome, he redubbed his ships the Athena, Diana, and his flagship, the Apollo. His family was with him, and in 1971, he officiated at the marriage of his daughter Diana to Jonathan Horwich aboard the Apollo. By then, the hardcore Scientologists who were sailing with him had been named the Sea Org, and Hubbard regaled them with paranoid tales of all the international groups who had engaged them in a war. As a result, the Sea Org began developing harsh forms of discipline, Orwellian methods of security and personal control, and Hubbard also urged his troops, when they encountered criticism, never to defend but always to attack. (In the film, Dodd sails from San Francisco to New York, and along the way puts on the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth. Dodd, meanwhile, relies on his wife Mary Sue for her steely nerve, just as Hubbard relied on his own third wife, also named Mary Sue. Sample line for Dodd in the script, which appears to be delivered by Mary Sue in the trailer: “The only way to defend ourselves is attack. Attack. Attack. Attack. We attack that man. If we don’t do that, we will lose every battle we’re engaged in.”)

Anderson’s script skillfully weaves its tale while fully immersed in all three of these major themes, placing most of the action in New York and Phoenix, and all of it in 1952. (And let me be clear: except for one early scene which seemed like a page out of John Steinbeck’s biography — random, I know — and some scenes that help develop the film’s main character, Joaquin Phoenix’s “Freddie,” every single moment of this script is about nothing but Scientology’s history reworked in one fashion or another.)

In order to accomplish this, Anderson has to cram together some real people into composite characters, and things that actually happened decades apart all happen within a few months.

But I have to say, it all works beautifully. Not that it matters, but I’ve never read a script that carried me along so quickly. And from what we can see in the trailers, this thing is some serious Oscar bait. But I digress…

What surprised me was that Anderson also manages to get in some contemporary touches, so that it’s not only ancient Hubbard history informing the Scientology of the movie.

For example, Hoffman’s character is named Lancaster Dodd, but he’s called “The Master” by his followers because it’s short for “Master of Ceremonies.” When I realized that they were also calling him “MOC,” I knew it had to be a reference to Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, who is called “COB” for his title, Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center.

Now, for you hardcore Scientology watchers, here are some things you should be looking for when you see the film (and again, I’m trying to stay away from what happens between Freddie and The Master and other major parts of the story — nothing should really be spoiled as far as the unfolding of the story by pointing out these elements of Scientology history).

Nibs plays an important role. Hubbard’s oldest son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. — known as “Nibs” in the family — was in and out of Scientology and alternatively tried to expose his father’s untruths and also went crawling back to ask forgiveness. In the script, Dodd’s oldest son Val seems mostly based on Nibs, with also, possibly, some elements of Hubbard’s other son, Quentin, thrown in (the effeminate name, for example).

Questions and responses. Scientology is a massive collection of ideas and processes that Hubbard developed over decades. The sheer number of activities and gradations would seem to be impossible to film, but Anderson brilliantly crams together many of its key traits in just a few scenes. Auditing, “bull baiting,” the infamous Scientology personality test, and “security checking” all get compressed and combined in a way that works convincingly. Scientologists may howl at the way their “technology” is portrayed, but as film drama, Dodd’s interrogation technique is spot on.

Mission Into Time. Hubbard apparently sincerely believed that he’d lived past lives (as a Carthaginian general during the Punic Wars in the third century, B.C., for example) and figured he had to have buried treasure in various places around the Mediterranean for his later self to dig up. So in 1967, Hubbard set sail on the Avon River — the yacht that would later be named the Athena — to search in places like Sicily for his old treasure caches. No gold turned up, but Hubbard still turned the voyage into his 1973 book, Mission Into Time. Believe it or not, Anderson manages to pay homage to Hubbard’s past-life gold hunt in The Master while never leaving New York!

Mary Sue takes, um, control. We can only hope that the sex scene between Dodd and his wife in the script makes it into the movie. For this scene alone, Anderson may never again get invited to parties at the homes of Scientology celebrities.

The Wall of Fire. Although the action of the film takes place in 1952, Anderson riffs on elements of Scientology that came much later. We won’t say more about it, but one scene should make Hubbard historians think of his heroic researches of OT 3.

Dodd smokes Kools. There are so many little Easter Eggs for Scientology watchers in this film. I came up with dozens of them after reading the script, but I don’t want to spoil them for you. I will say this much: Anderson knows his Hubbard history.

OK, so we get to the big question: if this film is about nothing other than dramatizing the successes and struggles of L. Ron Hubbard from about 1952 to 1971, how does he fare?

Again, I don’t want to ruin the film for you by revealing what happens with Dodd, Freddie, and Mary Sue as this movie unfolds. Let me just say this: if it’s true, as various reports have it, that Tom Cruise has seen the picture and isn’t happy about it, I’d say that would have to be a major understatement.

See also:
Scientology’s president and the death of his son: our complete coverage
What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids
Scientology’s new defections: Hubbard’s granddaughter and Miscavige’s dad
Scientology’s disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group
Scientology leader David Miscavige’s vanished wife: Where’s Shelly?

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Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.

New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.

As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.

Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.