Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master

The director discusses Joaquin Phoenix and researching Scientology

"I don't think they do dailies much anymore because it costs money to print and project them, so now people just watch them on DVD in their hotels," Anderson says. "But ultimately, there's a real sense of satisfaction when you watch something that you got right, and everybody's there in the room — you can feel it. And on the other hand, that fucking pin drops when everybody spent all that effort, and you're there watching dailies, and everyone is collectively feeling that it's not very good. Whether it's performance or lighting or where the camera is — you know, there are definitely moments when people walk out of dailies with their heads really low; and that can be great, too, because inevitably, you come back really strong the next day and get a great day's worth of work. Then you go for three days, and suddenly, there's another bad day of dailies. It happens. On 60 days of shooting, you're going to get some stinkers along the way. It's just way too hard to get good stuff all the time."

It's refreshing to hear a director of Anderson's stature—any director, really — speak so candidly about the difficulties of making a good movie and the doubts that can creep into even a seasoned professional's head. "Sometimes you get cold feet as a director," he elaborates, citing the nervousness he felt about Phoenix's go-for-broke performance at certain times during the shoot. "Sometimes he'd do something so outlandish, and I'd think, 'Hmm, I'm not so sure.' And then lo and behold, six months later, you're in the editing room, and you say: 'Thank God. What was I thinking? How could I have possibly second-guessed that?'"

He also admits to feeling some initial trepidation about working with Harvey Weinstein — a polarizing figure in the indie-film world if ever there were — who bought The Master during post-production. Back in his New Line Cinema days, Anderson had his share of dustups with that company's famously cantankerous CEO, Bob Shaye. But of Weinstein, who is positioning The Master to be one of his thoroughbreds in this year's awards season, he has only good things to say.

"I showed him the film, and I sort of underestimated that he really knew the script inside and out, and he did," Anderson says. "There was stuff missing from the film in the cut I showed him because we were still messing around with it, and he remembered things, started asking, 'Where's that scene?' And he was right. I was showing him a version where I was experimenting with what could possibly not be in the film, and he knew what was missing. It was like having P.T. Barnum come into your editing room and say: 'What the fuck is going on? Where's the dancing girl?' I've learned so much from him, just in the past couple of months that we've been dealing with each other. I love him."

All told, the Paul Thomas Anderson sitting before me today seems a changed man from the piss-and-vinegar enfant terrible who once told Lynn Hirschberg, in a New York Times Magazine profile pegged to the release of Magnolia, "I'm still young, and I still have to show off," and who expressed that cinematically in his early films with their intricately interconnected storylines, pulsating pop soundtracks, and thrilling, Scorsese-influenced tracking shots. He has changed, too, from the last time we met, four years ago, just as There Will Be Blood was heading into wide release. He has turned 40 since then, had two more children (for a total of three) with his partner Maya Rudolph, and doesn't watch as much baseball as he used to, though he hasn't lost his penchant for peppering his conversation with baseball metaphors. "I look around, and I'm like, 'Where did these kids come from?'" he says of his two youngest. "It felt like two came out in the off-season, like they're two off-season acquisitions. When did we pick them up? OK, I guess we've got a third baseman now. But it's amazing. I can't say anything new about parenthood, but having three kids is great."

Likewise, The Master feels every inch the work of a more mature artist, a filmmaker with nothing to prove, taking his time, gazing deeply into the heart of the old weird America. Even more than There Will Be Blood, it is a work of heightened directorial precision, in which the camera never makes an unmotivated move, and a constricting tension slowly seeps into the film through the almost imperceptible accrual of small gestures, glances, unspoken motives (plus the magnificent dissonances of Jonny Greenwood's original score). 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.

"What do you think our chances are?" Anderson asks as we settle up and start heading back to his screening. "Good," I say, though I'm not entirely sure if he means critically, commercially, with Oscar voters, or the public at large. All filmmakers must worry about such things, whether they work at the Hollywood epicenter or dwell on the margins. Thankfully, Anderson's angel, Megan Ellison, has already committed to backing his next project: a film version of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice, a kind of stoner Chinatown set in L.A. at the end of the 1960s, and the first time the reclusive Gravity's Rainbow author has allowed his work to be adapted for the screen. "And it's not going to take five years," Anderson says with a sly grin as he disappears into the night. "So you're gonna eat your fucking words."

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