The Fresh Air Interview
12:23 pm
Tue October 2, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Man Behind 'The Master'

Originally published on Tue October 9, 2012 9:38 am

For Paul Thomas Anderson, moviemaking is not just an art; it's also about time management.

"At its best, a film set is when everybody knows what's going on and everybody's working together," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "At its worst, [it's] when something's been lost in communication and an actor's not sure how many shots are left or what's going on, and the makeup department's confused."

Anderson wrote and directed the new film The Master, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled World War II veteran who makes his way into the group.

For the film, Anderson conducted research about Dianetics — a metaphysical theory created by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — and its early followers, including one couple's newsletters about yoga, new diets and past-lives therapy. He says that poring over these writings was "the best way to try to hold hands with the past and get to know these people," and that "there was a kind of wide-open feeling to a lot of things, reading, and a lot of investigation and openness to anything, which felt like a pre-hippie thinking."

The Master is set in the 1950s; inspired by the look and color palette of movies from the period, Anderson decided to shoot in 65mm film. He also found looking at department-store portraits from that era to be helpful.

"Those somehow were the most candid and revealing, and helped you time travel — look at these faces, look at that period, look at that era — and try and imagine not just what was happening when the picture was taken, but what would happen right after," he says.

Anderson has always loved the 1950s because of the era's cars, outfits, hairdos, music — and also because of his father, Ernie Anderson. He was a World War II veteran who later became well-known as an announcer on ABC TV, famous for saying things like, "On the Looooooove Boat ..."

Growing up, Anderson would go to the ABC studio and watch his father record.

"It was a step towards what I wanted to do — being in that world, being around technicians, moving parts, and microphones, video rolling — I loved it," he says.

Anderson also wrote and directed the widely acclaimed films Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. He has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay.


Interview Highlights

On the first scene he wrote for The Master

"Well, it's inspired by the actual questionnaire that's out there as relates to Scientology, but I had changed it and switched it around. And I came to that many years ago, and actually found it was a great way to just start writing. Forget any implications of making a film or story about this — it was really just writer's block and sitting around. The best way for me to start writing a story is to get two characters talking to each other. And if you got questions from one, you're gonna have to get answers from the other, and you can start to find out who is coming out of you when you're writing, if you know what I mean.

"So I just started doing it as an exercise, and that's probably one of the scenes that I wrote first in the movie ... working from the middle. But I wrote that years and years ago. [I] didn't really know who these people were, so I just started discovering who they were by what their answers would be."

On working with Joaquin Phoenix on his character's physicality

"Kind of early on, Joaquin let me know that actually his shoulder — I think from birth, he has kind of a messy shoulder. And he's probably spent a lot of time trying to hide it or stand up straight so that he can twist his body around. He said, 'Do you think it'd be alright if I do this?' And I said, 'Sure, great.'

"But a couple days into the film, he was feeling more comfortable and just kept sliding into this skin, that he was doing these movements that were so incredible. I just didn't want to jinx anything and say, 'What are you doing?' or 'What's going on?' You're in the middle of make-believe — you don't want to break the spell. You just want to watch him do whatever he's doing.

"I have my own theories about it, because [Phoenix's character] puts his hands on his hips — sort of stuff about his kidneys being torn up from the war. Maybe something happened. Maybe it's just easier. Maybe it's comfortable for him to reach back and hold his kidneys and help him stand. But then again, yeah, there's always that thing — the way someone holds himself is an extension of what's going [on] with them on the inside. And I buy that too, for sure."

On the war stories that inspired scenes in the film

"One of the stories in the film comes from Jason Robards, who famously fought in the war, was in the Navy. ... I worked with him on Magnolia. And he told me the story of coming back. I don't remember what boat he was on, but he was coming back, and V-J Day was announced, and they'd run out of booze. And they broke into the torpedoes and drank booze [i.e, fuel] out of there. And the way he tells it, he woke up the next morning on the mast of the ship, and an inch either way he would have fallen to his death. And that story just stuck with me as a great story ... something to get into the film.

"I think the idea with ethanol is, you put just a few drops and then squeeze as many coconuts or papaya or whatever you've taken back with you from the island; sort of 99 percent juice and maybe 1 percent ethanol. You'll get [a] pretty good buzz."

On shooting on 65mm film

"It's a different film, so it's a different feeling. It's really that simple, but ultimately ... you know a 35mm camera, they're small. I mean you can be as small as a little speaker that I'm looking at here, sort of no bigger than a laptop. Some of these cameras are teeny. And with 65mm cameras you are limited, because they're incredibly large, and they're loud, and you can't fling them around or put them on a Steadicam. You can put them on your shoulder if have a really good chiropractor or masseuse.

"So they're limiting in that way, but that was good for us. We were trying to be straightforward and simple and old-fashioned. And loud — they're very loud. You can hear bzzzzzzz."

On loving the ocean

"I remember as a kid going to Pearl Harbor, and they have that monument you can go to, and it made such an impression on me. You sort of look down into the water. You see fishes moving around, and you have to think about what happened there and all those bodies ... and all these kinds of things that have gone in that water. It's a thought that always sticks with me when I do go into the ocean when I go swimming — all that's happened and all that's beneath the surface, and things coming and going. I don't know — it gets you in a good place of thinking about things in a wider way."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Paul Thomas Anderson, wrote and directed several films I love: "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood." And now he has a new film to add to that list, "The Master." New York Times film critic A.O. Scott described it as imposing, confounding and altogether amazing.

The film won top awards at the Venice Film Festival and had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "The Master" is mostly set in 1950 after a World War II veteran, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, returns to America. Quell is mentally unstable and having a hard time fitting in anywhere.

He stumbles onto a party being held by a cult-like group called The Cause and is taken in by them. Their leader is the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. His wife, Peggy Dodd, played by Amy Adams, is suspicious of Quell and afraid he'll be a disruptive force, but Lancaster Dodd welcomes the challenge of taming Freddie's animal instincts.

Let's start with a scene from "The Master." The members of The Cause are at a party where a skeptic challenges some of Lancaster Dodd's teachings, like his claims about reincarnation and how he can lead followers through their past lives through a technique he calls processing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MASTER")

CHRISTOPHER EVAN WELCH: (As John More) I still find it difficult to see the proof, with regard to past lives that your movement claims.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Lancaster Dodd) Would you care to submit yourself to processing and look through the telescope, as my friend said?

WELCH: (As More) Perhaps another time. You've also said that these methods, Cause methods, can cure leukemia, according to your book...

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) Some forms of leukemia. In being able to access past lives, we are able to treat illnesses that may have started back thousands, even trillions of years.

WELCH: (As character) Trillions?

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) With a T, sir.

WELCH: (As More) The Earth is not understood to be more than a few billion years old.

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) Well, even the smartest of our current scientists can be fooled, yes.

WELCH: (As More) You can understand skepticism, can you not?

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) Yes, yes, yes, for without it, we'd be positives and no negatives, and therefore zero-charge. We must have it.

WELCH: (As More) Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion.

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) Which is why our gathering of data is so far-reaching.

WELCH: (As More) Otherwise you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult, is it not?

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) It is, it is, and thankfully we are, all of us, working at breakneck speeds and in unison towards capturing the mind's fatal flaws and correcting it back to its inherent state of perfect - whilst righting civilization and eliminating war and poverty, and therefore, the atomic threat.

WELCH: (As More) Well, I find it quite difficult to comprehend, or more to the point believe, that you believe, sir, that time travel hypnosis therapy can bring world peace and cure cancer.

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) I have never been to the Pyramids, have you?

WELCH: (As More) No.

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) And yet we know that they are there - because learned men have told us so. May I ask: What is your name?

WELCH: (As More) John More.

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) Mr. More, if I may, is there something frightening to you about The Cause's travels into the past?

WELCH: (As More) Frightening?

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) Yes.

WELCH: (As More) No.

HOFFMAN: (As Dodd) What scares you so much about traveling into the past, sir? Are you afraid that we might discover that our past has been re-shapen, perverted, and perhaps what we think we know of this world is false information?

GROSS: Paul Thomas Anderson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on "The Master." It's such a fine film.

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: I think that whole idea of former lives is so appealing to some people - the belief that this is one of many incarnations that they have experienced and that they will experience. Did you think a lot about why the idea of reincarnation and former lives is so appealing to people who believe in that?

ANDERSON: Yeah but not a lot because it's a pretty simple one, I think. It's because it's incredibly hopeful. You know, it says that when you're dead, you're not dead, and that's something I can get behind, you know. I mean, I don't want to get into philosophy here, Terry, but, you know, it's kind of - it's a very optimistic thing.

GROSS: So you were in the position, for this movie of, you know, creating a cult or an alternative community, an alternative belief system, whatever you want to call it. And did you do, like, a lot of, you know, reading or research to see what real groups like that were like, not to copy them, but just to get an idea of some of the basic principles or...?

ANDERSON: Yeah, I mean, obviously this - a lot's been made out of the kind of beginning point for what we're modeling off of, was Dianetics, the early days of Dianetics, 1950, kind of a lot of similarities to that, you know.

GROSS: And that was created by L. Ron Hubbard, who later founded Scientology.

ANDERSON: That's right. You know, I'd come across these old newsletters called Abery(ph), which is made by a couple - the Hart(ph) couple down in Arizona. And it was kind of like the best way to inhabit - to try to get to know the people that might have been interested in anything; from handwriting analysis to yoga, to new diets to past lives therapy. You know, this couple, the Harts, were into it all.

And they wrote this newsletter that actually went from like around 1951, '52 to like the mid-'60s. And I kind of pored through most of them as much as I could and found it the best way to try to hold hands with the past and kind of get to know these people and what their feelings were, what the kind of ins and outs were amongst these groups.

GROSS: Can you give a couple of examples of things that you learned from them about beliefs or the kinds of people who subscribed to this newsletter?

ANDERSON: Well, there was a variety of people. I mean, really, like a kind of crazy variety. Like if you'd been a, you know, sort of census-taker, you'd be probably baffled by the wide variety. I mean, I think the most thing in common is they were all white - but rich and poor. Some people coming back from the war; newly divorced women at the time, in the, sort of, early '50s, a few of those; a lot of engineers; men who were into science fiction or fantasy; people who were just, sort of, forward thinkers; people, too, that had made their way down to Arizona.

You know, I know a couple people I've talked to, friends of mine, whose parents migrated down to Arizona in the early '50s. Which, sort of - you've got to think about that. You know, these are probably coming from the Midwest or the East, and it's freezing cold. You know, they just want to get out of there, kind of getting down to this kind of barren place where you probably insert just some spirituality or some other kind of ways of thinking and living.

There was a kind of wide-open feeling to a lot of the things that I was reading, and a lot of investigation and openness to anything, which felt like, you know, kind of a pre-hippie thinking.

GROSS: So you had to create a series of exercises, processing as it's called in the film, where people are put through things or put through their past lives or put through certain exercises to help, you know, kind of get in touch with their better selves, their higher selves.

And, you know, one of those exercises is just being asked a question and then having to repeat the answer over and over again. So like, say your name, say it again, say it again. Are you thoughtless in your remarks? Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure? Do your past failures bother you? Do your past failures bother you?

How did you come up with that as something that, you know, the leader of this group would put new people through as an almost initiation process into the group.

ANDERSON: Well, it's inspired by the actual questionnaire that's out there, as it relates to Scientology. But I sort of changed it and switched it around. I kind of came to that many, many years ago and actually found it was a great way to just, sort of, start writing, you know, forgetting any implications of making film or story about this. It was really just, like, kind of writer's block and sitting around.

And, sort of, the best way for me to start writing a story is to get two characters talking to each other. And, you know, you need - if you got questions from one, you're going to have to get answers from the other, and you can kind of start to find out who's coming out of you when you're writing, if you know what I mean.

And so I just started doing it as an exercise, and that's probably one of the scenes that I kind of wrote first, in the movie, in the middle - kind of the middle, sort of working from the middle. But I wrote that years and years ago, didn't really know who these people were. So I just started discovering who they were by what their answers would be.

GROSS: So you started writing a scene that had say your name, say it again, without knowing who was in the scene or where it was headed?

ANDERSON: Yeah, but I found out when I was writing it, you know.

GROSS: Throughout the film, I kept asking myself what does the Philip Seymour Hoffman character actually believe. To what extent does he really believe he can take people through their past lives? To what extent does he really believe in past lives? How much is he aware that he's making it up as he goes along? Is he delusional, does he really believe this? And I asked this during different parts of the movie.

ANDERSON: Right. Yeah. Well, I think he does - I mean I - listen, I have a lot of faith in that character.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: I really do believe that he is a scientist, and he's a writer, and he's actually very open, I think, along certain people, about - that we are on a journey, and we are discovering, and we are making this up as we go along. I think when he's comfortable, he does admit that, you know. I don't know what's going on here, but that's the important thing. That's why we're going to roll up our sleeves and do this work and get to the bottom of human existence and get us all back to our inherent state of perfect.

I think he's very open about that, until he gets put into a corner, sort of face-to-face with some kind of skepticism and somebody that wants to say otherwise. And then he probably asserts himself as knowing much more than he does, or that he feels that he does.

And I've always felt with this guy, that the pressure's on. You know, at a certain point, it's a very difficult position to be in. The more people that are around or following you, the harder it becomes to say I don't know what's going on, let's keep discovering, let's keep that journey going.

It's kind of like, you know, you see these films that are big hits, and then they've got to go make a sequel. You know, you think oh boy, you've got to do it again. It's hard - hard work.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson. His new film is "The Master." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Thomas Anderson, and his movies, he wrote and directed "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "There Will Be Blood" and the new movie "The Master."

Now, you wrote the part of "The Master," the cult leader, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. The first time you used him, you know, that you worked with him was in "Boogie Nights," where he's a member of the film crew that's shooting the porn films, and he has a crush on the porn star, Dirk Diggler, the Hoffman character is gay, but he's also, he's very awkward, he's very uncomfortable. I think he's very uncomfortable in his own body.

He's - he comes off as a weak person, and now you've made him into such a kind of strong person. It's interesting that you've seen both sides of him as an actor and seen both capabilities in him.

ANDERSON: Well, I know he's my friend, but I have to say there is just nothing he can't do. I just, I feel so lucky to have met Phil and hooked up with him. You know, I can remember, you know, growing up, all I wanted to do was make films. You sort of imagine yourself on the set making movies with, you know, a camera and lights.

And you sort of imagine as a kid you're going to be sort of, I don't know, making Westerns outside. Never in my fantasy did I see anybody that looked like Phil Hoffman being a part of that picture. But here we are, and somewhere along the way I found this actor who I just think can do anything. And I - he's capable of so much that you can throw anything at him.

GROSS: One of the things he does in the film is blush, and it's so interesting when he blushes. Like, he plays a character who's obviously a kind of a narcissistic character. He kind of loves himself and believes in himself. And there's times when he's blushing when he's talking to his followers in this cult where it's almost like he's thinking to himself: Gosh, it's just so embarrassing to be this wise and this sensitive.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I don't know, as an actor, like, how do you control when you blush. I don't know how you do that.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Yeah, you know, I don't know if you can, but I wouldn't put it past Phil for being able to control when he can blush. Some of these actors have skills with their body and their faces and their words and - that is kind of beyond comprehension. It's wild.

GROSS: Would you watch him and think oh God, you're blushing at exactly the right moment?

ANDERSON: I don't - which part? You know what I mean? I think that, you know, whether he can blush or not is really just I think what you said more directly is that kind of great thing that his character does. His, kind of, joy in his intelligence, his joy in discovery, his humility, I think Phil's playing that. Somebody who's so good with words, who loves words, you know, who absolutely never met a word that he didn't like or couldn't use or kind of flip it around like a pancake.

GROSS: So the Philip Seymour Hoffman character is kind of corpulent and full of life and so social that he has followers, whereas the Joaquin Phoenix character is kind of wizened. He's survived World War II, but he's certainly not mentally intact. We don't know how he went into the war, but he certainly didn't come out of it very well.

His spine is twisted and his posture almost bizarre. And he holds his hands on his hips with his shoulders pulled, like, coming forward, and he's all bent over is almost like a physical expression of his inner anguish and dislocation, things that he doesn't have the words to express.

How much of that did he come up with himself, that posture? And even his mouth his twisted. He talks out of the side of his mouth, through his teeth.

ANDERSON: All of it, all of it. At a certain point, kind of early on, I think Joaquin let me know that actually his shoulder is kind of bent a bit, I think from birth he's got a kind of messy shoulder. And he's probably spent a lot of time trying to hide it or stand up straight so that if he can, kind of, twist his body around.

And he sort of said: Do you think it would be all right if I do this? And I said sure, great. But a couple days into the film, he just sort of was feeling more comfortable and just kept sliding into this skin that he was doing, this, kind of, this movements that were so incredible. I just didn't want to jinx anything and say what are you doing or what's going on, you know, it's going to...

You're in the middle of make-believe. You don't want to break the spell. You just kind of want to watch him do whatever he's doing. And I kind of had my own theories about it ,because he puts his hands on his hips, and this sort of stuff about his kidneys being all torn up from the war, maybe something happened, maybe it's just easier.

Maybe it's just easier. Maybe it's comfortable for him to kind of reach back and hold his kidneys and help him stand. But then again yeah, there's always that thing, you know, sort of the way somebody holds himself is an extension of what their - what's going on with them on the inside. And I buy that, too, for sure. I definitely see that.

You know, you see that when you're standing up straight, or you're bouncing down the street, or when you're - can barely kind of put one foot in front of the other. You know, it's absolutely true.

GROSS: It must have been so interesting for you, as the writer and director, to see the physical interpretation that Joaquin Phoenix brought to the role, which is not something that you had put in the script.

ANDERSON: Yeah, but thrilling, great, so exciting. You know, you hope for that kind of thing. You hope for an inventive actor to come along and make it, not just three-dimensional but, you know, five-dimensional, six dimensions. You know, and that's what he does. He's that kind of guy. He's that kind of actor. He'll do crazy things, and he'll either be right or wrong, but they're worth trying. He's amazing to work with, amazing.

GROSS: And I read he stayed in character through the movie, even on the set. Is that right?

ANDERSON: Yeah, whatever that means. It's such a weird phrase, isn't it, staying in character? It kind of connotates some kind of, I don't know - I wouldn't - we've got to find a new way to say stays in character. Maybe how about an enormous level of concentration? That's what I would say.

GROSS: Right.

ANDERSON: You know, it's like that. Everybody knows it's make-believe, and you're just trying to do your absolute best at make-believe. And to do that, sometimes you just, you really have to concentrate and tune a lot of stuff out. And that's very hard, very hard, requires an enormous amount of focus and concentration.

GROSS: But just physically to have stay twisted like that when you're not in a scene, that must be very uncomfortable.

ANDERSON: Right but probably fun. I mean, I dare say probably a kind of joy to sort of - I mean, somebody said you can check out of your skin for three months and be somebody else. You know, don't worry, you'll still be there when you get back in three months. Would you do it? I think many of us would if we could.

GROSS: That's so interesting because people are checking out of themselves when they're acting in your films, and because your films get so kind of beneath the surface of character that they are really checking out of themselves and checking into these characters. But you have to be so kind of aware of everything because you're the writer/director. You have to be taking care of everything.

So, like everybody's, you know, everybody's in this make-believe world, in a way, but are you?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You're thinking the budget also, probably. I mean, you know, like what time are the union hours over?

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Yeah, you know, but I don't want to give the impression that you're sort of working with some crazy people, and you've sort of got to be the - everybody - you know, you know you're making a movie, and everybody knows what the hours are and what a kind of - how to kind of create maximum effect. You know, no one likes to go to work in the middle of the night. No one likes to, kind of, do really heavy-duty stuff early in the morning.

You know, you're sort of working on making this thing, and you work together, and you're trying to get everybody at their best and make sure that the hours aren't too crazy, and make sure that the schedule allows that you're doing kind of a lighter scene after you did a heavy one or whatever it is. It's all that, kind of, time management, and everybody appreciates that. Everybody's happy about that, you know.

Joaquin doesn't want to try to go spend all his energy doing, you know, a big scene and have to do another one right after that. You're just - you're all kind of working together, figuring the whole thing out. At its best, a film set is when everybody knows what's going on, and everybody's working together.

At its worst is when something's been lost in the communication, and an actor's not sure how many shots are left or what's going on, and the makeup department's confused, and every - you know, I mean, I'm sure the angle overhead watching that moment is like all these kind of little ants banging into each other and going different directions.

And those moments happen, and they're a drag. They're a drag for everybody, but you try to get back on course and go right.

GROSS: Paul Thomas Anderson will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed the new film "The Master." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote and directed "Hard Eight" "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood." We're talking about his new film "The Master," set mostly in 1950. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the leader of a cult called The Cause and Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled World War II veteran who makes his way into the group.

In "The Master," Amy Adams plays the wife of the cult leader, and she's like his third or fourth wife. But through his group, through his cult called The Cause, he's perfected marriage. Marriage is better now than it used to be.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: He tells that to everybody. But anyway, she's really like the power behind him in some ways. She has this like odd kind of control. And she was recently on our show.

ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And we were talking about a scene - and the story behind the scene really surprised me. There's a scene in which she has to read a page of like Victorian pornography to the Joaquin Phoenix character...

ANDERSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...to this lost soul who is now, you know, on the fringes of this cult. And she's trying to desensitize him to his sexual obsessions.

ANDERSON: Right.

GROSS: And what she told me was that you came on the set one day, that that scene had not been on the script. You came on the set, gave her this page of a book to read and said OK, read it...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...and that was her preparation. So tell us the story from your point of view.

ANDERSON: It's pretty close to that. You know, we had a sequence in the film where that, the sequence that you're referring to, where some things were written in some things were just kind of very loosely sketched out and I knew I wanted to collect a lot of different things. I had a kind of list of different exercises that I'd either made up or pulled from different sources or stored in the back of my mind. That day in particular was a day where a bunch of our cameras and broke. We were shooting these 65 millimeter cameras and we were supposed to do a scene and the cameras broke. So we kind of found ourselves with about three or four hours while those cameras were getting fixed where we could shoot with this other smaller camera, a regular traditional 35 millimeter camera.

And Amy was around that day and it was a, kind of, a great situation where we're shooting, which is this kind of island called Mare Island where basically all our locations were in about a one or two block radius, so we could, we had a lot of freedom to do whatever came up and we had some time to kill and Amy was around and I presented this idea to her. I think we tried it with some other people too doing it just to see how it worked and it wasn't as effective. And I kind of thought that the best idea was to have Amy do it, probably just the perverse thrill of seeing her character read these kind of really dirty, dirty, dirty words.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: You know, there's something great about that. So we found, I remember this book, this Victorian, porn, kind of an X-rated book from a long time ago called "The Pearl." We tried to find it online, we couldn't find it and, you know, clock's ticking and we needed something to shoot and we found some Victorian porn online and printed it out and then found the sections that we liked and made us laugh, and had her read it. And yeah, it was really hard not to laugh. I had to step out of the room. She did great. It was funny.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you really?

ANDERSON: Yeah. Oh god, yeah, it was great. Really fun.

GROSS: Now, another thing Amy Adams said when I spoke to her is that there's as part of like the exercises and training that the Joaquin Phoenix character is going through as he's being, you know, entering the cult, she asks him a lot of questions. And there's a scene where she says to him, when she says, look into my eyes?

ANDERSON: Yeah. What color are my eyes?

GROSS: What color are my eyes? What color are my eyes?

ANDERSON: Change the color of my eyes. Right.

GROSS: Yeah, change the color of my eyes. Change them to black. And all we're seeing is her saying this.

ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And she said that - and then we see his eyes, and then we see him, her eyes changing to black because he is imagining them changing to black like she's asking him to. But she said that you just came in and said OK, look into the camera, I'm going to read you some lines and I want you to read them back. And...

ANDERSON: Sort of. Yeah, it was sort of like that. It's a weird thing, you know, there's absolute - there's kind of no scene to do there. You, it's not like a traditional seeing you're walking into. You figure out what's going on and you're asking an actor to look into the camera, not connect with anybody else. So it's all so detached and weird and bizarre. And Amy came in and, again, it was on that same day we, our cameras were broke so we kind of needed something to do and the - we just sort of talked the idea of the exercise is how to use your mind to change things, to change what you perceive and what your perception is. Change the color of my eyes to black, you know. So yeah, poor Amy's staring into the camera and she kind of looked at me afterwards like she was under some kind of weird spell, like this is weird. I don't, this is really bizarre. She was kind of freaked out by it. Then Joaquin sat down to stare into the camera and he had fun doing it. I don't know, it's weird, you can see yourself probably reflected in the lens as well.

GROSS: Oh. Interesting.

ANDERSON: Which is probably kind of, it's not real acting it's sort of kind of funny modeling thing. It's very hard to do. It's kind of very awkward to, sort of, pull that out in the middle of the day.

GROSS: Well, I admire you. You came up with...

ANDERSON: You know what I mean? Make any sense?

GROSS: Yeah. You came up with these like great moments because the cameras were broken.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's very good.

ANDERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson. His new film is "The Master." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Thomas Anderson, and he wrote and directed the new film "The Master."

So the film opens in the final days of World War II just as the war is ending, and then it kind of jumps ahead to 1950. Why did you want to set it then?

ANDERSON: You know, why wouldn't you? It's a great, you know, just on the surface level that time is so great. I mean just from a kind of pure, cars and girls and outfits and hairdos and music point of view, on that real simple level that's just like, you know, delicious time, you know, for making a film. You know, I just love that era, I always have, it was kind of my dad's era I think in terms of, certainly in terms of music and coming back from the war. And it's just - it's thick and full of stuff, to me it was at least. There's sort of a gravity towards it that's hard to put my finger on exactly why but, you know, a couple of reasons. I'm sure that it just speaks to me somehow. You know, all the songs of that period I grew up listening to with my dad, driving around. So, you know, any time I get a whiff of that stuff I just sort of go to it like it's freshly baked cookies - to me.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned the songs from the period. You use some songs from the period in the soundtrack. And I want to play an excerpt of one of them. This is probably my favorite of the songs that you use. It's "No Other Love." Jo Stafford's singing.

ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you knew the song from your father?

ANDERSON: That one, not from my dad but that, you know, that one - I don't know where I came up with that one, initially, but that's - and there's a kind of the piano chords are actually it's a Chopin piece that somebody put lyrics to, basically, and...

GROSS: I am aware of that.

ANDERSON: ...I don't know where I came up with this one. A couple of years ago I found, it was seven or eight years ago I first heard this. But Jo Stafford is just the greatest and that there is and - to my mind, she's probably my favorite singer of that period.

GROSS: Yes she is, she's great. Yeah.

ANDERSON: Long list but she's at the top. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Do you know her stuff - her company stuff?

ANDERSON: I sure do. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Yeah.

ANDERSON: With Paul Weston.

GROSS: With Paul Weston. Yeah. Absolutely.

ANDERSON: That's right. Yeah, I do. It's...

GROSS: I forget her name. I forget the character's name.

ANDERSON: They are - oh, it'll come to me.

GROSS: Jonathan and Darlene Edwards.

ANDERSON: Jonathan and Darlene.

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: Yeah, that stuff is great to me and, you know, kind of in that same - I mean it's not as outlandish as Spike Jones' stuff, but I love that stuff too.

GROSS: No. No. Yeah.

ANDERSON: But, you know, it's more low-key but oh yeah, she's the greatest.

GROSS: So let's play Jo Stafford's recording of "No Other Love," which you use in the movie. But you were saying you knew you wanted to use this at some point and you were just waiting? Is that - did I get the right impression?

ANDERSON: Yeah. Definitely. This is one that you don't let get away, you know, and I had a few different songs that I would listen to while I was writing the movie or getting it together or filming it. And you're never exactly sure which one might work or not, you know, and this one just rose to the top for sure as a kind of the way that it moved, the way that it felt and, you know, obvious sort of connotations in the lyrics, how it could fit the relationship of these two men and how they feel about each other. Also just really nice to have a woman's voice come in, like - as a nice feeling to the film after these - it's so kind of boy heavy between the two of them, you know, it's really nice having this sort of angel voice come in over the film.

GROSS: So this is Jo Stafford "No Other Love," and it's on the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie "The Master."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO OTHER LOVE")

JO STAFFORD: (Singing) No other love can warm my heart, now that I've known the comfort of your arms. No other love. Oh, the sweet contentment that I find with you. Every time, every time.

(Singing) No other lips could want you more. For I was born to glory in your kiss...

GROSS: That's Jo Stafford singing "No Other Love" and it's used on the soundtrack of the new movie "The Master." My guest is the writer and director of the film, Paul Thomas Anderson, who also made "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood."

So you mentioned that you knew a lot of music from this period from your father. Did he fight in World War II?

ANDERSON: He was there. He was in the Navy stationed mainly in Guam. I don't think he did any fighting. I think he was trying - he was fixing airplanes and knew just where the beer was stashed and played the saxophone...

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: ...in bands and stuff like that. You know, every picture I have of him he's on a, he's that a beer in his hand. Every single picture from the war he's got - so he was pretty good about probably finding ways to get out of fighting. But again, you know, we never really talked that much about it.

GROSS: So there weren't images that you used in the movie that were based on experiences that he shared with you?

ANDERSON: No, not that he shared with me. Some of the photographs of him on the beach he sort of stuck in my mind's eye. You know one of the stories in the film, it comes from Jason Robards, who famously fought in the war, was in the Navy. He...

GROSS: And he starred in your movie "Magnolia."

ANDERSON: Yeah, that's right. It was, I worked with him in "Magnolia" and he told me the story of coming back. I don't remember what boat he was on, but he was coming back, and V-J Day was announced, and they'd run out of booze. And they broke into the torpedoes and drank the booze out of there. And the way he tells it is he woke up the next morning on the mast of the ship, you know, and an inch either way he would have fallen to his death. And that story just stuck with me as a great story and something to get into a film.

GROSS: That's a very disorienting image when you see Joaquin Phoenix on the top of the mast. It's just a really odd angle.

ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So he drank booze from the torpedoes? I don't...

ANDERSON: It was ethanol I think that helped propel...

GROSS: Oh, OK.

ANDERSON: ...the torpedoes and make it move. You know, yeah. Well, I think...

GROSS: Yeah, there's some pretty raunchy paint thinner kind of rot gut in your film.

ANDERSON: I think the idea with ethanol is that if you put just a few drops and then squeeze as many coconuts or papaya, whatever you've taken back with you from the islands; you sort of 99 percent juice and maybe one percent ethanol. You'll get a pretty good buzz.

GROSS: "The Master" is shot in 65 millimeter film, and I don't know enough about film stock to understand what that actually means. So I'm going to ask you to explain it.

ANDERSON: Oh god. Neither do I. It's bigger, you know, that's really all that is. It's most film stock is 35 millimeters. This is 65 millimeters. So it's a bigger, it's a larger format, it's a larger negative. It was something that was invented - I don't actually remember exactly when did was invented. I think actually some of the 65 millimeter formats go back actually to the '20s and '30s, but it became very popular in the middle '50s. People were using it to create these 70 millimeter is sort of the large-scale pictures. "West Side Story" was done that way - some of these larger epics. Probably as another way to - like another way to compete with television. And but the negative is very big and very rich and you get a really kind of wonderful quality about it.

GROSS: What could you do with that that you would've not done as well with 35 millimeter?

ANDERSON: It's a different film, so it's a different feeling. It's really that simple, but you know, ultimately you are a little bit - you know, with a 35 millimeter camera, they're small. I mean they can be as small as the little speaker that I'm looking at here, you know, sort of no bigger than a laptop. Some of these cameras are teeny, you know, and with 65 millimeter cameras, you are limited because they're very - they're incredibly large and they're loud and you can't kind of fling them around or put them on a Steadicam or - you can put them on your shoulder if you have a really good chiropractor or masseuse.

You know, but - so they're limiting in that way, but that's kind of - it was good for us, you know? We wanted - we didn't want to do - we were trying to be kind of straightforward and simple, old-fashioned, so - yeah, like that. And they're loud. They're very loud.

GROSS: Are there...

ANDERSON: You'd hate them. You can hear bzzzzz, so...

GROSS: Are there movies that you looked at or illustrations that you looked at to immerse yourself in what the period looked like and what 1950 looked like?

ANDERSON: Well, yeah. I mean, 70 - the 65 millimeter business - just because, you know, you'd see - like "North By Northwest" or "Vertigo" had those kind of wonderful colors, sort of - but that - those are - you know, those are designed films of that period. You know, is that an exact accurate representation of what 1952 really looked like? I don't know. Maybe it is.

I mean, there's - you can find color photographs in that era and hopefully they're kind of snapshots or portrait photos. Those are the kinds of things that we looked at, you know, those kinds of things that you go into a department store and get your picture taken, you know, in your wedding gown or with your family and you're all dressed up in the same kind of outfits and stuff like that. Those somehow were the most kind of candid and revealing and helped you, you know, time travel, sort of look at these faces, look at that period, look at that era and try and kind of imagine not just what was happening when the picture was taken but what would happen right after the picture was taken.

GROSS: Well, you know, the Joaquin Phoenix character is a photographer in a department store briefly and takes the kind of photographs that you're describing, and I felt like I knew all those photographs.

ANDERSON: Right.

GROSS: There's the one - everyone will recognize this. It's like the three brothers in size place - like the three young boys in size place order in a horizontal - like sitting in a horizontal line with that kind of smeary-colored backdrop behind them. I mean...

ANDERSON: Yeah. It's all about the backdrop, I have to say. There's a yellow backdrop that just sort of, you know, does all the work for you and you just get a really large light and you aim it directly at the subject. We were taking real photographs and just kind of trying to emulate them, and I have to say, you know, I'm very proud of those. They're sort of a combination of things really coming together with the costumes being right and the haircuts right.

And the faces of these - those boys and other people there and - you know, they don't make faces like they used to. It's funny. You know, you have to search them out. You have to find them. I wanted to put my own kids in there, but I couldn't. You know, my kids don't look like they live in 1950.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson. His new film is "The Master." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Paul Thomas Anderson. He wrote and directed "Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood" and the new film "The Master." Now, we've talked about this a little bit before, but your late father, Ernie Anderson, was a horror movie host. He was the character Ghoulardi, who would introduce horror films on television, and he was also the ABC announcer who used to do the coming ups for all the shows, so it would be - why don't you say it? You'll do it better than me.

ANDERSON: You know, it'd be like, this week - this week Balki gets a headache on "Perfect Strangers," you know, that kind of thing, you know, or "The Love Boat."

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Do "The Love Boat."

ANDERSON: "The Love Boat."

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: I can't do it well. Well, my brother can do it really well. My brother has a voice like my dad. You know, "Mork and Mindy," all these, like, TV shows from the mid-'70s. "Vegas" was the other one. Remember that Robert Urich show, "Vegas"? They used to have this thing about my dad, this joke. They'd say, what's it like when you go to breakfast? Does he say, I'll have two eggs, hash browns and toast?

Somewhere out there there's a great blooper reel of my dad, you know, sitting at this mic, reminds of sort of growing up too, because I'd go with him to ABC and I just loved it, loved, you know, watching people work the gear and work with him and record these things and, you know, it was a step towards what I wanted to do, sort of being in that world. I mean, just sort of being around technicians and moving parts of machines and things like that, microphones and, you know, video rolling, and I just loved it. Amazing, amazing. It brings back memories, sitting in front of a microphone like this.

GROSS: Because your father showed horror movies on TV, did you grow up with a lot of horror films?

ANDERSON: Not really. No. He didn't - we didn't watch them at home or anything like that. I think he did that gig and that was what it was. His preference for films were more Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, things like Preston Sturges, "His Girl Friday," and anything, absolutely anything with Spencer Tracy. "Captain Courageous." That was another one of his favorite films. So he had tastes more like that than kind of B horror stuff.

GROSS: So he should have been on Turner Classic Movies?

ANDERSON: Absolutely. You know, Turner Classics used to AMC. I think it was, you know, AMC and we would watch that together, and now to this day that's kind of my biggest source of inspiration. We've talked about it. You know, just having Turner Classics on around all the time as a kind of like muzak in your house is - it's great. You can - you know, the ability to see all this stuff that you'd never be able to find or dig through if it wasn't for Turner Classic Movies. God, long may they wave. I hope they never go away.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, me too. Me too. Visually, "The Master" has a lot of very, like, saturated color. A lot of men wearing blue suits, and it's not just like blue. It's like blue. This is, like, a really saturated blue that really - it's beautiful, but it really kind of like pops from the screen and there are, like, golden yellow colors that are just, like, so rich, and a pair of red pajamas that he's wearing that are so very red.

So when you're looking for that kind of super-saturated color, is that a question of just, like, getting the right fabric or is that something special that's happening with the lighting, with the film stock?

ANDERSON: I think all of the above, really. I think the first thing you ask yourself is, are we really going to do these red pajamas? You know, is this character - would this character wear these red pajamas? And then, if the answer is yes, you kind of are aware of what's going on and that fabric's there.

You know, a lot of it depends on the speed of the film. We shoot with very slow speed film, 50 ASA, which really sort of means you've got to kind of pump about 1,000 degrees of lights in there and it gets very hot, sort of an old-fashioned way of working.

But it means that the colors tend to be very strong and solid and kind of jump out at you, hopefully, in not too distracting a way, I hope, but kind of puts you right there. You know, there's 65 millimeter stuff too, so you know, I dare say, you know, a monkey could make something look good with these cameras. I mean, really, they're just so strong and beautiful and the lenses, and it's a combination of all these things. You know, and when you get it right, it really feels good and when you get it wrong, you kind of can see it. You notice it.

GROSS: So the movie opens with a shot of kind of swirling ocean water and that shot is, like, reprised much deeper into the film.

ANDERSON: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's a beautiful shot and of course, like, you know, the ocean makes you think of the continuity. First of all, the opening shot is in the South Pacific as the war ends, but it's also like, you know, the continuity. The ocean is always there, has always been there, and it's like swirling water, so there's just something, like, boiling under the surface - you get the feeling of.

But I kept thinking, like, I wonder if that's really the ocean or if he's, like, in a huge bathtub with, like, super blue water just making it swirl exactly like he wants it to.

ANDERSON: Yeah, yeah. Or that it's like a computer that just made some waves. Right? No. Yeah. That's - we were on a boat out in the Pacific. I say the Pacific. We were only about two or three miles off the coast and it was that time of day when the sun was not directly overhead, probably about 10:30, and just the angle of the way that it was hitting the water, you looked off the back of the ship and that's what you saw. So we just pointed the camera down at it and it was so hypnotic, so beautiful to look at, kind of endless. We kind of put it on in the editing room. We'd sort of see it up on the big screen and you'd just feel yourself being hypnotized by it.

And it reminded me - I kind of - I remember as a kid going to Pearl Harbor and they have that monument that you can go to. It made such an impression on me. You sort of look down into the water. You see these fishes moving around and, you know, to think about what happened there and all those bodies and all that stuff and all these kind of things that have gone into the water, it's a thought that always sticks with me, a thought that always sticks with me when I do go into the ocean, when I go swimming. You know, all that's happened and all that's beneath the surface and things coming and going.

I don't know. It gets you - it gets you in a good place of thinking about things in a wider way - to me, anyway.

GROSS: Well, Paul Thomas Anderson, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. I really appreciate it.

ANDERSON: It's always great to talk to you, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed the new film "The Master." There's a great scene in which the characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are in adjoining jail cells screaming at each other. Anderson told me the story behind that scene. We have that story as an extra on our website, FreshAir.NPR.org, where you can also watch clips from the film and find a link to our recent interview with one of the film's stars, Amy Adams.

And you can follow us on Twitter at NPRFreshAir and on Tumblr at NPRFreshAir.Tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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