"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 Astoria, 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 the year's most feverishly anticipated cinematic events — a must-see status attributable to Anderson's vaunted standing among serious film buffs, to the generally 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 screenings of The Master in Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and San Francisco, weeks before the official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Those sneak peeks 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, Hollywood pap. Perhaps 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.
"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," Anderson says, settling into an outdoor table at one of the neighborhood's many Greek bistros. He 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 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 Theatre, 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 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."
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 him.