On the 16th of November the UK will see the arrival of the much awaited new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who has shaken the film industry with every release culminating with the Oscar winning American oil epic There Will Be Blood back in 2007.
In the 5 years since TWBB fans and journalists have anticipated and salivated over news of a follow up from unarguably the finest American filmmaker of his generation. News broke in late 2009 of a project Anderson had finished which revolved around a man who starts his own religion in America during the 1950s. Excitement soon dissipated and was replaced with disappointed as plans to finance the religious drama under the title ‘The Master’ was thwarted most possibly due to its ties with Scientology. Anderson soon announced plans to film an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice instead but after silence regarding this new tantalising project it was made known that producer Megan Ellison had not only saved The Master but decided to pick up Inherent Vice to boot.
The Master (as its title was later made official) went before cameras last June under a secretive and closed set. The cast sees Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as the titular character whose new belief system starts to take off in America, Amy Adams as the ‘master of ceremonies’ wife, and Joaquin Phoenix as a drifter who becomes The Master’s right hand man but subsequently comes to question the life he’s been led into.
So what do we need to know about this mysteriously covert drama? First and foremost is its ties to the origins of scientology – a religion which grew out of post-war America in the 1950s. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was among many things a veteran of the Second World War, his life after military service saw him form his own belief system which as we know has grown ever since. The Master, as he’s known by his followers is named Lancaster Dodd, a man who forms his religion after losing his place in the world from the horrors of war. Phoenix’s character of Freddie is also a veteran suffering with post-traumatic stress at the hands of his service. Hubbard’s wife and the fictional wife of Lancaster share the name of Mary Sue so the question isn’t whether Anderson’s film is about Scientology but instead how much? The film’s subject clearly spooked investors and though cast and crew have remained tight lipped on the project, reports from the film’s producer indicates that the script went under radical reconstruction. Whether this is in fact the case or empty press fodder to keep the heat off of the production will have to be figured when the finished product comes around this fall. The film could of course channel Scientology but be centrally an existential drama about our relationship with religion in general; the human need to create belief systems in order to understand the world and to feel apart of a higher plan fulfilling a despairing lack of worth.
Likely then that Anderson has drawn huge inspirations from history to paint his 1950s religious drama but other influences were clearly noticeable from the offset. Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wiseblood about a disillusioned would-be preacher who comes back from WWII with distain for his faith seems to have had an effect on The Master. The ex-preacher starts his own religion, ‘the church without christ’, which fails to take off and further amplifies the tragic character of a man who cannot escape his beliefs. John Huston famously filmed O’Connor’s novel in 1979 with Brad Dourif in the central role, interestingly Anderson has cast Dourif’s daughter in The Master perhaps to honour his film’s connections. Let’s not forget that an earlier John Huston film formed the main influence for Anderson’s previous outing, proclaiming that he watched The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948) every night before bed when writing and preparing for TWBB.
The Master sees Anderson collaborating once again with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood for the film’s score; an exciting prospect if there ever was once due to Greenwood’s groundbreaking music for TWBB. Also returning is legendary set designer Jack Fisk who’s outstanding and detailed work on TWBB as well as the careers of Terrence Malick and David Lynch needs no further divulging. Along side these returning players there was also a big change to the production as cinematographer Robert Elswitt – the man responsible for the photography of all of Anderson’s features so far – didn’t shoot this time round in a career first. In stepped Mihai Malaimare Jr whose credits include Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) and the stunning black & white photography of Tetro (2009). What this change of DP will bring to Anderson’s fluid characteristic camera work will be interesting to see. Confirmed is that The Master was shot on 65mm so we’re in for a stunning visual picture full of vast and detailed macro shots; films are seldom shot in this format with this news providing yet anther reason to embrace this one
The Master‘s apparent links with Scientology seem to be what caused the project financial trouble in its early stages and one question permeated most minds upon hearing of the film’s content – would Scientologists rise up against the picture’s release? And what would the most famous Scientologist in the world (and friend of Anderson) make of the director’s choice of material? The film’s production came under no threats as far as reports show, helped by the tight security of the production’s sets. Tom Cruise played Frank TJ Mackey in Anderson’s 1999 ensemble drama Magnolia in a show stealing performance that’s too little seen amongst people willing to write Cruise off as a talentless hack. Having worked up a close friendship over the course of their film everyone was dying to know how this could effect them. Anderson has subsequently screened the finished film for Cruise who apparently had ‘issues’ with it, further confirming the heightened aspects of Scientology within the story.
Cruise’s recent marital dispute has brought his religion back into the media’s interest once again with wife Katie Holmes expressing her worries about their child’s involvement with the religion. The timing of this sudden breakup and battle over Scientologist methods certainly adds further relevance to The Master and could help with the film’s attendance upon release. Of course the film’s marketing campaign (which has got off to an already mysterious start) will probably play that card close to its chest. It seems that a Scientologist uprising isn’t on the cards and the film’s potential for next years’ awards season should hopefully stay firmly intact. With a cast of this magnitude under the distribution of The Weinstein Company The Master is an intimidating Oscar contender.
Footage was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year where two teaser trailers were later released onto the web. These trailers can be seen below with the first displaying Phoenix’s troubled Freddie undergoing a post-service military psychological evaluation. The second introduces Hoffman and Adams’ characters and shows Freddie being drawn into their world, all with Jonny Greenwood’s sinister paranoia tinted music adding an atmosphere of unease.
So what are your thoughts on The Master?
The Master is at cinemas nationwide from the 16th November.
Words by Joseph McDonagh who writes his own blog over at Joe McDonagh Film.