No film was more highly anticipated at the Venice Film Festival this year than The Master, the sixth feature by 42-year-old Californian Paul Thomas Anderson. Not just because of his unblemished pedigree of fiercely iconoclastic features, or because it was the return to the screen of Joaquin Phoenix: there was also the rumours that The Master was based on the early years of the Scientology movement.
At a tense press conference, Phoenix barely acknowledged the media and Anderson and Seymour Hoffman batted away questions like flies. Had Tom Cruise seen the film? Were he and Anderson still friends? “We’re still friends; yes I showed him the film – the rest is between us,” was the director’s terse reply. When a journalist referred to Scientology as the elephant in the press conference, Anderson retorted: “That’s not an elephant in the room. This is a character that I created based on L Ron Hubbard. I don’t really know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology today but I know about the beginnings of that movement and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters. I can’t be any more unambiguous than that.”
Speaking one-on-one the following day, Anderson is more forthcoming – starting with the media’s reaction to the film. “It felt like there was the impression that people got that if you’re making a film that has anything to do with this religion, it’s gotta be negative. It’s a drag for us because that’s not what we were doing; we were a lot more focused on telling this love story between [Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix’s characters].”
Just as Boogie Nights used the '70s porn industry and There Will Be Blood used the turn-of-the-century oil boom as backdrops for character studies, The Master is only ‘about’ Scientology inasmuch as it’s the setting for the relationship between between self-styled prophet Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and his troubled protégé (Phoenix). If anything, the film humanises the movement, by putting it in a historical, social and personal context.
“You know, it’s sort of like there’s an inherent bias in every good thing,” says Anderson, “and sooner or later a mission to help people can get corrupted, or confused, or it gets too big. But the impetus for somebody trying to help themselves and help other people – how bad could that be, really?”
Hoffman agrees. “Lancaster Dodd isn’t a charlatan – he’s actually doing something real. It’s something that actually affects people… [And] I think he does believe his theories.”
“You know, we did these little secret screenings in America in August,” says Anderson, “and the best thing that could have happened, happened – it made me so happy, because we just showed the movie and then saw all these people tweeting about it, and no one said anything about Scientology. All they’re talking about is how fucking good Phoenix is. And it was so satisfying that the film was speaking for itself, that the story was taking over.”
The Master screens from Thu Nov 8.