Despite an enthusiastic reception as he entered the room, Paul Thomas Anderson held up his reputation as elusive prey at “The Master” press conference in Venice, and his two stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix were happy to fall in step behind him. In fact, Phoenix barely said a word, dragging on a cigarette, offering a couple of mumbling replies and even leaving the room for a spell. But there were still nuggets to be gleaned.
Queried about “The Master”'s elliptical narrative, in which Phoenix's feral drifter Freddie Quell comes under the spell of Hoffman's intellectual prophet Lancaster Dodd, Anderson said, “I think we were just trying to tell a love story between these two guys. We had a lot of scenes that weren't about that and we took them out.”
The inevitable Scientology-laced questions emerged, with Anderson revealing that he had already shown the film to Tom Cruise and that “we're still friends – the rest is between us.” On how much the film's narrative draws on Scientology and the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the filmmaker said, “That's not an elephant in the room. This is a character that I created based on L. Ron Hubbard, there's a lot of similarities to the early days of Dianetics... I don't know a 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.”
On Dodd's attraction to Quell, Hoffman referred to the two men as “wild beasts... One of them has tamed it somehow and is trying to teach other people how to do that. But he just wants to be wild like Freddie is and there's this real attraction there.” Hoffman also got the biggest laugh of the afternoon when claiming that he thinks most people dream of indulging their basest impulses. “I think we wake up every morning going, 'Fuck, why can't I run naked through the streets of Venice and just eat shit? Why can't I do that and have it be okay? Is it possible I can have sex with everyone I see today? I know I can't but I wish that was possible.'”
Anderson wrote the script for “The Master” with both actors in mind for their roles, and was especially delighted that Phoenix finally said yes to him: “I've asked him to be in just about every other movie I've done and he'd said no because it's a little bit of a pain in the ass… But he said yes this time. And thank god he did.”
The conference wrapped with an amusing anecdote about the porcelain toilet that Phoenix shatters in a sequence where Dodd and Quell end up in adjoining jail cells. Smiled Anderson: “I'm not fucking joking about this... That was a historic toilet because it's in a San Pedro jail cell which is a historic monument and when they heard that we broke their toilet seat, they were really pissed off. We could only shoot that scene once.”