Throughout Saturday afternoon, journalists kept picking up the strange story coming out of the Venice International Film Festival. Paul Thomas Anderson had won the directing prize, The Master won The Golden Lion, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the acting prize! Then, came the follow-up: The Venice Jury wasn’t allowed to give three prizes to one film so The Master was relegated to second place.
Before the press conference, TIFF director Cameron Bailey and producer Harvey Weinstein came to speak to the assembled journalists – Weinstein to apologize for the delay of the conference and Bailey to bring everyone up to speed. The Master had indeed swept Venice (including the International Critics’ Prize) but had to settle for second place to South Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta.
Anderson, who arrived with star Amy Adams and producer JoAnne Sellar, was nothing but upbeat: “It was amazing what happened in Venice. The best part was they gave the acting prize to both of the boys.”
The Venice situation eclipsed the other controversy around The Master, that the film was considered a thinly disguised version of the story of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. In the movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the leader of a similar movement known as The Cause. Anderson (who has said elsewhere that he looked at Hubbard’s life) said that he didn’t consider it a movie about a “cult,” but rather the psychological state of the post-war period, “a mixture of incredible optimism, but with an incredibly huge body count behind you,” which inspired the interest in past-lives and time travel.
Anderson, who says he has the Turner Classic Movies channel “on around the house 24 hours a day,” has created a deliberately classic-looking film, rich in quotes from cinema of the time. In particular, he cited a John Huston film set in a veterans’ hospital, Let There Be Light, which “we ripped off line by line.”
At a time when Hollywood’s biggest directors are trying to out-do each other with new film formats, Anderson decided to shoot in the widescreen format of 70 mm, which was last used in theatres with Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996. “There was no grand plan,” he said, describing how he and his cinematographer played with different ways of shooting and decided, intuitively, to try the format. “But instead of using it for epic battles, using it in a bunch of small rooms with people talking,” he said, because it was “the best shot at make-believe, or time travel.”
Joaquin Phoenix, who was expected, did not show up. Why? “Because he’s too unpredictable,” laughed Anderson.
In one scene of his ferociously animalistic performance, Phoenix tears apart a prison cell in a rage, and smashes his head repeatedly on a metal bed. Anderson said they had at least three different plans for the scene but when it came to shooting it, he let Phoenix do what he wanted. Was he afraid for his star’s well-being? Anderson suggested there are priorities in these things.
“You have to be concerned for your actor’s well-being, but you are more concerned that the scene is properly lit and there’s film in the camera.”