Paul Thomas Anderson has never asked himself why he wanted to be a filmmaker. He wouldn’t know where to begin, he said in a phone interview on Wednesday from Los Angeles (where he was born, and where he lives with his partner, the actress Maya Rudolph, and their three children). All he knows is, it’s the only thing he’s ever wanted to do.
“Ever since I was five or six years old, according to my mother,” Anderson says. “I’ve never had a desire to do, and I’ve never done, anything else.” He pauses. “It’s weird. God!” He laughs. “Any predictions I might have made when I was a kid, doing little drawings of movie cameras or film sets, never included – I remember seeing Steven Spielberg’s films. I thought I’d make films like Steven Spielberg’s.”
Instead, he writes and directs films that are singularly Paul Thomas Anderson’s, right from his first, Hard Eight (1996), a crime thriller starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John C. Reilly. “I was 23 or 24 years old, and the youngest person on that set,” remembers Anderson, who had no formal film education. “I was so nervous, looking around at the crew, that they were going to figure out that I was an imposter and didn’t know what I was doing.”
Hardly. With each subsequent film, he’s both honed and changed his style. He created a surprisingly vulnerable family of porn actors in Boogie Nights, brought down an apocalypse onto neurotic Californians in Magnolia, let Adam Sandler show the rage that always simmered under his comedy in Punch-Drunk Love, and, in There Will Be Blood, the story of a preacher and an oil man vying for the soul of America, made a work of art that will be as lasting, I think, as Moby-Dick. He’s been nominated for five Oscars, and he’s only 42.
In press conferences, Anderson tends to seem a little uncomfortable and look a little shaggy (wrinkled shirts, patchy beard, greying hair that’s simultaneously flattened down and sticking up). In conversation, however, he’s much warmer, more frank and game. He really listens to your questions, and thinks about his answers, often unleashing a little volley of agreement as he does so: “Well, sure, sure-sure-sure,” he’ll say, or, “Absolutely. Huh. Absolutely!” His enthusiasm for his profession is palpable: “There’s nothing like that thing that happens when a movie curtain opens up,” he says at one point. “The first few moments, no matter what the film is, that thrill. I love how you discover the same film differently at different times, how they move and drift in your brain.”
His latest, The Master, came out last week, and is already one of the most hotly debated films of the year. It’s beautiful, stately and deliberately unnerving, raw emotions captured in a strict cinematic formality. Like There Will Be Blood, it’s the story of two men locked in one another’s psychic embrace – a Second World War navy vet, PTSD sufferer and poisonous alcoholic (Joaquin Phoenix), and a charismatic cult leader, based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Their lives are enriched and ruined by one another, and they draw the audience into their mutual madness. (Yes, Anderson assured reporters at the Venice Film Festival, he screened it for Magnolia star and Hubbard advocate Tom Cruise, and they’re still friends.)
“I suppose it’s all based on wanting to try to not do the same thing twice,” Anderson says of his filmography. “To not get comfortable. Whenever I finish a film, all I know is that I don’t want to do it like that again.”
For The Master, he used a 70 mm camera – usually reserved for epics – to film tight close-ups, which he holds extra-long, to deliberately discomfit. “It’s fun to use equipment in a way you’re not ‘supposed to,’” he says. “But it looked right and felt good. I like being rattled when I walk out of a movie. Getting into that trance-like state, that’s something I’ve always loved. I find a story and try to get it to that place where it’s, hopefully, thrilling for an audience to watch. So they’re screaming at the screen, ‘Don’t open that door!’ That’s what films should do, isn’t it?”