Why director Paul Thomas Anderson, best known for films such as There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights, may be the best hope for mature Hollywood movies
Crack a film periodical printed near the turn of the last century. Odds are you'll find a feature hyping up a new generation of brash, talented filmmakers sneaking style, personality and visionary eccentricity into mainstream studio pictures. Call them "the new wunderkinder," or "all the young dudes," or "The New New Wave."
The same names pop up – Darren Aronofsky, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, Alexander Payne – and so do the themes. Nutshelled: Here's a new class of movie brats weaned on music videos, Gap ads, MTV, PlayStation and Mountain Dew and high-speed Internet. In one such article, printed in the Los Angeles Times, one whiz kid up-and-comer finishing just his third feature spoke with confidence bordering on wild arrogance, saying he wasn't yet sure if he was "the type of guy who'd want to run the world like Spielberg or retreat to a mansion in London like Kubrick. I haven't got it figured out yet."
"I didn't say that," Paul Thomas Anderson clarifies, nearly 20 years later, now on the cusp of his eighth feature, the gothic romance Phantom Thread.
"I was being led on by a certain reporter doing the story saying, 'What future do you see? Would you like to be like Stanley Kubrick? Or would you like to be like Steven Spielberg?' And then I go, 'I don't know!'"
It is, perhaps, a crossroad every successful, halfway-independent filmmaker stares down. Choose the career of a mega-mainstream showman (Spielberg), or hunker down as a reclusive genius artiste (Kubrick). For Anderson, it's less a junction than a set of parallel-running pathways, which he continues to awkwardly, sometimes precariously straddle. Even back in 1999, Anderson dismissed the binary as utterly bogus.
"The ridiculousness of that idea," he says today, his voice quick but calm, caught between the manic slipstream of his own fast-moving thoughts and the pressing annoyance of having to entertain a press interview, "is that Steven Spielberg is the most independent filmmaker that there ever was. He does exactly what he wants."
Anderson's latest eccentric, visionary and personal movie reveals a filmmaker reaching Spielbergian levels of studio-backed independence, while retaining Kubrickian levels of weirdness and formal rigour.
In a movie-going climate where mid-level dramas pitched at adult audiences flounder (see: Suburbicon, The Lost City of Z, The Promise, even something as consciously prestige-baiting as The Ottoman Lieutenant), Anderson's holiday-season event movie may offer the last, best hope for serious-minded studio cinema. But he'd never say that.
Since dropping out of NYU's film school after two days – turned off, in part, by a professor disparaging Terminator 2 – tapping out gambling winnings to make a short film, expanding that short into the full-length feature Hard Eight, setting his name in explosive neon lights with 1997's ensemble porn-industry epic Boogie Nights and following both muse and money from project to project (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, the Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice), Anderson's returns have far outshone those of his New New Wave contemporaries.
For millennial cinephiles turned on by the late-nineties American indie boom, watching Anderson develop and mature in real time has provided a rare thrill. "I've been in love with him since I first saw a crusty VHS tape of Boogie Nights," says Brendan Ross, 34, a programmer at Toronto's Royal Cinema who recently organized a retrospective of Anderson's films. Ross calls it a "gateway movie." For Anderson, it was a bold, deliriously entertaining calling card.
An imprudent bookmaker may have bet the "future of cinema" farm on David O. Russell or Danny Boyle, or even Kevin Smith (who critic Andrew Sarris curiously benighted as Scorsese 2.0). But like the poker-faced Sydney, Hard Eight's grizzled gambler, Anderson played the line, wagered deliberately, and has a busting bankroll of critical and commercial esteem to show for it.
As a sketch of "Paul Thomas Anderson: The Artist and Guy," it may not be the sexiest: intelligent filmmaker makes careful choices en route to singular career. But for Anderson, filmmaking itself seems decidedly unsexy. Of shooting Phantom Thread in a confined four-storey townhouse in London, his first film set wholly outside of the United States, he seems blasé: "Once you get over there you realize that everything's exactly the same. It's just a bunch of people standing around with a camera and lights, trying to make a good movie."
It scans not so much as disinterest, or even humility, as discomfort. In interviews, Anderson tends to squirm around in his chair, edgy, wide eyes darting anxiously, groaning dismissively under his breath whenever he's lavished with any kind of praise. He's much more comfortable discussing books – stories by Daphne du Maurier, Anya Seton, Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Brontë (at least by way of Robert Stevenson's 1943 film adaptation of Jane Eyre) fed into Phantom Thread's stuffy, sensuous milieu – and movies. Especially other people's movies.
A noted Turner Classic Movies glutton, Anderson gorges on the medium like a perpetually famished connoisseur. He netted his New New Wave cred conspicuously borrowing from New Hollywood directors such as Scorsese or Robert Altman. While making Magnolia, he dined with Warren Beatty and was counselled by Francis Ford Coppola. But Anderson's auteur interests lurk deeper in cinema's past. He's less influenced by the big-name studio filmmakers of the storied 1970s and more drawn to their influences.
"I'm not one of those guys that fetishizes seventies movies at all," Anderson told me in 2014. "If I fetishize certain films, it's ones from the 1930s and 40s, getting up into the early 50s, too. Those are the ones that really get me going." Phantom Thread feels indebted to such sources: Lewis Allen, David Lean's smaller-scale dramas, and especially German exile Max Ophüls. At the mere mention of Ophüls, Anderson explodes, as if he's going to bust through the phone.
"Max Ophüls! Yes!" he pops. "Those films have always been big time – big time! – influences on me. His films are always so opulent, even if they're just interior chamber dramas. Just the lavishness of the smallest rooms! Four stars! And that fluidity he had with his camera? I've always tried to rock that look."
It's a moment that sums up something of Anderson's character. For one of the few remaining purveyors of artful American studio pictures, Anderson rattles with an infectious, even amusing, unseriousness. As he puts it: "How seriously do I take myself? Not very. But I take my work very seriously."
Coming off the heels of Inherent Vice, his shaggy, Thomas Pynchon-adapted conspiracy comedy, Phantom Thread presents as painfully serious.
It stars Daniel Day-Lewis – who took home a Best Actor Oscar for his collaboration with Anderson on There Will Be Blood, and who, it is claimed, is retiring from acting after this film – as high-end dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock: at times charming and cavalier, at others withdrawn and cruel, always obsessive and profoundly particular. Woodcock finds inspiration in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young and apparently perfectly proportioned woman who is hastily moved into the House of Woodcock to serve as Reynolds's lover, muse and eventual foil.
One should brace for allegations of Phantom Thread's timeliness, hitting theatres during a widespread reckoning for abusive, controlling men of the Reynolds Woodcock mould. Anderson is quick to wave off any suggestion that Phantom Thread functions as character study of such artists.
"I don't believe in any of that," he says. "You know there's this cliché of, 'Ooh the troubled artist! The brooding artist!' That's dull to me. … And by the way, Harvey Weinstein isn't an artist. He's a movie producer." (Anderson offered some further, family-newspaper-unfriendly appraisals of Weinstein, whose companies helped finance and distribute There Will Be Blood and The Master.)
On other subjects, Anderson strains to be a bit more diplomatic. When asked if he felt snubbed by the recent Golden Globe nominations, he's tactful. Sort of.
"I have to care because the company that paid for the movie cares," he cautiously explains. "I care about how intelligent, creative people respond to it. And that's totally separate from the Golden Globes."
Part of the issue, as far as award-granting bodies are concerned, may be that Anderson's films feel a bit ephemeral. Even recent tours de force, such as There Will Be Blood and The Master, seem to waft away the second they're apprehended, like dreams fading as the mind slips back into wakefulness. They're stacked with commanding performances, memorable widescreen cinematography, formally rigorous camera movements and mesmerizing scores (courtesy frequent collaborator Johnny Greenwood). But what are they about?
Critics have taken Anderson to task for his shoddy plotting, the way his films don't so much resolve as explode – in the grandiose showpieces of a plastered prospector cudgelling a pastor with a bowling pin, a left-field homoerotic serenade, the ceremonial unfurling of a prosthetic penis or a storm of frogs. The tedious business of "storytelling" feels, for better or worse, secondary in his films. Anderson's movies are distinctly moody: story, characters and mise-en-scène proceed from a feeling or theme, as opposed to theme emerging out of those constituent, nuts-and-bolts elements.
Phantom Thread is similarly moody and mysterious. It gracefully weaves around expectations, confounding easy attempts to categorize it, such as "art-house 50 Shades of Grey" – a jokey elevator pitch that has been floating around in cinephile circles. Of Anderson's films, it feels closest in spirit to Punch-Drunk Love, another film about awkward spirits smashed together like mismatched puzzle pieces, and The Master, in its complex exploration of the limits of dominance and control.
Despite the opulence of its design, the archly English primness of its milieu and the apparent seriousness of its subject matter, Anderson views Phantom Thread as a comedy. "It's meant to be quite humorous," he says. "We try to show the more serious someone takes themselves, the more preposterous they are, the more outlandish and funny it is. At least to me."
Funny or not, there's an air of circumstance around Anderson's latest that befits his material. For one, it sees him fighting a two-front box-office war against Spielberg, undisputed Old Master of the awards-season prestige picture, and fellow maturing wunderkind Alexander Payne. But even more tantalizingly, intrigue spiked by Phantom Thread being Day-Lewis's final film has elevated Anderson's quiet, weird, intelligent, intermittently funny movie to the rarest thing of all: an Art-house Event Film from one of the medium's pre-eminent directors of actors.
Since the pitch-perfect casting of Hard Eight, Anderson has made a fine habit of writing to the top of his actors' abilities. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Tom Cruise, Burt Reynolds and even Adam Sandler have been served career-best performances courtesy of Anderson's screenplays.
Anderson approached Phantom Thread less as a challenge to Day-Lewis than as a gift. "Daniel's incredibly handsome," Anderson laughs. "I love it when he gets dressed up and looks sharp. I thought it would be nice to film that. After There Will Be Blood, even I had dirt under the fingernails, and mud. I thought, 'Handsome Daniel is good Daniel. Let's do that.'"
It's tempting, if altogether too easy, to regard Phantom Thread as a doubly biographical work, with the entwined Reynolds/Alma dynamic mirroring the working rapport of Anderson/Day-Lewis. As a filmmaker, Anderson seems to exert almost singular control as writer, director and, in the case of Phantom Thread, cinematographer. And Day-Lewis – who built a canoe prepping for The Last of the Mohicans and hand-tailored a high-end gown for Phantom Thread – is reputed for his maniacal devotion to "process."
"You can be creative," Anderson insists, cautiously laying out a kind of personal and professional manifesto, "and find a way of working that includes other people. You don't have to be selfish." It's a disarmingly earnest sentiment from the most enduring talent of the old New New Wave, an artist more prone to self-deprecation, more likely to shake off praise; someone who is, like his movies, deliberately opaque. This opacity, this slippery, fugitive quality, may be the essence of what makes Anderson so fascinating, both as an artist and a guy.
Unlike so many of his peers, Anderson has managed to extricate himself from the ravelled web of reference and transcend the anxiety of influence. He's neither Kubrick nor Spielberg; not Scorsese, Altman or all-American Ophüls. And yet, he's a creature of the movies, steeped in their magic and mystery, an artist beside himself doing anything else.
Hard Eight's Sydney had gambling. There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview had avarice. And Reynolds Woodcock has high-end fashion. Paul Thomas Anderson has movies. As his porn-star hero Dirk Diggler, well-endowed with dopey wisdom, once put it: Everyone has one thing.
Phantom Thread opened Jan. 5 in Toronto, and will expand to other Canadian cities this month.