The Master: Joaquin Phoenix stars with Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'The Master'

From the moment that Paul Thomas Anderson started showing The Master in surprise screenings across the country in anticipation of its official debuts at the recently completed Venice and Toronto film festivals, audiences have had a mixed reaction – part awe and admiration, part confusion about how exactly to describe or discuss it.

The Master: Paul Thomas AndersonIt is interesting though not surprising to learn that Anderson is equally inarticulate in expressing what he wanted to accomplish with the film, which expanded nationally yesterday.

We got a sense of that still-searching quality a month ago, when the writer-director spoke to Newsweek’s David Ansen about the movie, which had not yet screened in Venice (where it would win wards for its acting and direction) but already was considered a strong awards contender.

Anderson is just as interestingly muddled while discussing The Master in an interview with Ann Hornaday published Friday in the Washington Post.

He knew the heart of the story would be the fraught relationship between a charismatic religious leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and a troubled World War II veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix, but where to go from there, Anderson said, was “scary.”

“It was sort of like, what exactly are we in search of here, getting these two guys together?” Anderson said of the movie. “We kind of knew that we were in pursuit of something that we couldn’t quite put our finger on, but I think we knew it when we got it.”

But recognizing “it” in retrospect doesn’t mean Anderson can say exactly what “it” is.

In the interview, he talks about crying while watching the time-travel material in Men in Black III (“I’m a sucker for that stuff”), about the odd choice of using a wide-screen format for essentially an intimate character study and about finding the movie in the editing room, where he cut lots of material he’d filmed about the Cause, the religion that Hoffman’s character founds.

It’s an interesting interview.

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    Eric Harrison reviewed movies and covered film for a decade for the Los Angeles Times and Houston Chronicle. His movie coverage continues here on InsideMovies.net. You also can read Eric's movie coverage geared to Houston, the nation's fourth largest city, on MovieHouston.com. Find out more at EricHarrison.org.
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