Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'The Master'

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master got pegged early on as his “Scientology movie” because Anderson let slip that one of the main characters was influenced by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

That’s unfortunate. I haven’t seen The Master yet – few people have – but if you know anything about Anderson’s movies (which include There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love) you know that you shouldn’t expect anything to be as straightforward as the label  “Scientology movie” makes The Master seem.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams star in 'The Master'

The Master, which has had two public screenings in nearly finished states, will debut Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival and open in the U.S. on Sept. 14. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled World War II Navy veteran who becomes involved with an intellectual played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who has invented a new religious movement.

David Ansen interviewed Anderson for Newsweek. Based on the interview, it seems that The Master might as well be called the “Jason Robards movie,” “the John Steinbeck movie” or the “bits left over from There Will Be Blood” movie.

In Ansen’s words:

Kind of like the mixologist Freddie (Phoenix’s character), who makes booze from whatever is at hand, be it guavas or paint thinner, Anderson gathered pieces for his movie from disparate sources.

Those sources include stories Robards told him on the set of Magnolia about the actor’s drinking days in the Navy during World War II. Part of the movie deals with experiences that Freddie has a migrant farm worker and wanderer. Anderson says he drew upon the life of Steinbeck for those scenes.

The story gives interesting insight into Anderson’s writing process. For instance, he says he likes to write every day and that not every scene he writes has a definite home. Some scenes that he wrote early on for There Will Be Blood went unused, but they found their way into The Master.

You cannot sum his movies up in a line. That partly is why they are so intriguing to watch. It also makes them hard to market. Thinking of The Master as Anderson’s “Scientology” movie is one way to get your head around it. But the term makes Anderson uncomfortable.

Hoffman isn’t playing Hubbard, he says. The movie isn’t about Scientology. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. That means you probably won’t know what it’s about even as you leave the theater after seeing it.

I recommend that you read Ansen’s piece. It is an insightful interview that gets into Anderson’s creative process.

One of my favorite bits:

Because his über-stylish movies are so immaculately shot and edited, and because there have only been six in the past 16 years, and because he’s a bit of a control freak, Anderson has often been called a perfectionist. Terrence Malick, whom he reveres, gets the same label. But in fact they’d both be better labeled imperfectionists, for they are instinctual artists, who often don’t know what they’re after until they see it in front of them.

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  • About Eric Harrison

    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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