In the shadow of Scientology
There Will Be Blood could hardly have been more successful for acclaimed American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson five years ago. The towering drama won two Oscars - for Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as a ruthless oilman and for its striking cinematography - and the writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love was nominated three times himself, confirming his status as one of his country's finest working filmmakers.
But it was still surprisingly difficult for Anderson to finance his next movie, the drama The Master.
It felt like all the money had dried up. So there we were with all these awards and nominations, walking into offices with this armour, and it didn't make a lick of difference at all.
''I was always told from the beginning that if you have a hit, the next time they'll let you make a film,'' he says philosophically while visiting Sydney for the premiere at the Cockatoo Island Film Festival. ''Somehow they'll make it easier for you. But that's just been complete horse shit. It's not true at all.
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
''It felt like all the money had dried up. So there we were with all these awards and nominations, walking into offices with this armour, and it didn't make a lick of difference at all.''
Like There Will Be Blood, The Master is a serious-minded, ambitious and powerfully acted drama. It centres on a damaged World War II veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls under the influence of the charismatic leader of a quasi-religious movement called The Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his steely wife, Peggy (Amy Adams).
Delays in shooting the movie, starting when Hoffman directed Riflemind for the Sydney Theatre Company, saw Phoenix take a role reportedly once destined for Jeremy Renner or, later, James Franco.
Phillip Seymour Hoffmann and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
''It's just amazing how these things work,'' Anderson says. ''A film comes together the way it should come together somehow, through some act of something from the heavens.''
While there has been much media attention on the parallels between Dodd and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson says the genesis of the movie was the Freddie Quell character.
''That was something I had for a long time - a sailor's story, a kind of aimlessness, postwar stuff, various jobs,'' he says. ''I had a character that was in search of a story.
''I got to know him pretty well, but it reached a point where it was like driving along in your car: you stop and you run out of gas and you need something else. That L. Ron Hubbard portion of it, that character that I created for Phil, was fuel in the gas tank to get the whole thing moving forward.''
While Anderson insists he had no interest in chronicling the history of Scientology, he became excited reading stories about its creation, including ''people that were inspired by it but ultimately very quickly disillusioned with it [and] people who were inspired by it and did stick with it and have passed it on to other generations''.
But Anderson is still bothered by how people describe these movements. ''Scientology isn't crazy, [the former personal development organisation] EST isn't crazy - people are f--kin' crazy,'' he says. ''We're the ones [that] create things, then we point at something else and say, 'Look at that, that's horse shit over there. How can that possibly be true?' But who's to say?''
Anderson's seriousness has to be admired in a Hollywood era dominated by superhero movies, sequels and remakes. The Master explores the rise of spiritual movements after war, the fallibility of religious leaders and the dysfunction at the heart of a substitute family.
But suggest he is tackling grand themes about American life after dissecting ruthless capitalism in There Will Be Blood and Anderson plays down the scope of his work.
''I could never go into a film saying … 'I'm tackling American capitalism', '' he says.
''You have to look at a film as [if] you're making a monster movie. You're making a film about someone who has an ambition to get something out of the ground and treat it like a horror film and watch anything else get into it that happens to be there.''
But surely these are much more serious than just monster movies?
''God, hopefully they're not that serious,'' Anderson says. ''I keep thinking that these films are so much funnier than they are.''
He laughs: ''I think the bowling alley and all that stuff is hilarious in There Will Be Blood.''
Working like a dog - literally
Joaquin Phoenix is brutally honest about the inspiration for his unpredictable character in the drama The Master: his dog.
''It wasn't clear to me why my character, Freddie, did what he did,'' the 38-year-old scruffy-looking actor reveals in a Los Angeles hotel room of his role in the film that won three awards at the Venice Film Festival. ''I finally realised that he's just impulsive, like my dog. My dog and I have a great relationship: she loves me, I love her, she loves my home, but if I open the gate, she will go running out into the street.
''It's not because she doesn't love me, but there's something in her that says, 'I don't want to be contained', and I realised that's what Freddie is about.''
In The Master, naval veteran Freddie arrives home from World War II a chronic alcoholic. He crosses paths with cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and they develop a strong but odd bond as Dodd and his devoted wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), also try to recruit Freddie to The Cause.
Adams says she was excited to be working with the Oscar-nominated actor from Walk the Line. ''The way Joaquin Phoenix throws himself - literally sometimes - into this performance was startling and it raises your game …,'' she says.
After his 2006 Oscar nomination, Phoenix spent two years from 2008 filming the 2010 ''faux'' documentary I'm Still Here, completely inhabiting the role of a fallen star trying to become a rapper so well that many assumed it was real until the film came out and the ruse was revealed.
''When I was young, I wanted to always have that feeling that acting is the most important thing to me,'' he says, ''but when you make enough movies, it's impossible not to get lazy because people are offering to get you cups of coffee and holding umbrellas for you, so I needed to get away for a bit and do something different. Now I'm back at work on something that made me scared again.''
Jenny Cooney Carrillo
CRITICAL BUZZ Brilliantly acted tale about a troubled WWII veteran who falls under the influence of a charismatic cult leader.
STARS Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams.
DIRECTOR Paul Thomas Anderson.