“Investigating another time when you might have lived is just inherently so hopeful and so optimistic and so sweet to me,” he says. “You see it in all the things coming out of that time, whether it was music and the songs of that period — everything was about ‘seeing you again’ or ‘I’ll find you someday.’ . . . You’re talking about finding ways to go back in time and to pick up some lost piece — and that stuff is just food and drink to me.
“Did you see ‘Men In Black III’?” he continues. “It was [expletive] great. . . . The time-travel stuff [made me] cry my eyes out. I’m a sucker for that stuff.”
“There Will Be Blood” ended in the 1920s, when Dano’s character, an evangelical radio preacher, seemed to anticipate the same forces of religion, celebrity and hucksterism that “The Master” seems ideally suited to explore and elaborate. Anderson filmed scenes that explored the Cause’s collective interplay, but he says the idea lost traction in post-production.
“After collecting all this footage, when we got into the editing room it became clear that the marching orders, the party line to attack, was the love story,” he says, explaining that the film seemed destined to revolve around “two guys just desperate for each other, but doomed. Sadly doomed.”
To hear Anderson tell it, much of “The Master” was filmed on instinct: One sequence, in which Freddie runs back and forth between two walls in a grueling mental-conditioning exercise, came about after Anderson wrote a few lines describing the scene “not knowing we’d be doing it three days later.” The film reflects the same searching, indeterminate quality of its subjects, a not-quite-fish-or-fowl enterprise in which just about every cinematic rule has been thrown out. This includes the use of the widescreen format Anderson has favored throughout his career to make an intimate, even claustrophobic drama.
Inspired by the VistaVision movies of the 1950s, Anderson worked with 65 millimeter film stock, a choice he ascribes in part to “an old fogy thing” of working the way he’s familiar with and in part to push boundaries. In the film’s most memorable close-ups, Hoffman’s and Phoenix’s faces resemble VistaVision landscapes in themselves, full of soaring crags, expressive undulations and precipitous crevices. (Purists will be happy to know that “The Master” is being shown in 70 millimeter at AFI’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.)
It was “kind of fun to try to use it for maybe for things it wasn’t meant to be used for,” Anderson says of his iconoclastic visual approach. “The idea is, you’re supposed to use it for epic stories and do grand things, and I knew we were making a little chamber drama.” Anderson starts to laugh, admitting that he often had “a little bit of a guilty feeling, like, ‘Wait, are you supposed to do this?’ But it’s kind of fun to use something for the wrong reason.”