Shot on 65mm and presented in the same epic American strokes as Giant or Anderson’s own There Will Be Blood, The Master’s multiple allusions have inspired a gallimaufry of amateur cryptology and possible readings. The film, depending on the pet preoccupations of the code cracker concerned, is all about Thomas Pynchon, religious cults, Jungian archetypes and information theory. Suggested proofs note that Paul Thomas Anderson is currently adapting Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Inherent Vice and trace a line between Phoenix’s infant years in the Children of God spiritual group and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Scientology ersatz.
Sadly, these neat notions have little basis in fact.
“We never discussed that stuff,” says Phoenix. “I didn’t really know anything about that group. And I didn’t want it in my mind. We talked about the war. We watched [Lionel Rogosin’s 1955 docudrama] On the Bowery. That was a key thing. I’d never really seen drunks like that before. When I first read the script I was like, ‘Oh, this guy drinks paint thinner’. It was really interesting for me that Freddie gets on this amazing boat with a ton of free alcohol but he’s so almost addicted to a lack of quality that he’s still mixing his own paint thinner. It’s like a suicidal way to drink.That feeling of hopelessness and that desperation for a chemical release you get in On the Bowery, that’s when I knew Paul wanted me to go fully fucked up.”
What does he think the film is about?
“The one resonant thing for me was the feeling you may have when you love somebody and – for whatever reason – its not right for this moment. And it hurts so bad because, in so many ways, it seems like it’s right and like you know each other. And you almost can’t live with the idea that you can’t be together in this life. So I think in some ways you’re holding out that for a chance to be with them in another life. It’s about that hope.”
The Master marks a return to the fray for Phoenix who hasn’t appeared in a feature film since 2008. In early 2009, as part of his prankster duties for the 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here, a dishevelled Phoenix appeared on The David Letterman Show to renounce acting in favour of hip-hop. Phoenix’s subsequent faux-breakdown sent the gossip sheets into overdrive. He’s never recovered from seeing his brother River die in 1993, postulated some; he’s always played weirdos and oddballs, suggested others unhelpfully.
In reality, Phoenix and his co-conspirator and brother-in-law Casey Affleck were working to an exact timeline: their agents had a copy of the schedule.
“I did some really stupid shit that was completely over the top,” recalls Phoenix. “In some ways, I didn’t want to commit. I wanted to wink at the audience and turn everything into a bad SNL skit. Casey was there to say ‘That’s bullshit, either you fucking do it or you don’t’. I would come back from one of the public appearances and he’d be like, ‘You’re a fucking idiot. You’ve ruined everything’. Except then the press would believe it. And at some point, we realised we could do anything. No matter how crazy it seemed. I’m not sure that’s because people really bought it or because it was just more fun to write about.”
Phoenix would be the first to admit he’s never been press-savvy and that often, his representatives can be heard asking: “What have you said now?” The actor, currently the bookies’ favourite to take home an Academy Award next spring, has recently found himself apologising for questioning the value of the Oscars. This is typical, he notes, of how he mouths off without thinking.