Directing Daniel Day-Lewis: ‘I know. I’ve killed off the world’s greatest actor’

Paul Thomas Anderson on directing Daniel Day-Lewis in his final film, Phantom Thread

Watch the official trailer for Phantom Thread, the final film starring Daniel Day-Lewis before he retires. Video: Universal Pictures

 

There is no Hallmark card or self-help brochure that says “so you’ve ruined Daniel Day-Lewis”, but if there were I’d be handing one over to Paul Thomas Anderson right about now. The American auteur slinks down into his chair, and half-jokingly – though only half, mind – hides behind his fingers.

“I know, I know. I know. I’ve killed off the world’s greatest actor.”

He fumbles and laughs through various excuses. “I’ve been doing all these retrospectives as the film is coming out. It’s tiring, right? And he has been doing this for 40 years. So fair enough. And it’d be crazy to think that he won’t do something else creatively.”

He slinks again: “Oh God. It’s not my fault. What do you think? Do you think it’s my fault?”

Hmm. Maybe? Last June, Wicklow’s most famous thespian announced that his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread would be his last. The film, which stars Day-Lewis as a freakishly fussy 1950s dressmaker, was undoubtedly emotionally draining, although, comparatively speaking, it’s hardly up there with one of the three-time Oscar champ’s great feats of method acting.

This is Daniel Day-Lewis after all, an artist that comes with his own mythology. Industry lore tells us he remained in his wheelchair on the set of My Left Foot, learned Czech for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, sparred for 18 months for The Boxer, slept in an abandoned prison during the shoot of In the Name of the Father, and who, by staying in flimsy period costume, caught pneumonia while making Gangs of New York.

For the purposes of Phantom Thread, the 60-year-old actor consulted Cassie Davies-Strodder, the former curator of fashion and textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, and apprenticed (for months) under Marc Happel, the costumier at the New York City Ballet.

Still, that beats pneumonia, surely?

Firm friends

If anything, Day-Lewis’s 2007 collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson – on the epic There Will Be Blood – looks like a far more exhausting business. The pair have remained firm friends since Day-Lewis birthed the “I drink your milkshake” meme, nonetheless.   

“We’ve kept in touch regularly,” says the writer-director. “We have a friendship. But there was always this idea at the back of our minds over the years. That we should work together again. And I grabbed the opportunity just after I finished Inherent Vice and he finished Lincoln. The project was very thin at the time. I didn’t have much. But he was up for it.”

Phantom Thread eschews the Altmanesque shapes we’ve come to associate with Anderson through such choral, well-staffed movies as Magnolia and Inherent Vice. His eighth feature harks back to chamber-piece weirdness of his curve-ball 2002 film Punch Drunk Love.

Like that odd Adam Sandler vehicle, the new film concerns a perverse romance between a prissy, egomaniacal dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his younger European muse Alma (the Luxembourgian actor Vicki Krieps).

Typically, muses are a disposable commodity for the intolerant fashion designer, but the quietly steely Alma has other ideas. Various satellites – notably Reynolds’ enabling sister (Lesley Manville), his deceased mother, the aristocratic ladies he dresses, and the almost wordless seamstresses who toil on his plainly outmoded creations – orbit the central relationship. Nothing, however, truly impacts on the strange S&M drama, a rivalry pitched somewhere between a PG-certificate Fifty Shades of Grey and Roald Dahl’s The Twits.

Monstrous

In keeping with that last great work of literature, all of the characters onscreen, particularly the lovers, are utterly monstrous.

Reynolds is driven mad by the sound of others’ chewing or – heavens forbid – buttering toast. His sister has entirely internalised his unwavering body fascism (“You have the ideal shape,” she tells Alma, “He likes a little belly.”) And, without delving too far into potential spoilers, Alma may well be the worst of the lot.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

“I can understand why you would think that,” nods Anderson. “Let me correct that. I can see Reynolds is in the monster category. He’s so demanding, so impossible to live with. He has all these rules, and those rules are governed by other rules. But even though Alma does the most dastardly things, I never once saw her as a monster. Ironically enough, I think it’s perfectly reasonable what she resorts to.  In the circumstances.”

He laughs: “I think.”

What Alma resorts to includes the meanest use of mushrooms since Colin Farrell got served (in all senses of the word) in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. Anderson says the unorthodox use of fungi was inspired by a bout of flu. As he lay recuperating, he noticed his wife, the Saturday Night Live star Maya Rudolph, looking at him with the sort of pity he had previously only witnessed when one of their four children was sick.

Anderson’s story has invited a good deal of autobiographical query. Perhaps a little too much.

“I was talking to another journalist earlier today,” he says. “And she asked me straight: ‘Did your wife poison you? I thought: Oh my God, you’ve missed the point a little.”

Underbelly

Frock-making, particularly in 1950s England, is an odd topic for Anderson, whose previous films could all have been titled “Underbelly”. They concern America, no less, as viewed through the prism of gambling addiction (Hard Eight), the “golden age” of porn (Boogie Nights), oil (There Will Be Blood), and religion (The Master).

The new film was far more precise in its world and focus. In preparation for Phantom Thread, Anderson honed in on Christian Dior, Lucien Freud, Charles James and the 20th-century Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga. Working alongside the veteran costume designer Mark Bridges, everyone involved in the production read The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World.

“Loads of artists have weird rules and regulations going on,” says Anderson. “But it just seems super pronounced in the fashion business. They’re extra fussy. I don’t know why. They have so many weird things and superstitions. I don’t know about football players over here, but baseball players in the States are notorious for their rituals. Really OCD stuff like: how many times I’m to reach for my bat. Dior was famous for not allowing umbrellas into the atelier. So many things that designers do show a really pathological level of control.”

Speaking to W magazine about his retirement last November, Day-Lewis said: “…It’s not that I felt there was a curse attached to this film, other than the responsibility of a creative life, which is both a curse and a blessing. You can never separate them until the day you die. It’s the thing that feeds you and eats away at you; gives you life and is killing you at the same time.”

One has to wonder if Phantom Thread’s Portrait of the Artist as an Unconscionable Jerk weighs just as heavily on Anderson, a man whose jocularity in person is neatly counterpointed by the meatiness of his material. Tellingly, he describes it as his most difficult shoot.

Tension

“It was a lot like being trapped in a house where your parents are fighting,” says Anderson. “The heads of the household were not getting along, and those long stretches in the movie when there’s tension between Reynolds and Alma and you could feel it all around.

“We would get some relief in a way because for every dress in the movie we needed an heiress or princess. So we would have a fantastic actress come in for a few days. There was always a sense of a rejuvenation, just in having other people around. It took us out of whatever drama we were stuck in.”

He gestures around the Soho hotel suite where we are sitting. “But it was like being trapped in this room. Imagine shooting in this room and the hallway outside for three months. Everybody starts to get on everyone else’s nerves. Sometimes it definitely built to a natural emotional crescendo. Everybody having to hold everything in.”

To date Anderson’s films have taken place in the San Fernando Valley, where he was born 47 years ago, and where he continues with life with his family. Phantom Thread might as well have been written in a foreign language, and required revisiting Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester and consultation with cast members Day-Lewis and Manville.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

“I made lots of common American mistakes,” says the director. “I had Alma saying ‘I’m mad’ when the correction is ‘I’m angry’, of course. Little things like that. Then things would come that made no sense to me. But I trusted that they made sense to others. Like when Daniel says ‘no one gives a tinker’s fucking curse’. Well, I don’t know what a tinker’s curse is, but it sounds exactly right to me when he says it.

Keep up

Or when Leslie uses the phrase ‘that’s as may be’. I’d never heard those words in that order before. I had to get her to say it slowly; I had to get everybody to speak English slowly so I could keep up. Many times. But I caught on. Eventually.”

The tone of the film too, which flirts with the supernatural by way of George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), was an undiscovered country for the American auteur. It’s impossible to look at Phantom Thread’s Oedipal spook without considering Day-Lewis’s claim that he saw his father’s ghost while playing Hamlet at London’s National Theatre in 1989. The actor rowed back on that story in 2012, saying that he meant it more metaphorically than literally.

In interviews the film’s breakout star Vicky Krieps has mentioned a favourite ghost scene that failed to make the final cut. Anderson, a huge fan of MR James, can’t quite recall the particulars, but insists that their ghost, like Day-Lewis performance-interrupting apparition, was more of a figurative spectre.

“I read something about another ghost scene and I tried to remember what was there,” says Anderson. “One of the impulses was to try and make a ghost movie. But while we were writing the focus shifted to the real life 3D relationship between two people.

“We never wanted to lose the shadow of the mother that looms over Daniel’s character. She’s an obvious presence in the way she has informed his life, unfortunately creating this selfish person. He’s the end product of a mother that didn’t allow his feet to touch the ground.”

Camera team

And yet another unknown quantity: with Anderson’s regular cinematographers – Robert Elswit and Mihai Malaimare Jr– engaged elsewhere, the filmmaker decided to rely upon his regular camera team – gaffer Michael Bauman, first assistant Erik Brown, camera operator Colin Anderson – without the assistance of a director of photography. Had Phantom Thread been any less chilly and gothic, Anderson’s decision might have been dismissed as one of the movieverse’s great acts of hubris.

“No,” he laughs. “The list of hubristic things I’ve done is already so long, that’s going near the bottom. I should take that back; we had a couple of days when I was worried. But the group of people I had around me are truly professional. They weren’t going to let anything bad happen. It was actually the opposite of hubristic in a way, because it was really challenging yourself and your insecurity. ”

For all the associated trials, Anderson insists he had a great time making Phantom Thread, and looks forward to screening it for his kids, who were often on the set.

“Honestly, I have very good memories of it looking back. It was at this time of year when we were getting ready to shoot. We started in January last year. Coming back here, to London now, it feels wonderful. But I always look back at movies through rose tinted glasses. I’m the guy saying: wasn’t that fun? And then everybody says No! That was a claustrophobic nightmare; what are you talking about?”

Phantom Thread is on general release.

ON COMEDY

Anderson, the seventh of nine children, began shooting his own films aged eight. He left film school after just two days in favour of studying directors’ commentaries and the collective works of Robert Altman, Robert Downey Sr, Billy Wilder, Max Ophüls and especially Jonathan Demme. Anderson hopes the latter, who died last year, can be found in Phantom Thread.

“I know for a fact that Jonathan Demme was completely in love with screwball comedies,” says Anderson of his sometime mentor. “Something Wild is my favourite film, and I hope there’s a dash of that in our film. A dash, in this case, goes a long way.”

On a not unrelated note, Anderson, a six-time Academy Award nominee and the only filmmaker to win directing prizes at all the major European festivals (Cannes, Venice and Berlin), still dreams of making something as lasting as Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

“I thought I was making a comedy with Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. But then things got weirder and more emotional than I had anticipated. You know that bit in Ace Ventura 2 when Jim Carrey comes out of the ass of a rhinoceros? If I could create just one moment in a movie like that, that would be something.”

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