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TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

'The Master' offers a cinematic world unlike any other

Michael Phillips

1:54 PM EDT, September 14, 2012

TORONTO —

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Already open in New York and Los Angeles and going into general release Friday, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's strange, audacious drama "The Master" evokes a feverish state of mind more than a conventional movie, though its story can be described easily enough.

A psychologically damaged World War II Navy veteran, played by Joaquin Phoenix, finds himself adrift and in an alcoholic spin, bouncing from job to job, from department store portrait photographer to migrant worker picking cabbages. It is 1950. A man named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has launched a self-help religion known as The Cause. The Phoenix character, Freddie Quell, stumbles onboard a yacht in San Francisco Bay one evening. The lengthy but unshowy tracking shot depicting Freddie stowing away is capped by a shot of the boat heading off into a sunset under the Golden Gate Bridge, and the image is melancholy beauty incarnate.

The push-pull relationship between Dodd, known as "Master" to his Scientology-like disciples, and the unruly Freddie guides Anderson's film. But it doesn't obey any of the usual screenwriting forms or rules; there is no easy redemption or comeuppance for anyone, and the results feel historically accurate yet completely alien to most impressions we have, accurate or fantastic, of mid-20th-century America. Amy Adams co-stars as Dodd's wife, Peggy, fiercely loyal to The Cause. Like all Anderson films, including his previous one, "There Will Be Blood," "The Master" is a story of a family that cannot hold.

Now 42, Anderson shot much of "The Master" with exotic, nearly extinct 65 millimeter film cameras, offering a rich widescreen image. When and where the Weinstein Co. can be persuaded to do so, the film is being shown with 70 millimeter projection, the first such occurrence since the Kenneth Branagh "Hamlet" in 1996.

"We really hadn't thought it through," Anderson said, between bites of a club sandwich in a hotel suite last week, amid the Toronto International Film Festival.

"When the 65 mm footage was looking good, and we started shooting more and more of it, I don't honestly remember thinking, 'Oh, we'll have to try to show in 70 mm.' I figured ultimately we'd have to settle for 35 mm reductions. But it'd been so long since I made a film — 'There Will Be Blood' came out in 2007 — I really had no idea how much things had changed with digital projection. In 2007, it was 15 to 20 percent digital. And now it's 85 to 90 percent." And "The Master," as seen in its optimum but sadly scarce 70 mm projection format, constitutes something between a throwback and a miracle.

Though its inspirations came from all over, including the early years of John Steinbeck and an anecdote about a sailor's hangover Anderson heard from his "Magnolia" ensemble member Jason Robards, "The Master" has enough Scientology-grounded details to cause a fuss. In its portrait of the L. Ron Hubbard-esque Dodd, selling a hypnotherapy method designed to take believers into past lives and other worlds, the film has provoked an awful lot of Scientology- and "Dianetics"-based questions during the Toronto festival. Anderson admits he's had it with the Scientology questions. "On a scale from 1 to 10? A 10." That's how weary he is.

A lot of what Anderson filmed didn't make the final cut; a lot of what he wrote never got filmed, as is the case with many ambitious pictures. For "The Master" he wrote illustrative sequences showing the horrors of South Pacific combat that were, in practical terms, he says, "ridiculous. We didn't have the cash for that."

He also wrote scenes for Dodd's "processing" (Scientology calls it "auditing") of his disciples, taking them back to buried memories of childhood and previous lives. One draft of the script imagined first-person perspectives of those time jumps, "so that you'd see a young woman on a couch, and then you'd see her in 18th century Ireland, getting raped by British soldiers. Or a young man imagining himself in space, no sound. But ultimately we didn't film it. It felt like a distraction." The film, he says, is Freddie's story foremost.

With his partner, actress Maya Rudolph ("Saturday Night Live," "Bridesmaids"), Anderson has three children. He doesn't seem like a cult leader. Yet when actress Adams speaks of his directorial style … well, she's oblique as well as admiring.

"You never want to pull the curtain back and reveal the wizard. You know? That's kind of how I feel with Paul. I will say I was surprised by his sense of humor," she says. "Paul's very honest, and he requires honesty from you. He has an ability to take you to a place without you knowing you've been taken there."

Visually, Anderson takes you there, wherever "there" is, by way of film language favoring elaborate but subtle long takes involving an unusual (for the 21st century) amount of camera/actor choreography.

"It's just how it comes out in my head, and I like it," he says. "I keep Turner Classic Movies on in my kitchen, like, all the time. Twenty-four hours a day. That's the stuff I grew up watching. Certain styles of filmmaking are ingrained in me." Shots such as the San Francisco Bay at dusk, he says, "are hard to figure out, but they're satisfying. But if you don't watch it, you risk turning everything into 'designed' shots."

He continues: "I can be a pretty good writer, sometimes. But really I'm more of a stealer. Screenwriting's kind of like fake writing."

The research, and knowing when to let go of it and invent, holds the key to results worth filming, he says. "I keep writing as long as the research is interesting. And as long as the money's not running out."

Last month in Chicago, at the Music Box Theatre, Anderson held a sneak preview of "The Master" in 70 mm, one of several around the country. Articles in Time Out Chicago and the Tribune, he says, did much to draw attention to the conundrum of "The Master's" limited availability in its optimum projection format.

Since Chicago, and since the film's awards success in Venice, "the ball has really rolled in our favor," he says. "With all the international distributors coming to the Venice screening in 70 mm, they get it. There was a guy handling the film in Russia; he went nuts, and he was telling me about all 70 mm projectors ready to go there. 'What can we do? How can we make sure to show it in 70 mm?' The coverage coming out of Chicago absolutely created a kind of hunger for this, and pointed people in the right direction."

"The Master" opens Friday in 35 mm digital projection. Following the theatrical run, the Music Box Theatre hopes to show the film in 70 mm.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune