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The new kind of American families – from the porn industry to The Cause – are fascinating playgrounds for iconoclastic filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Background notes to The Master offer us this in-depth Insider Briefing.

Says producer Daniel Lupi, who has worked on all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films from the beginning of his career: “This script reminded us a lot of Boogie Nights, because while that film might be set in the porn industry, it’s really about the relationships between the members of an unusual family. The Cause also is a complicated kind of family.”

"a volatile comparison"

The fact that The Cause is seen to be modelled on Scientology makes this a volatile comparison.

With The Master, Anderson became intrigued by the birth of a new kind of patchwork American family that arose out of the upheaval of World War II: those of alternative spiritual factions and newly established religions. From Eastern asceticism to Dianetics, the early 1950s became a time when many began to build grass roots communities devoted to realizing grand visions of human potential.

“It was fertile ground for telling a dramatic and engaging story,” Anderson says of his fascination with this time of cultural upheaval and spiritual adventurism. “Going back to the beginning of things allows you to see what the good intentions were; and what the spark was that ignited people to want to change themselves and the world around them. Post-World War II was a period when people were looking forward to the future with great optimism but, at the same time, dealing with quite a lot of pain and death in the rear view mirror.”

He continues: “My father came out of World War II and was restless his whole life. It's been said that any time is a good time for a spiritual movement or religion to begin, but a particularly fertile time is right after a war. After so much death and destruction, people are asking ‘how come?’ and ‘where do the dead go?’: two very important questions.” 

That propulsive “why?” drove the creation of Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), who is adrift in his life and spiraling into an intoxicated, lusty oblivion when he first encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Navy man himself who believes he has uncovered some compelling answers about how humankind can overcome its darkest animal nature. With Freddie at its centre, the story turned deeply personal, tracking his twisting and turning path through The Cause, a path at once rebellious and loyal, hopeful and destructive, uncertain and passionate, and rife with dreams and fantasies that began to pierce through the realism of the narrative.

"a creative evolution"

Producer JoAnne Sellar, who has collaborated on all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films since Boogie Nights, remembers watching the project go through a creative evolution. His creation of The Cause may have been inspired by his research, but the story took him entirely in another direction from there.

“It became Freddie’s tale,” Sellar continues. “In a sense, Freddie is the classic outsider who comes into a community and changes it – and what results is a kind of tragic love story between Freddie and Master. Freddie longs to be part of something bigger than himself, yet can’t commit. And Master yearns for Freddie to be the son he never had, yet can’t quite make that work.”

Anderson says he did a lot of historical reading from the period, from Steinbeck to L. Ron Hubbard, but notes “unless you are making a non-fiction film or biography, hopefully the line gets blurry between research and imagination.”

"rife with the dichotomies of rivalry and love"

Indeed, as the script went through multiple progressions, imagination took over and The Cause came to life as its own distinctive entity, a proxy family that finds itself vulnerable to all the powerful forces and tricky dynamics of blood relations. Each scene was rife with the dichotomies of rivalry and love, aspiration and confusion within its main characters. 

“When I look at the film now, I see Freddie and Master as two people who are desperate to stay together and connect with each other,” remarks Anderson of the pair. “I think they see strength in each other and also feel a desire to help pick up the other’s weaknesses. I see both as generous men with very different ways of communicating what they have to give.” 

Published November 8, 2012

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