The American master talks Phantom Thread and preparing for a post-Daniel Day-Lewis future.
What does a Paul Thomas Anderson film look like? It’s a hard thing to put your finger on, not least because in the 20 plus years since he started making movies, the American writer/director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice has never really settled into a familiar groove. His films are cut from the same artistic cloth, often containing recurring faces and themes, but they are connected more by mood than a binding set of stylistic principles. It’s there, but it’s woven so finely into the fabric that it becomes almost imperceptible.
Anderson’s eighth feature, Phantom Thread, is a strange, lavish romance set in 1950s London about a master dressmaker and his sphinx-like muse. It neatly illustrates his constantly evolving creative process, and it represents both the hotly-anticipated continuation of a fruitful collaboration and a wholly unexpected step into new narrative terrain. We spoke to him about how the film – and its beguiling title – came about, as well as the retirement of his longterm collaborator and friend, Daniel Day-Lewis, and his idea of a perfect breakfast.
LWLies: It’s interesting to be speaking to you 30 minutes after the review embargo on Phantom Thread was lifted. Did you know Barbra Streisand is a fan?
Anderson: I saw that she named it as one of her top films of the year. I was really excited by that! But the whole embargo thing… I’m not quite sure I understand… I guess I understand the basic premise of an embargo, but I don’t know that I like it. What do you make of it?
I see why film companies do it, but a lot of the time it seems like an unnecessary evil.
But if the premise is… Look, I fight battles all day long, and really it’s not my fight, but the impression I have is that the idea of an embargo is to maximise interest in a film by ensuring that reviews come out close to release. That’s a reasonable enough thing. But it just seems so arbitrary to me. Who looks at the calendar and decides that’s when we’re gonna lift the curtain? It’s a little bit… fucking… I don’t get it.
Do you not have any say in the matter?
I could if I decided to stick my nose into it. But I’ve got enough other things to do. It’s their thing, they seem to like it, maybe it gives them some sense of power, so why not just let them do it, you know? I try and concern myself more with the stuff that really matters, the things that can make a difference to the life of a film.
How involved are you in overseeing the posters and other marketing assets?
Somewhat… I like to pass an eye over that stuff, sure.
Someone pointed out that the title card for Phantom Thread looks a lot like the one for The Age of Innocence. Was that intentional?
You know it’s funny, that was brought to my intention as well and I’ve gotta say that that was not my intention at all. I’ve done my fair share of ripping off but that was one that went straight over my head. We kind of went with this Reynolds Stone look. He did woodcuts and the font we used is very similar to ones he made for Cecil Day-Lewis’ books.
So there’s a familial connection there.
Yeah, Daniel turned me on to it and I thought it was great. It’s very similar to that flourish that moves around the title of The Age of Innocence. Did Saul Bass do that one?
I think so, yeah.
Right, so anyway, the Reynolds Stone stuff is amazing so that’s what we were going for with that.
Let’s talk about the title itself. The film was listed as ‘Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Project’ for a long time. At what point did you settle on ‘Phantom Thread’?
It’s a strong word, ‘phantom’. I never had a title in my mind but it was necessary to name the company, just on a practical level. During my research I came across this book about Victorian-era working conditions for women who were making these fantastic gowns. They were toiling away in shit conditions with no light, no air, 50 of them shoulder-to-shoulder in a tiny room – classic Charles Dickens stuff. And there was this phenomenon that kept happening of these women reaching for threads that weren’t there, and I saw this phrase and it just looked so right to me. You know when two words just go together? For a while we tried to come up with something else but nothing else quite worked. It just sort of fit. I’m really happy with it.
You’ve described Phantom Thread as a Gothic romance and even compared it to Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’. Guillermo del Toro tweeted a passage from ‘Jane Eyre’ as his response to the title: “I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, you’d forget me.”
Well… god, he’s a smart cat that Guillermo. I think with a title you kind of have to… I don’t know… It’s always a strange thing, they’re either very clear straight away or they emerge later on. ‘There Will be Blood’ came early on and this one wasn’t clear at all. There was an idea for a moment that we were gonna call it ‘House of Woodcock’, but that’s not the film. Giving the title of the film to one character seemed like a mistake to me. I actually see it more as Alma’s story.
The casting of Vicky Krieps as Alma is interesting. Do you think it would have worked if she were played by a more high-profile actor?
You could make it work in a different way, which would not be the right way, at least not for what we needed. The idea of having a face that you don’t know… Ah man, I can’t even articulate why… Why would that be better somehow? I don’t know the answer to that. I suppose it reflects the discovery that Reynolds makes in the story. Is it the same if he comes across Natalie Portman in that hotel? I don’t think it is. The risk was always, if you’re looking for that, how do you find somebody that hasn’t been found already? We got really lucky. We were looking for somebody who looks a certain way, sounds a certain way, and who you could believe working in that hotel and fixing that dinner at the end. Vicky could do all that, she really ticked every box. Sometimes when you’re writing a character you have a vague visual image in your head, and in Alma’s case I kind of had a cross between Joan Fontaine and Caroline Blackwood. Or like a young Mary Stuart Masterson.
How long do you typically allow a project to gestate?
It varies. Some elements of Phantom Thread were written down really quite quickly after we finished Inherent Vice, which I guess was around 2014. Just the basic idea of a relationship between a man and a woman and a power struggle. The kind of thing you write down is like ‘a man and a woman’, ‘a love story’, and then ‘sister?’ You write down a lot of stuff with a question mark next to it – that’s a great indication of when an idea is starting to come together. It’s funny, when you read other stories about other writers and you realise you’re not alone when you see notes in margins and on script pages, where these guys are doing the exact same thing as you. Asking yourself questions is always a good way to start building a story. So I kept adding to this idea of a strong man who gets sick and the woman in his life who recognises that in that illness he is sweet and vulnerable and in need of her. And then it all happened so quickly, which is such a good feeling. But there’s always half-baked stories kicking around somewhere.
Are you someone who has 10 ideas on the go at any given time?
Oh god no! That’s too many. Generously I’d say two or three tops. And that’s feature films, you know, although some are bigger than others and sometimes you break things up and you’re left with spare parts which end up being used for something else.
Can you give an example of that?
There was a lot of things that I wrote and researched around There Will be Blood that became The Master.
There’s an interesting link between The Master and this film I think.
I think so too. That wasn’t evident to me initially but there’s something in the bizarre central relationship between the protagonists. That push and pull, that intense dynamic between two people who have a great amount of affection for one another but find it hard to communicate. Yeah, chalk that up to ‘bag of tricks: limited’.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t secretly have something in the back of my mind hoping that Daniel and I will do something else together”
Is Phantom Thread a love story?
It is, but then I guess it depends on what you expect from your romance movies. I tried to make a romance movie that I’d like to see. I don’t know… I watched The Big Sick the other day which I thought was really good, and I was wondering whether people consider it a romance movie. It’s funny but it’s got a strange title, it’s certainly not a romantic film title. Obviously Phantom Thread is a very different film but I think we could sit on the same shelf, don’t you?
If you were controlling the algorithm, what would come up in the ‘if you like this…’ column next to Phantom Thread?
Oooh… Well, the ones that we’ve already talked about… You would hope that some Criterion stuff would come up. ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ is a favourite, Daniel and I obsessed over that movie. The Passionate Friends is another one that we really love. I suppose if you could get anywhere near the same ballpark as Brief Encounter I’d be happy. Dragonwyck is another great one.
The Vincent Price movie?
Yeah, Joe Mankiewicz did it I think. That’s a really good one. It’s based on a book by Anya Seton which is also pretty great.
As someone who’s both a big Adam Sandler fan and a staunch advocate for 35mm, does it make you sad that he seems to be making films exclusively for Netflix now?
A little bit because I feel like things happen on Netflix and I don’t even know they’re happening. They’ve certainly made their presence known. To be fair though my Netflix is co-opted by my children so everything that comes up on my menu is kid-related. But they don’t really have the stuff that I wanna watch, honestly. I don’t know what the selection is like where you are…
Not great if you want to watch anything made before about 1985.
Right, well I like a lot of older, weirder stuff and it’s pretty limited on that front. But I can’t really complain because I’ve never paid for it, I’ve always used someone else’s account. I’d love to work with Adam again though. We talk all the time, we talk about dreaming something up together but just haven’t come up with anything yet. I really wanna see The Meyerowitz Stories but it only got a tiny, tiny release over here. I feel so old for saying this but I just want my movies to be movies. I wanna see it big and I wanna see it loud.
Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about Daniel’s retirement. What was your initial reaction to that announcement?
My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my god!’ I was surprised. He’d spoken to me about it over the years but I foolishly didn’t take it that seriously. I can only back up what he said in that press release and say that it’s a decision that had been pulling him for some time. My take is just to embrace whatever it is he feels he needs to do, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t secretly have something in the back of my mind hoping that we’ll do something else together.
You first worked together 10 years ago, so maybe in another 10 years…
Well, you never know… But, you know, that would make him 70 and me 57, so there would have to be a real serious reassessment of what the hell we’re doing. I think it’s good to properly pause and wait and think about what’s going on and what’s next.
Do you see yourself making movies when you’re that age?
Yeah. I mean, I hope so. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m relatively hopeless when it comes to anything that’s not making movies. I know I’d probably be very unhappy if I wasn’t able to do this. But, you know, I don’t have a crystal ball. I fucking love doing this. I can’t see myself losing that love. I feel so fulfilled by it. There’s only two places I want to be and that’s with my family or making a movie.
I was in Venice when The Master premiered…
That was a great, great night. It was so joyous, just the feeling that we had done it. We’d worked so hard to get that 70mm projection, which no one had done in such a long time. We moved mountains to make it happen, so to be there in that beautiful city and to see it through and for the response to be so overwhelmingly positive was just an unbelievable thing. It was fucking great.
I mention it because I interviewed Philip Seymour Hoffman the next day, and he said something about your relationship which has stayed with me. He said: “My working relationship with Paul doesn’t matter; it’s my friendship with him that does.” Is that a rare thing, and is it the same with Daniel?
It’s… This is all gonna just come tumbling off my tongue in a peculiar way because it’s hard to describe how entwined and separate those two things can be… You always value the friendship because the friendship is also the work, or the hope, or the dream of work. But there’s also just times when it’s not about the work and you’re just sharing your lives intimately. When that goes away and you’re in the blender of making a film together, I don’t think it’s ever taxing on the relationship, but everything is so heightened that it becomes a different thing. I wouldn’t know how to work with anybody that I couldn’t be friends with. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that I just don’t have the inclination to work with people that I don’t care about or wouldn’t want to spend loads and loads of time with. There’s no point in making movies if you can’t have some fun doing it.
Does Daniel retiring limit you creatively in any way?
God, you know, it makes me melancholy to hear you even talk about him retiring. Honestly, in the midst of making and now promoting this film, that thought hadn’t even occurred to me. That’s the kind of thing you size up once the smoke has cleared, I guess. I mean you’re right of course, it completely changes things. But look, I shared The Master with Daniel just as a friend, to help get his ideas about the screenplay and what the film was. Same thing with Inherent Vice. So we can still have a creative relationship amid the friendship as well. But I get your point, you’re opening my eyes to that reality in way that I’m fully unprepared to deal with right now.
Sorry about that…
No, no, you know what I mean… It’s a strange thing – for the first time in a long time we’ve gone straight from finishing the film to putting it out, and so there’s still that feeling of skiing downhill fast. There’s very little self-reflecting happening right now, which is probably a good thing.
What’s your version of a perfect breakfast?
Oh my god… I’ll tell you: I personally prefer my eggs over-easy; toast kinda crispy; loads and loads of butter – I’m the opposite of Reynolds, I mean I really just fucking lather it up – chives on top; not too much salt; avocado; black coffee. I don’t eat meat but in the old days I’d probably throw some bacon and sausage in there. I could go on and on about breakfast…
What does a typical breakfast on set look like?
Well, unfortunately that looks like cold breakfast burritos in a field. Just standard set food really. I have to say I’m not really a big porridge guy. When we were over in the UK shooting, everybody was eating porridge. It’s more of a native thing I guess.
And there we were thinking you’d made a quintessentially British film…
I know, I know… Talk about lifting up the veil. What can I say, as a Californian it just doesn’t ring my bell.
Phantom Thread is released 2 February. Read our review.
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