Paul Thomas Anderson on Perfectionism and Making 'Phantom Thread'
"At a certain point, my attention span runs out. I don't exactly have the temperament."
Consider this: Joaquin Phoenix humping a sandcastle in The Master. Or this: frogs falling from the sky in Magnolia. Or perhaps, cast your mind over Marky Mark’s 13-inch fake schlong in Boogie Nights. You never know what Paul Thomas Anderson is going to do next. You only know that the images he creates will be forever carved into your brain.
I had no idea what to expect from Phantom Thread, Anderson’s new movie about a dressmaker in 1950s London. The trailer made it look like a sniffy BBC costume drama your parents might watch on Sunday night, all perfect postures and drab colours.
This was all the more surprising because his last film, Inherent Vice, was a stoner comedy set in 1970s LA. He’s said before that he’d hate to repeat himself – "I don’t wanna go back, that would be fucking horrible – which helps explain his leap from offbeat rom-com Punch-Drunk Love to There Will Be Blood and everything since.
In Phantom Thread’s twisted tale of a fucked-up relationship, Day-Lewis plays a dapper dressmaker called Reynolds Woodcock. He’s a complete control freak, as particular about the stitches on his dresses as his elaborate breakfast orders. Naturally, he’s not so great in relationships. He starts seeing a Belgian waitress who becomes his model and muse. One morning, in full controlling-dickhead mode, Woodcock snaps at the girl for buttering her toast too loudly: "I can’t begin my day with a confrontation."
If that sounds like a dreary drama about an impossible misogynist, believe me, it’s not. There are heaps of hilarious outbursts from Woodcock, and lines you’d never hear in a more hoity-toity drama. Take Woodcock’s offence at the word "chic". "Chic! Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public. I don't even know what that word means! What is that word? Fucking chic!" The movie is punctuated by these eruptions. It’s intense and unpredictable, like a grenade thrown towards the conformity of British cinema.
When I sit down with Anderson in a hotel in central London, I ask him about this latest sharp turn. His eyes widen the moment I mention the word "risk". "Yeah. You're challenging yourself [as a filmmaker], mixing it up," he explains. But why this story? Why London's couture world of the 1950s? It all began when Anderson started reading about fashion designers from that era, like Balenciaga and Dior. "They were super obsessive personalities," he says, "super controlling, completely preoccupied with their work." This is Day-Lewis’s character in a nutshell.
You wonder how anyone could date someone that controlling. I ask Anderson if he was interested in how someone with such faulty emotional wiring can sustain a relationship. "No. What was more interesting was when somebody is that controlling of their life, and what happens when something is out of their control – like an illness comes along – and what it does to them, and what does this weakness reveal in them? What Woodcock is really after is somebody to punch him in the face."
I’m curious about possible parallels between Anderson and Woodcock. Can the filmmaker see himself in the dressmaker? "At a certain point my attention span runs out, I’m kind of a little bit impatient. I don’t exactly have the temperament." So the charge of "control freak" is a fair one? "Oh, for sure, but on a scale of 1 to 10 I’m probably hovering somewhere around 5. On an occasional day a proper 10. I mean, nobody likes it when a director doesn’t make decisions. There have been a couple of times where I’ve tried that and everybody gets really irritated. They’re like, 'Right, just fucking tell us what you like, because I don’t wanna have to guess.'"
I bring up the fact that there’s a slew of film nerds on YouTube who pore over his signature style, dissecting everything from his trademark whip-pans to his frames within frames. Again, "meticulous" comes to mind. I ask him if he’s conscious of his signature. "It has to come from whatever the story is," he says. "With There Will Be Blood you could have an epicness, because you’re outside and you’re following this large-scale story." Whereas the camerawork in Phantom Thread – which Anderson had a hand in – is more subtle. What happened to his beloved whip-pans, dolly shots, and high-wire visuals? "There’s physically no room to whip the camera around," he explains. "You’re shooting in a Georgian townhouse. So unless you want to start doing horseshit crane shots up through the floor and stuff like that, then the style comes out of the story and the characters."
This story’s setting couldn’t be more different, I agree, but Day-Lewis’s dressmaker does share some DNA with other Anderson characters. Not least There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, the actor’s other monomaniac male in pursuit of perfection. Both are flawed males, both the very picture of toxic masculinity. Sure, they’re not quite in the same league as Magnolia’s Frank TJ Mackey (“Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!”), but their masculinity is clearly insidious in relation to those around them. What draws Anderson to these antiheroes? "They’re funny usually. That kind of lends itself to humour, when somebody is like that."
Anderson talks about Day-Lewis on set as if he didn’t meet the actor, but rather Reynolds Woodcock. Was it different to the experience of working with him on There Will Be Blood? "Well, it’s the difference between working with Daniel Plainview and working with Reynolds Woodcock," he says, again as if the actor was in character 24/7 (something he’s famous for). "Plainview is a little bit easier to hang out with; he just wanted to get what was in the ground out; Reynolds is really obsessed with his wallpaper and chairs and things like that."
During the Boogie Nights-era, Anderson would eat pizza in interviews and talk non-stop about movies like he’d drunk ten cups of coffee. Talking to him now, at 47, he’s more reserved, with grey hair and four kids. But he still oozes that fresh-out-of-film-school hunger to knock you sideways in the cinema. He still can’t wait to dive headfirst into something totally different.
And the films themselves? His recent ones have been the most divisive of his career. The Master was a two-and-a-half-hour film loosely based on the early days of Scientology that Entertainment Weekly, in an article entitled Why I Fell Out Of Love With Paul Thomas Anderson, said "lacks a character we care about". Then there was Inherent Vice, an adaptation of the notoriously hard-to-adapt author Thomas Pynchon, that reportedly got walkouts because of its freewheeling narrative.
I loved those movies for their zero-fucks attitude to plot. If anything, my early apprehension about Phantom Thread was that it seemed like safe subject matter. I mean: to go from the sleazy setting of the porn industry, or the potheads of 70s Venice Beach, to this? A film set in polite society?
But here’s the thing: it’s easy to label Phantom Thread as the work of a more "mature" filmmaker, with the glory days of caffeinated whip-pans and coke-fuelled narratives behind him. To be sure, the film's style is more laid-back, the camerawork less energetic. Could it be that the former enfant terrible is slowing down? Speaking to him, I don't get that impression at all. It's not because he’s older and more reserved now, but because, he tells me, this story and this style just happened to be "getting me off" at that time. In other words, his taste is always changing.
I wonder what’s getting him off now. "It’d be nice to do something a bit more fidgety again, I suppose. No more English drawing rooms for me for a while," he laughs.
While English drawing rooms might be old hat, it would be great to see Anderson turn his head to the seedier side of Britain. I’d love to see him, say, make a "kitchen sink" movie in London, again putting the genre’s tired tropes through the PTA blender. And as if reading my mind as I’m leaving, he says: "I did have an idea the other day of wanting to do something in London again, because I really enjoyed my time here and I feel like there’s still more to do."