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Over-Analyze This: A Deep Dive Into Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master' Trailer

by Cory Everett
July 21, 2012 9:37 AM
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The Master feature

We’re not sure about you, but “The Master” is hovering near the top of our must-see list for the remainder of 2012. Though he has only made six features thus far (including his latest), Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation. Known for creating deeply personal, sprawling, ambitious films -- from his breakthrough with 1997’s “Boogie Nights” (which he made before turning 27) to 2007’s pièce de résistance “There Will Be Blood” -- he is the rare auteur whose uncompromising visions have always managed to find a place within the studio system. As his films have taken longer to coalesce (five years apart for the previous two pictures) the anticipation grows into a cinematic event among his feverous fans. It’s been a long road in driving his latest to the screen (an older iteration at Universal with a different cast for one), but from the looks of the trailer, it will have been worth the wait.

"The Master," a film whose title we may have inadvertently coined, is a 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic intellectual known as "the Master" (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose faith-based organization begins to catch on in America, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter who becomes his right-hand man. Amy Adams co-stars as the Master’s wife Mary-Sue Dodd while Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty and Jesse Plemons appear in various supporting roles. The film will once again be scored by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (who also scored ‘Blood’) but will be the first shot without Anderson’s regular DP Robert Elswit, instead lensed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., best known for shooting Francis Ford Coppola’s recent films.

If you’ve heard about the film prior to now, chances are you know it was shot (at least partially) in glorious 65mm and that Hoffman’s character bears more than a surface resemblance to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. On the occasion of the first full-length trailer, we thought it would be a good time to dive into what we know so far about the film and see what a little digging might uncover. We are, after all, hopelessly inquisitive men and women, just like yourselves.

Joaquin Master
"You are an everlasting spirit, Freddie."
The first thing that's striking to those people closely following the film is how similar the narrative of the trailer is to the one presented in the 2010 leaked screenplay which was thought to be a very rough nuts-and-bolts draft (and indeed some of the dialogue was unfinished, with "TBD" notes). Though the script has reportedly been heavily reworked since that draft, it feels very similar to what was on the page then which feels doubly impressive considering how raw it originally read. A former sailor in WWII with an apparent “nervous condition,” Quell (Phoenix) seems to be struggling hard to assimilate himself back into society when he meets The Master (Hoffman). He has a serious drinking problem that causes him to black out and get into fights, leading Dodd’s wife Mary-Sue to wonder if he’s “past help. Or insane.” Some may argue that the original script was a two-hander between Quell and “the Master," and the trailer focuses more on Quell, but the original story and trailer still seem to suggest a battle being waged for the pupil's soul. 

Recently a blogger uncovered that the inspiration for the psychological exam from the first teaser comes directly from a John Huston documentary called “Let There Be Light” about soldiers who suffered psychological wounds from WWII. The latest trailer opens similarly, with a disconnected voice telling Freddie and the other discharged Navy men, “There will be people on the outside that will not understand the condition you men have. Now upon your shoulders rests the responsibility of a post-war world. You can start a business: filling station, grocery or hardware store, get eight figures of land and raise some chickens. If the average civilian had been through the same stresses that you had been through, undoubtedly they too would have developed the same nervous condition.”

Anderson had reportedly also been interested in making something based on the life of filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., who had been in the army in his early '20s, and some of those details may have found their way into this character. “He was interested in my teenage years when I was in and out of prison and the army.” Downey Sr. said, “And I think he thought at one time that that kinda stuff might be interesting. He's heard a lot of stories from me. I remember talking about that. He's talked about it other times but he's got a lot of thoughts on his mind, he's always thinking."

Joaquin Master 2

With shots of Phoenix's face pressed against a window or contorted into a twisted smile, Anderson seems to have tapped into something previously unmined by the actor. (Probably worth noting that he’s also gotten career best performances out of Adam Sandler and Mark Wahlberg.) And speaking of Sandler, Quell also has shades of previous Sandler’s character Barry Egan from “Punch-Drunk Love,” who had trouble relating to other people and was prone to fits of rage. The tracking shot of Freddie running at 1:30 in the trailer even recalls a similar shot in ‘PDL’ of Barry outrunning the blonde brothers. But whatever the inspiration may be, Phoenix looks revelatory in the role and we can’t wait to see his performance in its entirety.

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  • rudy | July 22, 2012 12:59 AMReply

    that shot of JP with the gun in the room reminds me of Martin Sheen drunk in the opening of Apocalypse Now

  • PcChongor | July 21, 2012 9:56 PMReply

    1. Pause at :52 on the trailer.

    2. Then go here:

    3. Search for the term, "a gift."

    4. ???

    5. Another reference bites the dust.

  • TXT | July 22, 2012 1:04 AM

    Yes, nice. Look as well at the first of The Factors -- "the Cause" (ie the name of Lancaster Dodd's group in The Master). Perhaps this little list caught PTA's attention when researching

  • TYLER | July 21, 2012 10:10 PM

    Nice Find...

  • Macbeth | July 21, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    Top Ten Signs You Might Be Feverish

    1. You use the word "feverous."

  • RickMycroft | July 21, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    Hubbard did ride motorcycles in the desert.

  • BJT | July 22, 2012 2:36 AM

    So would I, if I lived close enough. Apropos to nothing

  • lilhuxtable | July 21, 2012 5:59 PM

    So did Burt Munro.

  • TYLER | July 21, 2012 4:46 PM

    Yes, he did.... So did Howard Hughes.

  • wut | July 21, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    terrible article, 3 pages and says absolutely nothing. just a promo. this is why I hate bloggers.

  • Derek | July 21, 2012 12:56 PMReply

    "a few acres of land" and no offense, but straining for credit on the title seems a big stretch.

  • TYLER | July 21, 2012 12:24 PMReply

    @Russ... Thank you, sir. But please back off a bit with the compliments, My girlfriend will not like that. But thanks anyways...

    Have a nice day.

  • Kindred Spirit | July 21, 2012 12:03 PMReply

    Freddy on the boat... is that possibly also a Gulliver's Travels homage?

  • TYLER | July 21, 2012 11:55 AMReply

    @ Russ... Calm down Russy, I pointed out the "Melvin and Howard" reference and also the name of the song used in the trailer. Yes, you mentioned the Passenger, but I presented VISUAL EVIDENCE. But whatever bro, this is like dumbest thing to argue about. SERIOUSLY.

    Now moving on.....

  • dookie | August 11, 2012 12:24 PM

    thanks bud for the ban saves me from having to skim through you're trash on xaixx, pussy.

  • polly | July 24, 2012 4:42 PM


  • russ | July 21, 2012 12:11 PM

    visual evidence huh well why would i need to do that when i was right my man. yeah but thanks for all you visual evidence. you sir are hardcore.

  • Mert | July 21, 2012 11:53 AMReply

    You guys didn't miss anything, however the aspect ratio if utilised in it's original format would be 2.20:1

    Also I'd like the point out that the camera used for The Master is not the same camera used in films like '2001: A Space Odyssey' & 'Lawrence of Arabia' which is the Super Panavision 70.
    The Master actually uses Panavision System 65/Super 70, which was introduced in the early 1990s, in response to an increased demand for 65 mm cameras. Panavision introduced an updated line of 65 mm cameras and optics known as "Panavision System 65" or "Panavision Super 70", designed to compete with the rival Arri 765 camera. However, the lack of 70 mm projectors, combined with the fact that 35 mm digital stereo sound somewhat minimized the multi-channel sound advantage the 70 mm format had, meant that the format revival never really took off.

    Movies that have use the Panavision System 65 made in the 90's, include Ron Howard's Far & Away, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. However it's mainly used for special effects shots, it was used in Inception for sfx. Scorsese also used it for a hyper-reality sequence in Shutter Island (it's used in the night dream scene in the Concentration Camp train yard, where it is snowing and the bodies are piled together, frozen)

  • TYLER | July 21, 2012 11:46 AMReply

    I pointed out the name of the song, and also the "Melvin and Howard" and "the passenger" references on "CigsandRedvines" before everybody else... So I guess, you were referring to me when you wrote:

    "Fans have already picked up on a few possible homages -- the aforementioned “Melvin And Howard,” Freddie hanging freely over the edge of the ship recalls a similar shot in Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” etc. -- but we’re sure like his previous work, this will be something all his own."

    Lol.... Great article. Can't wait for October 12.

  • Ted | July 21, 2012 11:22 AMReply

    Fantastic write-up. I was looking for the Jo Stafford song and greatly appreciate you tracking it down.

  • russ | July 21, 2012 11:51 AM

    no you didn't mention the passenger connect ty ty that was me yesterday. you just youtubed the trailer and said "annoying chuckle" "i guess you was right"

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