It is amazing that a PTA film would struggle to find a distributor, but that is the world in which we live. His films typically don’t make money. His highest grossing picture to date was his last, There Will Be Blood, which earned only $40 million, so there is just cause for a struggling studio like Universal to pass on his project. Anderson’s pictures aren’t box-office machines mostly because they require thought. There is no assault of images and CGI to overwhelm the senses of the ADHD public. His movies require concentration, so they are immediately at a disadvantage. And it didn’t help in the selling process that Anderson’s new project sends him into the realm of controversy.
The Master is a religious parable tackling, of all things, the ideas behind Scientology, the chic new religion that specializes in exploitation and celebrity cred. And it stars none other than Philip Seymour Hoffman, longtime collaborator with Anderson in Sydney (renamed Hard Eight against PTA's wishes), Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love. Hoffman will star as an ambitious man who creates his own religion, a la L. Ron Hubbard. The co-star will play a character named Freddie, an alcoholic who is on his way to ruin before meeting and falling in with Hoffman’s character. And regarding the look and photographic approach to the art direction and visual power of the picture, The Master will be set in the 50s, a marvelous-looking decade. Count me in.
Anderson has never been directly controversial in his films. There are bits of controversy within his pictures, the final shot of Boogie Nights or the frog rain in Magnolia for example, but nothing wholly controversial to find its way into the general press. I imagine the parallels to scientology in The Master will draw a bit more attention from the national media than frogs raining in a film that drew $22 million (but perhaps one of the five best films of the 90s, might I add).
Anderson has never been outwardly critical of religion, but anyone who takes a close look at the dichotomy working inside the characters of There Will Be Blood and the end result of that film will find that Anderson clearly carries a bit of disdain for the exploitative nature and falsehoods that corrupt organized religion. So what better “religion” to deconstruct than what is perhaps the most exploitative of them all?
Paul Thomas Anderson may not rake in Michael Bay money with his films, but who really cares? I can tell you that nobody who truly understands or appreciates film should give a damn about box office. Martin Scorsese didn’t pass the $100 million mark until 2005 with The Aviator, after making perhaps the best film of the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s. Anderson is a genius unlike any other living director, even Scorsese to an extent. His ability to add a signature style to his pictures without ever drawing attention to it, as well as his ability to use those who have come before him to create his own vision, are two elements any director needs.
After Universal passed on The Master, a small company called Red River picked up the picture, which is estimated to cost around $35 million (and it is amazing to me how someone like Anderson can direct a picture on a small budget and have one of the finest American actors star in it. Amazing how these smaller pictures can go for quality instead of stardom, but that is for another day). Red River seems like a distribution company with their head in the right place, as they also picked up Terrence Malick's latest film, The Tree of Life, when nobody else would. Anderson is venturing into Oliver Stone territory with The Master, and I personally cannot wait as the details unfold over the next several months.