The Making of "The Master"

Photo Credit: Getty Images
September 24th, 2012

The Making of "The Master"

-- "The Master" marks writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's first film since "There Will Be Blood" in 2007. The auteur filmmaker has made such a name for himself with gems like "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights" that any film from him is already considered something of an event among movie fans. The fact that it has been five years between films just puts so much more pressure on him to deliver with "The Master."

The film had its official world premier at the Venice Film Festival in September 2012, but the development of the film started 12 years before. That is when Anderson began writing the script, which, he said, had no real focus of plot in the beginning. He began piecing together different concepts he had heard of about spirituality, stories from actor Jason Robards on the set of "Magnolia" and the life stories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and writer John Steinbeck. When he put together all of these elements, the script for "The Master" finally began to take shape as it is today.

Anderson made several films while he was still writing "The Master" and deciding what tone the script would take. After more than a decade in his mind, the final script was finished and he was ready to begin pitching the project to prospective financers. In late 2009, rumors began to circle that Universal was about to give the project a green light to begin filming.

Originally, Universal showed an interest in financing the film, though it had a problem with some of Anderson's script. It is unknown exactly what problem it had with the script, though the potentially controversial story about Scientology was likely one of the culprits. The script ultimately passed, which meant that Anderson had to scramble to try and find another financer for the film, which already had lots of interest from top actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was tapped in the very early stages of the film to play the part of Lancaster Dodd.

From December 2009 to February 2010, the film bounced between studios and production companies, with nobody fully committing. Many balked at the $35 million price tag, feeling that a drama like this was more appropriate for art house cinemas, meaning that it would probably get a somewhat limited release. A limited release makes it harder to recoup the budget and make a profit, so taking on the film was cost prohibitive for many production companies.

Despite the lack of financing, plans were still being made and parts were being cast. Hoffman had already committed to the film as one of the leads, but the other lead opposite him was up for grabs. Enter Jeremy Renner, who was fresh off an Academy Award nomination for his lead role in "The Hurt Locker." He was cast to play Freddie Sutton, a former WWII veteran who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before anyone knew what that was. He gets mixed in with Dodd, who is basically founding a new religious movement that begins to take root in the United States.

Filming was scheduled to begin with Hoffman and Renner in August 2010 but had to be postponed. It wasn't until June 2011 that final financing was in place, allowing shooting of the movie to begin in earnest. By this time, Renner had to be replaced because he was already committed to filming "The Avengers" by then. Hoffman was still available, and Joaquin Phoenix was cast to replace Renner.

Principle photography commenced on Mare Island off the coast of California, then moved to nearby Vallejo, Sacramento and Berkeley. In all, Anderson and his crew filmed for three months before the shooting was finished. Anderson used cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. instead of Robert Elswit, whom he had used for every movie he directed before "The Master." He asked guitarist Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead to compose the soaring score for the film. Greenwood had previously done the score for "There Will Be Blood" as well.

After months of post-production editing, the first trailer was released in May 2012. By August it was announced that the Venice Film Festival would mark the world premier of the much-anticipated film. Advance screenings across the United States after the festival were also announced, with fans clamoring for scarce tickets for the viewings. All of the years of buildup and hype seem to be paying off, as "The Master" is already being mentioned as an awards contender. It only took Anderson more than a decade to pull off the feat; although with strong performances and a great script, the final product on the screen looks almost effortless.