MISANTHROPIC turn-of-the-century oilman Daniel Plainview is the unstoppable, dark-smoke-emitting engine that powers “There Will Be Blood.” Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s grim, extremely loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” struck black gold when Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to embody its unlikely hero. Perhaps even more unlikely, when Day-Lewis, one of the most intense -- and intensely sought-after -- of actors, discusses the dark, idiosyncratic character study, the word that comes to him is “joy.”
“In as far as it was the unfettered expression of something that needed to be expressed, because there’s joy in creativity,” he says of the film, opening in Los Angeles on Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter if you’re creating a dark story, which this might be, or a light comedy; there has to be joy there. . . . The inner joy that comes from saying something you need to say.”
Warm and vital, eyes full of mischief and nose just crooked enough to be interesting, the renowned yet press-shy actor is hardly Garbo-esque as he sits down in a suite on a recent day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He’s engaging, funny and possessed of a driving intelligence apparent whether he’s talking about acting, woodworking or impending catastrophe.
“This film had all the makings of a complete disaster, really,” says Day-Lewis, wearing a loose flannel shirt and jeans, his longish hair sometimes covering the golden hoop in each ear. “Just to find someone to finance the thing was a problem,” he says of “Blood,” which was eventually co-financed by Miramax and Paramount Vantage. “It’s all guys, there’s no one pretty to look at, there’s no love story. It could be read, I suppose -- not by me -- as a fairly bleak parable about the wages of sin and so on. But to me, it appeared to be so joyful.”
The actor seems to have found an artistic symbiosis with Valley auteur Anderson: “Well, we’re perverse, maybe, the two of us. We discovered each other’s like-minded perversity. . . . I felt tremendously close to Paul before, during and after the work.
“Many of the best writers inhabit the world that they are creating, very much in the way that performers try to inhabit that world in the work that they do. My thing with Paul’s films, most especially, I suppose, ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ -- and I feel very much the same about this one as well -- is that he was inside the story that he was telling. He’s not reaching for effect; he’s expressing something that he has a pressing need to express.”
While the 500-plus page “Oil!” starts as a detailed look at the burgeoning crude industry in turn-of-the-century California and becomes a socialist-leaning cautionary tale of the struggle between labor and capital, Anderson’s “Blood,” which is already pulling in critics groups awards and is gaining momentum as a best picture Oscar nominee, liberally changes plot elements, relationships and even names. He mined the setting and the father-son bond of the book’s first 150 pages to prime the pump for his own writing. “There Will Be Blood” follows Plainview as he navigates obstacles physical, familial and spiritual (in butting heads with a willful young preacher, played by Paul Dano) in his drive to master the “ocean of oil” beneath his feet.
“I didn’t feel enough confidence to start writing words to come out of these people’s mouths,” said the writer-director as he joined Day-Lewis in conversation. “But to use Upton Sinclair as a ‘piggyback in’ seemed like the thing to do.”
Anderson also wasn’t locked into a single vision, creating instead what Day-Lewis calls a sense of freedom on the set to explore different interpretations.
“We were pretty loose about where scenes would take place,” Anderson says. “We were changing things constantly just to find the right way to do it. A couple of times we ran ourselves around chasing our tails feeling like we’d gotten a great version of that scene the first time, but there are just as many times where the fourth or fifth time we tried it and did a different location or whatever it was, it was really worth the effort we put into it.”
It’s a creative process that meshed perfectly with Day-Lewis’ approach.
“You know, many directors control because they have too fully formed a vision, so they’re in terror” that everyone around them will mess up their story, says the actor. “So the answer to that is control. Paul is absolutely not like that. He positively thrives on the creative work of anyone that is there on the set with him, be they actors or technical people.”
That openness is evident as Anderson describes how Day-Lewis’ input completely reshaped a problematic scene in which another character gives Plainview news of the oilman’s son.
“We’re trying to figure out how to do the scene; of course, nothing was working,” says the writer-director. “And Daniel said something really perfect: ‘In my experience if there’s a problem, it’s usually in the writing.’ And he was exactly right! We looked at the scene and we slashed it down to about a quarter of a page to, like, six lines of dialogue. It’s a really good scene. I love watching it when it comes up.
“You get a bonus dish with Daniel in that he’s an exceptional writer -- he would never admit that, but he is.”
A deep immersion in roles
When asked what of Day-Lewis’ previous work Anderson admires, he says, “I’m not being cute or anything: everything. I didn’t know that the same guy who was in ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ was in ‘My Left Foot.’ I put two and two together but got through the whole movie not knowing.”
Anderson can be excused for not recognizing Day-Lewis, who fooled many with his first big splash in 1985 by appearing simultaneously as the tough, gay punk rocker in “Laundrette” and the hilariously effete suitor in “A Room With a View.” He collected an Oscar four years later for his utterly convincing portrayal of cerebral palsy-afflicted artist Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” and was nominated again for roles as the wrongly imprisoned Gerry Conlon in “In the Name of the Father” (1993) and one of the screen’s great monsters, Bill the Butcher, in “Gangs of New York” (2002), stamping him as one of the era’s finest actors.
As the films rolled out, stories began to emerge of the actor’s deep immersion in roles, at one point suggesting he “went native” to authentically develop the skills necessary to portray the early American scout Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Day-Lewis’ single-minded devotion to his craft might seem excessive or even torturous to some, but the actor prefers the analogy of an athlete’s pure focus, shutting out the crowd.
“Whenever it’s described by pretty much anybody else, it nearly always appears to be a madness with a self-flagellatory aspect to it. That doesn’t tell the story -- to me, at any rate. To work is always pure pleasure. I see no reason to pick a fight with myself.”
Given that intensity of focus, coupled with the actor’s habitual reticence to discuss his specific techniques (“It always sounds so pretentious,” he protests), it’s difficult to piece together exactly how he does what he does.
“I have almost no memory of it whatsoever,” he says of his work on “Blood,” laughing. “I think, invariably, people involved in creative work, if they’re lucky, they feel they hand themselves over to the course of something else, to the creation of something they’re not entirely responsible for. We look back upon it as if it’s an experience had almost by someone else.”
When there was a break of a few days between takes of a largely improvised public-address scene, Anderson discovered just how well his leading man knew that “someone else.”
“It was near the end of the shoot and we were well-versed in Plainview-speak, it really just came tumbling out of him. Anyway, he went on a little bit and then we ran out of time,” says the director. When they reconvened a few days later to resume shooting the scene, “He said, ‘OK, are you ready for this?’ . . . And he just spewed out that speech, and it was just how it is in the film. Talking about bread, ‘A loaf of bread is a luxury,’ talking about education, talking about family -- I’m not quite sure how he did it, but that was all him. It was delicious, it was Plainview on a platter.”
It was just one of many instances in which Day-Lewis’ instincts shaped Plainview and the film. The actor used oral histories from the period to create Plainview’s distinctive voice and his subtle use of costuming also expressed the character.
“It’s about how that character perceives himself,” he says of choosing wardrobe. “You ever have a moment when you look at somebody, a stranger maybe, you look at the way they’re dressed, and you try to imagine them in the shop, picking that out, trying it on, looking in the mirror, saying, ‘Mmmm, OK, I’ll take it’?
“So how does it make you feel about yourself, as that character? When you put that hat on, did it allow you to speak to people with a little more authority than you had before?”
Anderson adds, “There’s a scene where Daniel sits down with three other men and they all take off their hats -- and Daniel starts to take off his hat and puts it right back on.”
Through loud laughter, Day-Lewis voices the subtext: “Too late, boys! The hat’s on. So. Let the meeting begin. I’m the one with the hat on.”
The craft of it all
In his teens, Day-Lewis developed a passion for woodworking that, although he indulges rarely these days, lights up his eyes to discuss. He did craft a table used in his 2005 film “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” which his wife, Rebecca Miller, wrote and directed. When asked about pieces that carry special meaning for him, he immediately mentions two:
“One -- when I look at it now, I’m sort of embarrassed -- my mum still boasts about it, and everyone who comes to the house knows that it’s a table that I made . . . and a set of chairs to go with it, when I was about 15. Out of pine and walnut. They’re nice enough, but I can see all the flaws in them. But they’re so dear to her that for that reason they’re kind of dear to me.
“The other one is a Welsh dresser. I made one of those in my final year [of secondary school], and it was a much more complicated piece, required more complicated joinery. I gave it to my housemaster, who had really been very, very good to me over the years. So that was a very special thing.”
Considering this age of mass-production, woodworking and cobbling -- another of Day-Lewis’ interests -- seem vanishing arts. Combined with the skills he famously picked up for such movies as “Last of the Mohicans” and “Gangs of New York” (for which he learned the old-fashioned butcher’s trade), it’s easy to imagine him a man out of time.
“Yes, I’m not really of the Industrial Age, altogether,” he confesses. “And I’m absolutely not of the Computer Age. That’s something that’s going to pass me by, probably to the end of my days, except where I’ve got to learn the basics well enough to help my kids out with their homework. Yeah, I think I’m fairly primitive.
“I don’t even use a typewriter. I just like the old ways. I like handmade things, even if they’re flawed, as they always are. I think there’s great beauty in the flaws of a handmade thing. I like pens and ink and proper paper, and all those things.”
On the other hand, Day-Lewis is of a generation that believes in the value of film work, as opposed to what he characterizes as a snobbish British view of the superiority of the stage. The English-born, naturalized Irishman’s family was involved in the theater, while his grandfather was a film producer who ran Ealing Studios. Day-Lewis’ acting heroes (apart from Charles Laughton and Anthony Hopkins) tended toward American movie rebels such as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Montgomery Clift, who, upon reflection, he could easily play.
Many of those actors’ portrayals were of conflicted, hard-to-easily-categorize characters. What Anderson and Day-Lewis get at in “There Will Be Blood” is similarly elusive, although indelible, like an intentionally blurred tattoo. There are no clear lines drawn between heroes and villains. Plainview seems very much both.
“Plainview’s experiences would not have been that uncommon within that . . . appallingly brutal way of life,” says Day-Lewis, acknowledging that his character develops his own moral code, perhaps as a side effect of working tirelessly and achieving such success.
“But it went beyond money. The fever goes beyond -- there is no reward that can satisfy, that can douse the flames of that fever. That’s the problem. Because the fever is the thing itself. It becomes an end in itself. Get more land. Get more wealth. . . . There is no end to it. It’s the work itself.”