Having just screened Judd Apatow’s upcoming comedy of upscale anxiety, “This Is 40,” on Thursday night with the filmmaker in attendance, Film Independent at LACMA played host the following evening to a very different American auteur: Paul Thomas Anderson.
The writer-director engaged in a conversation after a showing of John Huston’s World War II-era short films “The Battle of San Pietro” and “Let There Be Light” to discuss their influence on his latest film, “The Master.”
“The Master” may have already faded at the box office and in the minds of some awards-watchers, but judging from the packed house of people whose vintage-inspired dress looked like they shopped straight from the collection of Freddie Quell (the film’s main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix), it will live on with its passionate admirers.
Though Anderson has lately cultivated a certain mystique around himself, in conversation with Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell he was warm, witty and charming while articulating his own writing process and influences.
Huston’s two short films (both available for viewing online) deal unflinchingly with the impact of combat on soldiers’ psyches and emotional health. It was easy to see why they were long kept from public view. The long interview sequences with returning servicemen in “Let There Be Light,” which Anderson said he first saw on YouTube, are harrowing for their emotional directness in showing the effect of war on men.
“A lot of this informed the script for ‘The Master’ before I saw [‘Let There Be Light’],” Anderson said, “but it was that kind of lucky thing that helps verify decisions that you’ve made, [when] you find it somewhere else. It just helps you feel like you’re on the right track.”
An unexpected question about the documentary “Baraka” prompted a rather amusing series of ideas from Anderson, including thoughts on Michael Jackson’s notorious pet Bubbles and a rather unlikely distillation of a theme from “The Master” regarding the character of Quell.
“C’mon, you can’t put diapers on a monkey,” Anderson said of how the essential nature of man and beast alike can perhaps not be changed.
Though Anderson has at times been cagey in discussions of how Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Master” character of Lancaster Dodd was inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, on Friday night he was the one who brought the topic up.
“For ‘The Master,’ obviously it helped to be into ideas that eventually got into L. Ron Hubbard’s head and Dianetics,” he said, “sort of how to work with mental illness, how to work with the mind, that was the kind of thing he got into. And I think he did spend time in naval hospitals, so he was obviously around all that kind of stuff. So what he was doing was not an entirely made-up thing, it was kind of around this stuff and funneling it into what he was working on.”
At the evening’s start, Mitchell announced there would be a surprise showing of 20 minutes of “heretofore unseen” scenes from “The Master.” In his introduction, Anderson said, “Lower your expectations, lower them way down,” and this seemed to hold true when the disc containing whatever was to be shown didn’t initially work properly, the image freezing and skipping after a few seconds.
After two attempts to fix the problems, Anderson and Mitchell came back on stage to have a brief conversation about what the audience would have seen -- a compilation of alternate takes and outtakes that Anderson is putting together for likely inclusion on the film’s DVD release.
After they left the stage, a third attempt to get the scenes played worked. They played like something of a dream contraction of the film itself, establishing Freddie as a drifting loner even while in the Navy. He does a little jig in a bathroom after making a drink, falls asleep against a woman’s bare breast and misses his ship’s departure.
There is a rather dazzling moment in which Freddie opens a wooden box said to contain Dodd’s unpublished manuscript of a book that has the power to kill men who read it. Flames leap from the box, and Freddie stares at it intently before calming closely the lid. Freddie is bequeathed a special jacket and named first lieutenant of “The Cause.”
He and Dodd dance together at a party. Freddie engages in dialogue with the character played by Laura Dern. The scenes concluded with a genuine blooper, as Hoffman and Phoenix repeatedly crack up over Hoffman’s inability to deliver a line on the “minty flavor” of Kool cigarettes with a straight face.
“There was a lot of talk and discussion about what doesn’t need to be in the movie,” Anderson said before the scenes screened.
“In the comfort of an editing room, you should be allowed to see what film you’re making and what you can do without,” he added. “It’s not any fun to go in there knowing exactly what you want to put in and go and do it. That would be dull. This was really kind of fun, to just sort of mess around with the film and see what we wanted to do.”