Paul Thomas Anderson on ‘Phantom Thread’ & Developing the Film with Daniel Day-Lewis
The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival celebrated the five Academy Award-nominated directors – Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) – and honored them with the Outstanding Directors of the Year Award for 2018, at the Arlington Theatre on February 6th. With Phantom Thread, Anderson paints an illuminating portrait of an artist (in this case, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis) on a creative journey, and the women who keep his world running.
During individual panels and a group chat, these directors discussed pushing boundaries in their storytelling and how they are inspired by the work of their colleagues. Anderson talked about how the idea for Phantom Thread evolved, enjoying the development process with Daniel Day-Lewis, how similar and different he is from his film’s protagonist, and making the film without a cinematographer. He also talked about the circumstances under which he saw his fellow nominees’ films.
Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A:
Question: How did you get the idea for Phantom Thread? Is it true that you were under the weather and being cared for?
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: That’s true. When I get sick, I deal with it in a few different ways. First, I get very cranky and I pretend that I’m not sick because I don’t want to be slowed down. I don’t want to miss anything. Usually, that can work. But if that doesn’t work, and you get really sick and you’re flat on your back, you need help and you become vulnerable. I remember that I was very sick, just with the flu, and I looked up and my wife (Maya Rudolph) looked at me with tenderness that made me think, “I wonder if she wants to keep me this way, maybe for a week or two.” I was watching the wrong movies when I was in bed, during this illness. I was watching Rebecca, The Story of Adele H., and Beauty and the Beast, and I really started to think that maybe she was poisoning me. So, that kernel of an idea, I had in my mind when I started working on writing something.
What made you go back to Daniel Day-Lewis, ten years after There Will Be Blood?
ANDERSON: Certainly, he’s always at the top of the list. It had been ten years since we’d made There Will Be Blood, and we’d both gone off and done a few other things, but there was always an itch between us to get back together. I had finished Inherent Vice, and I was the instigator. I knew him well enough and we’re friendly enough that I knew I had to create a situation where we both sat down at the kitchen table, like schoolwork, and said, “We’re going to do this, and we have to get to work on it.” I had bits and pieces of a story, but a very, very thin premise. The pleasure of the experience, looking back, was forming the story with Daniel and working with him, every day, over the course of eight or night months, to formulate this adventure that we were going to go on. We just discovering things, along the way, that interested us. Daniel is at the top of everybody’s list, I presume. I just got to cut to the front of the line.
Daniel Day-Lewis has said that, when you were working together to figure out some of the specifics of this, it wasn’t always that your protagonist was going to be a dressmaker. Why did it end up that way?
ANDERSON: The nature of our story needed somebody that was self-obsessed and selfish, to enter into this relationship. We had just that, so we flirted with whatever ideas lent itself to that. Cristóbal Balenciaga was a fashion designer from the ‘50s, who was very famous and a master, and discovering him led us to discover more about dressmaker, particularly in London in the ‘50s. It was food and drink to us. The way that these men treated their work and the circumstances surrounding them was just to good to be true. It just kept filling us with more and more ammunition to go at this story.
Both the character, Reynolds Woodcock, and you are great artists known for a certain intensity and perfectionism. How similar is your way of working to his?
ANDERSON: It’s similar, in how seriously we take the work, but not at all similar in how seriously we take ourselves, I would say. Reynolds needs silence. I grew up in a house of nine kids, and I have four of my own. The working environment is drastically different. And I probably make the most noise at breakfast. But there are very strong parallels between when you care about your work so much, and when your work and your life are one in the same. There’s no separation, for me. I don’t have any hobbies, besides doing this. This is what I do. This is my life.
This is visually such a gorgeous film, partially because of the costumes, but also just the way it’s shot. How did you end up being the DP on this, yourself?
ANDERSON: It would be taking too much credit to call me the director of photography. I’ve worked with a few guys for many, many years now. We’ve done a lot of side projects, and it was just a natural extension of that. The reality is that we all did the work we would normally do, we just didn’t collaborate with a cinematographer. It was a challenge that I put to myself and the rest of these guys – Michael Bauman, Colin Anderson, Erik Brown and Jeff Kunkel. It was something that scared the hell out of us, but that was really, really good. You need those kinds of things, or at least I do, going into a film. I need to feel as though I’m walking a tightrope and challenging myself to do things. I’m really proud of us that we did it, actually.
We’ve been told that this is going to be the last film performance that we’ll ever see from Daniel Day-Lewis. Do you buy that, and what you can do to change that?
ANDERSON: I do buy it. Luckily, we’ve got a long line of DVDs and Blu-rays that we can all go back to and be happy that we have. What can I do about it? At the moment, nothing. Maybe when the smoke clears, I can talk him back into something. But at the moment, I think we’re all just going to have to grin and bear it. It is sad to think about ‘cause I still think there’s more left, but we should really just be so happy for what he’s given us. It’s amazing to think about. He’s been acting since he was a child, so it’s been a long and amazing career. As audiences who love movies, we should just be so happy that we were able to be in this time where we got to see Daniel Day-Lewis movies in the theater.
Since you’ve been making the rounds with Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig this awards’ season, what impression did you get from seeing their films?
ANDERSON: The first thing I think of, when I think of Guillermo’s film (The Shape of Water) is Sally Hawkins and her performance. I’ve felt, for so long, that there she was, right in front of our faces. I wondered who was going to be the person to grab her and put her where she needed to be, and the most memorable thing about that film is seeing her, front and center. I always get to see Chris’ films in the optimal setting, hot off the presses. I just remember thinking that, as many times as you’ve done this, there’s no greater pleasure than sitting in a movie theater now and saying, “How the fuck did he do that?!” That was every single moment [with Dunkirk], really. With Greta’s film (Lady Bird), I go right to Saoirse [Ronan]. You see this Irish actress be somebody from California, and more specifically from Sacramento, and you go, “How did she do that?!” That’s the best feeling, when you see a magic trick in front of you and all the things you know about being a director go away. And I got to see [Jordan Peele’s] movie (Get Out) in the middle of shooting, in winter in London, when I really needed a lifeline and I needed something to inspire me. I was cold and I didn’t think we were doing well, and I took myself to the movies on Sunday night. I was an enormous fan of everything he’d done in television, but the film inspired me so deeply and hugely. It was also a connection back to my country, as peculiar as that connection might be. It actually ironically made me homesick.