Paul Thomas Anderson opens up about Phantom Thread for the first time
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The last time Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis made a movie together, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, it earned the actor his second Oscar, scored the director three nominations, and was later called the best movie of the new century by the The New York Times.
“I suppose there’s always the risk of trying to do it again,” Anderson says. “But it seemed crazy not to take the opportunity.”
A decade after Blood, the duo have reteamed for Phantom Thread (out Dec. 25), the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a bachelor and single-minded couturier in 1950s London, who discovers a lover, muse, and obsession in Alma (Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps). The third spoke of the wheel is Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville), Reynolds’ sister and the woman keeping the whole operation afloat.
For our Holiday Movie Preview, EW spoke with Anderson about his second collaboration with Day-Lewis, which also included some shared work on the script.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The movie was only recently officially titled. Were you going back and forth a lot on Phantom Thread?
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: “Going back and forth” would imply that there was actually another idea. It’s funny, this day and age, it’s really hard to do anything. Phantom Thread was a terrific title, and it was an idea. It was the name of the production company, and it really did seem to fit and work. But we were kind of wondering if there was something else that would work as well. I wish I could say it was more strategic and mysterious, but it was just a case of wishy-washiness and waiting to see how things ended up. I swear.
Was skipping the festival circuit a choice, or was it just how things shook out?
No, God no. No, it was not a choice. This was the first film in a while that we finished and not had leisurely editing period on. We finished shooting in April. We’ll be finishing the film right at the finish line to its release, so there was no opportunity to go somewhere we might normally go, like New York or Venice or Toronto, all that kind of stuff. The film, quite simply, is not done.
How long have you been toying with this idea?
It’s very new. It’s a new idea, really within the past few years. Some of the previous films I’ve made have been ideas that have been lingering around for a while in one form or another. I generally didn’t have that much knowledge or interest in the fashion world until I started finding out a little bit about a guy named Cristóbal Balenciaga. He led very monastic life, completely consumed with his work — sometimes at the expense of other things in his life. Our characters become something very different. Our story focuses on if you have a character like that, what would it take to disrupt his life. Usually, it’s love that does that.
Knowing your work, I can’t imagine this being a traditional love story.
It’s not your standard love story. It’s more peculiar for sure. A lot of directors have tried and failed to make Rebecca. I’m probably next in line, but it’s a different story. I’m a large aficionado of those large Gothic romance movies as the old masters might do them. What I like about those kinds of love stories is that they’re very suspenseful. A good dollop of suspense with a love story is a nice combination.
What ideas were you trying to get at?
I had a story that was in search of characters, which is rare for me. I needed a man for this story. I needed a woman and another woman. It was good for the story for the man to be very strong-willed, stubborn, set in his ways, slightly fascist, creative, that kind of thing. That’s good because then you’ve got something you need to crack and to figure out how to crack. I think many people would agree, just like they would about the Golden Age of Hollywood, that the peak time for couture was in the early-to-mid 1950s. There were so many beautiful dresses that were made that are still referenced and spoken about and admired. I love the idea on a pure style level being able to have that around your story. That was appealing. And to work with Daniel, it would be nice to have a story — it’s been a long time since he’s played an Englishman. The more I saw the pictures of this era, it was just so much contagious. It was real syrupy, to get into that. It’s really easy to look good. I just made a movie with all of these dirty hippies with facial hair and stuff. It’s like, “Oh, god. Let’s do something with fancy people.”
Was reteaming with Daniel Day-Lewis something you’ve planned for a while?
It came about at my suggestion because I thought we did it well together, and we loved what we did before. I suppose there’s always the risk of trying to do it again, but it seemed crazy not to take the opportunity. I was actively pursuing that, saying, “We have to do this. We have to get back together and make a film.” I couldn’t quite tell you which came first. If you’re hoping for something, you can start to will it into existence. He was receptive to it, so that was a good start. Then the process of writing it was really the two of us together, quite honestly. I’d give him things as I was writing. Rather than go away and write a script and try to impress him, I was collaborating with him each step of the way as I was going, which was very helpful in terms of forming the story and the character. But also, it was incredibly practical for time [purposes] because it gave him time to prepare whatever he was going to have to learn how to do to play a dressmaker. It would not have been practical to write a script alone in my room and then hand it to him and say, “Oh, now we have to get started.” That seems crazy.
Did you discuss his plans to retire during the filming?
No, it was never discussed. I think he’s been saying that he’s wanted to do it for a long time. I do remember him telling me that he really thought about retiring after I think it was The Boxer. Hopefully, it’s something that he’ll reconsider. In the meantime, he’s left it all out on the field, I like to think.
Was a part of you afraid that you broke Daniel Day-Lewis?
[laugh] No, no.
There’s a lot of excitement among your fans that you’re serving as your own director of photography on this.
I should really clarify that. That would be disingenuous and just plain wrong to say that I was the director of photography on the film. The situation was that I work with a group of guys on the last few films and smaller side projects. Basically, in England, we were able to sort of work without an official director of photography. The people I would normally work with were unavailable, and it just became a situation where we collaborated — really in the best sense of the word — as a team. I know how to point the camera in a good direction, and I know a few things. But I’m not a director of photography.
Is there no credit on the film?
No, there is no credit on the film. If you can give credit, Michael Bauman is the gaffer that I’ve worked with for many, many years on a lot of projects. I could veto Mike, I guess, but he held a lot of the keys. There was a camera operator, Colin Anderson, I’ve worked with, and Erik Brown, who was the first assistant cameraman and Jeff Kunkel, who was a grip. It was a real package like that. It was a really easy way of working. You have to be very, very careful because there are way too many good cinematographers that I would not put myself in that class for a second.
You made movies exclusively in the United States, most of which focus on California. Did storytelling outside of that framework change things for you?
I haven’t thought deeply enough about that yet. The way that I’ve thought about it is more on a practical level. Getting over there and shooting, you realize very quickly that there’s a camera and some lights and some people who want to make a movie and it’s kind of the same everywhere. It was kind of exciting. In terms of the story, I was supremely aware that I am a Californian. In some circles, I would have no business writing dialogue for English people in the 1950s, but what I had was a Daniel Day-Lewis, who could make sure that I didn’t sound like a valley boy, which really helps.