Paul Thomas Anderson Talks Love, Death, and Control

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Paul Thomas Anderson came to fame as the bard of the San Fernando Valley, charting the sprawl just outside Los Angeles in his ensemble films Boogie Nights and Magnolia, so his latest directorial effort Phantom Thread is a departure in more ways than one. Set in 1950s London, the film explores Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned couturier whose desire to keep his life just so is aided by sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), his protector and enabler. Into this orderly world comes Alma (Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps), a young immigrant waitress who immediately intrigues Woodcock. The two fall into a relationship, but Alma is not content to simply play the role of supplicant, as so many of the women in Woodcock’s world have done: Over the course of this surprisingly funny and knowing film, the two jostle for power, attempt to dominate the other in untraditional ways, and eventually recognize what they’re doing as love.

I met Anderson last week in a Beverly Hills hotel room, where he was watching TV coverage of the devastating Southern California wildfires. (He later switched channels to Comedy Central, which was playing Workaholics.) The 47-year-old filmmaker lives a few miles away in the valley with actress Maya Rudolph and their four children, and many of Anderson’s films have been shot in California, including parts of There Will Be Blood, his first collaboration with Day-Lewis, and 2014’s Inherent Vice, which starred Joaquin Phoenix. Phantom Thread is a much more intimate and controlled film than his last effort, and Anderson told me that he relished leaving both his country and comfort zone behind to make it. The way he sees it, now is the time to make big moves, because the future may not provide as many chances to do so.

You always come up with great character names, from Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights to Freddie Quell in The Master. Tell me how you got to “Reynolds Woodcock.”
Well, the credit goes to Daniel. We were making each other laugh, texting each other back and forth like teenagers, trying to come up with names. I had a placeholder name: “Arthur Dapple, Jr.”

That’s not a bad name.
No, not bad.

But it’s no “Reynolds Woodcock.”
It’s no “Reynolds Woodcock!” It was lingering around but not quite right, and then the text from Daniel came through: “Reynolds Woodcock.” And on two simultaneous coasts, we both started laughing so deeply and so hard that I suddenly had tears pouring down my face. I thought, We can’t do that, right? Of course we can’t. But … we have to do that! I remember calling him, and he was laughing as much as I was, and I said, “We’ve got to do this. Let me write it into the script and we’ll live with it. We’ll try it on for size.”

Phantom Thread is the eighth movie you’ve directed. If I had told you about this film years ago — maybe after you’d made your third movie, Magnolia — what would have surprised you most about it?
Oh, let’s play this game. This is a good game. I would have said, “You mean I’ve worked with Daniel Day-Lewis twice?” I think that honestly would have been my reaction.

Were you intimidated by him at first? Or do you ever get intimidated by actors?
Quentin [Tarantino] has a great line about this: “I don’t get intimidated by good actors, I get intimidated by bad ones.” The translation is that great actors make you look good, and are obviously fantastic to watch and work with, but the challenge a director can face if the actor isn’t meeting expectations … well, that’s difficult on everybody. It’s difficult on the actors; it’s difficult on the crew; it’s difficult most of all because you think, Oh, shit, now I have to be a director and figure out what to say. I have had unfortunate situations that happen where an actor gets really nervous, often when they just come in for a day. Those are really hard to deal with, trying to calm someone down. Saying “Calm down” to somebody is like saying “Don’t think of a hippopotamus.”

Tell me about your first meeting with Daniel. You hadn’t known him prior to There Will Be Blood, right?
Right. I went to his house in New York, sat down, and had some tea. We talked for about two, three, four hours, then again the next day, and the next day, and never stopped doing it.

Did you come into it with a lot of preconceived notions about him?
You always do, don’t you, if you’re meeting an actor? But I knew I wasn’t going to meet Bill the Butcher. I knew I wasn’t going to meet Christy Brown. I was meeting a human being who puts one leg in front of the other. [Pause.] You know what? I do remember being nervous. I’m sure I was actually very nervous, to go back to your question. Do I get intimidated? Yeah. But we got on so fast. It happened really quickly, and that spark of romance was clear between us.

People are surprised to see that he has tattoos, because they think of him as someone who plunges so deeply into character. They’re not aware of who the real Daniel might be.
Lucky for us, isn’t it? I think it helps us enjoy these performances he gives so much more. It only adds to our enjoyment, that ability to suspend disbelief and sit for two hours in a dark theater watching him. That excitement you feel: “He’s acting again!” I remember Lincoln coming out and I was so fucking excited. I didn’t see a trace of the person I know.

Not a trace?
I mean, he was roughly the same height. Similar eyes, it seemed to me. But then again, that’s Abraham Lincoln! I don’t know how it happens, it’s fucking mysterious. Don’t start digging around to find answers about how he does it. Some people can do it; some people can’t. It’s a weird, weird thing.

You’ve said that after Inherent Vice, you were looking to do a high-class movie with a lot of finery. To what extent are your movies a reaction to the last movie you made?
I think they are, and you know very quickly if it’s a knee-jerk reaction. I definitely have that impulse, but I wonder, too, if it has something to do with the ticking clock in the corner of the room. How many more films do I have left to make? Time’s running out. I had a desire to make a film in England, and an appreciation for couture and those gowns and that kind of world, and the genre of Gothic romance that was so appealing to me, too. And I’ll name-drop: Chris Rock once said to me, “Man, when are you gonna make a relationship movie?” I was like, “Hmm, that’s a good one.” If Chris Rock gives you a piece of advice, you should run with it.

I feel like you’ve definitely made relationship movies before, though.
I would think so, too, but I think this one certainly tries to tackle what it means to be in a relationship. What it means to be in the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat, and how you can delicately exchange those roles. That was a pointed thing that didn’t feel like something I’d done before.

That’s the fascinating thing about the relationship with Reynolds and Alma, that shifting of power dynamics. Even when Alma appears to be the subordinate, she is dominating him in her own way, and I don’t often see that dynamic onscreen.
Because it’s not particularly cinematic. It has to be slow-moving, you know? It can’t have sharp corners, because that is the way it would move in a relationship: It would be generally invisible, kind of like a fog as it rolls in and the roles start to move and change.

I’ve heard that one of the key inspirations for Phantom Thread came when you got sick. You were in bed, and your wife looked at you with such sudden tenderness, now that you had been brought low and she was in charge. 
It’s a slight exaggeration, but not too far from the truth, and a helpful way for me to remember one of the beginnings of the idea. But it also is about just what it means to slow down. Do you ever have trouble slowing down?

There’s a certain level of busy that I like to keep myself at, and if I’m not at that level, something feels off.
In this day and age, it becomes magnificently difficult to stop yourself and slam on the brakes. The idea that you can only slow down if some sort of illness takes over you is so relatable to me.

It used to be that when I was too overscheduled, I would fantasize about getting hit by a car, so I could wipe all of my obligations clean.
Exactly! Yes, you see. And these fires are a perfect example: Our family is focused on getting the kids out to school every day, always moving, moving, moving, and it took this horrible thing to happen to stop us and slow us down. It’s exactly what you said; it’s some sort of bizarre wish: Won’t somebody or something come along to slow me down? It’s funny, isn’t it? What idiots are we that we need cars to hit us or some act of God to do that for us? We’re really incapable of pumping the brakes ourselves.

We don’t know if our habits continue because we really still want them, or because they’re simply habitual.
Mmm-hmm.

And now I’m describing Reynolds Woodcock.
I’ve never been able to quite figure out whether he has a voice inside his head that wants somebody to slow him down. Does he wish somebody would come along and flip the needle on this record, so he can get out of this groove, or is he perfectly happy to be in that same groove over and over again?

Can’t it be both?
It must be.

I think it must. And as much as he protests, I think he appreciates that Alma can go toe to toe and sometimes even best him. Could you sense that Vicky Krieps had the fortitude to do that with Daniel Day-Lewis when you first met her?
I did, I have to say, but that doesn’t mean much. You can feel that and then somebody doesn’t [deliver], and perhaps that was a false impression. The challenges of actually getting into the ring and having to do this for 60 days toe to toe with Daniel might have worn on her, but even if it did, she didn’t show it. God, she’s so strong, that Vicky. And she had to take it, a lot. The dynamics of that relationship meant that there were days and days of standing and being on the back foot and dutifully keeping her mouth shut. There’s a great line that she has, and I like the way she says it so much: “I can stand endlessly. No one can stand as long as I can.” And it’s that great thing of somebody essentially saying, “I will not lose.” There’s nothing more thrilling to me.

Do you like it when powerful women go toe to toe with you?
Who doesn’t? I’ve always dreamed that Myrna Loy is gonna come walking in the room and smack me across the face. [Laughs.] That’s my secret fantasy.

Paul Thomas Anderson directing Phantom Thread. Photo: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features LLC.

As you grow older, do you become more or less controlling as a filmmaker?
I would say less, and I’m sure that everybody who works with me would roll their eyes. Or maybe I’ve just gotten sneakier at portraying my controlling nature! But I don’t want to have control over what the performances are, I really don’t. I want to have control over the situation that enables the performers to be free and do their thing. I don’t ever want to tell somebody how to chew gum or grab a teapot. So hopefully there’s a balance, where you can control it enough for there to be a looseness and a discovery, because that’s where great shit can happen and accidents come your way. It takes a lot of really annoying, psychotic, control-freak shit to get it there, but it’s fun to take your work seriously, you know?

There’s a scene in Phantom Thread where Woodcock’s dress is so abused and misunderstood by a client that he and Alma launch a campaign to steal the garment back. It reminded me of the struggle on your first film, Hard Eight, where the production company took the footage from you and essentially tried to make their own bastardized version.
A very good friend of mine said that to me the other day as well, and I had not in any way consciously thought of that. I certainly see those parallels, and I certainly have those feelings of pride and ego and protection about something I’ve made, where you want to see it go out into the world and be treated properly. You can be an artist while you’re making these things, but once they leave that showroom, they’re not yours anymore. That’s where the designer Charles James came into it: I thought about how obsessive he would be, that he would get garments back and then continue working on them.

And the impression of [Cristóbal] Balenciaga was that everything was exactly how the master wanted it, unchangeable, but what you come to find out is that behind the scenes, they were allowing compromises. A rich Dallas heiress would come and say, “I want red piping instead of green,” and they’d whisper to her, “Just don’t tell anyone.” They’d have to do those things just for the survival of the house. That was shocking to me! But it’s what kept the business afloat.

It’s that eternal battle between art and commerce. You don’t work inside the studio system, per se, but you surely understand the challenge of making something that is both idiosyncratic and accessible.
I hope people go see this film. I don’t think it’s idiosyncratic.

You don’t think so?
I don’t, no. I think it might be peculiar, but I don’t think it’s more or less idiosyncratic than most movies.

I don’t say it as a bad thing. I think, right now, people want idiosyncratic.
I just worry that word might equal “annoying.” [Laughs.] There’s a good version of idiosyncratic that means “not the same old shit,” so that’s good. Then again, I don’t know. You’re probably asking the wrong person, because it all seems perfectly normal to me. I know that it’s not, but … I hope people go for it. I really do.

Phantom Thread feels very of a piece with two other films this year, The Beguiled and Mother! Like the former, women compare notes and eventually assert power over the man who would control them, and like the latter, the story is a cautionary tale about dating a creator.
I have not seen either one of them yet, but then again, I haven’t seen anything. This is the curse of making and editing a film: Over those few years, you don’t see anything. But I’ll get to both of them. The Beguiled … what a great cast in that movie. Taking nothing away from the other women, but Elle Fanning? You’ve got my money. And Kirsten Dunst as well.

Kirsten Dunst is incredible in The Beguiled. The way she suffuses her whole body with sadness …
She can do no wrong in my eyes. The last great, great thing she did — I mean, great, great — was Melancholia, so I’m anxious to see The Beguiled, and I’m anxious to see Mother!, which everyone has an opinion about, so I’ve got to get one, too. But Lady Bird is at the top of my list. Call Me by Your Name, of course. I still haven’t seen Blade Runner [2049], I didn’t even see It, but like everybody else on the planet, I really only care about Star Wars. I’m going to the premiere [of The Last Jedi], and it’s my first premiere in a million years. I can’t wait.

If your films really are a reaction to the last one you made, I can’t help but wonder what direction Phantom Thread will send you in, now that you’ve got free time again.
Probably somewhere back home. I’d love to come back to the West Coast. I have an idea that has wide-open spaces, which would be really fun to do.

Especially after shooting in those narrow British townhouses with creaking floorboards?
Exactly right. Give me a pop-up tent in Chatsworth. [Laughs.]

You mentioned becoming aware that you have a finite amount of movies left in your career. That’s something Tarantino talks about a lot, and Luca Guadagnino recently pondered it when I spoke to him. He wants to make several sequels to Call Me by Your Name, but he’s 46 right now and doesn’t know how many movies he’ll be able to get to.
That sounds all too familiar to me. It would be hard for me to look back and say exactly when that dawned on me, but I certainly never had that thought at all when I was 26 and made Boogie Nights. I was like, “This will never end, right?” But I have four children now. It’s different.

Kids will put things in perspective for you.
Fuckin’ A, right? But I can’t live without doing this, both emotionally and financially. I can’t do anything else, and I feel put here to do it, so I’ll just keep doing it. There’s a horrible thing I heard many years ago, that the average life expectancy of a DGA member is something like 57 years old! I think the median must have been brought down by assistant directors who’ve been terrorized, who chain-smoke and have heart attacks, but that said …

You also take a few years to get your narrative films off the ground.
Well, you won’t hear me crying about it because I love this work, but you’ve got to pace yourself. I’ve got no interest in burning out.

So do you think you’ll be like Robert Altman, making films until you die?
I would imagine so. I hope so! That sounds fine to me.

Love and Control: Paul Thomas Anderson on Phantom Thread