Is Paul Thomas Anderson Planning on Facing Off With the Church of Scientology?

The Master, the in-production new movie from Paul Thomas Anderson, would be massively anticipated even if it were about, say, the behind-the-scenes story of the taping of a particularly contentious episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos. (Anderson’s last movie came out five long years ago, and it was instant classic There Will Be Blood, and also, come on, PTA doesn’t miss.) But seeing as The Master is a shrouded-in-secrecy Scientology project starring Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Joaquin Phoenix, in his first major role since his fake meltdown — well, you can expect fever pitch.

And here’s the most pressing question right now: Is PTA ready and willing to face off against the (allegedly! allegedly!) shadowy, powerful, manipulative, well-funded, and vindictive Church of Scientology? Did he have the stones, or the desire, to make The Master directly about the Church? Anderson himself isn’t talking, so the New York Times went around him, took a look at the information already available on the movie, and delivered a verdict:

The second story is that of Lancaster Dodd, who is eerily referred to in a screenplay Mr. Anderson initially wrote for Universal Pictures only as “The Master” or “Master of Ceremonies.” Played by Mr. Hoffman, he is the red-haired, round-faced, charismatic founder of that most Californian of phenomena, a psychologically sophisticated, and manipulative, cult.

Dodd was inspired by — though not entirely modeled on — Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard. …

In a version of the script that circulated as Mr. Anderson sought financing, Lancaster Dodd is described as being in his mid-40s; Hubbard was in his early 40s during the matching years. Both share a love of boats, and a near-paranoid suspicion of the American Medical Association. Hubbard’s followers hope to become “clear”; the Master’s followers work toward “optimum.” Psychological exploration by and with either involves ruthless interrogation. Both wrote their ultimate secrets in a book that is said to kill its readers or drive them mad. They are obsessed with motorcycles. Their tantrums are monumental. Each has a wife named Mary Sue.

So, OK, this movie is not about Scientology in the least “not about Scientology” way possible, even if Hoffman was once quoted thusly: “Trust me, it’s not about Scientology.” Which means the rumors and conspiracy theories will keep on flying. For example: the Times makes the connection here between The Master and Jeremy Blake, an artist whose work was used in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and who later committed suicide alongside his girlfriend after “alleged harassment by Scientologists.” (An Anderson associate dismisses any Blake connection.) And Anderson did, of course, direct World’s Greatest Scientologist Tom Cruise to great acclaim in Magnolia, whatever that means for all of this.

If you’ve read The New Yorker’s epic account of Paul Haggis’s hectic defection from the sect, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that the Church of Scientology is not to be messed with. Which — by way of trying to make another great film, of course — seems to be exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson is doing. So, Paul, my dude: If you ever find yourself locked up in the hold of a Sea Org ship, call my cell and I will come get you.

Filed Under: Dianetical Exegesis, Movies, Paul Thomas anderson, The Master

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Amos Barshad has written for New York magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad