Postcard: Los Angeles, from James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 3:38pm

In the end, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master finished the awards season with an almost cursory nod, with just three Academy Award nominations (and zero wins) for its stars - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams - while its director was ignored. But then perhaps it's no surprise. With the roots of its story embedded in the Church of Scientology, specifically its founder L. Ron Hubbard, the film was never going to sit easily in Hollywood, where several A-list stars are known practitioners of the controversial religion.

"I knew we weren't making a film about Scientology and I knew it wasn't a Scientology movie," argues Anderson, the bearded 42-year-old whose previous credits include Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. "I'm not dumb, but I was probably a bit naïve not to expect a kind of [reaction] … it's a word that causes such curiosity in people. People's eyes light up and they get very interested in it. And so we got that thing put on us early on and it stuck."

Set primarily in 1950, the year Hubbard's seminal book Dianetics was published, the film casts Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, a self-styled writer, doctor and nuclear physicist who runs a self-help programme called "The Cause". The inspiration is clear. "Hubbard to me is one of those great characters," Anderson says. "Completely full of life and energy, he wrote countless books, and was obviously brimming with ideas and, I dare say, a lot of compassion. But I can't really speculate too much on him. Ultimately, it's just a starting point."

Indeed, rather than a Hubbard biopic, it's really the story of two men - the Master (Hoffman) and his follower, Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a volatile, restless naval veteran. With Anderson returning to the theme of fathers and sons, one that has dominated his work since Hard Eight, his 1996 first feature about a gambler and his prodigy, what emerges is a battle of wills between two souls. Truly, from its scratchy Jonny Greenwood score to its old-school 65mm cinematography, it's unlike any other American film of the past year.

I knew we weren't making a film about Scientology and I knew it wasn't a Scientology movie
Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master

Anderson was partly inspired by John Huston's 1946 documentary Let There Be Light, a US government-funded account of soldiers coping with trauma and depression. "We did talk a lot about second world war vets, people who were suffering from severe trauma because of war - that was a big thing," says Hoffman. "Why these movements like this were coming into being at that time in America - because of dealing with a lot of the people coming out of the war, and who was going to treat them."

Co-starring Adams as Dodd's wife Peggy, the film is notable for the return of Phoenix, after a four-year hiatus which saw him undertake his bizarre mock-doc I'm Still Here. Anderson has known him for years, and has tried to cast him more than once. "I think Phil [Hoffman] said, 'Joaquin would be great because he scares me.' And you know what he means." Take the scene where Freddie and the Master are arrested, and Phoenix unleashes a torrent of rage in his cell.

"It just happened," the actor shrugs. "I watched videos of wild animals that would end up in the streets, how you would chase them down and try to tranquilise them … so I just wanted him to be an animal that was being dragged in. I didn't plan on it; they just put me in there and that's what happened."

The film won both Hoffman and Phoenix a share of the best-actor prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, where Anderson also came away with the best-director award. But The Master has so far taken just US$26 million around the world. Overlooked at the Oscars too, it's destined to be as misunderstood as Anderson's dark romance Punch-Drunk Love. He's already working on his next project, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice set to star Phoenix. The master and pupil, back together again.

The Master opens on Thursday