Phantom Thread’s Paul Thomas Anderson on Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement, the importance of Oscars and his fashion influences
Filmmaker insists he wouldn’t announce his own retirement, says Day-Lewis’ character in his new film is an amalgam of several fashion designers, and welcomes Academy Award nominations because they extend a film’s run
If you were looking for a song that summed up Paul Thomas Anderson’s delicious new film Phantom Thread, the writer-director has a suggestion: Mickey & Sylvia’s 1956 hit Love Is Strange.
“I would go with that one,” the 47-year-old filmmaker says with a smile when we meet in London’s Soho Hotel in late January. All the best love stories, he says, are the ones where the roses have thorns on them.
“I think it would be boring to make a movie saying ‘love is great’.” He pauses for a second. “Boring.”
Anderson isn’t known for treading conventional paths. His subjects are frequently epic (the California oil boom in There Will Be Blood; the birth of Scientology, or something like it, in The Master).
His ambitions are big (adapting the fiendish Thomas Pynchon for Inherent Vice). And his daring is without question; just look at his 1999 Robert Altman-inspired ensemble Magnolia, casting Tom Cruise as a sex guru and concluding with a biblical plague of frogs.
In the case of Phantom Thread, his eighth film but his first shot outside America, Anderson has created a work far removed from the rest of his oeuvre.
Indeed, the only film that comes close is 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, another tale of peculiar affections starring that most unlikely of screen couples, Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. Here, Anderson has the great Daniel Day-Lewis, his star from There Will Be Blood, and Luxembourg-raised newcomer Vicky Krieps.
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Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, the elite fashion designer who runs House of Woodcock with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). An artist who dresses royalty and socialites, his rarefied existence is punctured when he falls for Krieps’ Alma, a German immigrant waitress he meets in a seaside hotel – where, endearingly, he orders everything off the menu to gain her attention.
But, tormented by his late mother, “who has clearly done a number on his head”, says Anderson, their ensuing relationship oscillates between caring and coldness. “These women that come into his life, it’s complicated.”
Anderson worked “every day” for a year with Day-Lewis to hone the character. “It’s obviously quite difficult for him to have a relationship that isn’t combative, that isn’t somehow fighting against this coddled upbringing.
“He’s obviously looking for a fight, but at the same time, he’s rewarded every single day with women who revere him, those he’s dressing and making feel perfect and beautiful, so he’s … a f**king mess!”
Beyond this, Phantom Thread offers an indelible portrait of the fashion industry as it once was. Set in London, where Reynolds and Cyril’s exquisite Georgian town house is both their living quarters and the hub of their fashion empire, it’s light years away from the multimillion-dollar global designers that now dominate the landscape.
According to Anderson, Reynolds’ inspirations are manifold, with the director taking, magpie-like, from famous designers of old. Names like Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell, Charles James all crop up. “The list is long that we stole from.”
Anderson is reluctant to pinpoint any one particular figure, despite many pointing to Cristóbal Balenciaga, the revered Spanish designer.
“As many similarities as there are, there are vast differences,” says Anderson. “If I was Balenciaga’s child, I’d be like, ‘Hang on a minute, Reynolds Woodcock is a d*ck, and Balenciaga was not.’ From what I understand, Balenciaga was not a mean person. He was very demanding and he was all about the work.”
When it comes to the immaculately groomed Reynolds Woodcock, “there’s a bit of decay on the inside”.
Among its many pleasures, Phantom Thread offers a wonderful score from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who has composed for Anderson on every film since There Will Be Blood.
It’s almost unrecognisable from his work with the band, I say. Anderson disagrees. “It’s pushing to something new but it does feel like an extension of him. Maybe there’s a bit more romanticism than you might hear in Radiohead songs, but he’s one of five people in that and this is just him and me. They should give him every award that isn’t locked down.”
In fact, Greenwood gained the first Oscar nomination of his career for Phantom Thread; it was one of six Academy Award nominations the film earned, including for best picture. In the end, it earned one Oscar, for Mark Bridges’ costume design.
Anderson, who has himself been nominated eight times for Oscars and never won, still believes it’s vital to be part of the awards race.
“If we hadn’t had this, we maybe would have two more weeks in cinemas [in the States]. Maybe three. But now, we will be in cinemas for two more months! There’s nothing wrong with that and that keeps you out of the TV boxes and the phones just a little bit longer, and that for me is an amazing thing.”
Does he campaign, going to all the lunches and functions? “You do the things they ask you to do, within reason,” he shrugs, “without dropping a certain amount of self-respect.”
Another of Phantom Thread’s Oscar nominees is Day-Lewis, who was up for best actor. The Irish star won the second of his record-breaking three Academy Awards for playing the taciturn oil baron Daniel Plainview in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
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But now it’s all over: during production, Day-Lewis announced that Phantom Thread would be his last film, which heaped undue pressure onto it. Does the director believe his star?
“Well, I do believe him. I believe him more and more every day,” Anderson says.
Would he ever give warning that a future film would be his last? He pauses. “I don’t think I’d announce my retirement,” he says eventually.
What did he make of Quentin Tarantino’s claim that he will only make 10 films? “How many does he have left then?” he asks. Two more. “Well, that’s b******t! No way. The next one will be his ninth? Do people say things like that? Why do people say things like that?”
Steven Soderbergh’s “retirement” from filmmaking, only to return, leads Anderson to say: “Yeah, what was all that about?”
Free of such media-fuelled egotism, Anderson, who has four children with actress Maya Rudolph, would clearly rather just slip away quietly. Even now, he feels uncomfortable in the spotlight, on the promotional carousel.
“You have to let people know your film exists, because there are so many films. But what ends up happening … you feel like an impostor. I need to get back to my job.”
He has scripts to write, and stories and characters to create. Even without Daniel Day-Lewis by his side.
Phantom Thread opens on March 8
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