You started hearing rumors and half-whispered, cryptic comments last year: Paul Thomas Anderson is working on a new film; it has something to do with the London fashion world in the 1950s, maybe; it will reunite him with his There Will Be Blood star Daniel Day-Lewis, potentially; it’s loosely based off the life of either Charles James or Cristobal Balenciaga, possibly; the actor could be studying how to be a real-life tailor for the part, we think. Even the name was a bit of a question mark – it might be called Phantom Thread? But don’t hold us to that?
Production was soon underway, with everything very hush-hush until, last June, Day-Lewis announced that he’d be retiring from acting after the film wrapped. A trailer dropped in October, which seemed to a) confirm that Phantom Thread was indeed the title and b) pose more questions than it offered answers. Then, finally, Anderson & Co. started showing the movie to people in late November. And if you listened very, very closely, you could hear the sound of hundreds of critics hastily revising their year-end best-of lists.
The fact that the 47-year-old writer-director – easily one of the most engaging, eclectic, elliptical and downright extraordinary filmmakers working today – delivered a movie that immediately sparked a massive amount of conversation was not surprising. Neither, for that matter, was the fact that Day-Lewis brings his customary sense of immersion and rigor to that part of Reynolds Woodcock, a couture bigwig who runs a fashion house with his strict sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Or that, having either discovered or helped elevate performers ranging from Philip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights) to Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), that Anderson would once again strike gold by casting Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps as Woodcock’s obscure object of affection, a waitress-turned-model named Alma.
But the idea that Phantom Thread also turns its tale of a workaholic designer into a skewed, swooning, satisfying take on relationships, power dynamics, partnerships, art, muses, labor, life and love – in essence, a warped take on the notion that romance-wise, there’s a lid for every pot – well, even with Anderson’s track record, that was still a bit of a shock. A few weeks before this gorgeous throwback opens on December 25th, the filmmaker sat down with us and laid it all out – from how a single glance inspired this story of obsession to how he felt once his leading man decided that he was ready to call it a day.
You’ve said that the conception for this really started when you were sick one day in bed – how did you go from that to a romance between a fashion designer and his model?
[Laughs] I think that’s a long leap between a lot of stones!
Walk us through this.
So yes, I was sick and my wife [actress Maya Rudolph] was taking care of me. And my imagination just took over at some point, where I had this thought: “Oh, she is looking at me with such care and tenderness … wouldn’t it suit her to keep me sick in this state?” I don’t know a lot about that disorder, Munchausen [symdrome] by proxy – that’s too hot for me to handle. But that moment was enough to … it gave me an idea that such a thing could be served up with some spark of mischievousness and humor that might, in a larger picture, lend itself to what it means to be in a long-term relationship, you know. And the balance of power that can happen in that. Not just in a creative relationship either – how men and women interact isn’t exclusive to an artist and his muse or shit like that.
It’s not just “Pygmalion bites back.”
Right, yeah! And in a movie way … I love Hitchcock’s Rebecca so much, but I watch it and about halfway through, I always find myself wishing that Joan Fontaine would just say, “Right, I have had enough of your shit. I think I have had more than my fair share of your bullshit, so let me just get the fuck out of here.” [Laughs] And yet poor Joan has to keep putting up with it.
The question becomes: Why is she staying with this guy? Because she loves him and they are connected in some profound way. That idea intrigued me. There’s an exchange in Phantom Thread that I keep going back to, where Reynolds says to Alma, “Is it because you think I don’t need you?” She says, “Yes.” He replies, “I don’t.” And you want to say, of course you don’t need her, you dummy, but that is besides the point. You have missed the point entirely.
So chicken-and-egg–wise, were you just looking for an idea because you and Daniel Day-Lewis were going to work on something, or was this more like: “I have this thing now, and you know who might be a good fit … ” ?
I’d certainly always wanted to work with Daniel again. But there was no rush to collaborate again, necessarily; it was always, hopefully a good idea will come and then will do it if we’re both available. Then suddenly, it was like, I have no good ideas here and I’d better concentrate and dream up something, because the clock feels like it’s ticking. Since Blood, I’d done two movies and he’d done two movies. The timing seemed right. “I’m not doing anything, you’re not doing anything, let’s make this happen!”
That’s how it works with you two?
I’m sort of the cheerleader with these kind of things. I know him well enough to know that he’d just kind of tinker away doing whatever he was doing unless I start cracking the whip. I had to be the instigator, which is good – I like that roll, like really sitting down and saying “Right this is how we are going to do it.” I had that premise, a lot of vaguely formed ideas, bits and pieces of dialogue and was trying to find a voice for a character that was kind of a bit shapeless. I just sort of poured my heart out and opened my notebooks to him. Like, here is where this is. I don’t know what shape it can take. [Laughs] And then begins the process.
How has watching Daniel’s process affected your creative process? Or has it affected it at all?
I mean, I suppose there are two sets to my process. Normally, the writing is done alone. But then to go and be a director, I am, thankfully, at the mercy of a collaboration. I follow the lead of an actor usually. In other words, you want to rehearse? Then let’s rehearse. You have no interest in rehearsing? Then we are not going to do that. I have no will to impose on them; I only want to kind of keep propping up what they need. And what Daniel’s process needs is actually kind of very similar to mine. It’s a long incubation period that’s usually accompanied by a lot of daydreaming, loads of reading and a lot of trying things on for size. Between those three things, you can fill up a year pretty easily.
How closely involved was he in the writing of Phantom Thread?
Elaborate, if you could.
I mean, the shaping of the story was predominately mine, but in terms of the dialogue … there are massive amounts of lines that are all him. Or I would write a first pass on something that was very kind of nuts-and-bolts, then he would write all these fantastic flourishes that could really only come from Reynolds’ tongue. He was very helpful with my tin ear for British dialogue. You know when you’re kind of telling a story to somebody, you’re actually test audience-ing on them. If I am telling you a story, I can see you are tense, or I can see your attention was wandering or you’re glazing over, or …
You can see they’re leaning in.
Exactly, so there was a lot of that with us. I’d talk to him about story ideas and I’d see his interest, or lack of it. If he was quiet, that was a bad review [laughs]. “Anything? Anything, Daniel?!? No? You know what, just don’t say anything. Let me stop you right there, I am just going to go back to the drawing board on this.”
At one of the film’s early screenings, he mentioned during a Q&A that the fashion-world aspects were almost secondary to everything else – that the movie could have been set in another arena entirely. So why did you choose that particular world to set this story in?
I think that the fashion world is inherently incredibly cinematic, you know. It means you’re going to have great costumes. [Pause] I think, from my point of view, the intricacies and intimacies of that work is fascinating, because I knew nothing about it. Doing things like taking measurements, which is very commonplace and boring for someone immersed in that world, I was enamored up of it in the way that a child would be enamored of something. So it became very cinematic to me, that way that someone would design a dress. It was like a Frankenstein’s-monster scene to me.
I mean, I have no romanticism when it comes to something like, say, writing – the idea of putting someone at a typewriter just seemed dull. So, we couldn’t make him a writer. The same goes with painting, as it’s really difficult to portray that moment of inspiration so it feels cinematic. You know [mimes staring at canvas], “Ah HA!” [Makes single, tiny brush stroke] It gets very old very quickly, and while a handful of people have done it pretty well, I just thought, No. But everyone wears clothes. I thought, that would work. And then I just dove in deep. Normally, when I throw myself into research for a film for several years, I amass all this stuff and then the film is over and, you know, done. My interest is gone. Now, I still check out Vogue online and see what people are up to. I still love it.
How did you find Vicky Krieps?
She was in this German film I’d seen called The Chambermaid – she has one of those faces that turns in about 45 directions at once. What I mean is, you look at her one way and she could not look more awkward; then she turns slightly and, suddenly, she looks stunningly beautiful. Then you her from a third angle and it’s like: “Does she love me or is she going to poison me?” [Laughs] You could believe she’d be serving tea in some shitty hotel on the coast and then could come sweeping downstairs in a gown. Plus her audition was great, and … I mean, look. We saw some really great actresses who, frankly, were quite beautiful and had them read for the part, but there was never someone who could tell the story of the film through their face the way she could. You know, “I love you and you are too dumb to see how much I love you and what I got to give you and I am not going anywhere until I make you realize it.” Vicky could give you that in a single look.
Let’s talk about the relationship between Cyril and Reynolds – how different was it on the page versus what we see onscreen?
You know what you can’t write? Just how comfortable those two are are sitting together in silence. You can give them dialogue that indicates just how close and co-dependent they are. But I think if you just filmed Daniel and Leslie, you would get a feeling of intimacy between them, just because of their natural comfort with each other. What we did – in hindsight very intelligently, I might add – was to get Leslie on board like nine months before. We sort of saw the horizon line and knew that, this is an actress that’s booked up. We want her to do this. We better ask her now.
The side benefit of that was that she had time to think about it, to get to talking about it with Daniel so they could cook up whatever delicious long-sorted history they can cook up. And with them, no way that doesn’t come to the table. She is one of the greatest actors I have ever worked with. I mean, just a fucking joy to watch. I had a front row seat and would be on-set, wide-eyed, everyday thinking, “Is she fucking putting me on? Is she really this good?” What’s that Bad Santa line? [Goes into angry Billy Bob Thornton voice] “Goddamit, are you fucking with me?” [Laughs] There was a lot of that.
It’d be a shame if the movie was eclipsed by the fact that Daniel announced he was retiring while you were still shooting the movie. What went through your head when he told you?
Um…[achingly long pause] I remember feeling very nervous that he was serious. I have been telling myself for many months now, “Let’s just push off thinking about this until later.” You know, “There is work to be done now.” And now I have to … [sighs]. I guess what that translates into is that deep down, I’m not really going to let him get away with it – if I can help it. I like to think he is, perhaps … I would like to hope that he just needs a break. But I don’t know. It sure doesn’t seem like it right now, which is a big drag for all of us.
He’s talked about it before. There’s a part of you that thinks, “Let him do what he wants, hasn’t he given us enough?”
But the answer to that is, no! No, it’s never fucking enough! [Laughs]
You’ve both mentioned experiencing a huge sense of sadness while you were making it …
He said that, I didn’t.
He said it. Do you think that contributed to his decision?
I don’t want to speak for him, but it’s a funny thing that you can ultimately have a film that is, I think, quite light on its feet and kind of absurd in ways – and the process of making it would be melancholy. Because there were many melancholy days. I think the accumulation of scenes where Reynolds had to be difficult and was hard on this woman who loved him, after a period of time was … I’ll put it to you this way: When you go to work five days in a row and you’re pressing your thumb down on Alma’s neck, it’s going to take a toll.
You dedicated the movie to Jonathan Demme, who passed away last April. What did his films mean to you?
Oh man, that’s a whole other interview. How long have you got? He was the first filmmaker who made me feel it was within reach. What I mean by that is: He didn’t, he didn’t over shazam it, but he put some spit on it too. So it’s cinematic but it’s grounded as well. I mean, Something Wild was just a gigantic turning point for me when I saw it: how loose you could be with the rulebook. You know, having people look into the camera, having three different songs play at one time, simply ending your film on Sister Carol looking into the lens and nodding and wagging her finger. I mean, that’s fucking amazing to me.
One other thing that I really like about his work is, everybody had a story in the frame. There was no bullshit background; no one was an accident. Look out the window right now. [Points to a passerby talking on his phone] That man right there walking by with his phone – Jonathan would have somebody playing that out. It was never somebody just walking right past. He cared about everybody.
He’s one of the great humanist filmmakers. He was like our Jean Renoir.
Yeah! Yeah, completely. Only Richard Linklater comes close to that. Even Jonathan’s darkest movies are hopeful. I take inspiration from that.
Would you say Phantom Thread is hopeful?
I think so. [Pause] I would say it’s more hopeful than The War of the Roses (1989).
That’s your barometer?!?
That’s my barometer for most films. Go watch it again. It’s a great gold standard for fucked-up relationship movies.