'Phantom Thread' Producer on the Benefits of Daniel Day-Lewis' "Meticulousness"
Veteran producer JoAnne Sellar, who's worked with helmer Paul Thomas Anderson for two decades, reveals what it took to make the actor into the eccentric dress designer Reynolds Woodcock and how the director become "looser" over the years.
JoAnne Sellar has been producing Paul Thomas Anderson’s films for the past 20 years, starting with Boogie Nights. She’s helped him make it rain frogs (Magnolia), blackmail Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love) and seduce audiences with a charismatic cult leader (The Master). The English producer previously worked with both Anderson and Phantom Thread star Daniel Day-Lewis on 2007’s There Will Be Blood, for which she earned her first Oscar nomination for best picture.
With Phantom Thread, she and fellow producers Anderson, Daniel Lupi and Megan Ellison helped Day-Lewis (in what the actor is calling his final film role) transform into Reynolds Woodcock, a temperamental dress designer who starts a complicated relationship with a new muse (played by Vicky Krieps). The film was a dark horse in the race, not opening until Christmas Day in the U.S., but it earned six nominations including best picture, acting nominations for Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville and a directing nom for Anderson. Sellar spoke about creating the ’50s-set home where Woodcock’s twisted relationship and anguished art unfold and how she and Anderson have grown over the years.
What was the biggest challenge for you making this movie?
Paul very much wanted to shoot it all on location. He’s not someone who likes to build sets. The main London house took quite an extensive period of time, in terms of shooting. It was quite challenging finding the London house, because in the middle of London, it’s really expensive. You’ve also got to find a house that’s not too modernized and updated, where you’ve got to kind of take everything back to pre-1950s. It took quite a long time to find somewhere that you could take over for a few months, and do it up to how we wanted it for the film, dress it, and then shoot in. It took five or six weeks. We had one in central London that we were, at the eleventh hour, kind of screwed over on the bill. But the one we did end up using was actually visually a better place to shoot, in terms of that amazing staircase.
Does Daniel Day-Lewis’ method acting cause challenges for you?
No, not additional challenges. I was with him on There Will Be Blood, so I had been through it once and understood his process. He’d worked with Paul for a year and a half or two years on the script. He is really involved in every aspect, from all the set dressing to, obviously on this, costumes, and even down to the locations. The beauty of Daniel was that he was born and grew up in England. Just for example, when you’re casting actors or actresses, hearing the right tone of accent, whether that person’s posh or working class — that is something that you just innately know as a person who grew up in England, where Paul wouldn’t know that necessarily. Even just the kind of place that Reynolds Woodcock would take Alma on her first date. So he was a huge asset, and his meticulousness, and the way that he gets so into character was a boon to this film. Once he’s really in character, there really isn’t much left to talk about, and he just gets on with being Reynolds. And then it’s just amazing to watch, watching him perform his art.
How difficult was it to find Vicky?
When Paul originally thought of this idea, he always thought the woman was going to be an immigrant in the story, so quite early on our casting director, Cassandra Kulukundis, was given the task of finding an unknown European or Eastern European actress. Paul watched Vicky in a film called The Chambermaid, which he really responded to. We did camera tests, and when Paul saw hers, he just flipped out, and showed it to Daniel, and they both thought she was amazing. They met with her pretty early on. They knew immediately they’d found her, and I remember them running in to me, like two giddy schoolboys, going, “We found her!”
How would you say Paul has grown as a director?
The main thing I’ve noticed over [the years] working with him since Boogie Nights is that, as the years have gone by, he’s become more confident as a director, and the more confidence that he had gained as a director, the looser he became in his approach to directing. Like, on Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he had every shot worked out in his head. Now, he’s very organic and fluid in his process. He does tons of preproduction, but it’s not like when you go on set there’s a shot list of what he wants that day. To me, that’s a sign of his confidence.
How have you changed as a producer?
I’ve had to loosen up as well. The way that Paul used to work, as a producer, was kind of easier. You have someone who knows exactly what shots they want, everything is really planned and nothing’s going to change. It’s obviously easier as a production person to work around that. But now that his method is more fluid and organic, I have to be on my toes, ready to do something like find a new location at the last minute.
What do you enjoy about the Oscars?
This time, I’m looking forward to being a lot more relaxed. The first time we’d been part of the whole lead-up to it, and I was just really burnt out. This time I’m going to enjoy it.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.