Venice 2012: Paul Thomas Anderson Says Tom Cruise Has Seen 'The Master' 'And We're Still Friends'

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master - film still

The film is greeted by raves and crowds as Joaquin Phoenix disappears from the press conference, and Philip Seymour Hoffman talks about sex in the city streets.

VENICE – Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master -- a fictional account Anderson said was “inspired” by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard -- created the biggest buzz yet at the Venice Film Festival, screening four times on Saturday to packed cinemas, including one where moviegoers started lining up 90 minutes before showtime, and forcing festival organizers to turn journalists away from an over-packed press conference.

The film, which is screening in competition in Venice, stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a kind of spiritual Master in the post-World War II period, and Joaquin Phoenix as a gruff, alcoholic drifter who becomes an off-again-on-again disciple of Hoffman’s character, while an unusual bond forms between the two men. Anderson, Hoffman, and Phoenix were all on hand for the press briefing, though the eccentric Phoenix did not answer any questions and disappeared for nearly half of the briefing.


Though Scientology is never mentioned by name in the film, Anderson did permit that it was “inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of Dianetics,” referring to Hubbard’s philosophy about the metaphysical relationship between a person’s mind and body. At one point during the briefing, Anderson was asked whether he had shown the film to actor Tom Cruise, probably the most high-profile adherent to Scientology, and whether the project had damaged the friendship between the two men. Anderson was coy.

“Yes, I have shown him the film, and yes, we are still friends,” Anderson said. “The rest is between me and Tom.”

Hoffman cast the film as a classic sub-sub-sub genre he described as “the age-old story of a man who needs guidance, finds a mentor, they become co-dependent, the man leaves, and the one who is actually hurt is the mentor.”

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Hoffman also said he saw the film as appealing to the nature of human existence. “We ask ourselves, ‘Why can’t we run through the streets of Venice naked, and eat and shit and have sex with everyone we see?’” he said. “But no, we can’t do that, and so sometimes we need a Master to help make sense of the world.”

The film created a buzz long before its screening in Venice, as it was named as the “surprise” 18th and final competition film at the 69th editon of the festival, officially named around two weeks after the rest of the lineup. The Master was connected to Venice as far back as a year ago, though there was some doubt whether it would still screen on the Lido after the December departure of artistic director Marco Mueller in favor of former Italian National Film Museum head Alberto Barbera. In the end, all the speculation swirling around whether or not the film would indeed come to Venice did little but heighten interest.

The Master attracted mostly positive reviews. The Hollywood Reporter chief film critic Todd McCarthy said the film was “overflowing with qualities but also brimming with puzzlements,” but in the end he called the film “a bold, challenging, brilliantly acted drama that is a must for serious audiences.”

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The Master will open in the U.S. after screening at the Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 21, a date moved up in recent days. Lucky Red, The Masters’ Italian distributor, on Saturday announced that despite the buzz surrounding the screening in Venice that it would not open in Italy until Jan. 11, 2013.

The premiere of The Master is the second in-competition film in as many days to explore religious themes in a controversial way, following Paradies: Glaube (Paradise: Faith), from Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. Seidl’s film, which explores the real-world manifestation of extreme religious faith, was called “scandalous” in the Italian press.

The Venice Festival continues through Sept. 8.