Let us reassure you. It’s very real.
However, due to one relatively incoherent review on the The Cinematic Experience of Forizzer (that’s since been cleaned up, but still wantonly rambles), and then the subsequent leaker (Forizzer), desperately trying to prove its authenticity on various message boards by posting pages from the script, it’s legitimacy has been called into question (the whole doth protest too much catch 22). Other skeptics taking a too-literal look at the initial trade reports, are also calling his review apocryphal because the script in question was dubbed the “Untitled Scientology Project” and the trades explicitly stated in the announcement that the film wasn’t about Scientology.
But let’s assure you, that’s a red herring. While “The Master” (as we’ll call it here for the purposes of this review) is perhaps not a out-and-out screed or attack on Scientology, not recognizing the strong, strong ties, allusions and specific references to that
cult religion is itself, is either blindness or ignorance (though to be fair, PTA zealots have nitpicked the hell out of Forrizer’s message board defense posts — though again a doth-protest-too-much defense will backfire).
We would be worried about spoilers and revealing too much if it weren’t for the fact that this version of “The Master” is a very, very early draft — there’s a litany of spelling errors and abbreviated scenes with “tbd” or “etc.” written in as placeholder for where more context and description will soon come.
However, so much is laid down, so much fleshed out, and all with that hurried pace that can be so compelling about Paul Thomas Anderson films. It careens a little in the beginning, wanting to establish a lot in a short amount of time (i.e. the opening of “Magnolia,” though not quite as lightning fast), but it’s clearly his voice and work. No other yokel out there can write a fake 124-page screenplay and be this precise or good.
As for the Scientology ties, they’ve been evidently brewing for quite some time now. You’ll remember in August 2008, PTA put on a top secret play at Largo that starred his wife, Maya Rudolph and her SNL c0-star Fred Armisen. The play centered on a series of vignettes and one in particular focused on a couple, “getting to know each other over a complicated personality test.” What many people didn’t realize at the time is that personality test questions were taken from what is known as the Oxford Capacity Analysis, a free personality test that is given by the Church of Scientology (and that’s been confirmed in the comments section here by someone actually in attendance at the Largo show).
While people have been ravenous for details and what the picture was exactly about, Variety spelled out the picture quite well when they first reported the story and said it, “explores the need to believe in a higher power, the choice of which to embrace, and the point at which a belief system graduates into a religion.” And that’s on the money with themes of sublimation of self, lack of identity and perverted ideas of solipsism.
Using their initial description, we’ll give you a modified synopsis:
“The Master” is the story of a charismatic intellectual (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952 called The Cause. The core dynamic centers on the relationship between The Master and Freddie Sutton, (would be absolutely perfect for Paul Dano) an aimless twenty-something drifter and alcoholic who eventually becomes the leader’s loyal lieutenant. As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.
Here’s your first clue. Scientology was founded in 1954. A significant chunk of the screenplay takes place on a boat so “The Master” is free to write his next cult tome (Book II, “The Dual Saber”) and not be distracted by the outside world and the criticisms that are constantly dogging The Cause. And similarly in in the late ’60s, L. Ron Hubbard also lived on a Panamanian ship for quite some time and allegedly up to four years. The references are myriad.
So “The Master” essentially starts when an aimless Freddie — an amateur moonshine alchemist who is on his way to drinking himself to an early death if he continues this way— stows away on a ship after a toxic mix of his brew accidentally blinds a Filipino migrant worker he is toiling away with on a farm. Fearing he has potentially killed the man, Freddie’s instincts are nothing but basic survival (another recurring theme in the screenplay) and aggressively drunk himself, he reaches for the first form of escape.
The ship however is the aforementioned vessel of the Master and the followers of The Cause including his wife Mary-Sue (also the name of of one of L. Ron Hubbard’s wives) and children, Norman Conrad, Elizabeth and the faith-wavering son Val (to further the connections, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. also condemned his father and the church in a 1983 Penthouse interview, though the Val character is nowhere near as traitorous).
Instantly discovered on the ship by the close-knit cult, Freddie’s drink is drugged and then he’s interrogated by the highly paranoid Master who wants to know who sent him to spy on their community: The AMA? The APA? The CIA? (This paranoia would not be unfounded by L. Ron Hubbard, in 1977, Scientology offices on both coasts were raided by the agency). This tête-à-tête is one of many excellent back-and-forth scenes between Master and Freddie. Run how we imagine a Scientology “audit” session is run — a sort of quasi psychotherapy stress test cum interrogation/ authoritative hypnosis via repetition session — the scene is a series of rapid-fire, bare bones question and answers.
Freddie, the skeptic, answers truthfully and reveals much in near grunts. The Master, establishes his dominance and genius and wields a bumbling, word-heavy, lyrical style of speaking. Anderson is so talented in building his characters through dialogue, giving them quirks of speech, misspelling words to emphasize accent. Here, Anderson, barely, if at all, writes action lines. It’s all dialogue and nothing else for a few pages (this may also be because of how early a draft this is).
Freddie reveals some personal darkness from his past and the Master — perhaps sensing guinea pig possibilities — gets hooked. After making sure as best he can that the young stow-way isn’t some spy or a thief after the renaissance man’s secret manuscripts (he calls himself a doctor, a writer, a philosopher, a poet, etc.), he welcomes Freddie into the fold, impressed by his blunt instinct, and talents for making tasty homemade liquor. And the Master — believing they had met in a previous life — takes a shine to his “scoundrel” ways. Cynical, bemused and completely weirded-out, Freddie is introduced to the ways of the Cause, the concepts of “time-holes,” the interrogation-like psychotherapy sessions and regression work that’s supposed to transport us back into our earliest memories of suffering in order to banish and own them (a very basic tenet of Scientology). “Shall a man be his master of his memories? Or shall his memories be the master?” Seymour Hoffman’s character posits at one point which is one key line in the screenplay.
For those that worry about spoilers that leads us up to about the end of the first act and many of these details would be in one of those detailed Apple trailer synopsis that are about three paragraphs deep.
Suffice to say, in what seems like a story that spans over a decade — though it’s tough to say exactly how long — Freddie graduates from a naive dilettante to a trusted right hand man who does the Master’s bidding and often uses intimidation tactics. The story, in a way, is the battle for Freddie’s soul which has been seduced by the dark charms of the master, but even that is far too simple a description to this layered, mysterious and at times very ambiguous tale.
The key to “The Master,” and what might make it a difficult sell, is not its story — in many ways like “There Will Be Blood” not a lot happens plot-wise, there are few “big” scenes — but its odd enigmatic tenor which are not unlike those moments in “There Will Be Blood” where mystery and purposeful uncertainty rule (think the sequences where we’re unsure whether Dano has a twin or not, or whether the man claiming he is Plainview’s brother is actually who he says he is). And again, like ‘Blood’ which used Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” as a starting off point,’ “The Master’ screenplay seems to use Scientology in the same manner; a launch pad to examine and explore cults and megalomania.
The tenebrous enigmatic story does have strange, noteworthy and twisted scenes of sex, incest, polygamy, adultery and wild flashes of rancor from the Master that Daniel Plainview himself would be proud of. PTA seems to have seized upon dark, spiritual forces at work in recent years and Messianic figures. From the plague of frogs in “Magnolia,” to the raging hubris of Daniel Plainview and The Master, he is clearing exploring spiritual themes and men with a God complex. One hypnosis-like scene where a woman regresses to a pre-natal time when she is back in the womb and remembers her father having sex with her mother is particularly creepy and striking.
Universal apparently won’t greenlight this approximately $35-million-dollar budgeted project until they read the script and you can see why. In many ways, it’s a film with a more twisted mien than “Doubt,” but just as low-ley and with small stakes. Then again ‘Blood’ had a similar vibe on the page, but boiled over into something much more operatic thanks to the eerie score and the volatile electricity of Daniel Day Lewis.
Still, Universal won’t be greenlighting this version, but it’s probable that no on was meant to see this draft yet. If intelligent dramas are being threatened with extinction of late (or at least at a certain budget), surely this could become a problem for PTA eventually. But more than just a chamber drama, the shadowy and cryptic elements of this story could be pushed in the marketing — in the manner ‘TWBB’ was — to suggest something otherworldly and not just simply a period piece about religion set in the ’50s.
What one comes away with during “The Master” is that PTA’s a damn confident writer. He has a great deal of faith in his audience to either get-it or at least hang on for a deeper-than-usual ride the gets stranger and odder as the film comes to its conclusion. There’s eloquence in the loopy metaphors of the master’s monologues. It’s like his determination to tell the story becomes part of the momentum or heartbeat of his films.
“You write who you are and what you know,” PTA told Moviemaker magazine in 2000. “But you also cheat and you write what you want to be. It’s a little embarrassing, sometimes, to be the guy that made the movie, knowing that I’m not exactly what I want to be.”
Need a little emotional and spiritual guidance in your life? “The Master” suggests that The Cause can help you help yourself. — [with additional script notes by Andrew Hart and graphics courtesy of M. Morrison]