The Master director Paul Thomas Anderson was visibly irritated during a Toronto International Film Festival press conference over the weekend, when a reporter opened the proceedings by alluding to the "elephant in the room that also has lawyers": the Church of Scientology.
The controversial new drama, which screened in Toronto after premiering in Venice just over a week ago, centers around volatile, sex-obsessed Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the manipulative creator of a cult-like self-betterment movement known as the Cause. The two become enchanted with each other and embroiled in a battle of wills.
While it's a love/hate story – one that explores the need to find meaning in life in the aftermath of World War II – there's no mistaking the bigger-picture comparisons to Scientology and its late founder L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, first published in 1950.
Joined at the press conference by producer JoAnne Sellar and actress Amy Adams (who plays Dodd's wife, Peggy), Anderson sighed loudly when asked about the "impulse to deal with the idea of the development of a cult." He rubbed his eyes a few times and said, "Well, I just want to tell you that I don't consider that we're dealing with a cult."
The setting, in the years after the World War, is critical – "like food and drink to me," he said: "There's a mix of a tremendous amount of optimism but an incredibly large body count behind you. And how can you feel really great about being victorious about something with so much death around?"
The end of the war created a desire for people "to talk about things like past lives," Anderson explained. "They want to talk about what happens after you die. And those kind of ideas that the masters are putting forward is that time travel is possible, accessing things that have happened to you in other lives are possible.
"Those are great ideas, and they're hopeful ideas. They're stuff that was fascinating to me to write the story around."
In the film, the detractor John More (Christopher Evan Welch) actually uses the word "cult" in one scene. "Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion," the character says, not realizing the consequences of speaking out. "Otherwise, you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of a cult."
The Cause teachings have undeniable parallels to Scientology: talk of past lives going back trillions of years, reaching "a state of perfect," freeing oneself from past trauma, and claims that these methods can cure leukemia and other ills. In the film, Quell undergoes intense psychological exercises using harsh repetition, order and discipline.
Though Anderson also downplayed his film's connection to Scientology at a press conference in Italy earlier this month, he was not as dismissive. "I really don't know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now," he said then. "But I do know a lot about the beginning of the movement, and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters."