VENICE, Italy – Director Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledges that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was the inspiration for the title character in "The Master," but says the focus of the film is the relationship between a charismatic spiritual leader and his troubled follower, not the movement itself.
The movie, set in the 1950s, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic cult leader who captivates a tortured but sympathetic World War II veteran portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix.
"The narrative is just driven by these two guys, and their love for each other," Anderson told a news conference on Saturday ahead of the highly anticipated film's world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
Anderson sought to quickly dispel any speculation about the film's influence on his friendship with Tom Cruise, who starred in Anderson's 1999 film "Magnolia" and whose Scientology beliefs are well-documented.
"We are still friends. I showed him the film, and the rest is between us," Anderson said.
Anderson said the fact that Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd, was inspired by Hubbard "is not an elephant in the room."
"I really don't know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now," he said. "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."
Phoenix's character, Freddie Quell, is completely unhinged, unable to keep a job, drinking anything that will give him a buzz, including liquid siphoned from a ship's missile, and displaying a wide range of inappropriate behaviors throughout his journey in Dodd's entourage.
Phoenix, appearing in his first movie in several years, himself displayed some mildly erratic behavior during the news conference, fidgeting, lighting up several cigarettes and leaving the dais to go back stage at one point for two minutes.
Hoffman, Phoenix's costar, on one side and Anderson on the other tried to ignore the antics.
Phoenix responded to just one question, about how he approached the character, appeared impervious to the others, and he drew boos from news photographers when he cut his photo call off after just 14 seconds.
"I'll just say, I'll say I don't think, maybe Paul gives, or gave me, the impression I had leeway. But I don't think I ever did," Phoenix said. "I don't know where it comes from and I don't care."
Whether or not the aloof demeanor was sincere or an act was impossible to tell. But Phoenix's appearance in a documentary by his brother-in-law, actor Casey Affleck, premiered in Venice in 2010, about Phoenix's seemingly downward spiral caused many to speculate whether the whole thing was a publicity stunt.
In Phoenix's return to film, the first glimpse of the depth of Quell's troubles comes on R&R in Hawaii in the waning days of the war.
He builds an erotic sand sculpture of a naked woman on a beach crowded with sailors. As they inspect his work, Quell mimics sexual acts with the sand figure that go on for just a few seconds longer than is really funny. That the antics are a cover for a painful loneliness comes through minutes later when he lays down next to a carefully sculpted figure, head nestled near the breasts, offering an unreturned embrace.
After the war, he can't keep a job and kills, or nearly kills, a migrant worker with the poisonous swill he distills. The former sailor seeks drunken refuge on a ship that is carrying Dodd, his family and followers from California to New York via the Panama Canal.
As the two grow closer, Dodd's wife, played by Amy Adams, begins to worry about Quell's true intentions and if his destructive behavior will endanger their movement. But Dodd won't give up his protege.
Hoffman said the two characters are more similar than they appear.
"They're both wild beasts I think ultimately. One of them has just tamed it somehow and he's trying to teach other people how to do that, but ultimately that's where the doubt and the whole reluctant prophet thing comes in," Hoffman said. "Ultimately he wants to be wild like Freddie is, so there's this real attraction there over that. "
Hoffman said he can relate to the desire to act without reservation, asking: "Why can't I just run naked through the streets of Venice?"
"Why can't I just do that and have it be OK, you know. Is it possible that I could just have sex with everyone I see today?' No, it can't. But I wish that was possible, so I think I'm going to go find my master and he'll teach me how not to do that."