In the anxious months leading up to the release of "The Master," there was little doubt the film had something, if not everything, to do with Scientology. Speculation (or was it hope?) that beloved director Paul Thomas Anderson was working on an exposé of the controversial, celebrity-friendly religion began shortly after the project was first reported in 2009 and hit a fever pitch in April 2012, when the New York Times published its preliminary findings -- without Anderson's cooperation -- about the highly secretive work-in-progress. The article pointed out parallels between Lancaster Dodd, the titular character of "The Master" who is the leader of "The Cause," and the late L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. These parallels include a physical resemblance between Hubbard and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Dodd in the film (and who has consistently denied it is about Scientology), the first name of both Dodd and Hubbard's wife (Mary Sue -- though she is called Peggy in the release), and similarities between Hubbard's seminal book, Dianetics, and Dodd's philosophical writings that underpin The Cause, which are rooted in the notion that humans can achieve perfection if we address prenatal and past-life traumas.
Later in the spring, reports surfaced -- since confirmed by Anderson himself -- that the director had arranged a private screening of the film for Tom Cruise, Scientology's most famous member, whose performance in Anderson's "Magnolia" is widely believed to be the best of his career. And speaking of Cruise, the film's release date was pushed up after the actor's surprise split from wife Katie Holmes thrust the bedeviled religion into the media spotlight.
As the limited theatrical release this weekend approached, following successful festival runs in Venice and Toronto, the studio and the talent distanced themselves and the project from the church. The word Scientology is conspicuously absent from the film's production notes, which were handed out at a New York City press screening (though the synopsis does list "Dianetics" among Anderson's references). Equally conspicuous is a pointed reminder in the notes that "The Master" is wholly fictional. While Anderson acknowledged at a Venice Film Festival press event that L. Ron Hubbard inspired the creation of Lancaster Dodd, he insisted that the film is about the relationships between the central characters, independent of the religion (or cult) in the background.
Elsewhere, journalists who dared to question the film's characters, plot and packaging provoke have run the risk of being dismissed as sensationalizing fiends. In an interview for the Wall Street Journal's "Speakeasy" column earlier this month, Hoffman did not hide his disdain for a reporter's repeated questions about what the actor agreed was the basis for some story in the film. When asked if he felt people were paying attention to Scientology's influence on "The Master" because of Cruise and Holmes' divorce, Hoffman shifted the blame instead to the media.
"It's because you guys are paying attention to it," the actor said. "To be honest it's because of you guys. If I did interviews and it didn't come up then it wouldn't come up. But it comes up because there's an appetite for it, from you guys."
At the New York City premiere of "The Master" on Tuesday, Amy Adams preempted any such tense exchanges: After answering a New York Observer reporter's question about whether she had read "Dianetics" (she has), the actress announced she was not talking anymore about Scientology.
A number of reviewers of "The Master," perhaps eager to further distinguish themselves from mouth-breathing gossipmongers whose interest in Scientology begins and ends with the bedroom (or massage parlor) shenanigans of its A-list adherents, have cautioned those eager for Scientology dirt to lower their expectations.
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy praised "The Master" as an extraordinary character study, adding, "one thing it is not is a dissection or exposé of Scientology."
The Times' A.O. Scott concurred. "Viewers of 'The Master' hoping for insight into the prehistory of Tom Cruise's love life will be disappointed," he wrote. "Hubbard's rise is the kernel of this film much in the way that the career of the early-20th-century California oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny was the seed from which Mr. Anderson ... coaxed the lurid blossom that was 'There Will Be Blood.'"
While Scott's parallel may not be the most apt, it serves as a pertinent reminder about the freedoms of trafficking in fiction. Ebenezer Scrooge, Robinson Crusoe, Don Corleone, Le Carre's Karla -- all have flesh-and-blood avatars, whether acknowledged by their creators or assigned by their audiences. There are no rules governing how much a storyteller must follow through on his inspiration, no matter how obvious -- or tantalizing.
Still, there's something about the trajectory of the promotion around "The Master" that feels a bit like a game of bait-and-switch. Only well after the "The Master" had been inextricably linked to Scientology did the Weinstein Co. and the film's actors ramp up their denials about the film's perceived subject matter. The secrecy around the movie's production -- the set was completely locked down -- and early, surprise screenings of "The Master" before its festival premiere have heightened speculation -- speculation that will no doubt translate to ticket sales and attention from accolade-granting Hollywood entities.
The chattering class has long been interested in the inner workings of Scientology -- a fascination evidenced by the overwhelming response to Lawrence Wright's extraordinary investigation of the church (aided in large part by "Crash" director and apostate Paul Haggis) in a February 2011 issue of the New Yorker. The Cruise-Holmes divorce and Vanity Fair's recent story about Cruise's alleged girlfriend auditions have pushed the controversial religion even further into the collective imagination.
The built-in buzz is the best case scenario for The Weinstein Co., which has reportedly been subject to harassment and threats from the Church of Scientology: According to the Hollywood Reporter, the studio paid for extra security at Tuesday's New York premiere, in anticipation of a disturbance. Because the studio did not directly generate the Scientology link -- simply allowing it to happen -- those behind "The Master" are free to claim exasperation with assumptions about a Scientology thread. It also permits them plausible deniability in the event that some feel the fictionalized Hubbard was drawn with excessive, and undeserved, sympathy.
As Scott and others pointed out, "The Master" offers little in the way of uncovering the inner workings of the church -- certainly not today's incarnation. But just because "The Master" is not an exposé of Scientology does not mean it is not about Scientology. From an early scene, where Dodd introduces himself to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as a hopelessly inquisitive man, obvious references to well-known Scientology tropes come fast and furious. Last week, the Village Voice's Tony Ortega pointed out three major elements of Scientology and its backstory that were adopted by "The Master" -- the practice of auditing, a falling out with a benefactor, and the group's extended sojourn at sea. (On Friday, Ortega announced that he would be leaving the Village Voice to write a book about Scientology.)
Additionally, Quell in one scene assures potential converts that they need not abandon their current faiths; that The Cause could act as a supplement, not a substitute, for their chosen religious beliefs -- that is a concession that is unique to the Church of Scientology.
A casual reflection on Scientology's numerous, obvious fingerprints all over "The Master" deem the denials almost ridiculous, though it's tough to blame the talent and the promoters for having a little bit of fun. According to a reporter who interviewed Amy Adams for the Huffington Post, she could barely repeat with a straight face the claims that "The Master" is not about Scientology. The same interview, when it was first published, introduced Adams' character as Mary Sue Dodd -- as did numerous other publications, including the Hollywood Reporter, the Guardian, and Time Magazine. At one point, IMDb listed the character as Mary Sue (though it now reads Peggy.) Almost any story written about "The Master" before September 2012 names the character Mary Sue -- which is also the name of L. Ron Hubbard's third wife, who, like Mrs. Dodd, was a devoted true believer. Two of these stories, including the Times article previously mentioned, cite an early draft of the script as the source. Did the writer, or the studio, reconsider such an obvious parallel to the real-life religious leader? (The Weinstein Co. declined to comment.)
Though there is a consensus among inquisitive outsiders that the Church of Scientology is a sinister, cult-like operation known for harassing and possibly harming apostates, it's impossible from the outside to quantify the church's power, particularly over the movie industry. What really happens to the career of a Hollywood player who dares to cross the Scientologists? Were the laughable denials about the movie's subject ordered by people affiliated with the church, and if yes, what was the 'or else?'
On the church's influence, the studio, too, has wavered. In an interview with the Huffington Post earlier this summer, Harvey Weinstein dismissed the role of Scientology in "The Master," playing up instead the post-war struggles of returning soldiers. But on Friday, Weinstein told the BBC that the Church of Scientology had put pressure on Anderson and The Weinstein Co. to abandon or revise the project. According to the same report, the church denied trying to roadblock the project, and a spokesperson pointed to Anderson and Hoffman's earlier claims that "The Master" was not about Scientology.
A gripping scene from "The Master" that will undoubtedly be shown at all manner of award ceremonies this spring as the best actor nominees are introduced finds Dodd subjecting Quell to his first round of processing -- an aggressive form of interviewing (inspired by Scientology's practice of auditing) where Quell is asked a series of personal questions, sometimes the same question on repeat, while being ordered not to blink.
Seeing the nearly miraculous effect this peculiar style of interrogation has on Quell, one can't resist the fantasy of applying the same techniques on those responsible for "The Master," imagining Anderson or Weinstein for Hoffman across a table like the one on Dodd's ship:
Is "The Master" about Scientology?
Is "The Master" about Scientology?
Is "The Master" about Scientology?