The Master: A Look at Scientology in Film

Everyone knew it was the Master who farted, but no one dared to speak the truth

I’m a huge fan of the director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. And just like the twihards of Twilight, my obsession for his films knows no bounds – We in the Cigarettes & Vines fan club refer to him, by his initials, PTA. He’s been considered the wunderkind of Hollywood, having made the masterpiece Boogie Nights at the ripe old age of twenty seven. He then went on to write and direct, two further award winning features, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. PTA is a technically gifted director, known for designing complicated long shots and for his use of constantly dynamic camera work. His ear for musical score and soundtrack is also superb, having picked Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood to score both There Will Be Blood and his upcoming film The Master. This latter film is of particular interest, as it’s been in the pipeline for five years, and while in development was once titled “The Paul Thomas Anderson Scientology Film”.

The Master is a story about a World War II Naval veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who stumbles upon a philosophical movement known as The Cause. The charismatic leader of the movement, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), takes a liking to Freddie and accepts him into his flock. It’s no secret that the characters and movement portrayed in The Master closely resemble the early days of Scientology. If you know a little about Scientology, you can pick up the clues by watching the trailers. Here are a few obvious ones: The Cause is the stand in for The Church of Scientology; Lancaster Dodd is modelled on L. Ron Hubbard; ‘The Dark Shadow, Split Saber’ book is a reference to L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘The Dark Sword, Excalibur’; and in the background of the trailer, you can hear a line of questioning, which sounds a lot like an auditing process taking place.

You’d expect the film to ruffle a few feathers over at the Church of Scientology, but they’ve been eerily quiet. The only exception has been the apparent ‘death threats’ that distributor Harvey Weinstein has received, and his subsequent hiring of bodyguards. But one would expect he might manufacture such a scenario to help promote the film anyway – playing into the reputation of the Church of Scientology, for its well known policy, of playing dirty with critics of its practices. This is probably, one of the reasons, why PTA invited friend and well-known Scientologist Tom Cruise to a private screening, six months ago. Perhaps as a courtesy to Cruise, seeing as the two worked together on Magnolia. Reportedly, Cruise was not particularly happy with the scene where it’s implied that the religion is ‘all made up’, but when PTA was asked for is comment, he said “it was a personal matter between them”.

There have been plenty of documentaries made about the Church of Scientology, but not many features have been made, or been financially successful. If you exclude, famous Scientologist, John Travolta’s awful passion project, Battlefield Earth (A sci-fi, loosely based on the Scientology mythology and a pulp fiction novel written by L. Ron Hubbard), then the only other film left is The Profit. The makers of the film intended for it to be a parody of the Church of Scientology and of L. Ron Hubbard, using such covers as ‘L Conrad Powers’ and the ‘Church of Scientific Spiritualism’. But the film was eventually banned in the USA from 2001-2007, through litigation from the church.

Although it may be interesting to see the film as an expose, or origin story for the Scientology movement, you need to bear in mind that PTA’s films are usually interesting for entirely different reasons. You could argue that There Will Be Blood is about oil and our dependency on it, but really it’s about family – Fathers and Sons. He is a master of portraying relationships, and here it will be interesting to see how Phoenix’s Freddie and Hoffman’s Dodd play against each other. There have been early reactions to both the performances, with talk of Oscar nominations.

The Master has already been released in the USA, in both the original 70mm and 35mm version (70mm being the closest thing to IMAX resolution). Unfortunately we will only get the 35mm version here in the UK and the release date is on the 9th November. But there will be a 70mm print at the London Odeon Cinema – Leicester Square for two weeks from the 2nd November. I’ve got my ticket booked for 3rd, how about you?



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