Oscar-Nominated 'Phantom Thread' Focuses On Fashion's 'Most Obsessive'

Mar 2, 2018
Originally published on March 7, 2018 9:57 am
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The Academy Awards are on Sunday, and today we'll listen to Terry's interview with screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson. His new film "Phantom Thread" received six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. Daniel Day-Lewis, the film's nominee for best actor, has said this will be his final film. Anderson also wrote and directed "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master." I'll let Terry introduce her interview with Anderson. The film has a great score which is nominated for an Oscar, too.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: "Phantom Thread" is set in 1950s London. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer who makes gowns for wealthy women and royalty. In the same way he carefully oversees the handiwork in his dresses, he controls the environment around him, allowing no distractions. Early in the film, you get the impression that he typically has one woman who serves as muse and lover. His sister, Cyril, who runs the business end of their fashion house, suggests that he's grown bored with his current muse. And it's time for her to go.

After she does go, he discovers his next muse, model and lover, Alma, a waitress at a small country restaurant who serves him breakfast. Alma is wearing her waitress uniform. But he sees something in her. And soon he's measuring and fitting her for a beautiful dress. She moves in with him. But she's not easily intimidated or controlled. She has the nerve to tell him she doesn't care for the fabric in one of his dresses, to which Reynolds' sister, Cyril, who seems omnipresent, responds that this is the fabric their customers want and find beautiful. Reynolds tells Alma...


DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) Cyril is right. Cyril is always right. It's not because the fabric's adored by the clients that Cyril is right. It's right because it's right, because it's beautiful. Maybe one day, you will change your taste, Alma.

VICKY KRIEPS: (As Alma) Maybe not.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) Maybe you have no taste.

KRIEPS: (As Alma) Maybe I like my own taste.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) Yes, just enough to get you into trouble.

KRIEPS: (As Alma) Perhaps I'm looking for trouble.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) Stop.

GROSS: As Alma continues to assert herself, Reynolds begins to regard her as a distraction, an intrusion in his ordered world. Is it now Alma's time to leave? If you know Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, you know that the story is going to head in some unpredictable directions.

Paul Thomas Anderson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming back - a really amazing movie. Of all the kinds of obsessive artists you could have chosen, why did you choose a high-fashion designer from the 1950s to build this movie around?

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: I think they're known to be the most obsessive of obsessives from what I hear, you know? I don't know many of them. So a little bit of it's in my imagination, things that I've read about, particularly of guys of this era - the Balenciagas, the Diors. The list goes on. The relationship that they have to their clients was a really rich venue. You know, it kind of lent itself to something very dramatic. It meant that you were going to have clients coming in and going out all day long. The work room of women was really appealing. You know, I saw a great picture of Dior one time. And there he is at the front of this - literally 300 women in white lab coats and him at the front, you know? That visually and dramatically was really a great venue for our story.

GROSS: Well, this seems like a perfectly obsessive role for a very obsessive actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. Did you think about that? Like, did you write the role for him? And did you think, let me give him something super-obsessive because he is that way in his approach to acting?

ANDERSON: Not that directly. I was thinking very specifically that I wanted to work with Daniel again. So I went to him very early on with a thin premise, which was relationship movie between a man and a woman. The man has to be self-obsessed, preferably creative and kind of self-consumed. So what happens when a man like that gets ill, creating an opening for the woman in his life to have him vulnerable and open, right? That's the basic premise that I went to Daniel with.

So we were in search of a job for this character, this imaginary character that we came up with. And some mutual interest and obsession led us to this fashion world. And, yes, Daniel can be obsessive. He's known to be obsessive. But what he is is - what appealed to me was that he's very good working with his hands and notably went off and studied how to make shoes a few years back. And he's always tinkering. And he's really good with his hands.

He's a great carpenter. So having him sew or do anything practical with his hands seemed to be right up his alley. Backing up from that, one thing before that was that, you know, it had been a long time since I've really seen Daniel be elegant and handsome in a film. You know, usually, if you're Lincoln, you're Abraham Lincoln or the thing that we did together before. You're covered in oil. So there's something very - debonair is not the right word, and I'm not sure what it is. But when Daniel - when he gets handsome, it's really - it can melt you. And I thought it would be nice to see that again, for me. I like seeing him like that. He's got a great sense of style, as well, so it was capitalizing on that for sure.

GROSS: So he studied for a year with a costume designer for the New York City Ballet in order to get into this role. And he learned how to design himself. And now he's leaving acting, I think, and going into fashion design. At what point did you find out that he intended this to be his final role?

ANDERSON: You know, I think the idea that he's going into fashion design in the future is something that the Internet might have made up.

GROSS: Oh, really? OK.

ANDERSON: Or it's - perhaps that's just speculation on the part of people who don't know. But once we'd finished shooting, he made his decision that he didn't want to do it again, which either suggests that he had such a great time doing it...


ANDERSON: ...That he didn't want to try to top himself - or that - the other thing, you know? But I don't think it was either. I think he's - you know, I'm - he's spoken about this, so I don't feel like I'm betraying his trust. He's flirted with this or said this kind of thing so many times over the years that I'm not surprised.

But I am definitely sad because it's also unlike him to make public announcements. So it feels as if he's done that for a reason to kind of put a period at the end of something, which, I don't know, it's - I'm trying not to think about it too much because I'm greedy. And I would like to see more performances by him.

GROSS: Yeah, well, me too.


GROSS: So the fashion designer in this - women's bodies are the infrastructure of the designer's art. And in...


GROSS: ...The movie, this man is always dressing women, not undressing them. And if they're in a state of undress, it's only to be measured so that they can be dressed (laughter).


GROSS: So even though there's a kind of strange love relationship at the center of this, it's always about women being dressed and the clothes. He's a very controlling man. And the clothes are very controlling, too. Like, there's often, like, a tight-fitting bustier top with - surrounded by, say, a stiff-fabric'd (ph) cape or a stiff-fabric'd (ph) bottom. And they're beautiful gowns. But, you know, they're not the kind of flowing material that centrally moves with you (laughter).

Can you talk about - let's, like, start with the clothes. Can you talk about choosing the kind of clothes that you wanted the designer to design so that the clothes reflected him, who he was?

ANDERSON: Yeah. I can tell you my input. And then - because the real people to talk to here are Daniel and Mark Bridges. Mark Bridges is the costume designer. You know, initially what started out was in the research, which - a lot of the stuff was new to me - learning about Balenciaga, learning about all these designers at the time. You sort of go through. So we really had to - and it was Daniel saying - right? - what do I like? And these decisions came out of Daniel. He loved - this character seemed to really enjoy lace. He seemed to like sort of more pastels, kind of color - rich purples and pinks. And Daniel's idea was that, look. I'm an Englishman. These are English dresses. You know, they're not French. It's not Dior.

It's not sculpture like Balenciaga, but it's English. So this sort of - there's Elizabethan influence, which - it's somewhere - you're right. You know, this idea that you're - the last thing that I think he would like you to look at is the person inside the dress. He wants you to look at the dress. So that's kind of where our story starts to get more interesting - is when the person inside the dress starts to talk back.

GROSS: Right.


ANDERSON: I have to tell you one thing that we found, too. When we went to the VNA - and, you know, these beautiful dresses are beautiful. But when you see them laying - they put them out on a table, and you handle them with gloves on. You know, they're 80 - between 80 and 200 years old, these dresses that we were looking at. And you have to handle them very delicately. And you're in reverence of them because of the history and the reputation of these dresses.

But after, like, five minutes, you're just looking at a pile of fabric on a table. And it's actually quite sad. And you instantly realize that unless somebody is in this dress, it's just sort of roadkill no matter how - what its reputation or its history is.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson. His new film is called "Phantom Thread." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Paul Thomas Anderson. He wrote and directed the new film "Phantom Thread," which is nominated for six Oscars.

Part of the movie is about the transformative power of clothing - how it can make somebody feel, like, beautiful. Or it can make them so sad that, no matter what they're wearing, they're going to feel ugly.


GROSS: You know, and the Daniel Day-Lewis character, Woodcock, talks about how he sews secrets into the lining - his mother's hair, words, a name - that clothes, you know, can have secrets. But there's also these superstitions surrounding clothing. And there's a monologue - the first time that Alma, the woman who becomes both a model and the love interest - the first time she goes to his home, he tells her the story of making the wedding dress for his mother's second wedding. And I'd like to play that monologue.


DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) I made this dress for her when I was 16 years old.

KRIEPS: (As Alma) Beautiful.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) It was for her second husband, for the wedding. My father had died many years before. Our nanny, the evil Ms. Blackwood - Black Death we used to call her - because of superstition, she refused to help me sew the dress. And she believed it would bring her bad fortune to never be a bride, not that anyone would've had her. Well, she seemed ancient to us - I have no idea how old she actually was - and monstrously ugly. So I worked alone for months and months, hunched over, sewing and sweating and sewing. The Black Death never married anyway. The help I could've had from her. It was my sister Cyril who came to my rescue in the end. There are endless superstitions when making a wedding dress. Young girls afraid they'll never marry if they touch one. Models afraid they'll marry only bald men if they put one on.

KRIEPS: (As Alma) And where is the dress now?

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) I have no idea what happened to it. No idea. It most probably turned to ashes by now, fallen to pieces.

KRIEPS: (As Alma) And your sister?

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) What?

KRIEPS: (As Alma) Did she ever marry?

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) No.


GROSS: And so that was Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role in my guest Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, "Phantom Thread." I think of your movie as being this very unusual hybrid of, like, ghost story and fairy tale, drama and strange comedy. But let me get to the fairy tale part of it. You know, there's these, like, magical gowns which are always in fairy tale, you know?


GROSS: Like, the princess always has a gown. And then we get to hear in that clip that we just heard from Daniel Day-Lewis - the mother's the good witch, and the nanny who they hate, who they call, like, Black Death or something...


GROSS: ...She's, like, the bad witch.


GROSS: And, like, the sister and Alma, the woman who he falls in love with - they're kind of each part good witch and bad witch.


GROSS: I wonder if - are you interested in fairy tales?

ANDERSON: Well, yeah. I mean, enough that, you know, there's - I've got a lot of young kids, so over the years, they've been floating around my house, you know? And they're there, and you can't escape them. And it certainly crossed my mind when getting into this. You couldn't have a girl in a dress without really having to think about these fairy tales. You're on the money, Terry, you know, because what I started out reading was M.R. James' stuff. I don't know if you've ever read his stuff.


ANDERSON: But he wrote these Christmas horror stories that he would write. And we're talking about the teens, 20s. I think he was at Cambridge, and he would write stories for students who didn't have anywhere to go at Christmastime. And they were fantastic. And I started out thinking this may be like an M.R. James kind of adaption. But - so they were very English and very gothic. And usually, they're sort of following a character who is very skeptical about the supernatural, only to be proven wrong by the end of the short story.

And so that thing was rummaging around in my mind, those great stories. Coming across "A Christmas Carol" again, you know, which is - God, read that again. You really can get inspired. And then the other fairy tale - I don't know if it's a fairy tale, but there's a great book by Beatrix Potter called "The Tale Of Gloucester." Do you know that one?

GROSS: I don't.

ANDERSON: That is about a tailor who is meant to build a suit for the mayor in town. And the night before, he gets sick, and he can't finish the suit. He's so sick he can't finish the suit. So all the mice come out to help finish the suit while fending off the cat that's trying to kill them.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: And it's a beautiful story. And Daniel always liked to read it to his kids Christmas Eve, and I've sort of started to do the same thing for a while and - yeah. There you go.

GROSS: It's also a ghost story. I mean, phantom is in the title of the movie. His mother is kind of like a ghost in the story 'cause she haunts his dreams. He sees images of her. He feels like she is watching over him. Are you interested in ghost stories, too?

ANDERSON: Very much - to the point where I'd like to make one that dealt with it for two solid hours rather than as a kind of a hovering element. We have it is a hovering element. I'd like to sort of address it dead on. I love the idea of ghosts. I love to think that there are ghosts around me, helping me, coming to me in my dreams. You know, it's always a great feeling when you get visited by somebody from the beyond who isn't with you anymore. I don't know if you have it or not but...

GROSS: Like in dreams, you mean?

ANDERSON: Yes, in dreams.

GROSS: Yeah, I...

ANDERSON: If you've ever...

GROSS: Yeah. When I dream about, say, my mother or my father, I think of it as a visitation (laughter).


GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: You know, and it's - boy, it feels good. It really does feel good when that can happen. Yeah, it's something that you can really take with you into the future, too. You sort of - I don't know - it usually happens to me at just the right time. I wish it happened more often. But when it does happen, you just - you feel so lucky that they came to say hi.

GROSS: Yeah. So your film is in part about what Alma does to revive the Daniel Day-Lewis character's love for her when she feels like - that his love for her has been fading.


GROSS: And I guess I really want to know - do you sanction what she does?


GROSS: Do you think that the way they end up is anything healthy?

ANDERSON: Hey, well, I am - healthy...

GROSS: Healthy is a loaded word - value judgment.

ANDERSON: Healthy is a loaded word because, you know, one man's healthy is another man's...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: Yeah. That's a tough word to use.


ANDERSON: But I - listen. I'm groovy with love of all kinds.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: You know, as long as everybody's agreeing about it. And I think in our story, they do seem to agree. I think we get - we kind of build without giving too much away.

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: We have a central character. He's kind of our antagonist. Daniel is not our protagonist. It's Alma. You're sort of seeing the movie through her eyes. The love has kind of faded. And until he sees something he's never seen before in someone - he's so demanding - that it's only this gigantic and large act, which I won't reveal - but it's big enough for him to feel dominated and cared about, in a way, to think - that brings him back to this love that he clearly has for her, but he just does not know what to do with.

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: I think he's responding to a kind of - an audacity in her that he finds really, really attractive. And that's - you know, that's OK. Whatever it takes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: I'm OK. I'm OK with everything.

DAVIES: Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed the film "Phantom Thread," which is nominated for six Oscars. After a break, we'll hear more about the film. And we'll listen to Terry's interview with groundbreaking sex columnist Cynthia Heimel, who died Sunday. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films include "Boogie Nights and "There Will Be Blood." The Academy Awards are Sunday, and Anderson's film "Phantom Thread" is nominated for six Oscars, including best film, best director and best actor. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a London fashion in the mid-1950s who's obsessed with work and his creations.


GROSS: You seem very interested in young men who latch on to a mentor and older men who become somewheres between mentors and cult figures - cult figure especially in "The Master." And in the new film, the fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis - everybody in his life is basically people under his emotional and design employ. You know, like, you can have tastes that he has. You can butter your toast loudly if he lets you. You have to, like, do his designs, sew in the way he wants them sewn. There's no emotional room for anybody else or anybody else's thoughts, and he has to really control everybody around him. I guess I'm interested in knowing why you're so interested in mentors and in people who end up being somewheres between mentors and cult figures.

ANDERSON: Well, they're - I think they're two separate things - that my interest in mentors - I'm going to guess 'cause I don't spend too much time thinking about it, but it's so clear in my life that I've had mentors - men, generally older men. And I had it even before my father died, you know? And he died when I was 26 - 25 or 26. And so I have filled that hole over the years in many different ways by finding older men to communicate with, to be inspired by, to confide in.

Backing up, even before I lost my dad, I was writing stories that seemed to be based on, in part, my relationship to him. Even short films that I wrote when I was 20 years old had to do with a younger man going to an older man. And I've never really looked too deeply at it because - and that's OK 'cause I write movies about them, so I'll do it that way, you know? But it's just - it's - there's a love there and a comfort and joy in the connection that I have - I had to my father, that I have with mentors that I've had that makes me feel very warm and very comfortable and makes me feel strong in my life. I've gotten so much strength from that.

I mean, I've continued to have pretty strong, healthy relationships with these mentors and - or men that I've met until, you know, unfortunately, they grow old, and they die on me. And then they go off, and then you - you're sort of - you're left without them. But they're strong relationships for me for sure.

GROSS: And what about the more cult figure type of man such as Philip Seymour Hoffman played in "The Master" and now the totally controlling person that's at the center of "Phantom Thread"?

ANDERSON: Well, I must be - I kind of - I think I'm drawn to that dramatically because - well, listen. In the case of Phil's character in "The Master," my - I guess I always liked characters like L. Ron Hubbard, who - he's based on - a lot on L. Ron Hubbard. And there's such bravado and such seriousness about their work and their discoveries and their commitment to humankind and - like, large-scale phrases and things like that that I just - I guess I get a kind of - a kick out of that - men that are dominating their world or their day, which I think is kind of impossible to do. But I like watching them try to do it, and they're good characters to then have somebody come in and mess up, you know?

That venue I've used a couple times, and I have to try to stop repeating myself. I've done it enough now, I think, but that is - it's a great venue to get started on watching how two people work together and to study relationships in a smaller way. Use big-scale individuals like that who are trying to control every element of their life. That helps you get small and tight, and those are the kinds of things are usually really emotionally effective.

GROSS: You did your own cinematography on "Phantom Thread," so in shooting the movie, one of the things you had to figure out is how to make clothing visually interesting, how to make the process of pinning a dress really dramatically compelling and visually stunning. And you really pull that off. What did you have to think about in order to figure out a way to do that?

ANDERSON: I don't know, but you're making me laugh because I'm remembering a moment when we have - what we have that equals an action sequence. I work with an assistant director, a guy named Adam Somner, who's - he works with Steven Spielberg, and he's worked with Ridley Scott, and he's used to doing, like, really large-scale kind of action movies. And he's fantastic when there's explosions or car chases or many extras. That's his forte. And we were in a situation where we had 10 women in a circle around the hem of a wedding dress...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: ...Who have to sew it by - who have to finish doing the hem by 8 a.m. And I watched him one day right as we sort of set this shot up try to get them all riled up. They're - by the way, they're starting to sew. They're all sewing away. They're all actual practical sewers. And I see him run through the scene and say, all right, you've got to get this dress ready. Here we go. Everybody ready. And action.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: And they all just sort of kept sewing, you know, at exactly the same pace they'd been sewing. And I kind of - I couldn't stop laughing. I thought, this is as undramatic as anything I've ever seen in my life. But, you know, yeah. So I'm glad that we pulled it off somehow. I still think about that moment of him trying - he probably even had a bullhorn in his hand, like, shouting in their faces, like, let's go ladies. You've got to get this dress ready. You know, like it was the "Fast And Furious" or something. But really, they just - anyway, oh...

GROSS: But it seems devotional.

ANDERSON: Thank you for saying that. I think we...

GROSS: No, no, it...


GROSS: It seems devotional, like it's a religious practice that they're doing.

ANDERSON: Well, yeah, that - it has its own intensity. And the fact is - is that you can only work so fast. That is actually what ends up making it dramatic. If you damage the front panel of a dress, it's game over. You have to start over, you know? It's not like you can just patch it up, especially when you're talking about a - the Belgian princess's wedding dress. So that actually is inherently dramatic - is that you are rebuilding a dress in a night that should take weeks or months.

And there's something haunting, I suppose, in the mood of a place, too. Those white lab coats instantly kind of spooky, aren't they? So you kind of can - things are on edge when you see women work. Older women in white lab coats working in the middle of the night is already a really good spooky venue to be in, you know?

GROSS: Is "Phantom Thread" your first or second movie since Philip Seymour Hoffman died?

ANDERSON: This would be my first movie.

GROSS: Had you hoped to do another movie with him?

ANDERSON: Yes, of course.

GROSS: I'm thinking, like, there are several people in your movies who have passed - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Robert Ridgely, who played the Colonel in "Boogie Nights." It must be very meaningful to you to have this permanent record of their work that you created.

ANDERSON: It sure does. It's terrific. But it's not good enough either.

GROSS: Of course.

ANDERSON: You know, it's - you're still left holding a big bag of whatever it is - those emotions and sadnesses that happen when people go away. And there's not enough movies that we could have made in the world that would fill the space.

GROSS: Yeah, I guess I'm just thinking of - that once you've lost people who you've worked with, you see everybody around you in a different way, maybe.

ANDERSON: You can say that again. I think it's well said. I'm still rummaging around through the shrapnel of losing somebody that close to me. So there's a lot that I haven't figured out.

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: But the upside...

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDERSON: The upside, if you can work through it, is that you don't take things for granted. You can do a good job of just slapping yourself and saying, look at how good it is right now at what's in front of you, you know? And I think I'm in the middle of doing that right now. I've got four fantastic kids, and it is so fun to go home every day. So there's a lot right in front of me that is just worth cherishing.

GROSS: The film is dedicated to Jonathan Demme, the late director. Did you know him well?

ANDERSON: I knew him very well, yes. Before I knew him, he was one of my heroes growing up. "Something Wild," "Stop Making Sense," "Married To The Mob," "Silence Of The Lambs" - you know, those four films which he made in a row - kind of one of the great four-films-in-a-row runs of all time. And they came at a time in my life - I was, you know, 15 years old, 16, 17. They were just at just the right time. And I idolized those films and saw them multiple times in the theaters and was able to meet him and have a friendship with him for over 20 years. And I liked him, you know, as much as a man as I did a filmmaker.

And so he died the last day - about three days before we finished shooting, I got a call that he was ill and wasn't - probably wasn't going to make it. And then as the movie got to go and as - the way things and everything just goes, I got a phone call right before we did our last shot, which was in a park in central London. And - so I was very sad about it. But, of course, Jonathan, if you ever talked to him or knew him, was the most enthusiastic person times 11 that you've ever met in your life.

So I was sad but had his voice ringing around in my head saying, buddy, you're finishing your movie. This is so exciting. So he was endlessly enthusiastic and was so supportive. Ask any filmmaker who's ever met him. They would say he was so inspirational and enthusiastic and positive towards pushing people to do their thing, whatever that thing was. He's a great man. I miss him very much.

GROSS: Well, Paul, I've really enjoyed talking with you again. I really enjoyed the movie. Thank you for making the film. Thank you for coming back to FRESH AIR.

ANDERSON: Terry, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. You're the best.

DAVIES: Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed the film "Phantom Thread," which is nominated for six Oscars. Coming up, we remember sex and relationship advice columnist Cynthia Heimel, who died Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.