“The Master:” The Little Secrets of Stories

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By Baine Avent

“The Master” is a film about many things, but I think a simple elevator pitch can do just fine. The film tells the story of a man named Freddie Quell, an alcoholic World War 2 veteran who seems to only be a pointless drifter, finding odd jobs wherever he can, usually ending each one by being chased out of it. This is all Freddie’s life seems to be, until he decides to take liberty to hop on an unknowing steamboat in the middle of the night. Upon waking up after what was possibly a typical booze-filled time, Freddie is introduced to the captain of the ship, Lancaster Dodd, or as his compatriots call him, “Master.” He’s the so-called leader of a new religion known as the Cause, a scientific belief system that was all created by Dodd himself. With his intelligence and charisma, Dodd convinces Freddie to come along and stay, hoping that this “animal”can become integrated. It’s the story of a man who seems to have every part of his life on a path, and another who has no path at all. And I’ll just go ahead and leave it there. 

I’ll first start this off by saying that if I ever tried to write about the story or my interpretations of the film itself, then it would be an essay so long that I doubt anyone would even think of reading it. And I wouldn’t blame them, this film is something I annoyingly gush about to pretty much anyone I meet. And if you’ve maybe already guessed, it’s my favorite film of all time. It has most definitely taught me more about stories than I realize, which gave me a pretty good idea of how to show this film off while also not annoying anyone. I realize that mainly filmmakers will read this, so how about I speak on how this film both taught me and can hopefully teach all of us about making a movie.

One of the best parts of a film can be when everything is conjoined into a whole. When everything seems to lock into place as one piece. The Master has shown me that collaboration is what creates the film, not the initial ideas on their own. As incredible of a director as Paul Thomas Anderson is, he didn’t think of the entire film in its entirety and then have everyone read his mind. I wouldn’t be gushing about the film’s hypnotizing and ancient-feeling cinematography if Mihai Malaimare Jr. hadn’t found some old Hitchcock lenses to use, resulting in some of the most beautiful shots I have ever seen. I wouldn’t be mesmerized by the performances if actors like the late Philip Seymor Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix had completely immersed themselves in the role and added the smallest of details, such as Freddie Quell constantly holding his hips when he talks, referring to a single throw away line about his kidneys being torn up in the war. And lastly, I wouldn’t be absolutely going nuts about the score if it wasn’t for Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who used instruments such as harps, bells, and strings to make a soundscape that makes you feel like you yourself might even be discovering this secret society. If someone like PTA could sit in a room and think all of that up, then he might objectively be the greatest living director of all time (which I already think). But either way, he didn’t. It was very much the people around him who helped make a great movie. And when I realised this, I began to learn more about filmmaking. This kind of storytelling comes from a group of people, each with their own special and weird little talents, that all have the passion to make something amazing. 

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“The Master” has also helped me cope with making the parts of a movie that never actually make it on… well… the movie. The feeling of putting your passion into something that never sees the light of the screen is never easy. But, with a film like “The Master,” I only grew more excited about the little secrets that only we know about. For pretty much every trailer of the film, no lie, about 75% of the footage is footage that isn’t in the actual film. This isn’t just because the studio had the great idea of having PTA himself direct the trailers, but also because even the lost footage almost seems like it still is the film itself. Online, there is an entire 20 minute short, “Back Beyond,” that contains a huge amount of the footage I just mentioned. It shows the characters in completely different locations and situations that aren’t even referred to in the film itself. It’s super fascinating, and in fact, these trailers are what actually convinced me to watch the film itself. It goes to show that every experience making a film, whether it is seen or not, is the film. It helped you develop your world and the people around it. I don’t think that we would’ve gotten the same movie otherwise. I realized this when viewing these lost scenes; I didn’t view them in the mindset that they didn’t happen, but that they did and I simply didn’t get to see them. Every rough cut, every deleted scene, every torn page, is always still your movie. 

So I hoped I was able to both fanboy about “The Master” all over this essay while also making something out of it. I hope I was able to catch someone’s attention for the movie, and if that’s the case, then that’s already good enough. But what I hope the most is that everyone reading this already knows that films aren’t a piece of magic that float onto a screen from the sky, but that they’re the labor of blood, sweat, and tears. Film is a work of extreme passion and hardship. It takes too much effort and such hardship to make a movie, so I cross my fingers that by reading this or even watching “The Master,” that this is all the result of human beings taking (a lot of their) time to tell weird little stories. 

About deaconwarner

Deacon Warner is the youth program director at FilmNorth and a freelance filmmaker.
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