The fun part about writing is you can just close the door, and that’s also the worst part.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s lushly posh new film Phantom Thread is premised on as rudimentary a dramatic scheme as there is: start with a protagonist in a perfect, ordered state and watch it unravel. When it’s done as artfully and at such a deliciously patient pace as it is here, the resulting drama is potent. And when the lead actor happens to be the meticulously powerful Daniel Day-Lewis—Anderson’s reuniting collaborator who’s said this will be his last performance ever—there’s something good in the offing.
Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer to London’s post-war elite who is as masterful as he is compulsive. A committed bachelor, serial womanizer and controlling narcissist, his world is utterly at his lash, right down to the fact that he takes his asparagus with oil and salt, never butter, thank you very much. He’s James Bond with a needle and thread, but rather than killing villains, it’s his skill as a dressmaker that’s won him the acclaim and wealth to get away with being kind of a heel.
Then one morning he takes a brisk ride in his maroon sports car to a breakfast spot by the seaside where Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, literally stumbles into his life and the wheels of drama are set in motion. Alma might have nearly dropped those plates, but soon it’s clear, despite her youthful, rose-cheeked beauty and lowly vocation, she can handle Reynolds just fine. What on the surface might seem to PTA fans as an allegory about obsessive creative types is really more about a reckoning with basic human need.
Anderson spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about collaborating with Day-Lewis on the screenplay, particularly on perfecting Reynolds’ dialogue, how he is always daydreaming about his next script, and why the film is not as autobiographical as some might think.
There is an eloquent, surprisingly apt parallel here between the high fashion dressmaker and the writer. The tailor is sort of telling a story, creating an illusion with each dress. I’m curious how central that was to your initial interest in this story, or was it something you discovered as you were making it?
In the beginnings of the story this character didn’t even have a job. It was a specific idea that he needed to be creative in some way because that kind of overbearing preoccupation with work was something that generally you find with a creative life. Daniel and I are pretty familiar with that world. We didn’t have to stretch too far to understand some of the motivations behind immersing yourself in work. There are very strong parallels obviously between writing and dressmaking. With writing you’re alone—really, really alone. That’s probably the hardest part of writing for me, the stretches of loneliness. I suppose some people write with a partner and I worked closely with Daniel in the writing of this script. [But] it doesn’t mean you don’t have to face down some dark and really lonely times alone and in your room. With dressmaking, perhaps the initial sketches are done alone in a room, but like filmmaking, it involves many, many hands. So there were some similarities and some differences...
Did you want something close to home but not right on the nose?
Autobiographical but cover your tracks.
Exactly. As regimented and controlled a creator as Reynolds is, he’s also kind of steeped in this weird magical thinking—superstitions and curses, the hidden power of secret messages sewn in the garments and so on. What’s important about that contradiction to you?
That was really just something we discovered in the historical research. It was a shocking amount of superstition in these workrooms, on level with the kind of superstitions that you hear baseball players have: “I need to eat the same thing every single day, I need to rub my bat.”All these crazy kinds of slightly preposterous superstitions and OCD behavior were everywhere in the research. Dior had a particular fear of umbrellas making their way into the atelier...Scratch underneath the surface and I bet all us writers have our own sets of particularities when it comes to sitting down to work. Somehow they make sense to me, although I look at somebody else and think, Umbrellas in the atelier? I don’t get it. But unless my desk is facing a certain way and all my pencils are sharpened in the right direction, I’m incapable of writing—that’s not necessarily true of me, but that kind of stuff permeates.
Is there a little idiosyncrasy in your own creative process you can divulge?
I’m trying to think of the things that I have. They’re probably so ingrained I don’t even know that they’re there.
From what I understand, you like to let things unfold in the creative process. And there is this sort faith in that you don’t like to pre-theorize and thematically structure everything from the get-go. Do you feel like that’s a kind of legerdemain?
It’s one way of approaching it, but it’s also impractical in another way. Because it’s a story, it’s a screenplay, it has to have a structure. If anything I’m so well aware of those rules, and I’m so aware of page count in a very practical way, like 30 pages in we got to have something happen, and we have to have something at 60, that kind of stuff. So it’s got to be a combination. You can’t just sit around and let the wind carry you through. You will never get anything done as a writer. You have to be in charge of the material. But every writer knows the idea of wanting to get your characters to say something, but when you write it, it comes out of their mouth and just feels wrong. It just looks like you are trying too hard. So, maybe that’s what we’re talking about, it’s trying to be effortless, or trying to make it appear effortless. But we all know the amount of horrible, agonizing work that goes into it.
Is it wrong to say you want an unconscious naturalness? You don’t want it to feel written?
When Reynolds Woodcock speaks, he speaks so well. That stuff was really quite fun to write. He’s really good with words, so it’s a nice opportunity. And I have to say Daniel was really helpful in creating those words. I wrote them more in American, he wrote them more in English. So it really flows quite well, but yeah, taking it from an actor’s perspective…I always remember Daniel commenting on somebody’s performance once, he said it actually seems like those words came right from her brain. That’s the goal. You want it to feel as if this character has just spoken. Not that you have spoken.
I want to read a quick quote that’s going around from Daniel about the making of this film and his decision to retire from acting: “Paul and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness that took us by surprise. We didn’t realize what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.” What is that sadness for you? What is he talking about?
There’s a combative nature in the relationship. I don’t know if “sad” is the word I would use, “melancholy” might be the word. There’s a tiny difference there for me. Having to go to work each day and fight it out with your spouse, that was trying, for sure. I share his feelings to a certain point.
This story appears to be how love imposes itself upon even the least willing. What’s it about for you at its core?
That’s really good, what you just said. Not as a cop out. I always go back to the original idea of need, of how we take for granted what is right in front of our face, and it’s only when we’re stuck in our tracks by illness or some outside forces that [that we] take stock of how good we’ve got it. That central premise is really good, it’s a strong one, and if you’ve ever been in a relationship for a long period of time, its super true, super true for me, super true for people that I know. It takes enormous acts to slow you down sometimes, any of us, particularly in this world that we live in, my God, moving at a million miles an hour. I wish somebody would come along and slip the needle off the record and make it skip.
And Alma is that force here?
She’s quite a revelation in this, both the performance and the character. Were you conscious from the beginning that that’s what she would embody?
For sure. She’s the center of the movie. He’s unwilling to change and makes that very clear to her and therefore to the audience: “I’m never meant to marry. Don’t expect anything from me, you won’t get it.” His case is closed, according to him, which is a great place to start for a story, isn’t it? Now let’s watch that get wrecked.
So like a perfectly stitched garment, this film is kind of about the unraveling of a controlled perfection.
It’s funny too, you just made me think of a designer who we really looked up to was [Cristóbal] Balenciaga. He was a master in every aspect of tailoring and dressmaking, but he had this crazy preoccupation and obsession with sleeves that he could never get right. He just thought he could never get them right, to the point that they drove him mad, just constantly changing the sleeves. From an outsider’s point of view, you wouldn’t be able to see differences between one sleeve and the next, but to him it was always this impossible struggle for perfection, which is fucking crazy.
And you identify with that?
No. Not really.
No, I don’t. I don’t have that. But I imagine for our story, you think, Hmm, try living with that. Try falling in love with that. The stakes get raised quite high.
Tell me how logistically you did the back and forth with Daniel to get the voice and the actual language of Reynolds correct.
A simple example would be the scene I wrote with Alma bringing him tea. He doesn’t want tea. He says, “Please take the tea out. I didn’t ask for tea.” That’s the scene that I wrote. The scene he comes back with is, “Yes, you’re taking the tea out, but the interruption is staying right here with me.” That was him. So, you know, his contributions were taking a good scene and making it great.
And was he involved from the inception?
Absolutely from the very beginning—well maybe a step after the beginning. I had a basic premise, I came to him with that premise, and we just started telephone conversations, visits to different cities, walking the countrysides, that kind of endless thing that happens when you’re cooking something up. And then the research starts. The research provides inspiration. You find the story in a Balenciaga book that you underline. You go, “Right, page 57, look at this one, that’s great.” That kind of thing. It was really working simultaneously. As I was writing, I was losing time on research, and he’d be digging deep to find things that he’d show me: “What about this, what about that?” I mean a real collaboration in the truest sense I suppose.
When you write solo, when, where, and how do you do it? Do you have any kind of ritual to it?
My favorite time of the day to write is in the morning. I’ve rarely written anything any good after 3pm. I certainly don’t remember writing anything any good late at night. I was one of those students that would wake up at 4 a.m. to write a paper, rather than try and do it the night before. I find myself fresh and ready to receive and with more energy in the morning. But I know many writers who can’t write a word until it starts to get dark.
Are you pretty regimented about it, or do you kind of go with the flow?
I’m very regimented about it. I discovered that early on as a kid when I started writing. It was a very unconscious realization that to be writer meant you would do it alone, and if you didn’t impose disciplines on yourself no one else would. Like, who else is going to write this? Well, it’s me. And if you’re not going to go to work every day at a regular job, you better start acting like it’s a regular job.
Your oeuvre is super electric obviously—Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood and Magnolia. They’re seemingly disparate, but thematically there are great similarities. Is that by design? That you look at similar themes from such different vantage points? Or is it just happenstantial?
Well, that means bags of tricks: limited. But that you can perhaps make it appear that the bag of tricks is less limited by taking it to a different setting. But it’s all gravity isn’t it? That’s got to be what it is. That you can probably think you’re setting up to do something that you’ve never done before, [and] the next thing you know you have all these parallel themes coming up…
You’re back home.
You’re back home, right.
It’s by no means a knock…
No, not at all. That’s just how it is, and sometimes you just have to throw your hands up in the air.
Are you at that stage where you’ve thrown your hands up in the air? Have you embraced the brilliance of it?
[Laugh] The time that I have to pause and think about this is right now, in interviews, discussing this, that kind of thing. But secretly what I’m really doing is daydreaming about getting back to work. That kind of thing that any writer has: “I can’t wait to do this again. I can’t wait to cook something else up. I love doing this, and I can’t wait to do it again.”
Maybe that’s what you and Reynolds share?
We share a lot. I bet he probably has that. But sometimes it seems like he’s doing it, but I don’t even know how much fun he’s having.
It’s a very somber thing in a way with him.
Yeah. The fun part about writing is you can just close the door, and that’s also the worst part, as any writer will tell you.
© 2018 Writers Guild of America West