Paul Thomas Anderson is happiest when he’s working

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most celebrated, dynamic directors of his generation, a creative mastermind who over the last 20-plus years has given the world of cinema some of its most indelible works, from “Boogie Nights” to “There Will Be Blood.”

Just don’t call his films “interesting.”\

Paul Thomas Anderson: “I’ve been lucky enough to do what I love, and it’s crazy. ... It’s a great feeling to have been able to lead a creative life, and a healthy one.”

“That’s the last thing you want to hear about your film,” says Anderson, on the phone last month from New York, the day after hosting a screening for his latest movie, “Phantom Thread.” “ ‘Interesting’ is a code word. You also don’t want to hear, ‘it was so well shot!’ Then you kind of know, ‘hmm, OK.’ ”

Anderson hasn’t been hearing those code words and phrases about “Phantom Thread,” a devious 1950s-set love story about a meticulous fashion designer (Daniel Day Lewis) and the woman (Vicky Krieps) who throws his world out of whack. The film is being heralded as one of the year’s best and has an outside shot at disrupting several Oscar categories, including the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress races. The film opens in local theaters on Friday.

“Phantom Thread” is said to mark the final acting performance of Day Lewis, whom Anderson guided to his second Best Actor Oscar win 10 years ago with “There Will Be Blood.” Day Lewis made his retirement announcement in June, shortly after “Phantom Thread” finished filming.

Actress Vicky Krieps, left, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, actor Daniel Day-Lewis and actress Lesley Manville attend the premiere party for "Phantom Thread" at Harold Pratt House on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in New York.

“It came about while we were in the middle of editing the film,” says Anderson, 47. “It didn’t affect the story or the shape of the film at all, it only affects the things that we’re talking about in promoting it. It was something that he’s talked about for a long time, but I’m in a difficult position because I’m taking it seriously — you don’t want to ever not take what a friend says seriously — but I’m hoping he will reconsider.

“ But now’s not the time for that. I’m kind of closing my eyes a little bit and pretending it doesn’t exist; it’s easier to soldier on and get through and deal with it later.”

Anderson worked closely with Day Lewis on the formation of “Phantom Thread,” beginning in 2014.

“He was involved from the very beginning,” Anderson says. “That was the plan on this one, that after I finished (2014’s) ‘Inherent Vice,’ I needed a job and he needed a job. And working with Daniel, if you can heel him up out of his chair where he’s sitting comfortably, and you can awaken that beast within him that will start devouring information, his concentration on what you’re going to pursue is so strong. But I went to him as the cheerleader, like, ‘we’re going to do this, come on, let’s go!’ And he was open to it, only slightly reluctant, just ’cause he was probably perfectly happy at home. But the more we got into it together, formulating the story and daydreaming and trying to make each other laugh and get excited about things, the more serious we got.”

Day Lewis’ character, Reynolds Woodcock, is exacting and precise, ready to explode at someone if the smallest detail in his work is out of line. While Anderson’s films may give off the impression he is similarly detail-obsessed, that is not the case, he says.

Vicky Krieps, left, and Daniel Day-Lewis appear in a scene from "Phantom Thread."

“I am not meticulous at all. I have no patience. I would share a lot of things with him, but not that,” he says. “I’m a messy desk person. My workspace is (expletive) tragic. I share a few things with (Woodcock), for sure: I can get super cranky. If I haven’t eaten, I can turn pretty quickly into Reynolds Woodcock. But he seems like his work is hurting him sometimes, which I don’t understand at all. I’m happiest when I’m working.”

Anderson, the son of Cleveland voice actor Ernie Anderson, grew up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. He became interested in filmmaking at an early age and says he only ever wanted to be a filmmaker, but he had no idea where that journey would take him.

“I had no expectations,” says Anderson, one of nine children, who himself has four children with actress Maya Rudolph. “I did not think it through at all what it meant to be living a creative life in the long term. I had no thought of it, no concept of the shape. I really just was so single-minded toward this one thing in front of me, which was, ‘here is this idea, and this is this film that I want to make right now, and I’m going to find a way to do it.’ And it’s only over a period of time that you size up, ‘wow, half my life is over, and this is what I’ve been able to do with it.’

“I’ve been lucky enough to do what I love, and it’s crazy. It’s crazy! You start really pinching yourself, like really slapping yourself, but only with some great distance. ‘Look! Look at what you’ve been able to do!’ It’s a great feeling to have been able to lead a creative life, and a healthy one.”

Anderson’s first film, “Hard Eight,” was released in 1996 when he was 26 years old. The following year he made “Boogie Nights,” a “Goodfellas”-style epic about the porn industry in the 1970s and ’80s, and he followed it with a successful string of movies, including “Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love” and “The Master.” His works usually center on troubled male figures and their struggles with finding love, often of the familial variety. Anderson has been nominated for six Academy Awards, four of them for writing, but he has yet to take home an Oscar.

The film he’s most proud of, he says, is “The Master,” his 2012 drama about a World War II vet who falls into a cult-like religion. As for why that title, which after five films marked his final collaboration with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson hems and haws a bit.

“That part I’m not answering,” he says.

Anderson, who directed a short film about L.A. rock trio Haim that was released in 2017, says his next move is undetermined, but he’s excited to begin the process.

“I’m going to start working right away,” he says. “That cluttered desk thing I was talking about, it becomes so overcluttered, and so impossible to see through, that it means a lot of books need to go up on the shelves. So I need to clean it off and start again. I’ll find it really hard over the next couple of months to do anything but daydream about ideas that maybe I’ve had or that need to be developed, or maybe a new one will come.

“I’ve learned to not put as much pressure on myself as I used to put on, maybe that would be one little gem of wisdom. After ‘Punch Drunk Love,’ which was a really creative and rewarding experience, I had enough money and time that I could really sit back for a second and kind of pause and take stock and not push, which was a luxury, and that was a great time. And ‘There Will Be Blood’ came out of that.”

So what would Anderson like to hear about his movies?

“The best compliment that anybody could ever give you about your film is when someone says, ‘it makes me really want to go to work right now,’ ” he says. “What that translates into is it inspired them to make them want to go and do their own work, and there’s nothing better than that as a compliment.”

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‘Phantom Thread’

Rated R for language

Running time: 130 minutes

Opens Friday

Return to read Adam Graham's review on Friday