NEW YORK: The day after last November's presidential election, Paul Thomas Anderson boarded a plane to London to go make a movie about love.
"Phantom Thread," which began shooting days after the inauguration, is a hushed chamber drama made amid a time of wall-to-wall cacophony. For his second — and as it has turned out, likely final — collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis, the protean 47-year-old Californian filmmaker endeavored to make his British gothic romance — his "Rebecca."
"We have a really old-fashioned kind of film. It has nothing to do with the current state of the world. Maybe that's good, in a way," Anderson said in a recent interview in SoHo. "The more the world continues to turn upside down, the more appreciative we can be of all these small things every day that we have with each other."
It's a nice sentiment that Anderson is immediately suspicious of.
"It's a good time for pitchforks, too," he adds. "And I know just where to aim them."
But "Phantom Thread" needs nothing sharper than a seamstress' needle to pierce and prod. The film is set in the meticulous world of a 1950s couturier. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a women's clothing designer of precise routine and enchanting craft. On a country trip from his London town house he meets a waitress at a seaside hotel, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who become his model and muse.
Romance invades his rigidly guarded creative sphere and "Phantom Thread" becomes a spellbinding, and often funny, collision of art and love, stubborn isolation and won't-take-no-for-an-answer intimacy. Alma, in the end, is a disruption just as eye-opening as the frogs that fell from the sky in Anderson's "Magnolia."
"Are we disciplined enough to build in a proper pause to our life? Or are we so consumed with running around that it's only acts of God or large outside forces that propel us to stop, take stock of how lucky we are?" says Anderson. "And without it, most of us will continue to be rushing around like lunatics, not looking at what's right in front of us."
"Phantom Thread" at times takes on the ominous tone of a Hitchcock film, but it veers away from such suspenseful dramatics — "more told as — oh, I don't know — as a peculiar romance movie," says Anderson. "A kind of movie-movie way to look at what a relationship is really like."
"I wish there was a moment in 'Rebecca' about 45 minutes in where she was like, 'Right. Enough of your s---. I've had it with your nastiness,'" he says, laughing.
The movie, which Focus Features will release Monday, is yet another sharp swing in direction for Anderson, whose last three films ("There Will Be Blood," ''The Master," ''Inherent Vice") were all period California dramas that dove headlong into America's past: greed and fury in the turn-of-the-century oil boom; the existential drift of post-World War II America; the fading counterculture of Thomas Pynchon's 1970s Los Angeles.
While Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview of "There Will Be Blood" was a volcanic force of nature, his Reynolds Woodcock is a more refined figure of fervor. Perhaps not so dissimilar from Day-Lewis, he's consumed by his much-celebrated work. But the demands of concentration required for his process are considerable. Some memorable scenes were partly improvised by the intensely Method-acting Day-Lewis, like one where Woodcock chastises Alma for bringing him tea at the wrong time. As she departs after a tongue-lashing, Woodcock fumes: "Yes, you can take the tea out but the interruption is staying right here with me."
"I thought, boy oh boy, is that a great one," says Anderson, grinning "Only someone with access to that feeling could come up with that one."
Krieps, a 34-year-old newcomer from Luxembourg, didn't meet Day-Lewis until the first day of shooting at a London church. She vividly remembers the echoing sound of his approaching steps.
"Of course I was nervous," says Krieps. "When I knew I was going to be his partner, I decided to forget whatever I knew. Not Google him, not watch his movies, not know anything about Method acting. I don't know if it was right but it worked for not having a panic attack during the shooting. I tried to empty myself of all of expectations and hopes and fears. I tried to make Alma like a blank sheet."
Day-Lewis has said the film will be his last. The actor told W magazine of the decision: "Before making the film, I didn't know I was going to stop acting. I do know that 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."
Anderson says his only sadness was the usual one that accompanies a years-long project winding down. But there were notable interruptions to the film's own single-minded bubble, and not only political distractions. On the final day of shooting, the filmmaker Jonathan Demme — a lifelong inspiration and friend to Anderson — died. "Phantom Thread" is dedicated to him.
"It was a crazy combination of melancholy," says Anderson of the final day. "His voice was rattling around in my head. 'Buddy! You finished your film!'"
The initial germ for "Phantom Thread" came when Anderson noticed the tender way his partner, the actress Maya Rudolph (they have four children together), looked at him while he was sick. Illness plays such a central role in the film that Rudolph first responded to the film by asking Anderson: "So you want me to poison you?"
But Anderson, disarmingly genial for a genius filmmaker, shares little of Woodcock's ways. While there's seldom an imperfectly composed shot in his movies, Anderson's way of filmmaking is exploratory and curious.
"He gives you everything," says Lesley Manville, who co-stars as Woodcock's ever-present sister and partner. "You've got this amazing house to shoot in. You've got these extraordinary clothes. Great hairdresser, great makeup. Everything's right. And then he lets you put your color on this great canvas."
Among movie directors, Anderson estimates he's "pretty low on the OCD scale."
"My obsessions are very different than (Woodcock's)," says Anderson. "I'm not too strict with my rules. I'm moody as hell for sure. He thrives in silence. I thrive more with noise. I come from a very large family and I have a very large family. I kind of live much more in a pigpen than the world he creates."
"Phantom Thread" is, in a way, a mission statement for Anderson that suggests it's possible — even necessary — to make art while not being a complete jerk. Now, he's starting to, with eyes wide open, look for his next obsession.
"The fun part of this job is finishing one and you feel open to limitless possibilities," says Anderson. "Whatever your imagination can come up with."