It took Paul Thomas Anderson – the cult hero behind Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Hard Eight – five years to follow up his much loved 2002 Adam Sandler starrer, Punch-Drunk Love. But when the result was There Will Be Blood, a titanic tale of Citizen Kane-like proportions based on the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, there were few complaints. Ripe with gallows humour, rich with stunning visuals, driven by an extraordinary score courtesy of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and featuring a central performance of towering magnificence from Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood had critics reaching for the superlatives in staggering numbers.
The film is essentially about the power and wealth behind industrial America, and what happened to those who got in the way. Set in the late 1800s, Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview, a ruthless, monstrous, greedy man whose lust for power and money borders on the sociopathic. The film chronicles his transformation from a down-and-out silver miner to a self-made oil tycoon.
Despite the accolades, it’s undeniably a difficult film to watch, and in lesser hands it could have been a disaster. It’s not just that Plainview is impossible to like, but there’s an unrelenting sense of foreboding from the outset that sets your nerves on edge for the film’s duration. But then that’s why Anderson wrote the film with Day-Lewis in mind. He knew that there were few actors who could pull it off. It was an incredibly risky thing to do, given that Day-Lewis can happily stay away from the profession for years at a time.
What did Anderson have to do to get Daniel Day-Lewis on board? “Nothing,” the actor told FilmInk in London upon the release of There Will Be Blood had. “PTA is a clever lad; he knows that he doesn’t have to sell anything. If you have to sell anything, then you’re talking to the wrong person. He sent me the script, and I always begin with the same impulse, which is to be drawn into the orbit of a world that seems mysterious to me in every way. It’s the invitation to explore a world that is hitherto absolutely unknown to me; that’s usually what makes my blood run.”
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the finest actors of his generation, and also one of the strangest. While his talent is not in dispute, his screen performances are rare, with the actor disappearing for years at a time to go do things like make shoes or cut down trees. When he is on a film, he goes to such extraordinary lengths to capture the emotional and physical aspects of a character that it’s become the stuff of Hollywood legend. When Day-Lewis played Christy Brown, for instance, in My Left Foot (which won him an Oscar in 1989), he was slumped over in a wheelchair for so long that he snapped two ribs. On The Last Of The Mohicans, he learned to live off the land, skin animals, and run across rugged terrain while reloading a rifle. On Gangs Of New York, he apprenticed at a top London butchery and became skilled at slicing meat with surgeon-like precision. For The Boxer, he trained so rigorously that he achieved professional standard. The examples go on and on.
There Will Be Blood was trickier, however, in that Day-Lewis was living in Ireland for the two years that the film took to get financed. So he “did what he could”, which included reading old letters from miners, and spending hours staring at photographs of men scooping up oil gushing from the derricks into saucepans and buckets. He also listened to early dust bowl recordings from the 1920s and 30s.
“They were all fascinating, and absolutely no use whatsoever,” a happy and relaxed Day-Lewis recalled with a laugh. He also learned how to operate the tools of a turn-of-the-century oilman. Listening to Day-Lewis talk about what he does, it’s obvious that he takes great delight in his work, which rarely comes across in interviews. His love of the profession is there in the years that he spends mastering these incredible transformations. It is especially there in There Will Be Blood. “Certainly one of the joys of this film was this life examined in its entirety by Paul and then subsequently by me,” he says. “I found him fascinating, and once you unleash that curiosity, it pretty much engages every part of your life that you’ll allow it to. Of course, I had to make room for my family too, but whatever time I had to myself was utterly preoccupied with the job at hand. That’s the pleasure for me.”
That’s partly why Day-Lewis works at the pace he does. He’s utterly depleted after each role and needs time to recover. “That’s one of the ways that I’ve been misrepresented in the past,” he says. “It’s not with the negative intention of getting away from acting that I spend long periods of time doing something else, it’s with the positive intention of doing other things that I’m also interested in. I know that spending time in some other way will allow me to come back and do the work that I need to do in the way that I need to do it. There’s no chasm between those two lives; there’s no conflict. They’re both part of my life, but I’ve always been portrayed as an almost Jekyll and Hyde type. Part recluse, part reluctant public figure. I just don’t see it that way at all.”
When FilmInk interviewed Day-Lewis, the actor was a picture of civility, and it’s difficult to believe that he apparently intimidated an actor so much on There Will Be Blood that PTA had to replace him two months into the shoot. It is now pretty much common knowledge that young actor, Kel O’Neill, was initially cast as Plainview’s nemesis, preacher Eli Sunday. The director has claimed, however, that things just weren’t working out, and that his sacking wasn’t due to Day-Lewis. “There was some stuff that we got that was really good,” Anderson told The Onion of the troubled early days of the shoot. “But mixed in was some stuff that I wouldn’t show to anyone – the most embarrassing, off-the-mark kind of stuff.” Anderson eventually moved Paul Dano into the role, with stunning results.
There were also rumours, however, that Leonardo DiCaprio found Day-Lewis difficult to work with on Gangs Of New York. “I’ve heard that said,” admitted Day-Lewis, “and I find it appalling. I would never consciously set out to do something like that to a colleague, because it’s a partnership that I value. It’s vital that we can rely on one another and get along with one another.” Does he think his commitment to method acting might be the intimidating element? “I would hope that there is an unspoken understanding between myself and my colleagues about the way I work. Just as I would respect the way that they have to work to arrive at a place they need to arrive at, as long as it doesn’t interfere with me, and me with them. I try to encourage and support my colleagues.”
The horrific, bullying character of Daniel Plainview is miles away from the courteous, gracious actor that FilmInk interviewed. Just how does he do it? “I usually begin with the voice,” Day-Lewis replied. “As far as possible, I try to let the voice make itself heard to me. I hear it in my head and then try to find a way of making that sound that I hear. But to get to that point, I will, for want of a better word, do some technical work. I’ll talk to myself for great lengths through the long winter months. In the Wicklow Mountains, there’s not much else to do,” he laughs. “And once heard, I can then try to release that sound, which is a different set of problems. But it’s so hard to separate that from the other work that was going on, because I’ve always felt that it’s very important that you don’t take the potential life of another human being and then dismember it into component parts – the voice, the body, the mind, the spirit. I’ve always felt that the only way that you can develop any kind of truth that you might believe in yourself and therefore convince other people of, is if that life develops all at once and the same time.”
At the time of FilmInk’s interview, Day-Lewis was still recovering from There Will Be Blood, and the buzz around a possible Oscar nomination – he eventually took home the Best Actor gong at most of the major award ceremonies – had already begun to percolate. “Of course it would,” Day-Lewis replied when FilmInk asked if another Oscar nomination would mean a lot to him. “Anyone who said that was unimportant would be protecting themselves a little bit from the likelihood that they’re not going to get one anyhow. And as all actors say to the point of tedium, the reward is in the work. If somebody gives you a prize as a result of that, then that is a beautiful thing. Many of my colleagues and some of the most gifted amongst us from when I was a kid never got a chance to show the things that they had in them. So we need to be very grateful that we do the work that we love.”
With Daniel Day-Lewis its undoubted focus (Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds, and a few others offer fine but minimal support), There Will Be Blood unquestionably remains Anderson’s most “male” film to date. “I remember feeling, ‘There are no girls in this movie,’” he reflected to FilmInk upon the film’s release. “But the truth is that there were no women in the oil fields, at least not when they were prospecting. There were whores in the bars, but there were no families. I used to joke, ‘We had a love story in the film, but [financiers] Paramount Vantage test-screened it, and they wanted us to take it out.’ That would have been the sin – to tack a romance on top of the movie. How horrible would that have been?”
Given its male-oriented bent, perhaps it was apt that Daniel Day-Lewis claimed an Oscar for his role – he was the first Anderson actor to do so, after several nominations in previous films. Yet again, however, Anderson was overlooked, losing out in the Best Director, Screenplay and Picture categories to The Coen Brothers, who won for No Country For Old Men. At least There Will Be Blood became the biggest hit of Anderson’s career, recouping $76 million across the globe.
Did the critical and commercial success of There Will Be Blood give Paul Thomas Anderson the bends? With a further five-year gap between that film and its 2012 follow-up, The Master, you might think that Anderson was feeling pressured to follow up such a film. Not a bit of it, he told FilmInk. “I didn’t feel any pressure,” he said upon the release of The Master. “As a matter of fact, the idea was to try to go to work very, very quickly, just because we’d gotten into these bad habits with these long gaps. But [stars] Philip [Seymour Hoffman] was busy for a year, and Joaquin [Phoenix] was doing I’m Still Here. But that said, thank God. It was another year to keep working and preparing. By the time that you’re standing on set, the furthest thing from your mind is There Will Be Blood.”
It has never remained, however, too far from the minds of film critics and fans of Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson…
On Saturday August 5 at 7:00pm at Hamer Hall in Melbourne, The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will perform Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood score while Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar winning film plays on the big screen. For more information, and to buy tickets, head to the official site.
The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 3-August 20. For all venue, ticketing, and session details, head to the official site.