The American filmmaker talks about Daniel Day Lewis and the twisted world of Phantom Thread
By Phil de Semlyen|
Like the couple in a particular dysfunctional nursery rhyme, Phantom Thread features the most off-kilter pair to grace our screens in several moons. There’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock – a vain, controlling dressmaker who hates noise at breakfast – and newcomer Vicky Krieps’ Alma, a strange, fearless life force who could give a fig for his routines.
Welcome to the fractured, fascinating world of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest gem. Not quite as manicured as his latest alpha male protagonist, but still looking pretty dapper in a suitably hushed hotel suite, the Californian sips on a green tea and recounts the story behind his strange, ingenious tale.
This is your first film set or shot outside California. What came first: the idea or the location? Backing up before that, I’d been actively searching for something to do in the UK for a while. It’s inherently cinematic, particularly for a period piece. Initially, I thought we’d film in Cornwall – Daphne du Maurier country – but it turned out how it turned out.
Phantom Thread feels like a love letter to London, but unusually, it doesn’t too many have recognisable landmarks or an exact sense of time. It occupies that twilight fairy-tale land that hovers just above reality. The reality would have been a bit darker, a bit dingier, a bit more bombed-out, but there’s so much ground to cover with these characters that taking time out to do the wide establisher, title card “London, 1955”… we’ve fucking seen that enough. Without it, it starts to feel more authentic.
Vicky Krieps is an incredible discovery. She has a very unusual on-screen energy. She gives good stare. She can neutralise her face a little bit so you're never quite sure where you stand. The scene where she sees Reynolds’ wedding dress being badly treated was one of the most fun days I've had shooting. You could see her temperature rising.
Daniel is remarkable in this movie. When the news came that he’d retired, there was a joke on Twitter that it was actually prep to play a retired actor. (Laughs) Oh, that he was researching the role?
Exactly. Do people get him wrong? I would bet the thing that people don't see is just how damn funny he can be. He doesn't have that reputation, but he's a funny motherfucker. He's sharp and you see it in his performance.
I laughed out loud during one of the breakfast scene, but then wasn’t sure I was supposed to. Yes. I think if you're taken with the movie, and if you feel that you’re part of House of Woodcock, you are not sure if you're allowed to make any noise or not. [Reynolds] establishes so early that there should be silence at breakfast, it sets the audience on edge. It’s so overly serious, it’s funny.
You have four kids. I’m guessing breakfast is not a silent ritual? Wouldn't it be great if I trained my children to be completely silent at breakfast? No, it's the exact opposite. It's chaos, which is how I like it.
You’ve talked about how you got ill and were nursed by your wife, and how that inspired the story. It came from a personal place – did it end in one? It certainly isn’t an accurate portrayal of my relationship, but I’d be lying if I said there were no parallels. You’re always asking yourself those questions: how are we going to make this work? How are we going to get through this? [You have] those wonderful stretches of love, and then all those peculiarities that were so romantic on the first date, but you’re ready to strangle them for nine or ten years later. It’s funny, though, a disproportionate number of women come out and say, “I’m actually like Reynolds.” I’m always shocked by that.
Men and women are reacting differently to the film? Completely. You always identify with certain people and I think people like to identify with a character’s breakfast habits. Generally, it seems to fall into two categories: the silent types and the noisy types. My sister... if there’s a noise at breakfast she will snap.
‘Toxic masculinity’ is a phrase that has cropped up in relation to Reynolds. This idea of a powerful man abusing his power. Is it even masculinity? It’s more childish, it’s stunted. Toxic masculinity is a very modern phrase, it would seem to me, and you can apply it, but this is more like arrested development. His mother has treated him as the golden boy but what happens when that boy grows up and is still acting like a child? There are 300 women in this house behind him, holding the place up, and the relationship he has with this intimacy… oh boy, it’s complicated.
Daniel said your collaboration went right down to texting each other ideas for his character name. But then when you started filming, it became quite sad. Yeah, I know what he was referring to. With a certain distance, fights you might have in your relationship about asparagus for dinner can be quite amusing – the next morning you look back and think what the hell was all that about – but in the moment they're no fun. We spent a lot of time mucking about in those combative scenes between the two of them, [although] there were just as many laughs.
Lastly I have to ask, does Daniel use emojis in his texts? No, he’s got a fucking flip phone. He knows what everything is, but he’s never been near an emoji in his life. He’s still going “J-K- L”, typing three letters to get to the “L”.