“I’m a f—ing movie director — I don’t know anything about obsession,” filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson said sarcastically after the first Stateside screening of his new film “Phantom Thread” Friday night.
Indeed, the six-time Oscar nominee’s latest work does revolve around that very concept, which has been famously explored by masters like Alfred Hitchcock. Anderson even boldly name-checked Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and “Vertigo” as touchstones. But there’s also a dash of reflexive cinema in there; if you define a film as the manifestation of a single vision by an army of artisans at the whim of a sovereign, well, that’s exactly what Anderson has explored here, albeit within the context of 1950s London couture.
“Phantom Thread” stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed fashion designer of the era whose world is up-ended by the arrival of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a forthright woman not content to simply play the part of the demure muse to the beyond-reproach genius. Soft-spoken but larger-than-life, Reynolds toils away in his lavish home, flanked by seamstresses and his right-hand delegate and sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), building on a passion for the craft instilled in him by his mother. But in Alma, he meets a formidable “emotional challenge,” as Manville put it.
“Alma’s arrival is sort of bittersweet, because Cyril has seen women come and go,” Manville said. “Cyril has, in a maternal way, had to mop up the mess of Reynolds’ emotional life, and I suspect she thinks it’s about time he did have somebody in his life with gravitas, who he could have something real with.”
Added Anderson: “It’s great to have a disruptor. [In this film] it’s love, so is it a disruptor? I don’t know. He has that line, ‘A house that doesn’t change is a dead house.’ So it seems like this house is maybe nearing its death faster than it should be without something new coming in to make it grow again and make it come alive.”
Anderson and Day-Lewis had been looking for a follow-up in the decade since their last collaboration, “There Will Be Blood.” The writing process differed on “Phantom Thread” somewhat, though. Anderson had pretty much hammered out “There Will Be Blood” on the page by the time he went to Day-Lewis with it. This time, working hand-in-hand was vital, particularly as it pertained to Day-Lewis’ method tendencies.
“We did research together and we agreed I would share writing with him as we went along,” Anderson said. “Everything in the house of Woodcock was so particular, in terms of what chair, what silverware, what teacup, so you have to involve Daniel in every aspect of that. It wasn’t as if Mark Bridges, our costume designer, could go independently and create a bunch of costumes and then put them into Reynolds Woodcock’s lap. It was very much a collaboration and everything in this world was coming from Reynolds. And that’s as it should be. The production was pushed forward by that.”
For Krieps, who arrives as an interesting wild card in the lead actress race this awards season, the lack of rehearsals was unusual. She essentially met Day-Lewis on set, in costume.
“I think they are both very different, but because they’re so different, that’s why they love each other,” she said of the two characters. “He shows her a new world she would never have had access to, a world of dressmaking and all this glamour and beauty. And she, I think, shows him an inner world.”
Speaking of awards season, “Phantom Thread” is part of a Focus Features stable that also includes Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” Stephen Frears’ “Victoria & Abdul” and Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled.” Day-Lewis is sure to be in the thick of the lead actor conversation, particularly on the heels of his latest retirement announcement, but the film is most likely to register in a number of craft categories. However, you can take at least one race off the table: Anderson ostensibly shot the film himself, and there is no credited cinematographer on the project. So it won’t be competing in the category.
“Phantom Thread” has been dedicated to the late filmmaker Jonathan Demme. It opens Dec. 25.