The Master doesn't open in theaters until October, but the movie already is creating a stir, with a fictional plot apparently inspired by the Church of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Movie bloggers recently viewed an exclusive 4-minute preview of The Master at the Cannes Film Festival, consistently noting similarities to the church's history and techniques. An early draft of the screenplay leaked online in 2010 as "Untitled Scientology Project."
The Master is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a five-time Oscar nominee for Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.
Academy Award-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, a science fiction writer and charismatic founder of a 1950s movement called The Cause, based on his books. Amy Adams portrays Dodd's wife Mary Sue (also the name of Hubbard's third spouse). Joaquin Phoenix plays an alcoholic U.S. Navy veteran joining The Cause and eventually parting ways with Dodd.
The church and Anderson's representatives won't confirm or deny any parallels between The Master and Scientology.
Neither side responded to numerous requests from the Times for comment, or an opportunity to view the Cannes footage that is currently unavailable anywhere else.
"In my opinion, yes, it is absolutely about the origins of Scientology," said Drew McWeeny of HitFix.com, a movie journalist living in Los Angeles, headquarters of the Church of Scientology International. McWeeny, who grew up in Tampa, blogged a detailed account of the preview reel shown at Cannes.
Dana Harris of Indiewire.com attended the screening and blogged that any other interpretation of The Master is "patent nonsense."
A shorter teaser preview is online, with only Phoenix answering questions from a man in a military-style uniform, abstract flashbacks, and dissonant music by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Harris said the Cannes preview featuring Hoffman and Adams' characters more clearly defined The Master's theme.
"You see what's adventurous to (Anderson), in terms of why this is a compelling story," she said by telephone. "I live in Los Angeles. We all know about Scientology; we all know the history.
"As soon as you hear the voiceover, these probing questions, your radar kind of goes up. By the time we actually see Hoffman it's like: 'Oh, there it is.' Hoffman looks a great deal like Hubbard."
According to the New York Times, Hoffman told Hollywood reporter Jeffrey Wells in September: "Trust me, it's not about Scientology."
However, both the script and preview reel feature Dodd describing himself as "a writer, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher." (Hubbard was a writer, and the church describes him as a philosopher.) Dodd conducts church business and hosts parties on his yacht, as did the Scientology founder. Adams' tirade about attacking critics of The Cause echoes the government case that led Mary Sue Hubbard to prison in 1983 on charges of conspiracy relating to illegal covert operations.
In the leaked screenplay, there is no mention of Scientology's core counseling practice of auditing, but it does depict Cause members engaged in intimate interrogations called "processing," intended to erase personality-altering extraterrestrial "implants" rather than "engrams," as Scientology dictates. Like Hubbard, many of Dodd's lectures are recorded for repeated group listening sessions. The Cause is portrayed as "an exact science" able to cure diseases and distrusting of psychoanalysis, as Scientology has been described.
Other scenes appear to be based on accounts of Scientology by former members, many of them published in the Times. One member of The Cause complains about not receiving training materials he paid for and not getting paid for services rendered to the church. Another expresses disenchantment with The Cause, resulting in physical abuse.
Anderson may have tweaked or discarded such details in rewrites since 2010.
The Master is being distributed by the Weinstein Co., which won the past two best picture Oscars with The King's Speech and The Artist, led by Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein's legendary arm-twist marketing.
Anderson's multistoried Magnolia earned a best supporting actor nomination for Tom Cruise, one of Scientology's most visible and outspoken members. Sharon Waxman of TheWrap.com reported from Cannes that sources close to The Master said Anderson recently screened the movie for Cruise, who "had issues" with some content.
The actor's representatives declined Waxman's request for comment.
"(Showing Cruise the movie) wouldn't surprise me," Harris said. "To a certain degree it would be a matter of respect, not for Scientology but for their friendship. I think if I were in that position I'd do that, too. You don't want to blind-side somebody."
Like moviegoers with any movie preview, Harris and McWeeny left the Cannes screening with impressions of what the The Master will be. McWeeny detected the continuation of a central theme in Anderson's previous works.
"Ultimately, all of his movies deal with a charismatic center of a community and somebody looking for that beacon to follow, somebody to help them figure things out," McWeeny said. "He definitely sees this film as a way to explore themes that are already at play in his work."
Harris expects to see "a snapshot of how this kind of thinking gets formed … from both the person who promulgates the worldview and those brought into it.
"I don't think he made a message movie. It really doesn't feel like that. Nothing (Anderson) has done is that simple. It's like calling Boogie Nights a porno movie. Yeah, it's about porn but it really is about so many other things beyond that. To make it so reductive is sort of a disservice."
Times news researcher Tim Rozgonyi contributed to this report. Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.