By Robbie Collin
The director of a new film heavily based on the early days of the Church of Scientology said he had arranged a private screening for Tom Cruise, one of the controversial religion’s highest-ranking members.
Paul Thomas Anderson, whose melodrama The Master was due to have its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on Saturday night, confirmed that he and Cruise had spoken since the screening, but declined to elaborate on his reaction.
“We are still friends, yes,” he said. “I showed him the film and the rest is between us.”
Cruise and Anderson worked together on the director’s 1999 film Magnolia in which the actor played a self-styled ‘seduction guru’, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Set in postwar America, The Master follows the intense relationship between the leader of a nascent cult called The Cause, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a troubled former naval officer he takes under his wing, played by Joaquin Phoenix.
Anderson stressed that he was not afraid to discuss the fact that his film had been heavily inspired by the Scientology movement, which was founded in 1952 by the former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and which is outlined in his book, Dianetics. Often described as a Hollywood cult, it counts John Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley and Kirstie Alley among its better-known adherents.
“The Scientology connection is not an elephant in the room,” he said. “Philip’s character is based on Hubbard and there are a lot of similarities to the early days of Dianetics.
“I don’t know an awful lot about Scientology as it is now, but I do know about it in the beginning of the movement, and I was inspired to use that as a backdrop. But I can’t be any more unambiguous about it than that.”
The Master, which also stars Amy Adams, was received with sustained applause at a screening for critics on Saturday morning and has been tipped as the film to beat in the competition for the Golden Lion, the Venice Festival’s most prestigious accolade. It is Anderson’s first film since his 2007 western There Will Be Blood. He described it as a “love story” between Hoffman and Phoenix’s characters. “It’s a romance; they’re the love of each other’s lives, so I tried to look at it like that,” he said.
In defiance of Hollywood’s current vogue for all things digital, Anderson shot The Master on 70mm film stock using an antique Panavision Super 70 camera, which gives the film an old-fashioned ‘radiant’ look.
In the mid-1950s, Mr Hubbard came up with the idea of “Project Celebrity”, in which stars of the day, including Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and Orson Welles, would be courted by the church for their influence. While the project was not successful at the time, Scientology now includes a number of Hollywood stars within its ranks, the best known being Saturday Night Fever star John Travolta and Top Gun star Tom Cruise.
Cruise divorced from his wife, Katie Holmes, in July of this year in a case that prompted speculation that his embrace of Scientology had been a reason for the couple’s separation. Holmes, who was raised a Catholic, is understood to have been insistent that their daughter, Suri, not be brought up in the church of Scientology.
Earlier this summer the church announced plans to start a religious broadcasting centre near its West Coast headquarters in Hollywood to promote its teachings over television, radio and the internet.