Romance, Paul Thomas Anderson style

Paul Thomas Anderson looks at love and relationships in “Phantom Thread.”
Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Paul Thomas Anderson looks at love and relationships in “Phantom Thread.”

NEW YORK — The seeds of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie “Phantom Thread” were sowed when his friend, the comedian and actor Chris Rock, suggested that it was about time Anderson finally made a real relationship movie. Whether it was meant humorously or not, Anderson says, it resonated. The 47-year-old director admits to having a long-held passion for classic Hollywood romances, from screwball comedies such as “Bringing Up Baby” to romantic roundelays like “The Philadelphia Story” and thrillers like “Rebecca.”

“I love ’em. I live by them. I live for them. They’re food and drink to me,” he says, between bites of packaged snack food and sips of tea, inside his hotel room in SoHo on a cold afternoon last month.

Sure, Anderson’s 2002 film “Punch-Drunk Love,” starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, could be classified as a relationship movie. But it’s more a revenge comedy and an oddball romance about falling in love rather than a drama that explores the nuances of a relationship. Whereas “Phantom Thread,” which opens in Boston on Friday and captured the best picture and best director prizes from the Boston Society of Film Critics, pulsates at times like a gothic, psychosexual thriller, in the vein of “Rebecca” or “Gaslight,” but with true (if sadomasochistic) love at its heart.


Still, even Anderson acknowledges that only “residual” elements of a gothic romance remain from his original impulse. He calls the tone “heightened dramatic perversion.” “I don’t mean sexual perversion at all. I just mean the peculiarities and suspense and danger of falling in love,” says Anderson, who attended Emerson College for two semesters in the early ’90s. “Hitchcock would always do it. The old rule of: You shoot love scenes like they’re murder scenes, and murder scenes like they’re love scenes. I think this film was just trying to take that and run away with it a little bit.”

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Starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his final screen performance (that is, if the actor sticks to his word), “Phantom Thread” centers on the mercurial and moody Reynolds Woodcock, a British couture fashion designer toiling in postwar London of the 1950s. A perpetual bachelor, Day-Lewis’s Reynolds obsessively focuses on his dressmaking and blithely discards women when he gets bored or they become distractions. He’s assisted by his devoted sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he meets a strong-willed young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), an immigrant from Europe who survived the war, Reynolds’s carefully-controlled-and-calibrated world gets turned upside down by the powerful, disruptive force of love.

A few years ago, Anderson got sick and became bedridden for several days while his longtime partner, the actress Maya Rudolph, took care of him. That became an early inspiration for the story. Indeed, at one point in the film, Reynolds becomes ill with a fever and Alma swoops in to care for him. As his new muse, Alma goes to great lengths to make him see the love that’s right in front of him and secure his devotion. “She takes it to the next level!” Anderson says, with a laugh. “Let that be a warning to you: Don’t put an immigrant in a corner or push them up against the wall, because they will bite back.”

Indeed, Krieps says, the connection between Reynolds and Alma begins with “very deep recognition of one another. I think Alma, from the beginning, can see the person behind Reynolds Woodcock, the Reynolds inside of Reynolds, behind his walls and his structures and his rules. And she’s ultimately just trying to get him out from behind those walls, to play and trust and let go and just accept the warmth and accept the love.”

In some ways, Anderson says, you could call Alma the protagonist. “The idea was to make a movie told through a woman’s eyes. Who’s the one who can come in here and turn this place upside down? What you get with Alma is a disrupter who is not the obvious disrupter. She has her own opinions and can speak them. But she’s more cunning, and she’s not going to just mouth off. She’s going to survive — something that only probably an immigrant would be able to do, in a way.”


The film also marks the second collaboration between Anderson and Day-Lewis following 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” for which Day-Lewis nabbed his second Oscar. Then last spring, the 60-year-old actor unexpectedly announced his retirement, saying that “Phantom Thread,” then in post-production, would be his final film. While even Anderson didn’t know it was coming, he points out that Day-Lewis had discussed the idea for years. “It’s not a shocking surprise. He’s always said that he could not see doing this forever, which maybe I should have taken a bit more seriously,” he says, with a laugh.

In creating Reynolds, Anderson says he and Day-Lewis were inspired by the legendary Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, whom he calls “dissimilar in temperament in many degrees from the character we came up with.” Still, there were some things that the two had in common, including “a singular preoccupation with his work.”

As an auteur director known for his attention to detail and single-minded focus, Anderson can certainly relate to Reynolds in that respect. “I’m certainly obsessed by my work. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t have any hobbies. So there’s a singular kind of attack on life.”

Still, he says with a laugh, he doesn’t share Reynolds’s fastidious organization. Indeed, as the father of four young children with Rudolph, chaos rules his life most of the time. “My desk is a mess. I’m not meticulous. I’m very impatient. So don’t look too closely under the hood!”

He doesn’t see anything wrong with being captivated by your art, as long as you maintain a proper perspective. “Your work should consume you, and you should take it seriously — as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously. I’d love to think that as you get older, you can get better at figuring out that balance.”


While he’s known for his California-set stories, Anderson’s ties to Massachusetts are strong. His father, Ernie, the voice of the ABC network in the 1970s and ’80s, grew up in Lynn, and they would visit family in the area during summers. Anderson attended Cushing Academy in Ashburnham for a year. When he was at Emerson, he remembers marathon sessions of filmgoing at the Cheri in Back Bay, including repeated viewings of “Silence of the Lambs.” Over the years, family visits, work, and vacations have drawn him back to the region.

‘I’m certainly obsessed by my work. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t have any hobbies. So there’s a singular kind of attack on life.’

Because of his affection for the area, the Boston Society of Film Critics awards for “Phantom Thread” are especially meaningful. They come 20 years after the group named Anderson best new filmmaker for “Boogie Nights,” and he marvels that it’s been two decades since his breakthrough. Indeed, Anderson says 1997 was a “monumental” year for him. “It was a huge turning point in my life professionally. But I’d also lost my father earlier in the year,” he says. “So there were these massive upheavals. It did my head in, big-time.”

As for his own experience with undervaluing a love that’s staring right at him, he says we should all be able to relate to that folly. “I think that’s a mistake that you probably continue to make,” he says. “Thank goodness I don’t feel like I’m making that mistake right now. I think you can get in good grooves where you have your eyes wide open to what’s in front of you and how good it is. And I’m certainly there now.”

In addition to showing the 70mm print of “Phantom Thread,” the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline will screen five of Day-Lewis’s movies (“My Beautiful Laundrette,” “My Left Foot,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Lincoln”) in a weekly series that runs Jan. 16 through Feb. 12. More information at

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@