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With 'Phantom Thread,' Director Paul Thomas Anderson Offers Audiences An Intimate Film


This is a movie season where films compete to be bigger, louder and flashier. Right now you can choose to spend a couple of hours in a dark theater with jedis, monsters or singing circus impresarios. In the middle of all this comes a quiet, intimate movie. It's called "Phantom Thread," and it's about a British dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock played by Daniel Day-Lewis.


DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) Chic - oh, don't you start using that filthy, little word, chic. Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public. I don't even know what that word means.

SHAPIRO: He runs a fashion house with his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. Woodcock's fastidious life is upended when a woman named Alma becomes his muse and begins to challenge him. She is played by the actress Vicky Krieps of Luxembourg.


VICKY KRIEPS: (As Alma) And I can stand endlessly. No one can stand as long as I can.

SHAPIRO: This movie was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. He last collaborated with Daniel Day-Lewis 10 years ago on the film "There Will Be Blood." I asked Anderson to describe the idea that became "Phantom Thread."

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: It was a romance picture, a central relationship between a man and a woman. But the premise within that was of an illness. What happens in a relationship when a very dominating man is flat on his back and he becomes incredibly needy and incredibly open? And what happens when his partner spots that and thinks, oh, this is a good position for you to be in? It's kind of a devilish idea that we kind of took and ran away with.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the main character played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Reynolds Woodcock is a man in a world of women, and he is a very particular person.

ANDERSON: He is. He's a very demanding, very particular person. There's a lot of rules. There's a lot of superstitions, which implies something peculiar about a character. And that's him. There's no changing him. He's very clear about what he will do and will not do.


DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. Knowing this, you have prepared the asparagus with butter. Right now I'm just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you've prepared it.

ANDERSON: And that's a great character to have because that essentially means you get to figure out how to come in and throw a smoke bomb in the middle of that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: It's always nice to do that.

SHAPIRO: You crafted this movie from scratch. And as I was watching it, there are such long stretches where little or nothing is said. I thought, this cannot possibly be conveyed in a screenplay. How did you convey it?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, it's funny. If I showed you the screenplay, you are exactly right. It would look very, very thin, you know, to say, Reynolds looks at Alma; Alma looks at Reynolds; cut to the next scene, you know? But hopefully the accumulation of events leads you to understand just what that might mean and just the weight that those looks might carry.

Without giving too much away of our film, we build to a series of looks. And we - you know, we hopefully build that up within our story that our film is basically a staring contest between two people and the idea whoever blinks first is going to lose. So you have inherently built into that a kind of battle of visual looks which doesn't look good on the page. You're right. But the good thing about a movie is you don't have to read it. You get to see it.

SHAPIRO: I would think that as a director, creating that kind of movie must put incredible pressure on your own sense of what is aesthetically right because you watch a scene a thousand times and have to ask, is this floating on the bubble, or has the bubble deflated when there's that much silence and such long stares and pauses.

ANDERSON: Well, there's something very thrilling about obviously two great actors - let's say three, actually, because and a lot of times, we have a three-way; our story's kind of a triangle - and have them sitting around a table, staring at each other. If you have Lesley Manville, Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps, you - it's a satisfying day's work even if no one says a word.

SHAPIRO: You're going to be OK (laughter).

ANDERSON: Yes, you know you're going to be OK (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Reynolds Woodcock sews things into linings of clothing that presumably no one will ever see. Where did that idea come from - photographs or messages?

ANDERSON: Two places. The first place I'd ever heard about it was - there was the story recently of Alexander McQueen writing a very dirty note inside a coat that was made for Prince Charles.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: Now, that's never been proven. I don't - we - some people say...

SHAPIRO: So this a perhaps apocryphal story.

ANDERSON: Exactly - well, (laughter) some people say it's true. Some people say it ain't so. But...

SHAPIRO: We'll have to ask Prince Charles.

ANDERSON: Well - he's going to have to go dig that coat out I think and rummage around and see what's there. But the point is - is that that was the first time I'd heard of such a thing. But in doing the research for this and getting further and further back, it turned out to be something that was common, particularly in wedding dresses made by young, unmarried women - unmarried seamstresses who would be very paranoid that by working on a wedding dress, by touching it, it would somehow curse them, that they would never be married or they would marry only bald men or - all these kinds of crazy superstitions.

And so as a way to combat that, they came up with little hooks for themselves, sewing certain - a hair of their hair in the lining of the dress or a secret message to their future husband or whatever it was. That became a common thread, a common practice...

SHAPIRO: So to speak.

ANDERSON: ...That we discovered - so to speak, yeah - that seemed very visual, really interesting. Really, it's great. It's a great little hook to put in the film.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about your work with the costume designer, Mark Bridges. Clothes are so central to this film. How did you make dresses that looked like they were worthy of royalty or movie stars in London in the 1950s?

ANDERSON: Well, the path is usually you kind of put a best-of up on the wall. But then you have to look at it from a different angle. Well, what is Reynolds Woodcock? Who is he? He's English. And so we - the designs started becoming English. So building it up from what Reynolds would be interested in, you realize just how deeply English he is and that all the influence in his life is that. You know, what are the fabrics that he gravitates towards? And so that becomes a three-way collaboration between Daniel and Mark and myself. And to be honest, I have the least patience of the three of us.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: So I would tap out at a certain point, and then they'd go through, like, three-day conversations about lace. And you know, I would just say, right.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

ANDERSON: Let me know when you guys have decided (laughter) what it's going to be.

SHAPIRO: So W magazine said "Phantom Thread" is one of the most beguiling portrayals of fashion in the history of film, but in the end, it's not a film about fashion. What do you think it is about?

ANDERSON: I think it's about need, the need between people. We have a line that Reynolds asks Alma when they're having a fight.


DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) What happened to make you behave like this? Is it because you think I don't need you?

KRIEPS: (As Alma) Yes.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) I don't.

KRIEPS: (As Alma) Why, that's very predictable of you.

ANDERSON: That just tells me he's missing the point entirely about what need is, you know? Of course you could say you don't need anybody, but the point is to need them. And that is a challenging thing I think for people sometimes in relationships.

SHAPIRO: Paul Thomas Anderson is the writer and director of the new movie "Phantom Thread." Thanks so much for talking with us.

ANDERSON: Anytime. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.