Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master opens Friday in limited release — his first film in five years, though we certainly could have been waiting longer. Anderson’s oh-so-thinly-veiled portrait of a cult leader who seems an awful lot like L. Ron Hubbard knocked around Hollywood for a good long while before the writer/director finally found outside financing (more on that later); it’s one of several films — most of them related to religion, the movie industry’s primary hot button — that had to go the indie route when the major studios were afraid to touch them. After the jump, a brief history of movies Hollywood was too scared to make.
Paul Thomas Anderson started working on his script about a postwar spiritual movement in 2009, with his frequent collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman in mind from the beginning as the story’s Hubbard-like center. He set the project up at Universal, but the studio passed on the project, as did the Weinstein Company. The official explanation was that the $35 million budget was too risky for the high-minded and potentially audience-alienating picture, but everyone knew what was really up: studios didn’t want to go pissing off the many Scientology boosters in Hollywood — such as John Travolta, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Lee, and Tom Cruise, who co-starred in Anderson’s Magnolia. The project was all but kaput until 25-year-old Megan Ellison (daughter of Oracle chief exec Lawrence J. Ellison) stepped in to provide funds for the production via her fledgling Annapurna Pictures company. The Weinstein Company ultimately committed to distribute the picture, which played Venice and Toronto before its theatrical release Friday — with its stars insisting in promotional interviews that it’s not really about Scientology.