Will P.T. Anderson's next movie still be about Scientology?

Paul Thomas Anderson's untitled next film starts shooting soon, and the trickle of casting announcements is making it sound like a fantastic movie. But one question remains: Just how much did Anderson tone down the movie's Scientology references?

We've read the early script draft that was making the rounds last year, and it's full of weird little nods to L. Ron Hubbard's early doctrines, not to mention parallels with Hubbard's own life. After Universal Pictures passed on financing the movie, there was lots of speculation about the reasons for Universal's decision. And then a month ago, the Weinstein Co. picked up the movie formerly known as The Master, but reports suggested that Anderson had "greatly overhauled" the script.

So has the movie been revamped to remove any parallels between Philip Seymour Hoffman's 1950s religious leader and L. Ron Hubbard? We'll find out in late 2012. But for now, here's what we believe.

Top image: Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman, by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images.

First of all, the very early script draft we read is definitely rough around the edges, but contains a lot of demented greatness. And as The Playlist pointed out in its script review ages ago, the Hubbard parallels are hard to miss. Hoffman's religious leader, the Master, lives on a boat and has a family similar to Hubbard's of the early 1950s. Hoffman's character is a writer of successful books who talks a lot about other galaxies and secrets going back trillions of years. A lot of his teachings have to do with going back in time and mastering your traumatic memories, and removing the programming that was added to your disembodied self millions of years ago. There are hints about an intergalactic war.

Will P.T. Anderson's next movie still be about Scientology?

But as you'd expect, the script isn't just a straight-up spoof of Scientology, nor does the greatness in the script really stem from an indictment of Hubbard. Rather, it's a beautiful look at the dynamics of a religious leader and his followers, the mechanics of creating a new faith, and the ways in which the trauma of war can lead to alcoholism and a need to believe in something. But most of all, it's incredibly weird and reminiscent of Pynchon (whose seventh novel Anderson is also adapting) and other literary surrealists. One of the film's MacGuffins is a book that either kills or drives insane everyone who reads it, which seems reminiscent of Infinite Jest's deadly video tape.

So what happened with this script? In an nutshell, Universal pulled out in March 2010, ostensibly because of the film's $35 million budget. Some speculated that CAA, which was packaging the film for Anderson, was actually sabotaging it becauase CAA's top clients include Tom Cruise and Scientology benefactor Will Smith. In any case, Anderson kept moving forward with indy financing.

But by September, Jeremy Renner — who was supposed to star in the film alongside Hoffman — told Total Film Magazine that the movie was "indefinitely postponed." Here's how Renner explained the situation: "It really kind of stalled because when we were rehearsing - Phil, Paul and myself - we kept coming up against a wall that we couldn't overcome. Or at least Paul couldn't overcome."

What was the nature of that wall? Anderson elaborated in an interview with the L.A. Times a couple months later:

Paul only had a small window, and he was feeling it wasn't quite ready. PTA doesn't do anything until it's ready.

And meanwhile, the indy financing fell through, perhaps because Anderson didn't get through his "small window" to make the film.

The project seemed to be dead, until indie financier Megan Ellison got involved, and then the Weinstein Co. signed on to distribute the film. And that was the point where Deadline reported that the script had been "greatly overhauled." Here's the revised plot summary:

Hoffman stars as a man who returns after witnessing the horrors of WWII and tries to rediscover who he is in post-war America. He creates a belief system, something that catches on with other lost souls.

Will P.T. Anderson's next movie still be about Scientology?

So it's still going to be about a guy who starts a new religion in post-World War II America, and that could still mean the early 1950s. Perhaps there'll be more focus on the process of Hoffman's character "creating a belief system" or the horrors of war. And it sounds as though the central relationship in the film will still be between Hoffman's religious leader and his new convert, the alcoholic sailor Freddie (who was going to be played by Renner, but now will be played by Joaquin Phoenix.)

Other casting that was just announced: Amy Adams will play the wife of Hoffman's religious leader. Laura Dern will play an unspecified role. Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons will play Hoffman's son. And David Warshofsky plays a detective — presumably one who investigates this new religion. (Interestingly, that's not really a part that's in the early script draft, although the Master and Freddie get arrested at one point.)

And notably, the Variety article announcing the casting of Plemons and Warshofsky, which presumably comes from the film's producers, contains a single-sentence paragraph: "The tenets of the faith closely mirror those of Scientology."

Will P.T. Anderson's next movie still be about Scientology?

So with that cast, and with Anderson still writing and directing, we're all automatically stoked to see this film. We almost don't care if it's still a thinly veiled Hubbard biopic, or something else. The real question that's burning up our brains, after reading the super early script draft and following the film's development is: Will it still be weird? Will there still be insane talk about galaxies and aliens and time holes? Will people still sing odd nursery rhymes about their past lives? Will the underlying critique of neophyte religions that dabble in science fiction remain intact?

Here are a couple answers, one non-spoilery and then one somewhat spoilery.

First, the non-spoilery answer. To some extent, I doubt that you could do a story about someone starting a religion in the 1950s and not at least have some elements of the weird and science fictional. This was an era where weird science and strange religions sort of dovetailed. You had Wilhelm Reich's Orgone cult. You had the UFO cults of the early 1950s — just read this amazing discussion of George Adamski. In the decade following World War II, if you started a new religion, it pretty much had to involve other planets or weird science somehow.

And of all the religions started in the decade after World War II, Scientology is probably the most enduring and well known.

Now for the slightly more spoilery answer. To some extent, there are universal themes about religion in Anderson's story — which no doubt remain in the revised script. Hoffman's character, the Master, is charismatic and somewhat unpredictable, prone to fits of laughter as well as violent outbursts. He speaks in weird riddles and constantly promises that the next revelation will be the one that makes sense of everything. He draws people in with his personality, then casts them aside when he no longer needs them. He's part con-man, part self-help guru, part mystic. These are traits that you'll probably find in any leader of a start-up religion.
1950s cults were all sciencey

Will P.T. Anderson's next movie still be about Scientology?

But more importantly, it seems doubtful that the core of Anderson's script will change that much: the relationship between Freddie and the Master. As long as Freddie remains the movie's other main character, you're going to have a story about violence. Freddie is not exactly an easy-going guy — he's an alcoholic brawler, who steals anything that's not nailed down and makes his own "booze" out of paint thinner, rubbing alcohol and whatever else he finds. Freddie becomes the Master's right-hand man, but his allegiance to the Master is never very certain. He's willing to beat random people senseless if they so much as question the Master's teachings, but he's also prone to wander off.

Why does the Master even want someone like Freddie around? Without giving too much away, it's sort of the central question of the movie. Plenty of clever, capable people want to be at the Master's side, but he gives a prominent place to this drunken bruiser. Part of the answer is that the Master likes to think of himself as a tough guy — but a bigger piece of it seems to be that extreme violence, and a high level of emotional damage, are at the core of what make a newbie religion possible. The Master's new faith, called the Cause in the early draft, only succeeds because of its willingness to take extreme action. Action that the Master relies on Freddie to take.

Meanwhile, Freddie is drawn to the Master's promise that he can confront and remove the pain in his life, and become a whole person. This teacher-disciple relationship could be one of the most magnetic things we see on a movie screen next year — let's just hope there's still lots of weird talk about galaxies and holes in time.