How did you get the idea for Phantom Thread? Is it true that you were under the weather and being cared for?
That’s true. When I get sick, I deal with it in a few different ways. First, I get very cranky and I pretend that I’m not sick because I don’t want to be slowed down. I don’t want to miss anything. Usually, that can work. But if that doesn’t work, and you get really sick and you’re flat on your back, you need help and you become vulnerable.
I remember that I was very sick, just with the flu, and my wife [actress Maya Rudolph] was taking care of me.
And my imagination just took over at some point, where I had this thought: “Oh, she is looking at me with such care and tenderness … wouldn’t it suit her to keep me sick in this state?” I don’t know a lot about that disorder, Munchausen [symdrome] by proxy – that’s too hot for me to handle. But that moment was enough to … it gave me an idea that such a thing could be served up with some spark of mischievousness and humor that might, in a larger picture, lend itself to what it means to be in a long-term relationship, you know. And the balance of power that can happen in that. Not just in a creative relationship either – how men and women interact isn’t exclusive to an artist and his muse or shit like that.
I was watching the wrong movies when I was in bed, during this illness. I was watching Rebecca, The Story of Adele H., and Beauty and the Beast, so that kernel of an idea, I had in my mind when I started working on writing something.
What made you go back to Daniel Day-Lewis, ten years after There Will Be Blood?
Certainly, he’s always at the top of the list. It had been ten years since we’d made There Will Be Blood, and we’d both gone off and done a few other things, but there was always an itch between us to get back together. I had finished Inherent Vice, and I was the instigator. I knew him well enough and we’re friendly enough that I knew I had to create a situation where we both sat down at the kitchen table, like schoolwork, and said, “We’re going to do this, and we have to get to work on it.” I had bits and pieces of a story, but a very, very thin premise. The pleasure of the experience, looking back, was forming the story with Daniel and working with him, every day, over the course of eight or night months, to formulate this adventure that we were going to go on. We just discovering things, along the way, that interested us. Daniel is at the top of everybody’s list, I presume. I just got to cut to the front of the line.
Daniel Day-Lewis has said that, when you were working together to figure out some of the specifics of this, it wasn’t always that your protagonist was going to be a dressmaker. Why did it end up that way?
The nature of our story needed somebody that was self-obsessed and selfish, to enter into this relationship. We had just that, so we flirted with whatever ideas lent itself to that. Cristóbal Balenciaga was a fashion designer from the ‘50s, who was very famous and a master, and discovering him led us to discover more about dressmaker, particularly in London in the ‘50s. It was food and drink to us. The way that these men treated their work and the circumstances surrounding them was just to good to be true. It just kept filling us with more and more ammunition to go at this story.
How has watching Daniel’s process affected your creative process? Or has it affected it at all?
I mean, I suppose there are two sets to my process. Normally, the writing is done alone. But then to go and be a director, I am, thankfully, at the mercy of a collaboration. I follow the lead of an actor usually. In other words, you want to rehearse? Then let’s rehearse. You have no interest in rehearsing? Then we are not going to do that. I have no will to impose on them; I only want to kind of keep propping up what they need. And what Daniel’s process needs is actually kind of very similar to mine. It’s a long incubation period that’s usually accompanied by a lot of daydreaming, loads of reading and a lot of trying things on for size. Between those three things, you can fill up a year pretty easily.
How closely involved was he in the writing of Phantom Thread?
The shaping of the story was predominately mine, but in terms of the dialogue … there are massive amounts of lines that are all him.
Or I would write a first pass on something that was very kind of nuts-and-bolts, then he would write all these fantastic flourishes that could really only come from Reynolds’ tongue.
He was very helpful with my tin ear for British dialogue. You know when you’re kind of telling a story to somebody, you’re actually test audience-ing on them. If I am telling you a story, I can see you are tense, or I can see your attention was wandering or you’re glazing over, or you can see they’re leaning in.
There was a lot of that with us. I’d talk to him about story ideas and I’d see his interest, or lack of it. If he was quiet, that was a bad review [laughs]. “Anything? Anything, Daniel?!? No? You know what, just don’t say anything. Let me stop you right there, I am just going to go back to the drawing board on this.”
Both the character, Reynolds Woodcock, and you are great artists known for a certain intensity and perfectionism. How similar is your way of working to his?
It’s similar, in how seriously we take the work, but not at all similar in how seriously we take ourselves, I would say.
Reynolds needs silence. I grew up in a house of nine kids, and I have four of my own.
The working environment is drastically different. And I probably make the most noise at breakfast.
But there are very strong parallels between when you care about your work so much, and when your work and your life are one in the same. There’s no separation, for me. I don’t have any hobbies, besides doing this. This is what I do. This is my life.
Why did you choose this particular world to set this story in?
I think that the fashion world is inherently incredibly cinematic, you know. It means you’re going to have great costumes. [Pause] I think, from my point of view, the intricacies and intimacies of that work is fascinating, because I knew nothing about it. Doing things like taking measurements, which is very commonplace and boring for someone immersed in that world, I was enamored up of it in the way that a child would be enamored of something. So it became very cinematic to me, that way that someone would design a dress. It was like a Frankenstein’s-monster scene to me.
I mean, I have no romanticism when it comes to something like, say, writing – the idea of putting someone at a typewriter just seemed dull. So, we couldn’t make him a writer. The same goes with painting, as it’s really difficult to portray that moment of inspiration so it feels cinematic. You know [mimes staring at canvas], “Ah HA!” [Makes single, tiny brush stroke] It gets very old very quickly, and while a handful of people have done it pretty well, I just thought, No. But everyone wears clothes. I thought, that would work. And then I just dove in deep. Normally, when I throw myself into research for a film for several years, I amass all this stuff and then the film is over and, you know, done. My interest is gone. Now, I still check out Vogue online and see what people are up to. I still love it.
This is visually such a gorgeous film, partially because of the costumes, but also just the way it’s shot. How did you end up being the DP on this, yourself?
It would be taking too much credit to call me the director of photography. I’ve worked with a few guys for many, many years now. We’ve done a lot of side projects, and it was just a natural extension of that. The reality is that we all did the work we would normally do, we just didn’t collaborate with a cinematographer. It was a challenge that I put to myself and the rest of these guys – Michael Bauman, Colin Anderson, Erik Brown and Jeff Kunkel. It was something that scared the hell out of us, but that was really, really good. You need those kinds of things, or at least I do, going into a film. I need to feel as though I’m walking a tightrope and challenging myself to do things. I’m really proud of us that we did it, actually.
How did you find Vicky Krieps?
She was in this German film I’d seen called The Chambermaid – she has one of those faces that turns in about 45 directions at once. What I mean is, you look at her one way and she could not look more awkward; then she turns slightly and, suddenly, she looks stunningly beautiful. Then you her from a third angle and it’s like: “Does she love me or is she going to poison me?” [Laughs] We saw some really great actresses who, frankly, were quite beautiful and had them read for the part, but there was never someone who could tell the story of the film through their face the way she could. You know, “I love you and you are too dumb to see how much I love you and what I got to give you and I am not going anywhere until I make you realize it.” Vicky could give you that in a single look.
Let’s talk about the relationship between Cyril and Reynolds – how different was it on the page versus what we see onscreen?
You know what you can’t write? Just how comfortable those two are are sitting together in silence. You can give them dialogue that indicates just how close and co-dependent they are. But I think if you just filmed Daniel and Lesley, you would get a feeling of intimacy between them, just because of their natural comfort with each other. What we did – in hindsight very intelligently, I might add – was to get Lesley on board like nine months before. We sort of saw the horizon line and knew that, this is an actress that’s booked up. We want her to do this. We better ask her now.
The side benefit of that was that she had time to think about it, to get to talking about it with Daniel so they could cook up whatever delicious long, sordid history they can cook up. And with them, no way that doesn’t come to the table. She is one of the greatest actors I have ever worked with. I mean, just a fucking joy to watch. I had a front row seat and would be on-set, wide-eyed, everyday thinking, “Is she fucking putting me on? Is she really this good?”
This is going to be the last film performance that we’ll ever see from Daniel Day-Lewis. Do you buy that, and what you can do to change that?
I do buy it. Luckily, we’ve got a long line of DVDs and Blu-rays that we can all go back to and be happy that we have. What can I do about it? At the moment, nothing. Maybe when the smoke clears, I can talk him back into something. But at the moment, I think we’re all just going to have to grin and bear it. It is sad to think about ‘cause I still think there’s more left, but we should really just be so happy for what he’s given us. It’s amazing to think about. He’s been acting since he was a child, so it’s been a long and amazing career. As audiences who love movies, we should just be so happy that we were able to be in this time where we got to see Daniel Day-Lewis movies in the theater.
Since you’ve been making the rounds with Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig this awards’ season, what impression did you get from seeing their films?
The first thing I think of, when I think of Guillermo’s film (The Shape of Water) is Sally Hawkins and her performance. I’ve felt, for so long, that there she was, right in front of our faces. I wondered who was going to be the person to grab her and put her where she needed to be, and the most memorable thing about that film is seeing her, front and center.
I always get to see Chris’ films in the optimal setting, hot off the presses. I just remember thinking that, as many times as you’ve done this, there’s no greater pleasure than sitting in a movie theater now and saying, “How the fuck did he do that?!” That was every single moment [with Dunkirk], really.
With Greta’s film (Lady Bird), I go right to Saoirse [Ronan]. You see this Irish actress be somebody from California, and more specifically from Sacramento, and you go, “How did she do that?!” That’s the best feeling, when you see a magic trick in front of you and all the things you know about being a director go away.
And I got to see [Jordan Peele’s] movie (Get Out) in the middle of shooting, in winter in London, when I really needed a lifeline and I needed something to inspire me. I was cold and I didn’t think we were doing well, and I took myself to the movies on Sunday night. I was an enormous fan of everything he’d done in television, but the film inspired me so deeply and hugely. It was also a connection back to my country, as peculiar as that connection might be. It actually ironically made me homesick.