The needle and the damage done: Paul Thomas Anderson on Phantom Thread

In this piece from our February 2018 issue, Paul Thomas Anderson discusses Phantom Thread, his gothic romance set in 1950s London, and reflects on the rigid world of haute couture, the English class system and working with Daniel Day-Lewis.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread (2017)

▶︎ Phantom Thread is widely available on digital platforms, 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD.

The ‘phantom thread’ in the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature refers to a term that seamstresses working in the East End of Victorian London used to describe the sensation they felt after emerging from long, repetitive hours in the workshop. After returning home exhausted, the women would find their hands moving involuntarily, their fingers clasped as though sewing invisible, ‘phantom’ threads.

It’s a title that offers hints of the gothic undercurrents that drive Anderson’s film, the first the California-native has made outside the US. Phantom Thread is a claustrophobic chamber drama about the balance between giving and taking, conceding and resisting in relationships, and one as singularly unconventional as any he has made since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love signalled his move away from the dazzlingly orchestrated Scorsese/Altman-isms of Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) to the more distinctive signature felt in There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014).

The film introduces the forbidding, immaculately presented figure of Reynolds Woodcock, an obsessive, perfectionist couturier in fashionable mid-1950s London, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor has said will be his final performance. Woodcock lives and works in an elegant Georgian townhouse in Mayfair, the ‘House of Woodcock’, as it’s known, where royalty and ladies of high society come to be fitted for bespoke dresses each new season, and where a team of backroom seamstresses toil under the watchful eye of Reynolds’s implacably loyal sister Cyril – his very own Mrs Danvers (Rebecca was a key influence) – played with relishably purse-lipped disdain by Lesley Manville.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Everything is ‘just so’ in this world, precisely ordered to facilitate the unencumbered creativity of the great man at its centre. “It’s right because it’s right,” as Reynolds says. Romances with women only last while they’re useful for the work – once the muse is used up, Cyril steps in to usher the ladies out the door (“What do you want to do about Johanna?” Cyril asks Reynolds over breakfast early in the film. “She’s lovely, but the time has come”).

The bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives were locked away in the forbidden room in the old fable, but Reynolds’s women simply vanish from the house once they are no longer needed, living on only as phantoms in the exquisite dresses they once inspired and wore.

That is until, as with Bluebeard’s eighth wife, Reynolds meets a woman who can’t be cast aside so easily – an orphaned Eastern European immigrant named Alma (Vicky Krieps) whom he meets when she’s working as a waitress in a seaside hotel, seduces (over breakfast) with the promise of glamour and high society, and who is soon living in the Mayfair house and spending weekends in his country manor (a family inheritance with more than a passing resemblance to a modest Manderley).

Like the heroines of so many gothic romances, from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to those of the films made in the genre’s heyday in 1940s Hollywood, such as Gaslight (1944), Experiment Perilous (1944) Dragonwyck (1946) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947) – not to mention any number of Hitchcock heroines imperilled by potentially murderous spouses – Alma finds Reynolds’s initial seductive interest gives way to a chilling distance.

However, Alma refuses simply to bend to Reynolds’s will as so many of her predecessors have. As she tells him on their first evening together: “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you’ll lose.” When later Reynolds is seized suddenly by a mysterious, violent sickness, it’s he who becomes the vulnerable one.

Paul Thomas Anderson on set

“The idea of doing something in the genre of the gothic romance had interested me for a long time,” says a very jet-lagged Anderson when I meet him a few days before Christmas, coincidentally in the same Covent Garden hotel room in which he, Day-Lewis and Krieps had their only brief meeting together before shooting began. “I had an idea to do a story of a man and a woman based upon a character who, unless he is ill, is unable to show how much he needs someone.”

Anderson has spoken of how one moment of inspiration came when he was laid up sick in bed, his wife tending to him with loving patience, but the theme is of course one that reaches back into the tradition of the gothic romance – in Jane Eyre, it’s only when Rochester is blinded and maimed that he and Jane finally marry. Love is brutal in these stories.

There was also the desire to work again with Day-Lewis, after their Oscar-winning collaboration on There Will Be Blood, and to bring the actor back to England. As Anderson describes the process of writing and conceiving the film, he unfailingly refers to “we” or “us”, and it’s clear that the collaboration was unusually close, even to the point of co-authorship. Was this a new way of working for him? “I had worked a bit in that way with Phil [Seymour Hoffman] on The Master,” Anderson says. “But yes, this was really from the ground up. I had less than I had ever had before when coming to Daniel, which I found to be a really good way of working, actually. We had the seed of the story and the character, but it had to grow. I’m never very strict on outlines going in. There’s a central premise, on which we can hang things as we discover them.”

Phantom Thread (2017)

That hanging of details accelerated as Anderson became increasingly interested in fashion, and mid-century haute couture in particular – in part prompted when composer and Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, who has scored each of Anderson’s features since There Will Be Blood, including Phantom Thread, complimented him on a suit: “He said something sarcastic to the effect of ‘Look at you, Beau Brummell’,” Anderson says. “I had to look the name up, then wanted to know more.

“I discovered [Spanish designer] Cristóbal Balenciaga, and just became fascinated by his life and his work,” he continues. “As I looked at other designers, I would keep seeing pictures of these couture houses, and it was always a man with dozens of women behind him, in lab coats, doing his work. That lent itself to a gothic story, I felt. There was also something so cinematic about staircases and doors and workspaces leading into other workspaces, with women in those gowns and dresses. It all fit.”

That period of research led Anderson and Day-Lewis, as well as costume designer Mark Bridges, to English designers of the period – men like Norman Hartnell (designer of Elizabeth II’s 1947 wedding gown, as well as her 1953 Coronation dress), Hardy Amies (who also designed dresses for Elizabeth) and Charles James, all exacting men who were drawn upon during the creation of the character of Reynolds Woodcock.

Paris and London were twin centres of European dressmaking in the 50s, but the latter appealed for its formal tradition, tied in to the rituals and occasions of upper-class society, as opposed to the fashionable ‘New Look’ developed over the channel by the likes of Christian Dior (at one point, Reynolds spits invective in disgust on hearing a client use the word ‘chic’ – “Fucking ‘chic’. Whoever invented that should be spanked in public. I don’t even know what that little word means!”).

The bringing together of the obsessive world of couture with the stifling rules governing manners and behaviour in fashionable English society of the period, where politesse might barely mask barbed hostility, revealed itself as prime gothic terrain. “That, and being from America. There’s always that old Anglo-fascination,” says Anderson. “I’d always loved the idea of post-war London, probably from all those movies I love: David Lean’s Brief Encounter [1945] and The Passionate Friends [1949], Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going! [1945]. These are food and drink to me. The Passionate Friends always seems to suffer in comparison to Brief Encounter, but I love it.”

The Passionate Friends (1949)

Less celebrated it may be, but The Passionate Friends feels a particularly key reference, dealing as it does with explosive secrets and emotional duplicity between three figures (in Lean’s film it’s Ann Todd, Trevor Howard as her former love, and Claude Rains as her mistrustful husband). More obviously still, it also has a scene set at a raucous New Year’s Eve party at the infamous Chelsea Arts Club Ball, as well as showing its characters holidaying in Switzerland – both also found in Phantom Thread.

“A straight lift!” laughs Anderson. “No. Whether it’s a wholesale steal from The Passionate Friends or not, I don’t know. Most of those kind of details came through the historical research. Switzerland was where society figures used to vacation at that time – Balenciaga, for example – so it fits that they would go there in The Passionate Friends.

“We were pulling from everywhere,” he continues. “Here we really counted on old Pathé footage. I found amazing material shot at the Chelsea Arts Club Ball, footage of fashion shows from the 50s, news footage of [American heiress] Barbara Hutton’s marriage to [Puerto Rican diplomat and renowned playboy] Porfirio Rubirosa, which we have paralleled in our film [with a story involving the House of Woodcock’s wealthy American investor Barbara Rose, played by Harriet Sansom Harris, marrying a Dominican businessman; Reynolds has to hold his nose and attend the wedding]. You can go on to YouTube and watch Pathé reports of the Chelsea Arts Club balls between 1947 to ’57. They were so much more violent and scandalous than we portray them in the film. It’s following those paths. So, the dressing of the Belgian princess [in the film] was inspired by a real story of Balenciaga dressing a Belgian princess – but it’s a story from the 60s that we’ve transplanted to the 50s. Historians will wag their fingers, but all those inspirations get pooled.”

The New Year's Eve scene in Phantom Thread (2017)

Nonetheless, he did look to contemporary fiction and cinema for tone. I ask him if he looked at Jacques Becker’s 1945 film Falbalas, a story about, yes, an obsessive, womanising designer in Paris whose ways are disrupted by an affair – the scenes of seamstresses at work feel very reminiscent of Phantom Thread. Anderson says, “Yes. It’s not one of Becker’s best. I thought it would be a goldmine to steal from but it turned out just OK. The gowns are by Marcel Rochas, who was a famous designer at the time and quite a ladies’ man. But we were well on our way with the idea and of course, started searching for anything that might inform or present us with a problem of the ‘it’s been done before’ kind.”

Caroline Blackwood's stories were a key influence on Phantom Thread

A key influence on conveying the claustrophobic atmosphere of London’s grand houses of the time, and the scathing, darkly comic tone the film takes towards them, were the sharply observed novels by the writer and heiress to the Guinness fortune Lady Caroline Blackwood, a celebrated beauty, muse and fixture in bohemian London circles in the 50s, when she was married to artist Lucian Freud – Anderson cites in particular Blackwood’s short stories and her novel Great Granny Webster. Blackwood’s third husband, the poet Robert Lowell, memorably described her as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers” – an image that feels perfectly of a piece with Phantom Thread.

And in British cinema of the period, as well as Lean, he inevitably looked to The Archers: “Powell and Pressburger films were a great reminder to me of the need to put theatrics in,” he says. “For instance, the theatrics that come with a fashion house like that – the grand entrances, the rituals of walking into such a house, of walking up the stairs to meet the great man… trying to film that with a bravura theatricality. Ramping it all up, certainly with the music, because that must have been the impression they all wanted to give – that display of power. ‘I’ll let you walk up the stairs to me, and I’ll greet you from above.’ And that hasn’t changed today.”

The Red Shoes (1948) was a particular touchstone, its tale of an obsessively committed man at the head of a creative enterprise – and the exploration of the personal toll of that commitment – an obvious parallel. Day-Lewis also borrows unmistakably from the look and poise of Anton Walbrook’s ballet director Boris Lermontov for Reynolds, and just as Lermontov calls the ambitious young composer Julian Craster to a meeting over breakfast, Phantom Thread is punctuated by several excruciatingly funny breakfast-table scenes, with Reynolds showing mounting irritation as his invaluable thinking time is disrupted by the simply unbearable clink of a teaspoon against a cup, or the intolerable sound of a knife buttering toast.

Phantom Thread (2017)

As Cyril tells Alma: “If breakfast isn’t right it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” Was Anderson lampooning the scenes of the great man at breakfast familiar from earlier films? (In Rebecca too, Olivier’s Maxim de Winter is at breakfast when he suddenly proposes to Joan Fontaine’s “little fool”, instructing her that he has “two lumps of sugar in my coffee – now don’t forget!”) “Actually I come to it from a very personal place,” Anderson laughs. “Daniel has teased me about my obsession with breakfast. When we were getting together to make There Will Be Blood he would always point out that I was ordering five times the normal amount.”

If this is really to be Day-Lewis’s final role, it’s another entirely distinctive performance on which to bow out. Not as obviously bravura as, say, his turns as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2000), or his oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, his Reynolds Woodcock is still every bit as memorable as his character’s name demands.

Despite his reputation among royalty and London’s elite, he’s a brusque, fabulously rude figure (“Didn’t I tell you to fuck off?” he says at one point to the young doctor who examined him during his sudden sickness, and with whom Alma has a tentative flirtation; on another that he “doesn’t give a tinker’s fucking curse” whether or not a client is satisfied with her dress). Reynolds doesn’t really fit at all in high society, which he views with a scathing disregard – all those entitled, useless people lacking in the grand talent and purpose only he possesses.

He’s an odd, self-centred man with a fixation on his dead mother (he keeps a lock of her hair sewn into the lining of his jackets, just above his breast “to keep her close to me always… I try to never be without her”), and trusts no one but Cyril. “Daniel and I always imagined that Reynolds would be a person who ran in his own lane – he wouldn’t socialise with anyone else who did what he did,” says Anderson. “He would have had a belief that he was the only real designer in England. I always found myself wondering what Reynolds would have made of someone like Norman Hartnell. He probably would have been slightly dismissive – he would have said that Hartnell used too many gemstones or something. We talked about the fact that Reynolds’s mother would have been an immigrant, an outsider herself – like Alma. With a character like Reynolds there’s so often a preoccupation with his mother, and Reynolds’s mother would have made sure that her child’s feet never touched the ground; he was the golden child, whose gift for sewing was cultivated, at the expense of Cyril.”

Lesley Manville as Cyril in Phantom Thread (2017)

That sense of his own uniqueness and disdain for the entitlement of the idle upper classes is something that ultimately he shares with Alma. We’re given little direct information about Alma’s background (of the fact that she shares her name with Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, Anderson says, “I promise you, it was a complete accident. I probably would have avoided it if I had thought of it”), other than that she is an orphan (material showing her with her brother was cut from the final edit of the film); but we’re given clues, such as her reaction to a scene in which a Daily Mail reporter asks Woodcock benefactor Barbara Rose at the press conference to mark her wedding to playboy Rubio Gurrerro, about rumours of him selling visas to Jews during the war.

The camera holds on her expression as she reacts, and the line echoes in her ears – are we to read that she’s a Jewish war orphan? “Yes. I would say so,” Anderson says. “We tried to point it in that direction. We actually wanted several things to be captured in her expression in that scene: her disgust that Reynolds’s beautiful dress is being worn at such an occasion; visas and Jews – this is triggering a lot in her. And also, if this is what love is meant to look like [a cynical, financial arrangement], she doesn’t want a piece of it. It’s the classic thing, you get to a point in editing where you decide that you’ve retained material that points to a backstory, and if the audience are swift they will catch it, but if they don’t, it’s not important for their enjoyment.”

Gradually, Alma emerges as someone as complex and difficult as Reynolds, her initial exasperation that he resists her attempts at a more conventional intimacy giving way to a conspiratorial understanding of his difficult nature – something abetted by Cyril, who comes to see Alma as an ally. In her first major English-language role, Luxembourg-born actor Vicky Krieps is a revelation, and more than holds her own alongside Day-Lewis.

I ask Anderson if he was concerned that working with Day-Lewis could be intimidating, and if he used that to impact on the film: “I’ve no doubt that Daniel is aware of it. But he is very good about putting people at ease, even if there is supposed to be an uneasy relationship in the film. I would hesitate to say that I used it to help any performances. He even came to me two weeks into the shoot to say he was nervous at just how good Vicky was, and that he was on the back foot.”

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread (2017)

The fact that Reynolds and Alma are both outsiders is a detail Anderson uses to probe the snobberies and ugly prejudices of the English upper class. “I was fascinated by the rules of the British class system,” Anderson says. “But I relied on Daniel to guide me in that area.” Most of the film is set in the claustrophobic confines of the House of Woodcock, or away at the weekend house in the country, or occasionally at dinner in the same restaurant – a world within the wider world of London society of the period. But there is a telling sequence of Alma and Reynolds out at a party hosted by Lady Baltimore (played by Julia Davis – “She’s a national treasure. I love Nighty Night, Camping, Jam and all that Chris Morris stuff, and especially Human Remains”), whose snobbery towards Alma is vicious – a comment on the well-documented anti-Semitism of much of the English aristocracy of the time? “Yes,” says Anderson. “Julia Davis said of Lady Baltimore that she was the type of person who might say, ‘I don’t mean to be racist, but…’ As her character says of Alma: ‘Is she up there stealing things, or attacking people, or howling at the moon?’”

The film was all shot on location – a seaside town near Whitby in Yorkshire standing in for the seaside village where Reynolds meets Alma, a large Elizabethan cottage in the Cotswolds for his weekend retreat, and an elegant Georgian terrace on Fitzroy Square in central London for the House of Woodcock. The decision brought challenges, but Anderson wouldn’t have had it any other way. “The idea of going to a set seemed like I could have just stayed in Burbank, which would have been wrong. I look at London as a tourist, it all seems so cinematic to me. It can be frustrating shooting a period piece on location, you sometimes have to resort to digital effects to take things out or put things in. But I try to avoid it.”

Similarly, all the main dresses seen in the film were designed and made bespoke by costume designer Mark Bridges, rather than bought in from museum collections. “That was an idea early on, but they’re museum pieces, they can’t go out. Plus they’re 70 years old now, and we needed them to be brand new. Also, it just would have been wrong to make a film about a dressmaker and not build the dresses. That said, there are many dresses in the background that are vintage, and to make all of them would have been way beyond the scope of what we could afford. So you focus on the ones that are really front and centre.”

Joan Brown and Sue Clark (centre) in Phantom Thread

That sense of authenticity is stitched into the film in other, more surprising ways too. Bridges accompanied Anderson and Day-Lewis on research trips to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where they happened to meet two long-time volunteers, Joan Brown and Sue Clark, who were so helpful they ended up not only being creative advisers on set, but also appearing in the film as seamstresses Biddy and Nana. “Joan had even worked for Hardy Amies for many, many years from the 1950s, so working with them was one of the great, great pleasures of making this,” says Anderson.

In formal terms, what’s striking about Phantom Thread is not the ostentatious stylistic audacity that characterised Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and led to claims of Anderson as a new Kubrick (though many will note the way the filming of Reynolds and Alma’s high-speed night-time drive through country lanes recalls a similar scene in A Clockwork Orange); nor even the daring choices of later films like There Will Be Blood, whose first 20 minutes took place entirely without dialogue. Instead there’s a restrained classicism to the look and editing of the film (which Anderson shot himself – no cinematographer is credited) that is appropriate to the theme.

There’s also a trust in the power of transitions between scenes to affect the uneasy disquiet that is the heart of the story – elisions that express what is not necessarily seen or verbalised. Subtle dissolves to a new scene indicate a change in the emotional temperature in the house; a cut to a new morning bringing with it the realisation that the balance of power in the relationship has shifted almost imperceptibly overnight in Alma’s favour. Anderson credits editor Dylan Tichenor with much of the crafting of that effect, and also Jonny Greenwood’s score, which winds around pieces by Nelson Riddle, Oscar Peterson, Debussy, Schubert, Brahms and others and wonderfully suggests the ebbing and flowing of otherwise disguised emotions.

Did Anderson have notes for Greenwood on the music? “I actually showed Jonny The Passionate Friends,” he says. “Interestingly, Richard Addinsell, the composer of that score, was the lover of Victor Stiebel, a popular couture designer in London, so again there were those unexpected connections. Jonny would say that he would write music he imagined Reynolds would listen to. ‘Romance’ was my only direction to him.”

Swooning romance? Or romance of the dangerous, masochistic kind? “Well… in the end, what’s the difference?”