Paul Thomas Anderson has downplayed "The Master's" connection to Scientology. At the Toronto International Film Festival, he reportedly rolled his eyes when asked about the parallels between his latest movie, which comes out in limited release Friday, and the polarizing religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard.
He was less dismissive at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month. "I really don't know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now," he said at a news conference. "But I do know a lot about the beginning of the movement, and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters."
A representative for the Church of Scientology did not directly respond to requests for comment, but sources versed in Scientology told ABCNews.com that the parallels between the religion and scenes from the movie are too strong to ignore.
In "The Master," Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the creator of a religion called "The Cause." That's also the name of his first book, a religious tome much like Hubbard's "Dianetics." Lancaster is known to disciples as The Master, and when a wayward naval veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), wanders onto his yacht, Lancaster takes him under his wing as his right-hand man and test subject.
Test No. 1 is "informal processing," a one-on-one interrogation in which The Master sits across from Freddie and asks him to look "back beyond" to "return to the prebirth era." He repeats questions, asking Freddie, "What is your name?" and "Do your past failures bother you?" five times. Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in Scientology, said the processing scene is nearly identical to the auditing exercises of Scientology.
"The repetition of questions, for example, often happens, so that people being audited can go back to an earlier related incident," he said. "The one-on-one process, sitting across from each other, it's hard to imagine what else they could have been modeling this on."
An anonymous machine ticks back and forth during the processing scene. "One has to think about an e-meter," Kent said, referring to the device that measures electrical resistance during Scientology auditing.
Later on, Freddie is subjected to a similar exercise in which he sits across from Lancaster's son-in-law, Clark, and is told that he must continue to look at Clark, without flinching, for one minute, no matter what.
Clark launches into a verbal attack on Freddie, disparaging his ex-girlfriend. Freddie initially lashes out, and The Master orders him to start over. This happens multiple times before Freddie sits back, calm, as Clark hurls slurs at his face.
Kent compared that exchange to bull baiting, an exercise from Scientology's communications course that teaches believers how to "handle upsets" and "be comfortable and confident in anyone's presence," according to the Church of Scientology of Los Angeles' website.
"People sit across from each other, and each has to say insulting things to each other up to the point where the other person is not reacting," Kent said.