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.
A Tale of Two Men and Many Tests
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.
The similarities extend beyond scenes. Details of the film appear to be ripped from the history of Scientology, from the type of boat Lancaster lives on -- a cattle trawler, the same boat Hubbard sailed on in the 1960s and '70s -- to a speech Lancaster makes in Phoenix about the power of laughter during processing sessions. In 1954, Hubbard gave a lecture on the theory of laughter and auditing in Phoenix.
Lancaster claims his processing sessions can treat diseases that started "trillions of years ago," such as leukemia. Kent said that dovetails with Scientology's weariness of modern medicine. "The assumption that Scientology makes, and it's in writing, is that 70 percent of illnesses are psychosomatic," he said. "A number of Scientologists, when people get sick, the first thing they do is go into auditing. The first instinct is not to go to a medical doctor."
Even Lancaster's appearance and personality bring to mind Hubbard in the 1950s. A robust, well dressed man with blond waves of hair, The Master fancies himself a party thrower and often croons while he carouses.
"Hubbard would, on occasion, have parties," Kent said. "He saw himself as a master entertainer and singer."
When Freddie first asks Lancaster who he is, The Master describes himself as a nuclear physicist, a doctor, and a man of many hats.
"That's straight Hubbard," Kent said. "Hubbard claimed he was a nuclear physicist. He also claimed he could heal people."
And then there's the year the movie takes place, 1950, when Hubbard's first edition of "Dianetics" was published. "1950 is a pivotal year for Scientology," Kent said. "It was the foundation for what became Scientology.
But while Scientology inspired "The Master," it isn't its focus. The rise of "The Cause" serves as a backdrop to the ebb and flow of Lancaster and Freddie's relationship. Whatever similarities exist between the film and Scientology, critics and Anderson have ended up emphasizing the performances of Hoffman and Phoenix, which come awards season, may prove to be "The Master's" legacy beyond the Scientology buzz.
"I look at these guys not like father and son. They're a little more like, not even master and servant," Anderson said in Venice. "I think we were just trying to tell a love story between these guys. And we had a lot of scenes that weren't about that and we just took them out and the narrative, for whatever the narrative ended up being, just ended up being driven by these two guys and their love for each other."