Paul Thomas Anderson’s Crew Tells All About Improvising One of His Best Shots

While fans of Paul Thomas Anderson continue to wait for updates about his new 1970s-set feature, the director’s “Phantom Thread” lighting crew recently took time out of quarantine to look back on Anderson’s beloved 2017 romance (which IndieWire named the 20th best film of the 2010s). First AC Erik Brown, lighting cameraman Mike Bauman, and gaffer Jonny Franklin joined Lux Lighting at the start of July for a two-and-half-hour masterclass in which they broke down the craftsmanship behind “Phantom Thread.” Highlights from the masterclass have been rounded up by The Film Stage and confirm that some of the best “Phantom Thread” moments were entirely improvised.

“In this scene where we meet Vicky’s character Alma for the first time and the flirting is going on with Reynolds Woodcock, there’s a moment when she trips and then serves him the food,” Brown said. “If you look, she’s very red. She’s very flush. That wasn’t a lighting trick. That was just real life intervening in the moment. She actually tripped and she was terribly embarrassed we were rolling on her and she completely blushed. It was so perfect for her character. It’s in the movie.”

Not only was Alma and Reynolds’ meet cute partially improvised, but so was another one of the couple’s defining moments in the film. One of the best shots in “Phantom Thread” takes place at the end of a New Year’s Eve party as the two characters dance alone in a deserted concert hall. A spotlight beams down on Reynolds and Alma as they embrace, their love isolating them from the chaotic aftermath of the party that surrounds them. The crew revealed that shot was done on the fly after all the extras and the majority of the crew had left the set for the day. Anderson came up with the idea after seeing the abandoned set and wanting his characters to share a romantic moment in the now-quietness of the busy scenery. The director rounded up the crew that remained and got the shot in 30 minutes.

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As for the hardest shot in the movie, Brown said that would be one of the movie’s final images that show Alma and Reynolds in the future with their baby in a park. “We were shooting the Barbara Rose wedding reception scene and at the very end of the day we had to run across the street at the park to shoot Alma and Reynolds walking with the baby carriage, the end of the movie,” he said. “In typical film fashion, we were way late getting out there. We had almost lost all of the available light. It was beautiful, but it was a one time crack at the shot.”

“Somebody else had set it up with the dolly track and second camera,” Brown continued. “So I ran out there at dusk. I didn’t have any tools. There was no remote focus. Push two stops, 2000 ASA, there’s no light left. We put the longest prime lens we had. It’s wide open. I’ve got no focus marks. There’s no light ranger. There’s no CineTape. There’s no nothing. We just shot. I had no marks. I didn’t know where they were walking. It was an absolute crapshoot… I really thought I probably didn’t have that shot in its entirety. That was without a doubt one of the hardest moments.”

Watch the full “Phantom Thread” lighting masterclass in the video below. Head over to The Film Stage for a complete rundown of highlights

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