Scientology's most advanced followers allegedly believe in a 75-million-year-old alien named Xenu. They shirk modern psychiatry and seek happiness by reducing their "thetan" levels. Over the years, they've grown into an international multimillion dollar organization accused of intimidating their enemies with scare tactics and pushing the law to its limits in the name of self-preservation, earning a reputation for shadowy, cult-like dealings that once famously earned them comparison to the Mafia by Time Magazine. Perhaps even worse, they're responsible for the bizarre celebrity spectacle that is Tom Cruise. But did the Church of Scientology have enough far-reaching power to block Universal from green lighting the latest Paul Thomas Anderson opus?
"Yes!" screamed conspiracy theorists when news broke in March that Universal had passed on Anderson's period piece, about a charismatic man who starts his own religion in the early 1950s. Although Variety initially claimed the script didn't specifically target Scientology, an early draft of what The Playlist assumed to be Anderson's untitled project (referred to in film circles as The Master) revealed pretty obvious parallels between its main character and sci-fi writer-turned-Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. What's more, just look at the timeline. The Playlist published its comprehensive script report pinpointing all the Scientology parallels on February 17. A month later, Deadline reported that Universal had passed on the film, citing its prohibitive proposed $35 million budget. (River Road reportedly stepped up to finance the film, which starts shooting this year.) Coincidence? Or conspiracy?
Let's look at what we know about the P.T. Anderson project. It centers around a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman, the only name currently attached to the film) who starts a faith-based organization that becomes popular in 1952 America -- exactly the year L. Rob Hubbard expanded his Dianetics self-help system and established the Church of Scientology. The film explores "The Master's" relationship with a young drifter named Freddie who joins the fold and becomes his Number 2 officer, only to later question both the faith and its figurehead in later years -- something plenty of high and low ranking Scientologists alike have done over the years, many publicly denouncing the organization on their way out. The Master employs interrogation-style psychotherapy procedures not unlike the "audit" process basic to Scientology, and spends time living in seclusion with his inner circle on a ship, which Hubbard himself did in the 1960s. (Read more of The Playlist's insightful comparisons here.)
More recently, trade paper Production Weekly reported that Reese Witherspoon had been offered a role in The Master; The Wrap's Deal Central speculated she would play Mary Sue, the young, pregnant wife of Hoffman's character. Mary Sue Whipp, of course, was the name of Hubbard's much younger third wife who became involved in Dianetics in the 1950s and helped him run his Scientology empire. The role of The Master's daughter is also being cast, with Amanda Seyfried, Emma Stone, and Deborah Ann Woll rumored to be in the running. Also linked to the project is Jeremy Renner, who had been up for the role of Freddie, though his involvement is as yet unconfirmed.
Although Anderson's film will no doubt be much more than a mere $35 million slam against Scientology -- we're talking epic examinations of humanity, greed, and faith, connecting The Master to Anderson's previous films Magnolia and There Will Be Blood -- will those real-life comparisons come a little too close for comfort for the Church that L. Ron built? Scientologists have never been a particularly friendly lot when it comes to receiving criticism; Mary Sue herself was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail for masterminding an illegal intelligence-gathering operation, sanctioned by the Church, in which members stole files attempting to suppress anti-Scientology press from the likes of Interpol, the IRS, and other government agencies. IN REAL LIFE. The aforementioned Time Magazine piece from 1991 is filled with frightening accounts of intimidation and harassment allegedly suffered by those critical of the Church that would make Sun Tzu proud.
And just think: Given how many times we've all joshed about Scientologists like Beck and John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, and how much skepticism most people have toward the religion, how many times has a major motion picture or television show really, truly, put it to L. Ron and his devout thetan-hunters? Barely at all. Does Hubbard's legacy, infamously seeded for decades into the ranks of A-list Hollywood and the world of entertainment, have the power to kill movies?
Perhaps. Then again, maybe Universal really didn't want to spend $35 mil on a religious drama about Philip Seymour Hoffman on a boat. But I'd put even money on the crazy conspiracy theory any day. After all, if Scientology has the power to rocket Tom Cruise back to popularity by hip-hop dancing with J. Lo at an awards show while dressed as a lame character from a movie from two years ago, then it's much more powerful and insidious than any of us have imagined.