OSCAR nominated and Golden Globe-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis talks about some of his preparation for playing an oil prospector in There Will Be Blood as well as some of the misrepresentations that have been made about his acting style.
He also talks about some of the amazing set pieces in the film, whether the father-son relationship in the film is reflected in any of his own experiences, and working with co-star Paul Dano and director Paul Thomas Anderson.
What particular challenges did you face on There Will Be Blood?
Daniel Day-Lewis: Really, the challenge always seems to be the same thing, to tell a story as well as you can. To whatever extent I’m able to assess my contribution at the very beginning, having felt the pull of the orbit of another world, I try to step backwards and ask myself if I can serve that story as the person I’m going to be telling that story with. I try to do that, but I think I’m usually already too far gone anyhow. It’s a token gesture rather than a real one.
What was your reaction as you flicked through the script and saw so many pages without dialogue during the opening of the film?
Daniel Day-Lewis: That was delightful actually. I have a paradoxical relationship with language anyhow, having come from a household where language was so important. I turned page after page and thought: “How long can he keep this going for?” There was something almost cheeky about it, but delightful and true, first and foremost it seemed true, that the life of this man in this situation could be revealed in such a way that you knew everything that you needed to know about him at that stage in his life without ever saying a word. I just thought there was something quite remarkable about that. In fact, it’s actually a much longer sequence in the script and we shot a much longer sequence which then – when the film was put together – would have gone on for probably about 30 minutes had we not had to necessarily try and condense it. It was a whole overture.
I guess there’s plenty of potential research material here for your role as Daniel Plainview. How far did you go into that?
Daniel Day-Lewis: Not very far, except I read the book [Oil! by Upton Sinclair]. The first 150 pages or so introduce you to the world of the oilfields at that time, and there’s a lot of great detail about the world of the drillers and the prospectors. The second part of the book is almost like an examination of the conflict between labour and management, which is a different kind of thing altogether but nonetheless fascinating. Upton Sinclair was a very committed, lifelong socialist and it was kind of amazing he survived in America at that time. So yes I’ve read the book. But there were no clues there other than the introduction to the oilfields.
I studied the life of [turn of the century American oil tycoon] Edward Doheny only insofar as I learnt about the main events of his life. Los Angeles was actually founded on muck, it’s an amazing thing, if you see the early photographs dating back to that period. It’s actually a forest of oil derricks with tiny little houses sandwiched here and there in between them. If you happened to live in one of those little houses and stepped out of the front door, what you would be confronted by would be a quagmire of crude oil just running down the streets. Your kids would be playing in that stuff. That was the world, and Los Angeles grew out of that and was founded on that wealth. Doheny was one of the principal characters in the building of that city. Indeed, there’s a Doheny Drive named after him and probably some other roads. We filmed the last couple of scenes of the movie in the Doheny Mansion which, in every respect, feels like a pyramid, a monument that a pharaoh built for his own quiet, self destruction. It’s interesting.
Did you undertake any special preparations for this role?
Daniel Day-Lewis: No. I don’t know what that says about me, I wish I could say there was some monstrous… well, there are a couple of monstrous members of the family that I suppose I could have modelled him on, but in this case I didn’t. There was no model.
Did you visit any oil rigs?
Daniel Day-Lewis: No. It was rumoured apparently that I’d built a derrick in a field behind my house in County Wicklow, and I must say when I read that I thought: “That’s not a bad idea, I might try that!” But we were a bit short on help at the time. Considering the way that I work very often, I do feel I’ve been soundly misrepresented so many times that there’s almost no point in even talking about it, but people tend to focus on the details of the preparation, the practical details in this clinic or that prison and so on and so forth. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. But for me as much as that work is a vital part of it and always fuel to one’s fascination, one’s curiosity, the principal work is always in the imagination. That’s where it’s going to happen if it’s going to happen anywhere at all. The imagination in very close working partnership with the subconscious, I think, because when the work is happening the way it should be you can’t be entirely in control of it. Paul [Thomas Anderson] is a mischief-maker; he’s a great man for working close to the borderline of chaos and I think that’s really the most fertile area that you can work in.
Where did Plainview’s voice come from?
Daniel Day-Lewis: I didn’t base it on anyone in particular. I say, rather defensively, that one or two people have pointed out that they thought I’d somehow modelled it on John Huston. I listened to quite a number of recordings. There are none existing from that period, luckily for me, so no one can say: “That’s not how it was.” There’s a great deal of freedom there, maybe potentially too much, to experiment. But I listened to some recordings of John Huston because at a given moment the vigour and delivery of his voice suddenly came into my mind from nowhere. But I also listened to dustbowl recordings from Oklahoma, and from the Midwest. They were really quite charming but of no use to me whatsoever.
I didn’t know what I was looking for, and as far as possible I try not to dismember the life of a man into separate parts, physical or spiritual or vocal. I try to allow that life to reveal itself in some way as if I don’t really have much to do with it. I’m nearly always working on a voice of some kind, but I try not to do it in isolation from the other work. I talk to myself a lot, I have a little prehistoric machine with tiny tapes that are incompatible with just about any system I know of. I talk into that an awful lot to see if I can find a sound that means something. But nearly always it comes with hearing a voice in my mind’s ear.
The film contains a number of amazing set pieces. Were some of them just one-off chances, such as the burning of the oil rig? Or could you have more than just one take?
Daniel Day-Lewis: In that case no. In fact, I don’t know how many times the burning of that bloody rig was put on the schedule. We all thought we should do something else first because there was only one derrick and that was the centrepiece of our world that Jack Fisk had built for us. In a way, part of it was that we didn’t want to lose it as well. We knew that we’d feel the absence of that beautiful thing when it was gone, but more than that it was a big risk. This was a big story to tell, the schedule was 60 days which is not nothing but it’s not a long shoot either to tell that story. So, it was relentless and there was so much to do every day. And there was no going back if we’d got the burning of the derrick wrong – we’d have been absolutely shagged. But we had a good guy called Steve Cremin, who was strangely an ex-tennis pro, and he really just did everything right, thank God.
Did the father-son relationship in the film have any bearing on your own complex relationship with father, or your relationship with your son?
Daniel Day-Lewis: My relationship with my own father was much less complex than you might have been led to believe. He was just a man I never really got to know, so there’s nothing really complex about that. In later years, reassessing what might have been a relationship with my father, that’s where the complexity is, I suppose, because we all to some extent measure ourselves – if we’re men – against our fathers. I would hope that none of my experiences as a father would have fed the relationship Plainview has with HW [his son in the film]. I would hope. In fact, it probably worked against me a little bit, because I felt so protective of that wonderful young man, to the point where he’d almost be swatting me off like I was an irritating mosquito or something [smiles].
Dillon Freasier, who played HW, was a local boy from Fort Davis, which is a town about 10 miles from Marfa. He was a rancher, a genuine cowboy, and he worked with his father in round ups and branding and everything else as part of the seasonal life of a rancher. He did rodeos, he’d won rodeo buckles, he was the real thing. He was a 10- year-old man-child. And he had a great head on his shoulders, and a pair of hands like shovels. I daresay he could have knocked me out if he wanted to. He was a wonderful, self-possessed, beautiful young man, so I really worried for him because he’d never made a movie.
We got along really well. We were friends before we started shooting and at a given moment I really felt I needed to explain to him the deal. I said: “In a few days time we’re going to be in the story and I’m going to speaking to you harshly sometimes, I’m not going to be speaking to you well…” But he looked at me like I was insane, like: “What the f**k are you telling me that for?” I said: “You know that I love you?” And he said: “I know that, leave me alone.” So, he got on with it and he cured me of my instinct to be over protective of him.
Another of your co-stars, Paul Dano, was also in The Ballad of Jack & Rose, so was this a chance to pick up your relationship?
Daniel Day-Lewis: Yeah. I certainly knew enough about Paul and I hope he’d say the same, to know that he’d be somebody I’d know I wanted on my side in a scrap. I admired him so much in Rebecca [Miller]‘s film. We never really spoke, and we never met socially during that time because the work led us in different directions. He understood implicitly, as I did, that it was important to keep that distance between us. But we got to know each other a little bit after that and I like him so much as a man – which always helps – but as an actor I think he’s undoubtedly one of the most promising young actors working at the moment.
Are there any others you admire?
Daniel Day-Lewis: There’s a few really good ones… Emile Hirsch and Ryan Gosling. I don’t know if Ryan is a little bit older, but they’re more or less part of the same generation, wonderful actors. But I was delighted at the thought of working with Paul again. Actually, when we cast the film originally we cast somebody else in the part of Eli and we shot for three or four weeks with a different actor. But it didn’t work out for a number of reasons. It’s the only occasion in my life that, during the course of a piece of work, we had to re-cast and re-shoot stuff which I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
Paul as already contracted to play the part of Paul, and we’d all considered him for Eli already, so it seemed like an obvious choice. He flew out to what he thought would be one of his scenes as Paul and we asked him what he thought about also playing Eli and he never went home again. He had two days to prepare for the part. He came out on a Friday evening and we were shooting scenes on Monday with him. And I swear to God on set that day he was a recognisable, fully formed character. I dare say he was slightly unsettled in himself, but you wouldn’t have guessed it. He was just right there.
How aware of movies are you when you’re not making them and how aware were you of someone like Paul Thomas Anderson? Are directors a lure to you or is it all about the script?
Daniel Day-Lewis: Initially, it’s all about the script. But in his case, I certainly knew his films and already admired him a great deal. And most particularly for his recent film Punch Drunk Love. So even the very idea of working with him when the word came was something I was intrigued by. Nonetheless, had I read that script and not felt drawn nto the world that he’d created, out of respect for him I’d have said: “Get somebody else, because I can’t help you here.” But I was very drawn to the idea of working with him. I watch a lot of films when I’m not working because I like to know what’s going on. And I just love going to the movies.