May 9, 2018
video essay

Watch: The Notorious Evolution of Daniel Plainview's Character in 'There Will Be Blood'

A new video essay delves deep into the creation of Daniel Plainview, the infamous prospector in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood.' 

"Daniel Plainview is one of the most well-developed characters in cinema history," says Tyler Knudsen in his new video essay from the series Cinema Tyler. It's true—Daniel Day-Lewis's embodiment of Paul Thomas Anderson's fictional oilman is, at least in the realm of American cinema, unparalleled in its complexity. Plainview's obsessive ambition, avarice, manipulative tendencies, charisma, and intelligence are a Molotov cocktail made in antihero heaven. 

Drawing on interviews with Anderson, Day-Lewis, and cinematographer Robert Elswitt, Knudsen explains the intricate process of the character's creation. It was so involved, in fact, that by the time they got to shooting, Knudsen says, Anderson and Day-Lewis were "so much on the same page that the discussions on set revolved mainly around whether or not Plainview would be wearing a hat or smoking his pipe."

But, as you'll come to see, the hat plays a more important role than meets the eye. Read on for our takeaways from the video.

1. It's a vampiric horror movie

Anderson fanciedThere Will Be Blood as a kind of horror movie, and the first thing he thought of when he wrote Plainview was Count Dracula. The comparison is writ large in the film. For instance, we’re first introduced to Plainview in the darkness of a mine shaft, where his face is shrouded in darkness. The character thirsts for oil like a vampire thirsts for blood; the title of the film itself, according to Anderson, alludes to oil as the "blood of the land."

2. Anderson wrote the role for Day-Lewis

From the beginning of the writing process, Anderson had Day-Lewis in mind for the role of Plainview, even though the director had never once met the famous method actor in person. When he completed the script, Anderson felt too timid to approach Day-Lewis; it wasn't until a mutual friend revealed that Day-Lewis enjoyed Punch Drunk Love that Anderson worked up the confidence to meet the actor. The two spent a week together in New York getting to know each other. 

3. Plainview is based on a historical figure

Anderson has said that he based the character of Plainview on real-life oil tycoon Edward Doheney. Like Doheney, Plainview is from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, worked for a geological survey, and mined silver in New Mexico. The most famous line in the film, “I drink your milkshake!” was based on a 1924 court hearing in which Doheney appeared. The cherry on top of the... milkshake? The scenes in Plainview’s mansion at the end were filmed at Doheney's real-life estate.

4. The truth about Plainview's hat 

The evolution of Plainview's hat mirrors the evolution of his character. At the beginning of the film, Plainview wears a tattered miner's hat. But as he rises to prominence as a prospector, he dons a polished, more becoming hat, which costume designer Mark Bridges found at a vintage store. (This certainly lends credence to the content of Anderson and Day Lewis's pow-wows on set.)

For all its brilliance in character-building, the hat posed real challenges for Elswitt, the film's cinematographer, who shot interior scenes in extremely low light, with 200 ASA, working at a T-stop of 3.2. "Things got tricky when Daniel started wearing his hat," said Elswitt, "because I had to light his face under the brim without making it feel completely artificial. I tried to place the light far enough away from him and soften it with diffusion so it would feel like ambient room light. Usually, there was enough ambient light from sources in the scene, like sconces and lamps, that I could create a soft directional light that didn’t feel flat."     

For additional videos by Tyler Knudsen, click here

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