Wednesday, July 02, 1997

Interview: "15 Minutes With The Prodigy"

Girls On - Claire Magazine
Fall 1997

I get 15 minutes. A short amount of time considering my hours of preparation for this interview--up since six a.m., writing out questions, rehearsing, calling Lise ("is that question too obnoxious?"). I come to his jazzy uptown New York hotel 20 minutes early, armed with a recorder, five 90-minute micro- cassette tapes, extra batteries, notebook, four pens, Boogie Nights production notes. Then I sit in the lobby like a dick, not thinking to call his room, testing my recorder for the thousandth time. After half an hour, I finally call, and his assistant appears to usher me to his suite.

I walk in and see that this guy is young. Like 26 or 27 young. And not only did L.A. native Paul Thomas Anderson write and direct Boogie Nights, he also wrote and directed a flick that I recently caught on video and loved, Hard Eight, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Baker Hall. I'm a little star-struck, frankly. But he's just sitting there, all casual and sweet-looking and poised, smoking his Camels. He's kind of thin, with glasses and not-so-recently-washed-looking hair. Regular clothes--khakis, a button-up shirt (not oxford, though). But I notice he's wearing one of those super-hip G-Shock watches. Mmm-hmm. Mental note: wearing G-Shock. This is going well.

People are comparing Anderson to Quentin "The Chin" Tarantino--I honestly think only because of his youth. People are also comparing him to Scorsese, because of his style and subject matter.

Me: Let's talk about Martin Scorsese. There's a Raging Bull-type scene at the end of Boogie Nights, for one thing, and everyone's comparing Boogie Nights to Goodfellas, not only in theme but in camera work, like the long tracking shots through hallways. Was he a big influence for you?

Him: I think anybody who makes movies now is influenced by Scorsese, [but] I wouldn't say he's my first and foremost influence.

Me: Who would that be?

Him: I think Jonathan Demme is certainly my favorite filmmaker. I don't consider [the tracking shots] a Scorsese patent, I really don't… Sure, he did the famous one in GOODFELLAS, but you can trace that stuff back…It's funny, because for me, there are shots that I think I'm sort of blatantly ripping off, and no one else seems to notice. I remember grabbing my editor and going, "See, see?" And he's like, "What are you talking about?" And I was like, "You know-- Jonathan Demme, right?" And he goes, "It doesn't look anything like that shot." You sort of filter it through your head, and see what happens. The Goodfellas thing for me works on a different level. It's certainly a movie that I looked at as a model, structurally, for this movie. I think people might really be finding that link, not so much cinematically, but just in terms of the characters, that you've got this group of people in this movie that are essentially gangsters, Murderers, killers, but we all sort of relate to them; we all associate with them; we all like them, in a very twisted, sort of perverted way. So I think maybe there's a similar thing going on between gangster films and this…

Me: the porn industry. Did you look at any porn movies? I mean, what kind of research did you do?

Him: I've seen every porn movie ever made. (laughs) No, I have seen a lot of porno, I mean I discovered porno when I was a kid, a teenager, of course.

Me: What do you think about violence against women in pornos? You have one of the characters talk about it in the movie--

Him: Yeah. I mean, that's ground pretty well covered. I think the documentary within the movie sort of speaks for itself.

Me: What about you, though?

Him: My feelings? To me, I was just following this evolution that I saw in John Holmes films. He created this character called Johnny Wad, which at the start, in the seventies, was this really sort of suave, sophisticated guy, who would sort of charm these women into, you know, giving him clues, or something like that; it was very James Bond, very sexy, very charming, in a twisted way. And so what you saw was this character go on to the eighties, and you saw him become riddled with drugs, you saw this character take this slide…Here was this guy, who used to say like, "Baby. I love you." Then it turned into, "Bitch! Where the fuck is he?" Well, I just thought that was a fascinating thing to watch. And so we just do the same thing with Dirk [Diggler, in Boogie Nights]: here he starts out; he's sweet, he's smooth, he's in the bar. Then the drugs take effect and as they kind of get deeper and deeper into that world it becomes, Fuck you, give me the clue. And that is certainly something I can see in the transition from seventies porn to eighties porn.

Me: Your women's characters in Boogie Nights and Hard Eight: by the time we see them, they've already established their careers [waitress/prostitute, porn star], and we don't find out what happened to make them the way they are. Was that a conscious decision? Even, perhaps, to empower them?

Him: Maybe. It was just a take on the storytelling. It's a delicate thing in movies, when you see…not necessarily a flashback, but a version of any kind of monologue, to really explain to you why we are the way we are. It can become very frustrating and a lot of times insulting to an audience, as opposed to just stepping in and seeing how they are, and you can draw your own conclusions. I think, if I'm doing my job and sort of guiding you through where they are right now, then you're going to be able to draw the same conclusions that I, or Julianne [Moore], would draw.

Me: People are already saying that Julianne Moore is being underutilized in Boogie Nights. But I thought she got as much screen time as anybody else aside from Mark Wahlberg.

Him: She does. You know what? In a weird way, I think that's a testament to how fucking good she is. I mean, you look at Reilly, and Cheadle, and Macy--they're notorious fucking hams, you know, I love them, but they're fuckin' motherfuckers. But Julianne is so subversive, I have to say that if you're not zeroing in on watching her, you're probably going to miss something, and that's no credit of mine, that's her. She's so fucking good.

Me: Both Hard Eight and Boogie Nights document the "seedy underside" of American culture. What got you interested in telling this kind of story? Does it reflect in any way how you feel you grew up?

Him: All of it's based on people I know, but it's not like I'm so mired in the worlds of gambling and pornography; it's either just versions of people that I've met or characters that I've seen in movies that somehow ring true to me and I relate to. With Sidney [in Hard Eight], I felt such a connection to the gangster movies of the thirties, and my question was always, where would these guys be today (because they usually die at the ends of those movies), where would they be right now? And there was something I was latching on to in those James Cagney roles, sort of a father figure appealed to me. A lot of the dialogue, the syntax, the way they speak, was based on my dad. And that kind of stuff. I had a good, middle-to-upper class upbringing, but--it feels like people that I know, things that interest me, I don't know. I could go on forever trying to analyze it, I haven't figured it out yet, I mean, maybe there's some confusion that's leading me to it…

Me: Back to the Scorsese connection: Martin Scorsese, for example, made movies about…well, basically about his old neighborhood. So I was wondering if maybe you felt like this was kind of like your neighborhood.

Him: For porno at least, I mean I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, where 90 percent of all pornos are made--not that it surrounded me in an in-your-face kind of way, but it was always there in a peripheral way; I can remember that since I was 10 years old. I saw a house in my neighborhood where I knew a porn movie was being shot, because I knew the difference between seeing a real film crew on the street and a truck with a couple lights on it and a blacked-out window. I was like, I know something's going on there. And also, I went to school in an industrial section of the Valley, with these sort of cinderblock warehouses with no signage, and there's people walking in and out, who are just, clearly making porno films. And I'm going, there is something going on in there; those people aren't mixing concrete.

Me: I felt that, in a strange way, both Hard Eight and Boogie Nights expressed, if not a sort of hope, at least some kind of restoration of order by the end of the movie. I was wondering if there was some kind of moral or ethical basis to your movies. Do you have an overall vision for how things should work out?

Him: I think they each have sort of versions of hopeful endings. But also, they end at a point where there's more story to tell. Each one could have a sequel; their problems are the same in the end as they were in the beginning. They just come full circle. I thought it was too easy to really punish these people, to kill them, or do anything like that, that was just too easy, too pedestrian--and not true. On the other hand, I hope what I came up with was the saddest happiest ending for [Boogie Nights] that I could possibly come up with. It all depends on your position on pornography in a way--the second he walks out the door, he's going to make another porno movie. So is that happy, or is that sad?

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