Details Magazine Interview With Paul Thomas Anderson
September ?? 1997
The Director of this year’s most controversial movie, Boogie Nights, gets his money shot.
Studio City, California, 1979. Late at night, in the darkened family room of a ranch home, a sandy-haired nine-year-old stands in front of the TV, his drop-jawed face illuminated by the flickering images. Gripped by arousal and fear, he keeps an eye on the door and a finger on the stop button of the VCR, which unspools The Opening of Misty Beethoven, a tape he has just discovered in his father’s porn stash. In such moments are obsessions born.
Eighteen years later, Paul Thomas Anderson is in a dim Cuban restaurant in Los Angeles, recalling that moment. Unshaven and wearing a rumpled blue oxford, Anderson looks more like a residential adviser in a freshman dorm than a guy who has just finished directing one of the year’s most anticipated – and controversial films.
“As a kid I became obsessed by pornos, “Anderson says. “I searched them out, obsessing over the humor and camp – how bad the acting was, how odd it all was. By the time I was sixteen, I had seen so much that it was no longer funny – it actually became quite sad.” He laughs. “That’s what Boogie Nights should be doing: It’s funny for the first part, but then it transforms.”
Set amidst the coke happy San Fernando Valley of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Boogie Nights is the rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption story of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), a naïve, phenomenally endowed seventeen-year-old nightclub dishwasher who is discovered by porn patriarch/impresario Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Diggler becomes the boy wonder of Horner’s porno empire and the emotional core of an extended family of porn regulars (Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Don Cheadle also star).
It’s an ambitious film with epic scope, straight out of Altman or Scorsese. And in wunderkind style, this Hollywood film is based on a homemade effort Anderson cooked up when he seventeen. Inspired by a magazine profile of John Holmes, Anderson wrote a script, rounded up some high-school buddies, got his family’s video camera, and made Dirk Diggler, a thirty minute mockumentary about a mythic porn star and his thirteen inch penis. It was Anderson’s introduction to moviemaking.
“I knew it was brilliant,” Anderson says now without even a whiff of a smile, of a film he showed only to a few friends. “I knew it was the beginning of a ten-year journey, but that I would one day make a real movie called Boogie Nights.”
The ten years in between were bumpy, however. A confessed C-and-D student, Anderson tried Emerson College, but dropped out after a year to pursue a movie career. He moved home and worked as a production assistant on TV movies and rap videos. He also spent a lot of time watching American Movie Classics with his dad, a film buff – and the man who did the dulcet-voiced intros for ABC TV during the ‘70s, his most famous being the Love Boat. It was the closest he came to a film education. “My dad was obsessed with timing,” Anderson says. “I showed him Ferris Bueller; he said it stunk because it had no timing.”
In 1992, he made Cigarettes & Coffee, a short with five vignettes set by a diner. It played at Sundance in ’93. Hollywood came calling: Rysher Entertainment financed his first movie. Gwyneth Paltrow agreed to costar.
The experience was a disaster. After he turned in his cut of the film, Hard Eight, Rysher fired him and cut its own version. Not until Anderson’s cut was selected for competition at Cannes did Rysher back down and release his version. In the end, the only concession he had to make was the title: Anderson had wanted to call the film Sydney.
It was during this time, in 1995, that Anderson, to keep his sanity, threw himself into mounting Boogie Nights, because “if I didn’t, I was going to go into someone’s office and shoot them, “ he says. He polished up a script and sent it around. It soon became one of the town’s hottest properties. New Line Cinema won the fight to buy it.
Given the chance – and $15 million – to film his obsession, Anderson was determined to get every detail right. As part of his preproduction, he befriended porn actor-cum-director Ron (”The Hedgehog”) Jeremy, and frequented X-rated shoots. On one outing, Julianne Moore asked to come along.” We were all crammed into this ten-by-ten foot motel room in Fairfax,” says Anderson, blushing a little. “There was Julianne, Ron Jeremy, some old guy, a girl, and the girl’s husband and me – all shoved up against the wall watching this guy do the girl. At one point Julianne turns to me and says, “It kinda smells in here.” I thought she’d quit after that.”
Moore never bolted, perhaps because she knew Boogie Nights is more than a movie about guys filming guys screwing in seedy motels. It’s about perceptions, acceptance, fatherhood, and finding alternative family units when the one you’re given doesn’t work. In many ways it’s about Anderson, who seems to have created his own alterna-family. (His father died of cancer in February, shortly before the release of Hard Eight, and he doesn’t talk to his mother.) Along with Anderson’s girlfriend of nine years, the people who made Boogie Nights are his family now: Among his closest friends are Hard Eight and Boogie Nights alums Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Michael Penn (who also wrote the score for both films).
Anderson is considering making a film about his dad next. It would detail his life, especially his years as the popular Cleveland television fixture Ghoulardi, one of the original late-night hosts of horror films. Pushed for other plans for the future, Anderson is evasive but large-minded. “I’m gonna reinvent drama,” he says, smiling. “Rashomon will look timid compared to what I do next. I don’t know what it’s going to be about, but from the beginning of the movie to the end, nothing bad is going to happen.”