Roughcut Q&A, Written By David Poland
October 30, 1997
Paul Thomas Anderson grew up in California's San Fernando Valley with a father well-known for his on-screen appearances. No, not THAT kind of on-screen work. Paul's dad was Ernie Anderson, Cleveland's most beloved horror movie host. As a TV personality, Anderson was the first guy on the block to have a VCR, which allowed the young Paul to immerse himself in movies, pornographic and otherwise. By the age of 22, Paul's love affair with film took him to the Sundance Film Festival with his short film, Cigarettes and Coffee. He was then invited to join the Sundance Filmmaker's Workshop where he developed his first feature, Sydney AKA Hard Eight starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow. Now, at 27, his second feature, Boogie Nights has left Anderson Tarantino-hot and well on his way to a long, successful directing career. Rough Cut's David Poland caught up with Anderson in Los Angeles, a week before Boogie Nights premiered at the New York Film Festival.
>> You were 26 years old when you shot this film. How could you know about the sexy '70s?
I was 7 when the movie begins and 14 when the movie ends. Maybe it is a twisted sort of version of my childhood. Because I grew up in the valley. And I had brothers and sisters who were going through this stuff. It wasn't like I said, "I want to make a movie set in the '70s and we'll use all this cool music." It was just icing on the cake. Moving into the early '80s was kind of, pick your headband and I'll have the Capezios.
>> How did you get the idea to make a porno epic?
I had seen a million porno movies since I was 17 years old. And I wrote The Dirk Diggler Story when I was 17. I wrote what I thought was the truth. And then, I came across Exhausted when I was about 20.
>> How important was Exhausted in the development of your film?
Critical. It was so clearly made by someone who was just blind to what John Holmes clearly was. She tried to make this wonderful portrait of who he was. So here's this narration saying how he's a wonderful guy, and in the background, he's slapping some woman around saying, "Shut up, bitch! Answer my question!" And that's how it came to Amber doing a kind of damage control for Dirk, doing her own kind of Exhausted for him.
>> I noticed that one scene in your film is an exact duplication of a scene in Exhausted.
It was so cool. For two reasons. A, it was cool just to do it shot for shot. B, how we can step back and say, "We didn't make that up!" Yeah it was kind of funny and campy. We didn't try.
>> Was Amber a variation on the director of Exhausted, Jessie St. James?
It was more the motherly nature of Seka with the acting ability of Veronica Hart. There are so many Jessie Saints. I just saw the pattern emerging, that there were all these Saints, so there had to be one in Boogie Nights obviously. So I just mixed and matched.
>> What about John Holmes? Is Dirk his fictional doppelganger?
Anytime you write a movie, I think the characters are based on real people that you know or people that you've seen. So it's a milkshake of, sure, real porn stars, many of them you know, mixed together, pieces of them or real celebrities. There's a lot of John Holmes stuff. There's a lot of Shauna Grant stuff. There's a lot of the Two Coreys (Corey Haim and Corey Feldman) in Dirk. There's a lot of David Hasselhoff. When he tries a singing career.
>> Yet your Dirk doesn't end up making gay porn or getting AIDS like Holmes. Why not?
Well, it's not a direct representation of John Holmes life. I had written a scene at one time where Dirk became a dance [act] in a gay club, but that was as far as I took it, as far as the gay thing. As far as AIDS goes, the movie ends in 1984, a very specific point right when AIDS was starting to be recognized. But I think the reality to the porn industry is that they didn't recognize AIDS until John Holmes died. They sort of had blinders on until one of their own was killed. And I think even now they have blinders on to it.
>> But it's a major issue you leave unaddressed, isn't it?
To totally stop right there was how to address the issue. When Dirk walks out the door [at the end of the film], people think "what about AIDS?" That's what he's got to look forward to. By ending it without addressing it is a way of making you think about it.
>> When did you see your first porno film?
Just about when I was 10. The Opening of Misty Beethoven. [Set] maybe in the '50s or something, the story is that the kid discovered Playboy. Maybe if you time it out, the discovery isn't Playboy anymore; it's the video cassette. My dad was one of the first guys on the block to have a VCR. So along with all the videotapes that I would rummage through, I would find them. Not that it twisted me into some maniac or anything. I was watching porno from age 10 to 17. I had an interest in it.
>> By the time you were 23, you were directing your first feature film, Hard Eight, but it did almost no business. How upsetting is that for a first-time filmmaker?
Disappointing. I was certainly prepared for it. The shooting of both my films was the same. Just heaven. Writing the movies was just heaven. But on Sydney [the original title for Hard Eight], I was just blindsided by a bunch of idiots who don't care about movies. I was always treated like a bastard child by [producers] Samuel and Rysher. They really didn't like it and I think they were shocked that the reviews were good.
>> So you'd say the experience was a lot better with New Line on Boogie Nights?
Much better than Sydney. But, I went to New Line saying, "Don't f--k with me." They told me I was paranoid, that I went through hell and that wasn't really how it works. And they've been nothing but great. The experience on this movie was just heaven with the exception of some delay because of the MPAA, which was my only trouble. But I knew that was coming. At New Line, I had a studio head who just loved movies and let me do whatever I wanted to do.
>> What specifically did the MPAA make you cut?
The original assemble was 2 hours, 59 minutes, and the running time of the movie now is 2:37. So somewhere along the line there was 20 minutes or so taken out. There were MPAA problems, but not massive. A minute and a half came out of the movie because of the MPAA. No scene was lifted. It's just sort of trimming shots. You have the usual game plan of leaving stuff long because you know you are going to have to trim it anyway. But all of it works. The movie is frame-for-frame everything I wanted it to be.
>> Another group of post-production decisions are key to this film's success: the musical choices. How did you pick the songs?
There are 52 or 53 songs in the movie, all just songs from my record collection. The one song that was brought to me and it was a funny situation, was the Melanie song, "Brand New Key." I was huge Melanie fan. I had all the Melanie records. And believe it or not, I never heard "Brand New Key." I had this other song I planned to use called "Lovin' Baby Girl." I called Karen Rachtman, the musical director] and told her I wanted to use this Melanie song, and she said, "'Brand New Key?'" And I said, "'Brand New Key?' I don't know that one." And she's like, "It's Melanie's biggest hit. What are you, like high?" And she sent it over and it was perfect.
>> Also near perfection were your casting choices. How did you know Mark Wahlberg could handle the role?
I knew that he was a good actor from seeing Basketball Diaries and seeing Fear. And a good actor is a good actor. And then it was, "Did you read the script? What did you like about it?" The scenes they pinpoint, the stuff they like, you sort of clue in. They get what's funny and they get what's sad. They get it.
>> Did you write the film with thoughts of resurrecting Burt Reynolds' career?
No. Not really. I thought of him a couple times when I was writing and I met him and he was really wonderful.
>> Who was the easiest actor to work with on the film?
Julianne Moore. Julianne is so f--king good, it blows my mind. I mean, just take one, take two and that's all you need. And never ever loses her threat. Never loses her concentration. Bill Macy's the same way. All the other actors are great, but they all have their quirks. John Reilly is the best, but a shameless ham at times. And so is Don [Cheadle]. I mean, give him a f--king inch and he'll take 12.
>> Sounds like a fun set. Was it hard to stay focused with all that polyester around?
It's really terrifying to put actors in polyester. I was worried that they'd all start trying to hump each other. But really, that was totally the job as the director. They're all great actors. They all have great instincts. But the reality is that take after take you start to lose the reality a bit and maybe you start to play the joke. The job I have is to go once in a while, "Keep it simple. You're getting carried away. You have that polyester rubbing against your ass and you're starting to feel it, so calm down." And that was it.
>> You mention Don Cheadle, who plays Buck. What was his story?
I wanted Buck to be the one who did venture out into the world. He's the one who strays from the camp every once in a while. He's at the house hanging out, but he also has a day job. And people in porn do have day jobs.
>> But are they happy?
There's a concept that in show business, no one had a happy childhood. But I would say absolutely no one in the porno biz had a happy childhood. I know people who are very happy in porno and who have crafted their lives to sort of maintain and be happy. And that's great. Nina Hartley [who is in the movie] is one. But if they said they'd had a happy childhood, they'd be lying.
>> Where did you come up with the idea for the firecracker scene?
It came from two places. A, it's just the natural progression of the story that that much drugs and that much porno is going to lead to that house and you're just, "I don't want to be here. How did I f--king get here? How the f--k did I get here?!"
>> And there's the element of firecrackers, which was inspired by Robert Downey Sr., a brilliant filmmaker, who made Putney Swope back in the '60s. And there's a scene there, deep in the background of one of those shots, there's a guy lighting off firecrackers.
>> Because of that scene and the Goodfellas-like scope of your film, you are being compared to Martin Scorsese. What's that like?
I want love and attention and affection like everyone else. And if someone doesn't like the movie, it's going to hurt. They'll be wrong, but it's gonna hurt. You know, I've only made two movies. He's made like 20. It's nice and it's flattering, but I have a long way to go. I just want to write and direct my own stuff. The goal is to be able to make it without anybody talking to you. Or to tell you how to do it.
>> How will you do that?
Writing and directing are for free. That part is free. You'd do that no matter what. You get paid to deal with idiots who don't care about movies. That's what you get paid for. Every actor in this movie will act for free. Everything between action and cut doesn't cost anything. They have to do that. That's their lives.
>> You've mentioned Robert Altman. Is he your main influence?
He's certainly an influence. Jonathan Demme is a massive influence. He's my favorite filmmaker around. David Mamet as a writer and a director. I think Mamet's totally underrated as a director. People know his work so much as a writer that they think he's just a simple director. But he's not. And of course, Robert Altman.
>> What do you expect from Boogie Nights?
Who knows? Maybe this movie can be like going to a rock concert. It's an unashamed epic about a dysfunctional family created out of these broken lives. But when I look at directors like Scorsese or Altman, I see their body of work and how they keep just pushing themselves. They create patterns for themselves, but they are new every time. I want to have a career like that. (pause, laughs) No. I want to have a career.