Tuesday, October 21, 1997

Interview: "Boogie Nights Director's Prodigious Rise"

San Jose Mercury News, Written By Margy Rochlin
October 20th, 1997

With his uncombed hair, rumpled attire and dry Beavis laugh, Paul Thomas Anderson could easily pass for just another glib twentysomething. But those who know the director of ''Boogie Nights'' say that beneath the baggy vintage shirts he favors beats the heart of a boyish enthusiast who worships his cast.

''He's so in love with everything you do,'' says Gwyneth Paltrow, who starred in Anderson's first film, ''Hard Eight,'' and would also have been in ''Boogie Nights'' except ''it would have killed my grandfather.''

Anderson credits his late father, Ernie Anderson, for his first tutorials in the cinematic arts. The two watched movies on television together, and the elder Anderson, a one-time horror-show host who switched to the more lucrative specialty of doing voice-overs, explained some of the intricacies of what was made to look easy.

''He taught me to be obsessed with timing,'' says Anderson, who recalled viewing the 1940 classic ''His Girl Friday'' and listening to his dad snap his fingers as Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell delivered their lines. ''It made me pick up on the rhythm of how people speak, how scenes should be cut.''

In 1982, his father brought home a Betamax video camera and allowed his wiry, bespectacled son to start experimenting. ''The standard fare'' is how Anderson describes his first efforts, by which he means ketchup-soaked slasher shorts and send-ups of the opening title sequence of ''Miami Vice.''

By the time Anderson was a senior at Montclair College Prep High School in North Hollywood, he had written and filmed his first real production. Using money he had earned by cleaning cages at a pet store, he rented a room at a particularly squalid motel for a night. When dawn broke, he had completed principal photography on the 30-minute ''The Dirk Diggler Story.''

Nine years would pass before that project would experience its big-screen renaissance as ''Boogie Nights.'' During that stretch, Anderson took the menial route, working as a production assistant on television movies and game shows. In his spare time, he made ''Cigarettes and Coffee,'' a short film good enough to get him into the Sundance Institute's Filmmaker's Workshop.

But that didn't prepare Anderson for the tumult of his first encounter with Hollywood. ''Sydney,'' the noirish film that he wrote and directed, told the tale of a veteran Reno gambler (Phillip Baker Hall), his son-substitute (John C. Reilly) and a witless call girl (Paltrow). Upon completion, Rysher seized the negative and re-edited it.

In the end, it was Anderson's version that found its way into the theaters in 1996 and attracted many favorable reviews -- but only after he was forced to retitle the film ''Hard Eight'' and come up with the $200,000 necessary to finish it. Sometime during this low period, to keep his mind off his troubles, he began working in earnest on ''Boogie Nights.''

His script eventually hit the desk of the president of New Line Productions, Michael De Luca, who says, ''There was a real sweetness on the page, and a sardonic humor which really tempered the edgier aspects of the source material.''

Anderson's first cut was deemed ribald enough to receive the dreaded NC-17 rating. ''I told them, 'I can't argue with you,' '' says Anderson. ''No child under 17 should see this.'' After four months of tinkering and several changed release dates, Anderson's ''war of attrition,'' as he puts it, culminated in an R rating.

These days, the talk surrounding ''Boogie Nights'' is so positive that Anderson seems to be enjoying every aspect of the ride, from compulsive tweaking of the final print to his repeated attempts to con the news media about the most talked-about scene in ''Boogie Nights.'' In it, Dirk Diggler offers visual proof of his most remarkable asset.

''Who says it's a prosthetic?'' Anderson says with a straight face. ''I'm serious.''

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