Sunday, October 26, 1997

Interview: "Boogie Oogie"

Premiere Magazine, UK - Written By Glenn Kenny
October ??, 1997

How the stars and director of Boogie Nights created an audacious epic about the world of '70s porn

"You can't say it's not about porn, " insists writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson of his new movie Boogie Nights, an ambitious tale set in the late-'70s/early - '80s world of hardcore porn. And he's right, but it seems reductive to say the movie is just about porn. Sure, there's sex, and naturally, since it's the '70's, there are drugs, and, again, since its the '70s, there are synthetic fibres and disco and ELO; and there are the timeless topics the movie tackles, such as family, community, losing your mind, getting it up, not getting it up, and a lot more. Boogie Nights is a film about the '70s that could have been made in the '70s, an era of exuberant Hollywood risk taking. It will have funny stuff, gross stuff, tragic stuff. None of which is conveyed by the phrase "about porn."

So why did the 26-year-old Anderson choose this milieu? It's hard to get a fix on that. You can tell a lot about a man by where he drinks; for a few pint with his Boogie Nights lead, Mark Wahlberg, Anderson picks  a place on Third Street in LA called St Nicks. The atmosphere here can be best described as Bukowski-lite: kind of seedy but with little actual menace. Hell, it's just around the corner from the Beverly Center Mall. And in a near-by booth, in a blur of cell phones and ponytails and loud orders to the bar, what appears to be an informal pitch meeting is taking place. This depresses Anderson. "God, I should never have left Studio City, " he says, referring to the place where he grew up, in relative affluence (his father was one of the top voiceover artists in the business).

Despite the fact that Anderson's debut feature, Hard Eight (which is finally released in the UK on October 17), was similarly peopled by what most solid citizens would refer to as lowlife, Anderson doesn't admit to any particular fascination with the underbelly of American society. "I grew up in the '70s and '80s, and I used to watch [porn] movies when I was a teenager, " he says, "It's a fair thing, wondering why, how and who. It's finding good subjects to tell stories." Then he adds, "Anybody who knows me knows both movies I've made are incredibly personal movies."

Not that you can make the connection, at least at first glance. In his postproduction suite with his editor, Anderson, wiry and full of gawky energy, seems quite the confident auteur. Underneath, though, you sense something genuinely explosive, pent up. "The emotions of these marginal people, what they're going through - that's what's personal to him, " says Anderson's friend John C. Reilly, who acted in both Hard Eight and Boogie Nights.

The centerpiece of Boogie Nights is the story of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), an aimless LA waiter who makes money on the side by displaying his prodigious endowment to - well, anyone who's willing to pay five (just the endowment) or ten (the endowment and what it can do) bucks. (This foot-long miracle of nature, in fact, isn't one - Wahlberg donned a prosthetic penis.) Eddie is "discovered" by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a porn director who introduces him into his professional and personal fold, including leading man Reed Rothchild (Reilly), with whom Eddie develops an at first competitive, then brotherly, relationship; Rollergirl (Heather Graham), an errant high schooler who's up for anything as long as her skates don't have to come off; Buck (Don Cheadle), an awkward African-American stud whose real dream is to own his own hi-fi shop; and Little Bill (William H. Macy), a production manager who's eventually unhinged by his wife's brazen infidelities.

In the movie, Horner becomes a kind of surrogate father to Eddie; in real life, Anderson seems to have become a surrogate younger brother to Wahlberg. At St Nicks, Anderson punches his star's beautifully formed biceps and chants, "Marky! Marky!" Asked about the role, Wahlberg, who speaks so softly that some of his best asides get lost in the bar-room din, says of his director, "I just put myself in the hands of the P.T.A." He'll admit that when first got the script, he only read it part of the way through - it was so good he was afraid it would "turn to shit" and he'd be disappointed. It was then that he decided to meet Anderson. He did. He finished the script. He took the part. The affinities between Wahlberg and his character are hard to miss: as the trouser-dropping rap star Marky Mark and as Calvin Klein underwear model, Wahlberg used his own endowment to market himself (in the book Marky Mark, he wrote, ("I wanna dedicate this to my dick"). As one who came up fast and did and said some things he'd regret sooner or later, Wahlberg, as easy and friendly as he is, carries the air of a man strangely chastened. Now he and Anderson riff about the MTV Movie Awards - Wahlberg has been nominated for Best Villain, for his turn in Fear - and he says that if he wins (alas, he does not), he'll do the speech he gives in Boogie Nights upon winning an award for Best Actor in an Adult Film. Then he recited said speech. "I still remember all my lines, " Wahlberg says proudly. "He's got a great memory, " Anderson avers, to which Wahlberg deadpans, "I'm trying to forget 'em."

Eddie's first sex scene is with Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the group's dysfunctional den mother. By this time Eddie has taken a stage name that obliquely suggests his "talent": Dirk Diggler. Before they get it on, "Dirk" asks Amber if it's OK to show a little tenderness, to kiss, etc. More moved than bemused, Amber says it fine. Anderson's camera doesn't linger on them long: instead, it goes into the camera shooting their scene and examines the mechanism recording their carnal machinations. Which tells you a little about the way, precisely, this movie is "about porn."

"The weird thing about the set is that we'd all come to accept this bizarre subject matter as normal, " says Reilly. "We'd come in, put on these huge polyester pants with bulges, and talk about cum shots like it was nothing. And when new people came in, they were shell-shocked." With the exception, that is, of Nina Hartley, one of the few actual adult-film stars to appear in Boogie Nights. "My character appears naked almost the whole time, " Hartley says, "which is something I'm used to and comfortable with."

"PAUL IS THE SHIT," Don Cheadle says quietly, firmly, over breakfast in a favorite dining spot in Venice, California. "One thing that impressed me was how specific he was. I've worked with much older directors who were floundering." It should be noted, though, that in the same conversation Cheadle also speaks of Anderson as "the consummate idiot." This is in reference to the on-set hijinks indulged in by the "idiots" in the cast; almost everyone involved in the production seems to recall non-stop hilarity. Or at least weirdness.

Except Julianne Moore, who wasn't one of the shell-shocked, but wasn't having a million laughs either. "For me Amber was kind of sad," she says, but hastens to praise Anderson and the film, which she feels has a Chekhovian quality. "This is the kind of project where we all had to trust the director, " she says.

William H. Macy, Oscar-nominated for Fargo, and one of the few cast members who fully lived through the era Boogie Nights chronicles ("We were all fucking each other's brains out"), didn't pay much attention to Anderson's age or relative lack of experience. "Maybe all of us first thought he could be a pushover," he allows. That's not how it worked out. Like Wahlberg, everyone wound up putting themselves in the hands of the P.T.A.

Perhaps the biggest problem with making, a non XXX-rated movie about the XXX-rated movie business is that, while porn videos are doing more business than ever, audiences have shunned recent mainstream films that deal frankly with sexuality. Small wonder that much of the early press of Boogie Nights has focused on how it is going to be marketed in the wake of such debacles as The People vs Larry Flynt and Crash. The word raunchfest was used in a New York Daily News gossip column. Oh boy. Another Hollywood outrage.

Julianne Moore rolls her eyes when this comes up. "What you get is basically sniggering," she sighs, "and honestly, I don't have a lot of patience for it. I mean, we're adults here."

Adults with a memory gap, perhaps. It's as if the time when talk-show hosts could make jokes about Deep Throat on the telly, and everyone got them, never happened. As if a sexual "revolution" that briefly allowed pornographers to aspire to be real filmmakers - where, say, a Dirk Diggler (or someone like him) could make a speech at an adult-movie award show about making the movies better - had just been a figment of the collective imagination best left forgotten.

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