USA Today, Written By Clifford Rothman
October ??, 1997
LOS ANGELES -- A biker is whizzing down Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. Suddenly there's a screech of brakes, and he makes a sharp U- turn back. He stops at an outdoor cafe and screams at the kid sitting at the table.
"Hey. You Paul Thomas Anderson?"
Anderson is at the cafe table, talking to a reporter. A publicist is beside him and a photographer waits to shoot his picture for one of the many stories that are breaking with Boogie Nights. This is definitely celebrity time for Anderson.
Remember the name: Paul Thomas Anderson. It's not as exotic as Quentin Tarantino. Not as highbrow as Steven Soderbergh. And it is deceptively generic for a director whose provocative work is taking the industry by storm.
Reviews by A-list critics have hailed his film with superlatives and likened his work to that of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. In the past two weeks, he's had lunch with Steven Spielberg (``It was like God called'') and met directors Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Burton and George Lucas. Scripts are raining on him. And his age, 27, is evoking memories of earlier wunderkinds from Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape) to Orson Welles.
"It's very flattering,'' Anderson says matter-of-factly. "But what I really want is just to be able to make movies. And without interference."
Beyond a doubt
Anderson is disconcerting in person. The creator of an epic, sprawling, raw movie covering eight years and as many characters in the porn world of the 1970s and early '80s has a baby face. There's only enough stubble to make him look as if he has barely begun to shave. But he talks with a clarity and a sense of self that defies his age.
"There was never a doubt in his mind what he wanted to do,'' says Mark Wahlberg, who had to trust Anderson to guide him through the shifting and tricky rhythms of porn star Dirk Diggler, who goes from wide-eyed innocence to burn-out. ``He is definitely the most talented person I have ever come in contact with.''
"For all his exuberance and enthusiasm and youthful care, he's very stubborn and knows what he's looking for," adds John C. Reilly, who plays Diggler's screen sidekick, Reed Rothchild, and is Anderson's best friend. "He's studied a lot of movies and studied the work of people he respects. He has a very strong aesthetic. He knows where he's going visually."
Not only did Anderson not bother with film school, he dismisses it categorically. ``If you want to waste a lot of time, and you want to waste a lot of money, that's the place,'' Anderson says. "All of the information that they supposedly give out there is available on your own if you want to find it."
The wonder years
Only 17 when he shot his first video short, Anderson eventually wrote and directed a 26-minute film with five characters that played the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. He was invited to develop a feature the next year at Sundance's filmmakers' workshop, which resulted in Hard Eight, about small-time gamblers in Reno.
That unswerving confidence and faith in his own vision is reminiscent of Welles' when he directed Citizen Kane at age 25. And stars gravitated to Anderson from the start, as they did to Welles. Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson starred in the 24-year-old Anderson's Hard Eight.
Jackson says Anderson reminds him of Tarantino "in the sense that he has a specific vision for the audience that he wants to appeal to, and he knows how to create stories and how to specifically mix and match scenes that he has seen in other films. He is a true student of film."
Anderson approached Julianne Moore at a party. "I want you to be in my movie,'' she remembers him saying to her directly. "I shrugged and thought, OK. And then I was blown away," she says, both by the script and the part he had written for her -- Amber Waves, the sexy earth-mother porn star.
"When somebody is able to write with so much spareness and purity, I have the sense that they have an understanding of character and story and will be able to direct that way."
William H. Macy, who plays the cuckolded husband, was won over by the script -- "exciting, funny and dangerous." And when he met Anderson at the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood, "I fell for him hook, line and sinker," remembers Macy, Oscar-nominated for Fargo. "He was honest and candid. I knew instantly after five minutes that he knew exactly what kind of film he wanted to make."
And what films would Anderson insist any aspiring filmmaker study? Shoot the Piano Player, Melvin and Howard, Putney-Swope, The Merry Widow, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Nashville.
"But I wish people's film vocabularies would go back further than three or four years ago,'' laments the writer-director, who says he has been strongly influenced by early directors such as The Reckless Moment's Max Ophuls ("Talk about camera movement and long tracking shots!") and The Shop Around the Corner's Ernst Lubitsch. ("His movies spiral out of control, but the characters are always saying exactly what you think you would say in the situation.")
Critics compare his long opening tracking shot in Boogie Nights -- the camera pans the neon sign of the disco, then moves down into the club and through the crowd -- to Altman's Nashville and Scorsese' s GoodFellas.
"It's Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners," says Anderson, who saw it when he was 15. "And it's not even all one shot, though it's supposed to appear as if it's one shot. It just opened up the movie with this sort of wonderful bang. It just blew me away."
But his scene, he says, is also influenced by Altman rhythms like the traffic jam sequence in Nashville and the off-handed character introductions in Shortcuts.
"Altman has this sort of selfish pacing. That traffic jam goes on forever, and has its own rhythm that has nothing to do with movie rhythm. He is clearly making himself happy first. And in Shortcuts, the introductions are just sort of accidental rather than movie introductions. You wouldn't be sure if you were looking at an extra or at a featured player."
Anderson then describes the opening of Boogie Nights. "You meet eight characters in the course of three minutes. With one word, with throwaways, they're all involved in this party. And you don't know at first, `Wait a minute, is that an extra, or what's going on?'
"We pass Don, Buck, Becky, Reed and Maurice's interaction with them," says Anderson, his hands punctuating the action. "It's this blurry, 'Hi, how are you,' and there's disco music, and you can't really hear what they're saying, and it doesn't really matter. It's sort of passing them all in the vibes of that disco."
But his favorite director is Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), whom he describes as "totally fearless. He'd rather have you confused for two minutes than ahead of him for 10 seconds," Anderson says.
Fearless is also a word that could be applied to Anderson, who careens from extended moments of silence to ferocious expletives in Boogie Nights, which involves pornography, drugs, prostitution and child abandonment -- not to mention full-frontal male nudity.
"Paul is the real deal, an original way of looking at things. He is the future of the business,'' says Macy. "He tells stories that are true to him irrespective of how it might be perceived by the public. He doesn't try to please anybody but himself. He sticks to his guns."