Esquire Magazine, Written By Mim Udovich
October 1st, 1997
It's a movie we saw. It's a movie you're going to want to see. It's a movie that made us want to talk to the director. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is twenty-seven, and Boogie Nights, a truly awesome piece of moviemaking starring Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, and Heather Graham, is his second feature. (The first was the indie Hard Eight) Set in the porn industry of the late seventies, this is a movie that even the Motion Picture Association of America can't help loving. "When I first started talking to them, they said, `No, no, no, we want it to be an NC-17 The rating has been ruined for us with Showgirls out there in that Showgirls way. This would really help us,'" says Anderson, who has, as he contracted to do, delivered an R. "I actually called Oliver Stone, thinking, Here's someone who's been through this and can maybe give me some advice. But it was kind of hard getting advice out of him, because all he wanted to talk about was the hypocrisy of America. Actually, he did end up calming down and being helpful."
And actually, Boogie Nights is a movie--volatile, expressive, and full of movement--that makes its point in a way that's more Scorsese- style catharsis than Stone-style cudgeling. In the context of the just-passed summer blockbusters, with their vibratorlike assault of gunfire and dinosaur noise, it is a movie that is not just jerking you off when it asks, as Burt Reynolds's character, porn director Jack Homer, does, "How do you keep them in their seats after they come?"
Esquire: I loved your movie, I can't tell you how much. I feel I should thank you on behalf of movie lovers everywhere for increasing the sum of human enjoyment.
Paul Thomas Anderson: Thank you. Jeez. If I can help in any way . . .
We all do what we can. Okay. Are you ready for the hard-hitting questions?
I'm really bad with the hard-hitting questions. The funny thing is that if you've read an interview with Orson Welles, you do think, Wow, he did it right--lie through your fucking teeth. Maybe that's the way to go.
Maybe. But enough idle chat. Tell the readers what Boogie Nights is about.
Let's see. It's about the porno industry in the San Fernando Valley in the seventies and eighties and the transition it went through from being shot on film to being shot on videotape. And it takes a lot of different stories about the people in that environment and follows them through an insane little search for their dignity in what is really an insane little world. I think the strongest tug through the movie is Mark Wahlberg's character, who's just sort of a beautiful kid who's seventeen years old and has a really big penis.
As Burt Reynolds's character observes, there's something wonderful in his jeans just waiting to get out. Or words to that effect. Tell me a prosthetic anecdote. I feel that what we need here is a naked- actor story. I feel that something along those lines will be expected.
All the more reason not to do it. And I'm not sure what you mean exactly when you say "prosthetic."
I mean the thirteen-inch prosthetic penis.
It's odd that you think it's a prosthetic. That's Mark Wahlberg's penis. I'm not sure where all this prosthetic talk comes from.
That's kind of amazing, since Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to do the part before. Who knew that all these young actors were walking around Hollywood with their big. . .
Well, that's kind of how it happened. You know, Mark came to me and said, "I've got an inch on Leo." I said, "Really?" And he showed it to me. And then I hired him.
And the main story arc is that characters rise to stardom, followed by his Judy Garland-like meltdown. Though it has a happy ending. Still, people find the movie disturbing.
It has a version of a happy ending. If people find it disturbing, that's okay. Certainly that world is not the happiest place, though there are exceptions.
I understand that Leonardo DiCaprio dropped out of the Mark Wahlberg role at the last minute.
We were still a month or two away from filming. And Leo was never 100 percent committed to the movie. He dropped out to do Titanic. An apples-and-oranges choice.
Or a dollars-and-cents choice.
That would be another way of looking at it.
Anyway, you had a strong ensemble cast backing you up.
Yeah. A lot of the smaller parts were written for friends of mine- -John C. Reilly, and also Phil Hoffman, who plays Scotty, and I didn't know Julianne Moore, but I had written that part thinking of her. And obviously the part for Philip Baker Hall, who is the star of my first movie. And also Bob Ridgeley, who plays Burt Reynolds's backer, the Colonel.
Right. That is a little disturbing, what happens to the Colonel.
Yeah. Is it? Yeah. Yeah, I agree.
That's very expansive of you, considering that he ends up weeping, helpless, beaten, and bleeding from the mouth.
And I think it's something to think about that the financier of the movies ends up weeping and bloody.
I also understand that Burt Reynolds fired his agent over this movie, he disliked it so much. Was there any indication that this was an agent-firing experience for him?
Um . . . how do I . . . ? Well, no.
Are you happy with his performance?
I'm thrilled with his performance--I think he's fucking great in the movie. I think he's really wonderful in the role, and . . .
And he was happy as the day is long when he was on the set?
I . . . think so.
What are some of the TV movies you worked on before you hit the big time?
My favorite TV movie that I worked on was called Sworn to Vengeance, with Robert Conrad.
What was it about?
I think somebody was sworn to vengeance. I also worked on a game show called The Quiz Kids Challenge, which was three incredibly bright children--
You're making this up, aren't you?
No, I swear to God! It was on for about a month at, like, two in the morning. Listen to this, it was a game show called Quiz Kids Challenge and .
You just took this out of a J. D. Salinger story, didn't you?
I swear to God. Are you ready?
Quiz Kids Challenge: three incredibly bright children against three sort of average adults. Who will win?
And who won?
I think generally the adults won, which is why the show was only on for a month.
What was your first encounter with porn?
The first porno movie I ever saw was called The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Have you ever seen it?
No. Where did you see it?
In my home, as a child. My dad had an early VCR, and he had it on videocassette, and I snuck it when I was nine or ten. I didn't really watch it, though. I only watched a moment or two before I got freaked out.
What freaked you out?
That I shouldn't be watching it, and what was happening, just the naked bodies and penises and sex.
And maybe that it was your father's?
Only in the sense that I shouldn't be watching it, as in: Don't touch my pipe; don't take the car.
You could really hardly choose two more phallic things. Especially pipe--"Don't touch my pipe"? Who gets prohibited from touching his fathers pipe?
It's funny because my dad didn't even really smoke pipes.
Well, you're just proving my point. I would have said stereo.
I think the connection is there because in the same room where there was a pile of videotapes, there might have been a collection of pipes that he didn't even smoke.
If you say so. How did you come by the early passion for filmmaking to which your bio alludes?
It's the total standard-template film-geekdom story. I think the only exception is I didn't work in a video store. I just found this little notebook that was clearly an assignment notebook from when I was about seven. And I guess the assignment must have been to write an ad for a job. And I wrote: "My name is Paul Anderson. I want to be a writer, producer, director, special-effects man. I know how to do everything, and I know everything. Please hire me."
Did your parents do anything film-related?
My father was not film-related, but he was a creative person; he had a couple different jobs. He started out in Cleveland on television in the early sixties. He had a show where he hosted bad horror movies, and he created this character that would do insane things and let off fireworks and blow things up. He was called Ghoulardi.
Are you making this up again?
No. This is true. And he had a beautiful voice, so after we moved to the Valley, he would do voice-overs for commercials, like: "Now at Vons, only ninety-nine cents." The wonderful thing about this job is that he was able to go to a recording studio right down the street and say ten words a day, like: "Coming up next on Perfect Strangers, Balki gets a fucking headache." And then they'd just edit out the fucking and the day would be done.
And how about your mom?
. . . There's maybe a way that would feel healthy or okay for me to address issues that are in the movie about motherhood and motherly love. We can talk about it in terms of Julianne Moore's character and Joanna Gleason's part.
Okay. We can do that. The movie is in many ways about family, but both the main characters real mom and his figurative mom have what you might call boundary issues. His real mom, Joanna Gleason's character, is beating him up, and he's fucking Julianne Moore's. So is this coincidence, good scrip/writing, or a Freudian slip?
You got it. It's all of those.
Because, you know, the first time he fucks Julianne, it's like an adoption--he gets reborn, renamed even.
Yes, he does. I definitely think it all proceeds from, um, personal things, things that are on my mind, things that are . . . interesting to me.
Fine. Let's return to your youthful film-geekdom. Did you go to film school?
I went to NYU, to get to New York, and that was film school. Where I literally lasted about two days.
What did you learn?
I learned everything I needed to know to bad-mouth film school. I had this one assignment, to write a scene without dialogue that somehow showed something about character. And I thought, Well, I don't want to be here so I'm just going to fuck around. And I took these two pages from the David Mamet script of Hoffa, which was not a great movie but a really wonderful script, and handed them in as my own- -
This is another one of those things you're making up.
--to see whether what I thought of this class was true. And I got the paper returned with a C-plus and knew that that was my moment to never return.
So you've pretty much always been an attitude kind of guy. Do you have any favorite porno films?
There's one called Amanda by Night. It's really well-done, and it' s got a little murder-mystery element to it, which is always good in porno. And there are the John Holmes/Johnny Wadd movies, which are roughly the model for a lot of the stuff they do in Boogie Nights. Their structure was great, because they'd be trying to solve the murder, but as the plot was propelled that way, they would have to stop and have a sex scene. So it's wonderfully structured storytelling.
Kind of porno Hitchcockian suspense.
Totally. In a fucked-up way, it kind of is. They were smart enough to realize that they could hook people in with a story and also have them want to watch the sex scenes, where now the reverse is usually true. It's usually like, Let's rent a porno tape and fast-forward through all the bullshit acting-prop stuff and get to the sex scenes. This was the reverse.
And my last question is, What will you do with your money if Boogie Nights makes you rich, rich, rich?
Make another movie.
No luxury you're going to indulge in?
Yeah. Make another movie. I think Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were on to something when they started paying for their own movies. It just doesn't make any sense to do all the work and not make all the money.