Interview With Paul Thomas Anderson
By Jeff Simon, Buffalo News - October 26th, 1997
With Boogie Nights -- A movie about the porn industry - Paul Thomas Anderson shows off his startling skills as a director
Sometime after the millennium, we'll all know who the great emergent young American filmmaker of the sensation-mongering '90s was. All we can see now are two major candidates: 34-year-old Quentin Tarantino, the brilliant but detestably influential director of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction"; and 27-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson, whose bold, sweet and extraordinary film "Boogie Nights" opens Friday.
"Boogie Nights" was the hit of the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Film Festival a few weeks later. Though there have been a few intelligent dissenting votes, the only question most critics are fighting about now is just how good it is.
Is it a great film? An epochal film? A milestone? A masterpiece? Just a sweet and weirdly lovable film?
Out of that menu, I'll take milestone and hope for epochal.
"Boogie Nights" has the audacity to be a 2 1/2-hour episodic film about the porn business in the late '70s and early '80s. So far, by dint of its rich and loving humanity, it's getting away with it.
If, as it now seems, those are the only two seriously contending candidates for young American filmmaker of the '90s, many of us would dearly prefer that Anderson's is the name on all our lips a decade from now. Whereas Tarantino is brilliant, audacious and exhilarating, he's also, beneath his film dweeb's exterior, contemptuous, careerist and rather detestable.
Anderson is urbane, disarming and, beneath his film dweeb's exterior, altogether humane, large-spirited and naive.
It's his strange naiveté that is, in some ways, Anderson's oddest but most important characteristic. He seemed genuinely shocked on the phone that I remembered the large Rolling Stone magazine piece about the decline and fall of porn star John Holmes. He seemed even more taken aback when I suggested that a certain amount of adamant opposition to his film might be coming from the religious right.
For all his extraordinary feel for a squalid underworld, such is his confidence in his own benign intentions that he doesn't seem completely prepared for the malevolence of others. He is naive enough to give you the feeling of total sympathetic candor when you talk to him.
It's important to remember that at any given time, there always seem to be such starkly oppositional figures in American culture as Tarantino and Anderson: dark, Gothic, austerely elitist Poe vs. all-embracing democratic Whitman; calculating and audience-manipulating Hitchcock vs. sentimental, bardic and epic John Ford.
Tarantino vs. Anderson shapes up as the great film polarity of the '90s.
Give me Anderson any time. I was lucky enough to catch him on the phone for 45 minutes between his huge Toronto festival success (the film was voted the audiences' favorite) and the New York Festival opening that was, at the time, yet to come.
A conversation with a major young figure in American movies who may yet emerge from this decade as a truly great one:
Q: The most obvious question to ask first is, just how in heaven did this film ever get made?
A: Easier than you might think. Mike DeLuca, the guy who runs New Line Cinema, is an endangered species. He should be put in a zoo or something, because he's a guy who pays for movies who also loves movies, which is a very rare thing in Hollywood. The people who pay for them are usually film illiterates or frankly kind of dumb. Mike, by exception, is a great guy. He loved the script. He was one of the first people we sent the script to -- in fact, he was one of the only people we sent the script to. He really loved it. I'm really proud of the script, because it was the script that attracted the actors (Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy). When good actors want to be in your movie, it makes it easier for a studio to pay for.
Q: Who else saw it and passed on it?
A: Nobody, really, to tell you the truth. It really went to DeLuca. I think there was a moment when Harvey Weinstein (of Miramax) might have had it on his desk, but I don't think anything ever came of it because we were already talking to DeLuca.
Q: How much control did DeLuca and New Line exercise over the production? Were there dickerings back and forth on what you could get away with?
A: Not really. The script was the script and that's what we shot. I was very clear with them that this was the script and this is exactly what you're going to get. It was going to be very long, nearly three hours long, and they were OK with that. And then they were just happy when it came in 23 minutes shorter than that. I think there were a couple days when they asked me, "Did it have to be this long?" . . . It was a great team effort. We had to pull ourselves together to deal with the MPAA (over an R rating). That was our real negotiating problem.
Q: I would imagine so. How in heaven did you get an R rating? I understand it, and I'm all for it, but it must have taken a bit of doing.
A: It took about four months of negotiations. We did trim stuff (from the film). You know, it's funny because at the end of the day about 40 seconds came out of the movie, which is not a lot. I even looked the other day at the film we took out. We were going to do an unrated version (for export and video). But I looked at the unused footage and said: "It's a waste of time. What's the point?"
Q: So there was nothing in that 40 seconds that hurt you to lose?
A: Nothing at all.
Q: Let's talk about the actors. How many turndowns did you get for the actors you contacted to look at the script and possibly be in it? How many actors did you have to contact before you found actors smart enough to realize it was going to be good for them to be in your movie?
A: Not a lot. The script was so specific about what it was that any actor who would read it and would like it enough to meet with me wanted to be in it. You know what I mean? It wasn't like we'd meet and they'd wonder, "What the f--- does this guy take me to be?" The ones that responded to the script knew what they were getting into. I think we went through a couple actors for (the character of porn director) Jack before Burt (Reynolds). I talked to Leonardo DiCaprio about the (porn star) Dirk Diggler part, but he decided to make another movie (James Cameron's upcoming special-effects spectacle "Titanic").
Q: How much persuasion was necessary for Reynolds?
A: None. He loved the part. He saw that he could be an actor again, that he had words to say, and he was kind of excited by it. I think the one question any good actor would have is, "Are you going to shoot the script?" (Note: It's traditional in bad filmmaking for sleazy onset surprises to occur.)
Q: There must have been actors who saw the script who were puritanical enough to be furious at being asked to be in it. People who would say: "They want me to be in this? Are they nuts?"
A: There were no reactions like that that I know of. I think there might be a version of that with Mark (Wahlberg). But not that extreme. When I first met him, he'd read about 40 pages of the script. . . . I said: "What do you mean? You came to this meeting and you only read 40 pages of the script? Come on." He said: "The thing is, I f------ love it so far. I just want to make sure that you don't want Marky Mark, the underwear model." I said: "Uh-uh. I want you as an actor. I want you from what I saw in 'The Basketball Diaries.' I don't know anything about all that Marky Mark Calvin Klein blah-blah-blah."
Q: To be able to make this film you had to be immersed in the milieu. What was the process of getting into this milieu and taking a close-up look at it?
A: When I wrote it, I'd seen thousands upon thousands of porn movies, but I'd never actually met any porn stars. When I went to them, I really just wanted to verify what I wrote, to find out the truth. . . . I grew up in the (San Fernando) Valley so I knew what the truth was. I was going to them to just verify what I thought -- that it was just work for them, just a job. . . .
There's some of these girls that I met in that milieu where you're trying to get something out of them about their lives -- "What happened?" "Where are your parents?" "What's going on with you?" And you can never get a f------ answer. You know what I mean? There's no research to be done on them. You'd say, "Please talk to me." But no. And so there's this quality to them that's just like a fairy, like Tinker Bell. And I thought: "Well, that's kind of it. What more could you say? There she is." That's where Roller Girl comes from in the movie.
Q: What I want to examine, I guess, is how you had an interest in writing about it in the first place. Were there porn people you met growing up in the Valley?
A: When you grow up in the Valley, you're growing up in the capital of porn. . . . There'd be industrial buildings all over with no signage at all on them and people walking in and out of them that clearly weren't there for any other reason than making porno movies. It surrounded me.
Q: To be honest, I'm not immersed in this as you are. But I do remember a somewhat large piece years ago in Rolling Stone magazine about John Holmes and some of Eddie/Dirk Diggler's life in "Boogie Nights" seems to parallel it pretty closely, especially the criminal period at the end. Were you tempted to have Dirk come to a bad end in the way Holmes did? (Note: After much legal trouble, Holmes died of AIDS.)
A: No, I wasn't tempted to do that. . . . I think the end of the movie was, in one way, the saddest f------ movie I could find. But at the same time, at the very least, for the five minutes that we're looking at him at the end, he's totally off drugs. I'm not making any allowances for what he does when he walks out that door.
Q: You're the same age as my daughter. You're not really old enough to have experienced the early '70s era when porn almost became middle-class. The period details in the movie are incredibly strong.
A: You know that everybody watching this movie remembers the time, so you have a bigger obligation to get it right.
Q: Let's get to what's going to happen to this thing. Are you prepared for the denunciations of the religious right? It seems to me some of this is bound to come at you pretty soon.
A: If they see the movie -- if they've actually seen the movie and they have problems with it -- well, then, bring it on. You know what I mean? Let's have a talk. Let's have a fight. Let's have whatever they want -- but only if they've seen the movie. . . . It's kind of like Bob Dole screaming and shouting about movies he'd never seen. . . . I'm quite proud of the film.
Who knows? God, bring it on.
Q: Did you have any idea this film would do as well as it did in Toronto?
A: I was blown away. I'd seen it once with a smaller audience. But that was a thousand people up there and I felt like I was at a rock concert. It really blew me away. . . . I'm selfish enough and egotistical enough to expect people to like me. But not like that.
Q: I hate to be rude and vulgar and intrusive, but you did after all make this film, so you should be ready for this question. Has making this movie had an effect on your own sex life? This is a strange question, I know, but I can imagine it, in some ways, getting better because of the movie, but I can certainly also imagine it getting worse after having made the film.
A: Except that it's taken up all my f------ time! I don't have enough time yet to figure that out yet. Ask me again in a couple months.
Q: What I'm asking is whether making a film like this is personally liberating or whether being this close to this kind of material for so very long is depressing.
A: It definitely can be depressing. . . . The movie can be like porno, though -- funny and odd and exciting, too. That's what I go to movies for.
Q: You've gone through some publicity in the past few months, but the publicity bends are really going to hit in a few weeks. Are you prepared for it all?
A: (Very long pause) There will probably come a time when I'll say "no." (Laughs heartily.) I think if you're egotistical and insane enough to subject people to 2 1/2 hours about porno, then you're already seriously flawed and you need some kind of massive attention. . . . It is cool. It's nice because I've never really had it. I've never had a f------ limo before. You go: "Yeah! This is f------ great." But you also have to know that two weeks from now I'll be back to my old life.