Washington Post, Written By Michael Colton
October 19th, 1997
Hollywood Toasts Director and His Flick About Porn
The hottest young filmmaker in America -- scruffy, lanky Paul Thomas Anderson -- came to Washington recently in need of an aspirin and a nap. His film Boogie Nights had premiered the previous night to a thousand fans at the New York Film Festival, and the party afterward, he says, was "totally insane, like being at a rock concert."
He's earned this hangover. Call it hyperbole or Hollywood hype, but Boogie Nights is an epic of stardom, corruption and disco in the pornographic film industry circa 1980, has produced the greatest buzz since Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction shook up the crime genre three years ago. Critics compare Anderson to Scorsese and Spielberg; admirers whisper "Oscar" into the 27-year-old's ear.
All this for a movie about a guy with 13 inches of talent.
"It's one hundred percent real," Anderson says with a smirk, playfully denying the common knowledge that the film's star, Mark Wahlberg, sports a prosthesis for the film's most revealing scene. "That's why he got the part."
Anderson is no hairy-palmed, maladjusted porn freak, though he admits he must have been a little obsessed to make a 2 1/2-hour movie on the subject. However, like many males, he was once a hormonally energized teenager who liked to watch other people having sex on screen.
"Porn was endlessly fascinating to me," Anderson says. "Part of it was really sad and pathetic, but part of it was really funny. There's certainly a camp element to it."
Growing up in California's San Fernando Valley, the capital of the adult film industry (now the adult video industry, a transformation Boogie Nights depicts with regret), Anderson was especially curious about the "actors" whose business was pleasure.
When he was 17 he used the family video camera and some friends to make The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary about the rise and fall of a legendary porn star with a legendary endowment, loosely based on the life of porn star John Holmes. Ten years and $15 million later, The Dirk Diggler Story has become Boogie Nights, which opened here Friday.
Though Anderson visited sets and made friends in the adult video industry during research for the film, he laments the current lackluster state of pornography. "It's degraded so much. John Waters said, `It's like watching open-heart surgery.' It's so boring now, and shows absolutely no effort."
Pornography may be an unconventional milieu, but the film's story follows a familiar track: Naive, star-struck kid gets his big break in show business, becomes rich and successful, and loses it all. Anderson says Boogie Nights borrows as much from the showbiz parables of A Star Is Born and Singin' in the Rain as from saucier fare such as Deep Throat and The Opening of Misty Beethoven.
The characters in Boogie Nights think they are artists. Early in the movie, Burt Reynolds, who plays veteran porn director Jack Horner, says, "It is my dream to make a film that is true and right and dramatic." He's speaking for Anderson, of course.
"Every time I hear Burt deliver that speech," Anderson says, "there's a part of me that didn't write it that's like, `Yeah, speak the truth, baby! Go Jack!' "
Anderson shares some traits with Wahlberg's character Dirk Diggler as well. Though he may not have Diggler's protuberant assets -- let's be honest, not many men do -- he certainly shares the porn star's yearning for celebrity. "I relate to any character in the movie that desires massive amounts of attention and affection," he says.
When he was young, Anderson's family moved to the San Fernando Valley from Cleveland, where his late father, Ernie, played a cult figure named Ghoulardi who introduced horror films on late-night TV. In Los Angeles, Anderson says, his father tried to be an actor, "but he was really unsuccessful at it because he was really terrible." The father ended up with a lucrative career doing voice-overs.
School never appealed to Paul Thomas Anderson; he had to leave the "hoity-toity" Buckley School in sixth grade because of fighting and bad grades. After Montclair College Prep High School, he spent two semesters as an English major at Emerson before dropping out, and then enrolled at New York University but never attended. He always wanted to be a filmmaker, and watching movies was the only education he needed.
"I don't like [the idea of] film school," he says. "It's a waste of time and money. I felt sort of elitist in college because people were just learning about movies I had seen when I was 12 years old."
Among Anderson's favorite films are Robert Altman's Nashville, with which Boogie Nights has earned comparisons; Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player ("one of the first punk-rock movies"); and the counterculture classic Putney Swope by Robert Downey Sr., who appears in Boogie Nights.
Anderson's favorite directors include Scorsese, David Mamet and his idol, Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), whom Anderson hopes he will never meet. "There's a concept that you should never meet your idols."
Scorsese's mobster classic GoodFellas is another of Anderson's favorite films, and an obvious technical influence on Boogie Nights. Certain camera moves and editing techniques in the film seem directly inspired by Scorsese.
"Scorsese certainly has patents, and the goal is to look at those patents and riff on them and try to find patents of your own within them," Anderson says.
Anderson also sees thematic links in the allure of the underworld. In GoodFellas, he says, "here are these people who steal and murder for a living, yet somehow we like them and they're appealing and we're invested in their story." Though pornography is obviously not murder, he knows that certain people think of his Boogie Nights characters as animals. "They [expletive] for a living. You know, there are people who love watching GoodFellas but wouldn't go to dinner with those characters."
After dropping out of college, Anderson worked as a production assistant in Hollywood and saved enough money to make his own short film, Cigarettes and Coffee, which earned a spot at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. He was then invited to develop a feature at the Sundance Filmmaker's Workshop, and the result was last year's Hard Eight with Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson.
Though it received good reviews, the moody drama earned less than half of its $2 million budget. It was a lesson in show business for Anderson: Before the release, Rysher Entertainment seized his negative and re-cut it, and changed the title from Anderson's original Sydney. Anderson eventually regained control of the project, but he blames the film's commercial failure on Rysher, which later left the film business.
New Line Cinema was eager to take on Anderson's script for Boogie Nights, as long as he could avoid the box office poison of an NC-17 rating and produce an R. Anderson trimmed only 40 seconds from his original cut to get an R.
Part of the Boogie Nights success is due to its irresistible ensemble cast, but not all the actors were Anderson's first choices. The role of Dirk Diggler was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio, who jumped ship for the upcoming Titanic. Instead, DiCaprio recommended former rapper and underwear model Wahlberg (remember Marky Mark?), his Basketball Diaries co-star. For the role of the wise, paternal Jack Horner, Anderson considered Jack Nicholson, Sidney Pollack and even Warren Beatty.
"I thought Warren was fundamentally wrong to play the part," Anderson says, "then he called me on the phone, and I was so star-struck and flabbergasted, and he did this sort of Warren Beatty Jedi mind-trick on me or something . . . within 10 seconds I was like, Warren Beatty is the only one who could play this part. That went away after about a week." The role eventually went to Reynolds, who gave what some have called the performance of his career.
Anderson, while busy promoting Boogie Nights, is writing and considering what his next feature will be. It probably will be porn-free, which Anderson hopes will not let down his fans.
"The scary thing is if I make a movie that doesn't have porno in it, that people will be disappointed, like, `He's the guy that does that porno stuff. Where's all the porno? How come we have to suffer through this? Get that disco stuff back.' "