Friday, November 21, 1997

Interview: Creative Screenwriting, Paul Thomas Anderson

Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Written By Kristine McKenna
?? ?? 1997

Paul Thomas Anderson introduced himself this year in a very big way. February saw the release of his first film, Hard Eight, a study of four lost souls adrift on the Reno gambling scene that garnered glowing reviews, but was so poorly marketed that it never found its audience. Just eight months later he hit a home run with his second film Boogie Nights, a two-and-a-half-hour epic chronicling the shifting fortunes of the pornography industry during the years of 1977 to 1983. Set in the Fernando Valley, where Anderson was born in 1970 and continues to live, the film features an ensemble cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, William Macy, and Alfred Molina.

Boogie Nights is an easy film to love; it has a fantastic soundtrack, the art direction is stunningly accurate to the period, and there's not a performer on the screen whose is less than impeccable. The thing that makes it all hang together, however, is Anderson's writing. His storytelling shorthand is witty and original, and his characters are richly developed and exquisitely detailed - he obviously loves each and every one of them. And Anderson has them saying the funniest things! His sensitivity to the clumsy eloquence of how America's marginally educated middle class actually talks, infuses his writing with a rip-roaring energy that's catapulted him to the head of the class. Over breakfast at a Hollywood diner, Anderson shared his thoughts on writing and the perils of the movie business.

What's the most common mistake in written dialogue?

Complete sentences. Bad movie dialogue speaks in complete sentences without any overlapping or interruption, and avoids elliptical speech, which is truer to how people actually talk.

Did you consciously train your ear to be sensitive to how people talk?

I probably did when I was eighteen and was just starting as a writer. Actually my mission then was to rip off David Mamet, because I foolishly believed Mamet's dialogue was how people really talked. It took me a while to realize that Mamet had developed a wonderfully stylized way of highlighting the way humans speak. People immediately think of dialogue when they hear Mamet's name, but I think the strength of his writing is his storytelling - he uses very solid, old fashioned techniques in setting up his stories. House of Games, for instance, is one the best scripts ever written, and it's the story structure that makes it so brilliant.

When you're writing dialogue, does it take on a life of its own and move in directions that surprise you?

Absolutely, I'm showing some of my cards here, but I often write scenes without knowing where they're gonna go, and as I write I start acting and sort of improvising. It's great when the scene takes on a life of its own and frustrating when it doesn't, because the passages you have to labor over are invariably worse than the ones that seem to write themselves. This notion that writing happens in the rewriting is something that I've never agreed with. I've always hated rewriting. Rewriting is for pussies! Send it out, zits and all, is my feeling.

What passage of dialogue in Boogie Nights are you most proud of?

The three scenes where Amber and Rollergirl are on a coke binge. This movie has many Achilles heels, but when I watch those scenes I put my ego hat on and say, "Okay, we nailed those scenes."

How do you know how people are on a coke binge talk?

I've done a lot of coke and I had those insane conversations.

I was struck by the dialogue in the scene where Mark Wahlberg's character, Dirk, meets his sidekick, Reed Rothchild, played by John C. Reilly. I get the impression you're not a guy who hangs out at gyms, yet you had those ridiculous, "how much can you bench press?" gym conversations down pat; how did you learn gym dialect?

Just by knowing those kinds of guys when I was growing up, and loving the absurdity of those conversations. John [Reilly] and I have a similar sense of humor and we've spent hours riffing with dialogue and laughing. I wrote that scene to give John something he could have fun with.

How quickly does slang evolve? Was there language commonly used in the Boogie Nights era that would sound completely foreign to people now?

Probably not because pop culture is currently obsessed with the '70's. So, although a word like "foxy" may be given an ironic spin now, it certainly isn't foreign to us.

Is it always a failure when dialogue is used to explain the plot, or can that be a stylistic device?

In theory, it's a failure, however, there are actors - such as Philip Baker Hall - who are so good at helping the story along that you can get away with it. Perhaps it's because he's the antithesis of a classical Shakespearean actor, but Philip can deliver massive amounts of exposition without diminishing the character he's playing.

What elements must a story have in order to interest you?

I like stories with good old-fashioned roots that obey the rules - you know, "the gun on the wall in the first act goes off in the third," and so forth. My favorite directors are the ones who know and embrace those rules, then pile something completely punk rock on top of them - Francois Truffaut, for instance.

Do you have any interest in adapting material, or do you intend to be the sole author of all your scripts?

I'm open to adapting material, although the one time I tried it I wasn't too successful - I adapted the Russell Banks novel Rule of the Bone for Carl Franklin. Having been through an experience with Hard Eight where I felt my work had been violated, I sort of became this master protector of other people's work, and I couldn't make myself tread on the bible, which was Bank's book. I couldn't get a grip on the fact that I was writing a movie, not a love letter to the book.

Do you have structured writing habits?

Absolutely, and they revolve around finding a pattern of behavior I can depend on. Waking up at the same time every day, having certain rituals to go through that free me up so I don't even have to worry about putting my pants on - it's all about routine. I write in the morning and can pin in three or four focused hours a day. It's limited to that because I smoke myself to death when I write, and smoking makes me tired. At the same time, there's almost something superstitious about smoking, as if the cigarettes are a good luck charm. It's probably very silly.

Leonard Cohen once commented, "every artist - be it a painter, composer, or filmmaker - has one song he writes over and over again. And the beautiful thing about this endeavor is that you don't realize you're writing the same song repeatedly, but in fact, it keeps returning to you wearing the original blue gown." Do you agree?

Probably, although it's too early for me to tell what mine is. I think there are similar themes and motifs in the two movies I've made, but I didn't see that until after the fact. Both stories have father figures, a young protégé, a makeshift family, and the paying of some kind of karmic debt. With Hard Eight, the lead character, Sydney, is dealing with guilt he feels over something he did before the story begins. Boogie Nights could almost be seen as a prequel to Hard Eight in that it follows this kid as he does things that leave him with a huge karmic debt. When the story ends, you sense that Dirk will now attempt to atone for the things he's done; in other words, Dirk becomes Sydney.

Do you feel it's important that your next film be markedly different from Boogie Nights?

No. I think it's important that I resist being influenced by people who encourage to me make another Boogie Nights type of movie though, and I want to put the proper pair of horse blinders on. I try not to second guess my instincts, and at the moment I'm writing a part for Luis Guzman. As the character has developed, I've realized I'm basically writing Maurice [Guzman's character in Boogie Nights] again. Part of me says, "wait a minute - you're writing Maurice again," but another part of me wants to explore this character more - maybe because Maurice got shortchanged in Boogie Nights. The new script is set in 1997, so maybe this is Maurice twenty years later.

You're presently in a precarious place as an artist. You've been able to privately develop your first two films, but the success of Boogie Nights has brought many conflicting forces to bear on you and your work - the pressures of the marketplace, the distraction of flattery, the demands being made on your time. Are there steps you can take to protect your sanity and your future as a filmmaker?

That's a good question and all I can say is I'm learning as I go. I wrote my first two movies fueled by a desire for revenge on all the people who told me I'd never amount to anything, and those movies came from a place of "I'll show you." Now I hear people say Boogie Nights is great, but what are you gonna do next, and that's a challenge too. Ultimately I'm not worried because once you start writing and you're alone in a room and you get in a groove, there's nothing else going on in the world. I've been to Hollywood parties and the lunches with so and so, and without sounding arrogant or ungrateful, I can tell you that none of it is as fun as making a movie.

What's the most valuable thing you've learned about this movie business in the last two years?

I unfortunately learned that writing and directing a good movie is only fifty percent of my job, and that the other fifty percent is dealing with the people who finance it and get the movie sold. Because however good your movie is, it doesn't mean shit if nobody sees it. It's very odd, but the movie business is full of people who don't love movies, and the more people  I meet in this industry the more I want to run away.

How is having a hit movie different than you'd anticipated it would be?

I still feel like I don't know the secret frat boy handshake. I was recently at Carrie Fisher's birthday party, and they were all there - Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Warren Beatty, you name it. And sure, some people knew who I was and complimented me on the film, but I still felt like I wasn't a member of the club.

Do movies shape the culture or merely reflect it as it already exists?

I think they shape the culture - and that, of course, means they have a responsibility to the culture. As a filmmaker, how much I feel the weight of that responsibility changes from one day to the next. If you feel it too heavily you're probably becoming pretentious; if you don't feel it at all you're probably a jerk.