Saturday, January 03, 1998

Interview: "Blame It On The Boogie Man"

Telegraph Magazine, Written By Ben Thompson
January 3rd, 1998

Can a film about a well-endowed porn star seriously be a hymn to the idea of family ? Paul Thomas Anderson thinks so. Ben Thompson talks to the director.

The cinema has created some unlikely heroes in its time, but few more unlikely than Eddie Adams. Adams, aka 'Dirk Diggler', the imaginary Seventies porn-star whose rise and fall is the focus of Boogie Nights, is a suburban cowboy blessed by nature with a mighty penile appendage. Rejected by his mother, he is plucked from obscurity by benevolent pornographer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, who apparently disliked the film so much that he fired his agent for ever signing him up to appear in it) and forms a new and strange set of family attachments within a colourful company of 'adult' film-makers.

As well as the marathon feats of sexual endurance which become his bread and butter, and the copious drug consumption which is the closest the porn world gets to jam, Eddie's odyssey carries him through a dimly remembered Seventies netherworld of great music and terrible fashion. This Day-glo backdrop sustains Boogie Nights through its marathon two-and-quarter-hour running time, and much innocent retrospective fun is had at the expense of such indulgences as the eight-track cartridge player. But the film is no mere kitsch-fest - it's the foreground that commands the real attention.

Although many commentators will doubtless see Boogie Nights as another staging post in the cinema's long descent into terminal decadence, it is actually a rather heart-warming piece of work. People always say that about films that allow us a voyeuristic glimpse into a world normally deemed to be forbidden, but in this case it's true. The film's writer-director, 26-year-old wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson, happily admits to the influence of seamy porn films such as The Opening of Misty Beethoven on his adolescent development, and yet Boogie Nights, which is proving a surprise hit in America, is no laddish celebration. In fact, it's an elegiac history of considerable moral complexity, upon which Anderson turns the observant and playful eye of the child he still was when the Seventies ended.

Ensconced - as to the manner born - at the Savoy Hotel, Anderson is confidently scruffy in demeanour, favouring that form of coiffure known and feared in the hairdressing trade as 'bed-head'. A wide awake mind swiftly looms up out of the warm smog of his California syntax as mention of Holly-wood's other recent bid to bring pornography into the mainstream, The People Vs Larry Flynt, puts him straight on the offensive. Milos Forman's much-praised depiction of pornographer Larry Flynt as a standard-bearer for free expression might be seen as having paved the way for Boogie Nights, yet Anderson insists that his film is a corrective rather than a companion to Forman's. So what was it about The People Vs Larry Flynt that he didn't like?

Anderson sighs. 'The list is so long. First and foremost, it's not dirty enough; and if people are going to do drugs in a movie, I want to see them do drugs. But the thing that really bugs me is that Larry Flynt is not a hero, he's a pig, and the whole idea of a crusade to say that he has this right to do what he does, this right to be a pig, is just so boring. He wasn't in it because he believed in free expression, he just wanted to make money.'

Determined to avoid the pitfalls of apologia, Anderson's intention with Boogie Nights was 'not to make a movie about the First Amendment, but to make a movie that lives inside it': to push all political and philosophical baggage to one side and focus on `the social and moral structure' of a group of pornographers. Needless to say, it' s not his film's forensic examination of a social and moral structure that has given Anderson such a packed interview schedule, it's the fact that there is a penis in it. And not just a common or garden penis either (in some ways, that might have been more audacious), but one of prodigious size and seamless prosthetic enhancement, sported with lethal innocence by Calvin Klein underwear model and former teeny rapper `Marky Mark' Wahlberg.

'One thing I am very proud of,' Anderson says emphatically, 'is that the MPAA, which is the ratings guild in America, never said one word about it' So how did he overcome the censor's traditional determination to protect the modesty of the male form (whatever indignities might be meted out to the female)? `We shot it twice,' Anderson says fondly, 'once in the first sex scene and the other time in the very last shot. I decided it was better to save it till the end, so by the time you finally see it you've totally forgotten that you're going to, and it's just this unnecessary icing on the cake.'

Laconic laughter follows as Anderson considers the inappropriateness of this metaphor. Confident without being bratty, outspoken without being gratuitously confrontational, his behaviour matches the pious assurance of his film-making. He seems to regard his new-found place in the public eye as a part of the natural order of things. 'It seems preposterous to say, "I've been waiting",' he explains, 'but in a way it's true - not in terms of ego, but in terms of what it takes to get this job done, which is basically to have asked yourself since the age of seven, "What do you wanna do?" The answer comes back, " I'm gonna make movies." "OK, what's gonna happen if you don't?" "Nothing. I will just die.'''

Anderson grew up in the San Fernando Valley - the unglamorous residential swathe of Los Angeles - and his father worked on the fringes of Hollywood, doing voiceovers for Fantasy Island and presenting horror films on television in the guise of a character called 'Ghoulardi' (a name his son later revived when the time came to christen his film production company). Did he always feel a part of showbusiness? 'Not through living with my Dad so much as growing up in Los Angeles. It's like growing up in a steeltown - you just think, "I'm going to get in that mill some day.'''

The impression outsiders tend to have of LA is that there's the tourist side of Beverly Hills and then there are the lives most people live, and the two don't really intersect much, but Anderson's adolescent awareness of the proximity of the `adult entertainment' industry would seem to suggest otherwise. `You'd see people disappear into a shed with a camera,' he recalls, `and you'd know what they were doing' Growing up obsessed with films, and cutting his childhood movie-going teeth on Jaws and Star Wars, the idea of going `over the hill' into Hollywood still entailed such a big psychological leap that he could only do it via film school in New York.

'For a long time I felt ashamed that I was from the Valley,' Anderson admits. 'What kind of stories were there to tell from there? I wasn' t born and raised in Little Italy, I wasn't in the war, I just live this, like, pathetic existence so I thought maybe I needed to go to New York to get some culture. I lasted 30 days, then it was "Now I'm gonna tell Valley stories.'''

By his own admission a bad student, Anderson got into film school at NYU by writing 'a great essay about David Mamet'. He left within a few weeks, convinced the institution had nothing to teach him, after submitting one of Mamet's scenes as part of a screen-writing exercise and getting a C+. He headed back to the West Coast to get practical experience as an assistant on a TV quiz show for precocious teenagers, and it wasn't long before he'd talked himself into making his first attempt at a Valley story.

Anderson's debut film, Sydney, recently released under the title Hard Eight, turned out to be the archetypal learning experience. The sombre but stylishly realised story of a former gangster struggling to make amends to the son of someone he killed, it turned out to be less to its backers' liking than Anderson's pitching skills had indicated. When the producers took the film from him, he only secured its eventual release by raising the money himself (via generous donations from the paypackets of Hard Eight's stars John Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow) to submit an incomplete duplicate print to the Cannes Film Festival, whose acceptance shamed the producers into letting him finish it.

This story gives us some idea as to how Anderson came to get so far so fast, but the route by which veteran actor (and noted Edward G. Robinson lookalike) Philip Baker Hall came to inhabit the lead role is surer proof of the writer director's single-mindedness. At the impressionable age of 14, Anderson saw Hall play Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honour. `I thought, "This is the actor!'' ' he says. `Then in subsequent years I'd see him on Cheers episodes and I'd be like, "Bullshit, this guy's brilliant."'

In an effort to 'fill in the gaps of a romantic notion of what Hall was', Anderson wrote a film with him at the centre and 'more or less stalked him', at one point uttering the immortal words, 'You don't understand, I'm gonna make you a star!' What was it about this man that intrigued him so much? 'The idea that maybe he had a past. This guy was so great, why wasn't he Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall? I couldn't understand it. Maybe he had done something he was dealing with.'

There is not much doubt about what Anderson himself might be dealing with. He has spoken a great deal about the impact his parents' break- up and his subsequent estrangement from his mother had on his childhood, and both his films are about people creating families where none exists. 'It's kind of showing all my cards isn't it?' Anderson smiles, 'OK, yeah. I'm trying to create this little family.' The moment he likes best in his film is when fresh-faced starlet Rollergirl - who, in keeping with her name, wears rollerskates night and day and has already been round the block a few times - approaches her surrogate mother figure (the older porn star Amber Waves) in the middle of a cocaine binge, and asks her to pretend to be her actual mother. 'She says, "Will you be my mum? I'm gonna ask you, let me set it up, and I want you to say yes." In other words, "Don't tell me the truth, just answer the way I want you to answer.'''

In a way, that exchange seems to contain some of the essence of pornography. Anderson nods vehemently. 'If it's denial, fine: if it's gonna get me through the day, I'm sorry then, fuck it.' This might be a fair summation of Boogie Nights' attitude to the endeavours of its principals. All the main characters seem to be quite sweet and well-intentioned people just doing their best to get by. Even though the consequences of their actions are not glossed over, this is surely a somewhat idealised view of an industry that is hardly renowned for bringing out the best in human nature?

'I'm proud of being upfront about my confusion about the topic. You want people to be confident and clear about what their stance is, and I'm being confident and clear about how confused I am.' In the end, Boogie Nights seems to be saying something strange and interesting about the legacy of the decadent Seventies.

It might seem odd to proclaim the biography of a fictional porn star as a hymn to the idea of family, but in some ways that's exactly what this film feels like. It's almost as if having grown up suffering the after-effects of the destruction of the family while finding solace in the obviously dysfunctional world of pornography, Anderson has decided to try and resolve that contradiction on celluloid. The film-maker grins, 'It's exactly like that, yes.'

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