Sundance Online, Written By Saida Shepard
The Emerging Filmmaker Conversations with Sundance Lab Fellows Paul Thomas Anderson
In January of 1993, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, a short called Cigarettes and Coffee, screened at the Sundance Film Festival. To make the film, Anderson pooled friends, acquaintances, and resources from his years as a production assistant. Cigarettes and Coffee inspired Anderson’s feature film script, Sydney, which he brought to the 1993 Filmmakers Lab. At the Lab, Anderson took portions of Sydney through a dress-rehearsal process, working with actors, workshopping his script, and learning about film industry politics. Sydney, later renamed Hard Eight, initiated Anderson into the challenge of retaining directorial control amid the promises and pitfalls of The Business.
Anderson’s second feature, Boogie Nights, documents the makeshift family of a porn production empire from the excesses of the 1970s into the changing climate of the 1980s. At twenty-seven, Paul Thomas Anderson has been compared to Robert Altman for his ensemble work, and to Martin Scorsese for his anthropological detail. In this interview, part of a series with Lab alumni, Anderson talks about his start as a director, the lessons he’s learned from making two features, and his plans to make many more: “Either like thirty, if I continue to smoke; maybe forty if I quit.”
Q: What were you doing before the Lab?
I wasn’t doing a goddamn thing. I’d worked as a P.A. for a long time, so I had a lot of access to people and camera packages, and I had some money and my girlfriend’s credit cards, and when I came up with the short Cigarettes and Coffee, essentially it was kind of an all or nothing situation. I put everything into this short, and then it was shown at Sundance. I had just written Sydney, or Hard Eight, rather. At that time it was called Sydney. And [Feature Film Program Director] Michelle Satter read it and she really liked it, and she saved my life by inviting me to the Lab. I really, literally, didn’t have anything to do. It was January, and I figured I’d be getting a job or something. I had no backup plan. In my egotistical, insane way, I was just sure that someone like her was going to come along. And she did.
Q: Did the idea for Sydney grow out of your short?
No, it just grew out of the same actor. Philip Baker Hall was an actor who was in my short, who I really admired. And I wanted to get to know more about him. So my thinking in writing Sydney was that it was a kind of love letter, trying to figure out this man I didn’t really know.
Q: How was the Lab?
I was initially kind of skeptical about it. Then I got there, and I just fuckin’ went crazy. I was very fortunate to have the actors who were going to be in the movie—Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly—with me. I mean, I met all these directors that I admired, like Michael Caton-Jones and John Schlesinger, and that was really quite a big deal. I remember [Artistic Director] Jeremy Kagan saying, “You’re here to fuck up, and then fuck up better the next day.” When someone says that, you’re ready to go. The best part of it for me was the Screenwriters Lab, because that’s where I got to meet three friends, three people who are very very close to me now, Richard La Gravenese, Todd Graff, and Scott Frank. They were advisors and just so dedicated to kicking my ass. And I needed my ass kicked.
Q: In what areas did you need ass kicking?
I knew that my sensibility wasn’t incredibly art house, and I knew that my sensibility wasn’t incredibly Batman. I knew that I loved both sides of the spectrum. I had written a movie that was very small and intimate. And I said, “You know, I think I need a little bit of help, because this is reading and seeming to me like a movie that could play at the Nuart for a week, and I really don’t want to make a movie that plays at the Nuart for a week. I want to make a movie that people will come and see, and I need help in that department.” I was sort of shamelessly saying that I didn’t want to do a small movie. And of course it turned out that it played at the Nuart for a week. So a lot of fucking help they were!
Q: Was there an experience or conversation at the Lab that ultimately shifted a direction of the film?
I had written a scene where two people talk about doing a scam. I had written one guy telling another guy about a scam that he could pull to get a free hotel in Vegas. I sat down with Richard La Gravenese, and he said, “Why am I reading about this? Why am I not seeing it?” And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of incredible. Why don’t I show it?” That’s just a very basic thing, one really strong thing I took.
Q: Were there skills you learned at the Lab that you took to the experience of directing your film on set?
Funny enough, everyone seemed to recognize that I needed more advice about the movie business. While there may have been somebody else over on the other side who needed help with his character motivation and script, I was standing there with a pretty okay script and just needed someone to give me lessons in how to protect what I had. It was more like, “Okay. Here’s what’s going to happen. There are going to be all these people who want to suck your blood, and here’s how to protect yourself.” What they were trying to teach me at the Lab, which I was probably too silly to listen to, is that only 50 percent of my job was to write and direct good movies. The other 50 percent was dealing with people who pay for movies and dealing with the distribution process.
Q: Once you got the money in place, where did you shoot the film, and what was the post-production process like?
We shot in Reno, Nevada, for twenty-eight days, and then went through a hellish process of editing it and trying to regain it back from the company that paid for it. In other words, everything that they had warned me might happen in Hollywood happened. I’ll just say that some people who paid for the movie accidentally forgot to read the script, and when they got the movie that was the script, they were...mad. If you’re a first-time filmmaker, and you’ve got someone to give you the money, you’re going to take it. Even if it smells fishy, you’re going to take it. Don’t. It’s better not to make your movie. You will get it eventually. If it smells fishy, don't fucking get involved.
Q: Did you have people in mind when you were writing Boogie Nights?
Again, I had written it for specific actors—John C. Reilly, Phil Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Ridgely, Melora Walters. All those people were in Hard Eight. I like working with the same people. And Julianne Moore is someone that I didn’t know personally, but I knew her work, and so I wrote the part for her.
Q: What cinematic influences informed Boogie Nights?
Certainly I think the top three influences, in alphabetical order, are Altman, Scorsese, and Truffaut. They were people that I admired and loved. Jonathan Demme is probably my all-time king hero because he’s the combination of those three, I think.
Q: What do you think about when you think about the future?
I met Francis Ford Coppola, and he shook my hand and said, “You’re the only one right now.” He said, “There’s always one time in your life where you get to know that you can make one more movie. You have it. You’ll never have it again.”
Q: What do you want to make next?
I have a movie in my head, in pieces. I have been writing it for a while. It’s basically for a lot of the same actors.
Q: Do you have a stock company that you would like to continue working with?
Yeah. The goal is to buy the entire Laurel Canyon area and turn it into a backlot for me and my actors. With a monorail from here to Houdini’s house.
Q: Was this all part of your plan, years ago when you thought about what you wanted to do with your life?
It’s all happening. Well, it’s about a year behind schedule.
Q: When you were a teenager, you were planning—
Even before that. Six or seven.
Q: Six or seven?
Yeah. And the presidency’s mine in 2004.
Q: Do you want to be a director that inhabits all genres? For example, Scorsese, who’s done almost everything —is that something that appeals to you?
Absolutely. I want to make a western. I like it all, and I want to tackle it all. There’s so much I want to do. There’s just not enough fuckin' time!