PTA Interview: The Guardian
January ??, 1998
With all its razzle-dazzle and surface kitsch, Anderson's multi-stranded story of the fuck-film subculture and its murky, neo-Runyon denizens - names like Dirk Diggler, Jack Horner, Amber Waves - could have been pure cartoon. But Anderson knows their world too well for that, having been raised in the San Fernando Valley, LA's capital of porn production.
"It was always there," he remembers. "Bunker-type warehouses with no sign on them near my high school. You'd see people coming in and out and you knew there was something going on. I guess that speaks to anyone's effort to get back to their childhood - what was that shit I was witnessing when I was 11 years old?" The young Anderson knew perfectly well what was going on: he had his first taste of porn aged nine, when he sneaked a look at his father's video of a popular item called The Opening Of Misty Beethoven. He admits he is too fascinated with the genre to have much journalistic detachment. "I've been into it as a consumer, but not as some freak who's masturbating his life away. Probably more of a fascination with the film-making of it than anything else." Boogie Nights has been criticised for romanticising its subject matter - the Modern Review has already attacked it as "Porn Kitsch" - but the film derives its considerable ambivalence from its portrayal of a lost hedonist utopia that crumbles in an apocalyptic final act. Anderson's take on porn is, he admits, equivocal.
"On one hand, I love the camp of it, I love what can be sexy about it. Then you've got this other side, which is just a general kind of disgust and sadness. If you've ever watched a real hard-core porno film, if you're a human being at all, your first instinct is to think, 'Who is that person? Where is their mother?' But that's not to say that 20 seconds later I won't be thinking, 'Wow, she's kinda hot!' That's just something I'd own up to."
Anderson visited some 20 hardcore sets in researching the film, and had a highly qualified consultant in the form of Ron Jeremy, aka 'the hedgehog' - a rotund, buffoonish character who is currently Hollywood's most implausible blue-movie attraction. But Boogie Nights is really about the late seventies sex industry, before video made it harsher and trashier. Connoisseurs of that era see the film as a thinly-disguised roman-a-clef, and Anderson admits that Amber Waves, played by Julianne Moore, was inspired by real-life names such as Seka and Marilyn Chambers, an actress who briefly went legit in David Cronenberg's film Rabid. Another reference was Shawna Garrett: "The standard Girl from Iowa who gets on the bus, comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom, becomes porn star, becomes drug addict, commits suicide. This is such a cliché - you think, 'You're not telling me the girl-on-the-bus-from-Iowa story over again?' But you hear it over and over again, and it's like a goofy movie."
Anderson's ingenu-stud Dirk Diggler is loosely based on the priapic actor John Holmes, who became a porn legend for his outlandish proportions, before dying of Aids in 1988. Dirk's own physical distinction is made clear in Boogie Nights in an already notorious scene that presents an audacious combination of absurdity, poignancy and prosthetic wizardry. "It's just like, 'Duh?'," says Anderson. "There's nothing sexual about it. John Holmes would talk about being a kid and taking the shower in gym class and really having a hard time, people just laughing at him. It's like having a third arm. What can you do except say, 'I am the Elephant Man, I'll go to the circus'?"
Boogie Nights's nostalgia for a supposed pre-Aids Eden of disco-fuelled sexuality may be tinged with considerable circumspect irony. But the film does genuinely mourn an era when American porn was, if not exactly idealistic, at least more ambitious. Seventies porn had aspirations to infiltrate the mainstream, and movies like Deep Throat, Behind The Green Door and The Devil In Miss Jones were fashionable talking points at Californian dinner tables. This 'Golden Age' ended, Anderson says, with the advent of video.
"Any kind of dignity or effort in the film-making is gone now. Shooting on film is more expensive, so you've got to go in there with a plan - what's the best place to put the camera to make this sexy? That results in a story and a basic structure. Video comes along and it's five dollars for an hour worth of tape. It's like music-video thinking - 'We'll shoot a bunch of shit and edit it together later.' "
Boogie Nights is generally agreed by cognoscenti to be pretty accurate about its subject. Laurence O'Toole, author of a forthcoming book on pornography, Pornocopia, feels that the film captures that period's "sense of making an alternative genre, rather than a parallel culture, which it became." Where Anderson goes too far, he argues, is in "the drugs, the level of excess and the violence - people have said that they'd never have stayed in the industry if it had been that cocaine-infested. The film also doesn't reflect the fact that it was against the law to make porn in California then - sets were being busted all the time." What Anderson does get right, says O'Toole, is the strange surrogate-family structure in which Dirk lives with his porn cohorts. "Everyone in porn has problems maintaining contact with people who aren't involved in it, so they develop a myth of the forgiving, accommodating family structure." This theme gives Boogie Nights its most troubling emotional subtlety, which presumably helped Anderson attract such prominent performers as Moore, Burt Reynolds and Twin Peaks ingenue Heather Graham to roles that most Hollywood names would run a mile from. (Reynolds, however, was reputedly unhappy with the film and Leonardo DiCaprio dropped out of the Dirk role at an early stage). Anderson admits, "A couple of people did say, 'OK, it's a really good script, but how do I really know that this isn't Showgirls?' I said, 'You can't.' " For the record, Boogie Nights is most definitely not Showgirls, a film Anderson considers 'fucking despicable'.
Anderson's off-beam take on Hollywood may be in his genes. His father, actor Ernie Anderson, was known in the sixties as TV horror host Ghoulardi, famous for his hipster goatee and catchphrase "Stay sick". The Andersons were not well connected in the media, but Paul managed to talk himself into production assistant jobs on TV game shows, rather than go to film school, and made his first short on camcorder - a half-hour Boogie Nights prototype, The Dirk Diggler Story. His first feature, Sydney, was a low-key, claustrophobic vignette pitched somewhere between David Mamet and Paul Auster, about a gambler who sells his soul to an enigmatic mentor. The producers hated it.
"They'd seen all these genre elements - a guy, a girl, a gun - and they hadn't really read the script, which was basically this slow little chamber drama. I think they were kind of shocked when they saw the movie. 'Nothing's really happening - can we get Gwyneth Paltrow a little bit naked? Can he shoot him 20 times instead of four?' " After much wrangling, Sydney was released under the producers' title, Hard Eight. It made hardly a ripple on its British release last year, but no doubt Boogie Nights fans will seek it out, misled by the title to expect another porn epic. "And they're gonna be real disappointed!" Anderson says.
No one could have guessed from the cool, controlled Hard Eight that its director would make such an explosive follow-up, but Anderson was already writing Boogie Nights while filming his debut. "I remember on day two of shooting, calling my agent and saying, After I've finished this movie, I wanna go right away and make Boogie Nights, 'cause I'm here with four actors and I LOVE IT! But I need more! I need fucking more! I need 80 of them!' I knew it would be cool to consciously make a small movie - and a big fucking epic sloppy huge movie." On the strength of two remarkable films, Anderson looks like Hollywood's best hope for the millennium. He certainly has the distinction of now being cinema's most famous Paul Anderson - the 'Thomas' in his name is to avoid confusion with British director Paul Anderson, who made Shopping and Mortal Kombat. He shouldn't be confused either with Paul Thomas, a leading porn director who last year made a bid for respectability by trying to get mainstream Hollywood critics to review his film, Bad Wives. That Paul Thomas's style, according to Laurence O'Toole, is "the LA aesthetic - a bit of Lynch, a bit of Kathryn Bigelow, a bit of Michael Mann." Don't be surprised if, before long, the porn Paul Thomas is cribbing from his legit near-namesake too. This could get confusing.