Sunday, January 11, 1998

Interview: "A Natural Porn Director"

Independent On Sunday, Written By Paul Mungo
January 11th, 1998


When Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights was shown at the Toronto film festival last year, it was perhaps inevitable that the young American director would be hailed as the "new Quentin Tarantino". New Quentin

Tarantinos have been popping up fairly regularly in the past few years: the qualifications are a childhood spent in darkened cinemas, youth, and at least one ambitious, quirky film. If the movie features a faded Seventies star on the way back up, so much the better.

Anderson's faded Seventies star is Burt Reynolds, who plays sleaze king Jack Horner in Boogie Nights. And the film, set in the subculture of the hard-porn industry in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was described by one American critic as "the most sensational act of moviemaking so far this year". It was directed by Anderson when he was just 26.

Anderson is 27 now. Despite the light straggle of beard on his chin, he seems younger. He is dressed mall-style, his shirt hanging out over his trousers, and is prone to American teenage expressions like "jeez". He cheerfully describes himself as "a standard-template film geek" who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, with three sisters, his mom and dad. It was, he says, "normal suburbia - except that it's the capital of film production". His only real connection with the entertainment business was through his father, who did voiceovers for TV.




His youthfulness belies a startling intensity of purpose. He never wanted to be anything other than a film director, he says - except maybe a boxer, but that was only because he had seen Rocky. "This is it," he says emphatically. "I'm not young, because I've spent 20 years doing this. I'm an old pro at getting movies made. I have to do this. I don't have a back-up plan. I never studied to become a dentist or something to fall back on."

He is sitting in his room in the Savoy when he says this, leaning forward in his chair to emphasize the point. London is his first stop on a tour of Europe; from here he goes to Paris, Rome and Madrid. Interviews have been laid on every hour or so. The curious thing is that Anderson seems utterly unfazed. "I feel lucky," he agrees, "but not really. I don't feel lucky that I'm making movies. I feel lucky people are liking them."

In America, Boogie Nights was among the best-reviewed films of the year. (There were exceptions: one critic called it "repetitive and clunky".) It has revived Burt Reynolds's career, and it may have made a serious star of the former rapper Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark), who plays Eddie Adams, a 17-year-old from the flatlands of LA with a 13- inch penis and a prodigious ability to "get wood".

Renamed Dirk Diggler, Eddie becomes the star turn in Jack Homer's films. At the same time, he finds a family, albeit a seriously dysfunctional one, within the group that surrounds Homer. Homer's wife, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), sees Eddie as her “little boy".

Boogie Nights is loosely based on the true story of the late John Holmes, the Seventies porn star who is said to have made some 2,000 movies. Like Holmes, Dirk Diggler finds fame and fortune, winning a slew of Adult Film Awards (the porn industry's equivalent of the Oscars). He invests in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, a new wardrobe, a red sports car. With Horner, he decides to make better movies, with real plots and characters - artistic porn, in other words. This isn't quite as far-fetched as it may sound. The film is set in that strange period when porn was moving into the mainstream, when Linda Lovelace' s Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones out-grossed regular Hollywood releases and entered the Variety top 20.

But, like Holmes, Diggler succumbs to drugs, which make him impotent, probably the worst thing that could happen to a porn star. The industry itself succumbs to the Mafia, and to the invention of video. Unlike Holmes, who died of Aids in 1988, Diggler overcomes his drug problem and is finally welcomed back into the bosom of his surrogate family.

Despite the nature of the material, Boogie Nights is both funny and moving. Seen through a veil of Seventies kitsch - the fashion, the music – it manages to render the subject of hard porn almost innocuous. In the end, says Anderson, the film is about families, self-respect, and the film industry. (Critics have noted an ironic thematic similarity between Boogie Nights's delineation of how video changed the porn industry and Singin' in the Rain, which was about how "talkies" changed the silent- film industry.)

"I was fascinated by the film-making side," Anderson says. "The transition from film to video meant they were watching all dignity slip away from what they were doing." The "family" theme, he adds, "is the movie. I don't want to be so pretentious as to say the movie is about blah, blah, blah, but it's sort of about this family. The porn industry is so demoralizing, so quickly, that, like circus freaks, they created these weird surrogate families."

Boogie Nights is about two and a half hours long, about a half an hour longer than the industry "ideal". It is a reflection of Anderson' s persuasiveness, or perhaps his studio's faith in him, that he was able to convince New Line to back him. "I said to them, it's gonna be three hours long. They said fine. They're just happy now it's a half-hour shorter than I said," Anderson laughs.

"I think there's probably two minutes that could come out of the movie, two minutes that isn't the best story-telling I could do. But those are two minutes I've fallen in love with, and as I've got to see the movie more than anyone else, I kept them in." His experience with New Line was "great", he adds, "but anything would have beat my first experience." That first experience was with his previous feature, Hard Eight, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L Jackson, and was made for a now-defunct production company. "Writing and shooting it was a dream," he recalls. "It was only after dealing with the business side of the editing that it went wrong. I kept looking at what they wanted to do and saying, 'Are you trying to make more money?' I could never understand what they were doing, except trying to be directors with footage I had shot."

Hard Eight, despite some good reviews and screenings in 1996 at both the Cannes Film Festival and Robert Redford's Sundance Festival in Utah, barely registered at the American box office - which gives Anderson a perverse sort of satisfaction. "If the poor grosses of my movie helped in some way in putting them out of business then I'm happy," he smiles. "But I'll try not to sound bitter about it." More seriously, he adds, "It's a really rough memory. It fucked me up."

Before making Hard Eight, Anderson worked as a production assistant on various television movies, videos and game shows. In 1992, he wrote the script for a short film called Cigarettes and Coffee. Made for $23,000, largely financed by "my girlfriend's credit cards, some money I saved up or won gambling, and $7,000 from my Dad for my college, " it was shot on a borrowed camera and premiered at the Sundance Festival' s Shorts Program. Appropriately, given it was partly financed by money Anderson had made gambling, it is set in a diner in Las Vegas.

Cigarettes and Coffee got Anderson into the Sundance Institute's film-makers' workshop, where he developed Hard Eight. Like Cigarettes and Coffee, Hard Eight is set in a diner in Vegas. Making the movie allowed Anderson to rekindle his affection for the gaming tables. " I love gambling," he says enthusiastically. "I love baccarat, which I discovered while filming Hard Eight."

Anderson's career, from production assistant to film short to Sundance to a major feature, has the sort of upward trajectory that is unusual in the film business, where two steps forward for one back is the norm. "I don't think it's an odd or unnatural progression," he protests. "I got lucky because I had written the script and through a friend met Gwyneth Paltrow. She stood by the picture when her star rose, as did Samuel Jackson. When they became hot, I suddenly had a movie that could be financed."

He was barely 23 when he directed Hard Eight. "I was a bit nervous before we shot the first day," he admits, though he seems reluctant to think about his age. "I wondered if the crew might think, this guy's the youngest on the set and he's telling everyone what to do. But when we started shooting it was fine.

"The biggest problem I face in Hollywood," he adds, "is facing people across a desk who do not love movies. Ninety per cent of studio executives do not go home and watch movies. I do: at home, at work, in a completely unashamed way."

What Anderson now has to deal with is success. Since Boogie Nights, he has become one of the most courted writer-directors in Hollywood, a position he concedes, with a laugh, is "wonderful." His success, he adds ruefully, will perhaps allow him to use the film-stock he wants on his next picture, rather than whatever is going cheap, and maybe even give him "final cut", the ultimate say in what the finished movie looks like.

For Boogie Nights, final cut was contractually ceded to the film's producers (which is, to be fair, normal Hollywood practice). But the movie on the screen is all Anderson's: "they let me do what I wanted to do."

Finally, there’s the comparison with Tarantino. Recently in America, Anderson says, some movie magazines have been trying to conjure up a rivalry between the young gun and his supposed mentor. In one article, Anderson is said to have criticized the Tarantino oeuvre. "I started talking about Quentin and his work," Anderson explains. "Some of the quotes were taken out of context. I was hurt by it. Actually. It didn't hurt me so much. But other people ... "

For the record, Paul Thomas Anderson really likes Quentin Tarantino's movies.

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