Sight & Sound Magazine, Written By Gavin Smith
January ??, 1998
Paul Thomas Anderson talks to Gavin Smith about porno fandom and the road to redemption.
One of the things that's interesting about Boogie Nights is its tone shifts, for instance between dramatic and comic/parodic.
There are two answers to that. First, two of my favorite movies are F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, what I call gearshift movies, that can change tones [snaps fingers] like that. I like to see that in movies because that's what real life is like, and it's also good storytelling. And second, this relates to how I came to this story. The first version was a short film I made called The Dirk Diggler Story, when I was 17. That has some of the same textures, but it's much funnier. It's my point of view as a 17-year-old, and what was funny to me then was the titles. As a mass audience, we're amused and turned on by porn titles - Ordinary Peepholes, The Sperminator, Edward Penishands - but then this is quickly not funny. There was something in that short film that was darkly comic, but there were a lot of smartass moments. Over the course of ten years, just by getting older and slightly sick of it all, that's where more of the sadness and drama comes into it. I just sat there and lived with and it was just not fucking funny anymore.
But isn't the coda a fantasy redemptive happy ending?
No, I tried to come up with the saddest happy ending I could come up with. I would be way too easy to punish all those characters, to have them die or whatever. That's not how I felt about them, and that's not usually the case in real life. The bottom line is that Dirk Diggler and everyone else are preparing to go and make another porn movie. But after this whole journey, what have they learned? If that's happy and redemptive, OK.
Do you still watch porn and has your viewing changed? Do you watch it as narrative, all the way through, rather than fast-forwarding to the fuck scenes?
The porno you fast-forward to get to the action are today's films. They're movies for consumers and the makers are aware that the home viewer has a fast-forward button - that's why there is no paying attention to any kind of plot or story. The audience is at home going, "Where are the tits? Where's the dick? How can I get to it fast?" That's why Boogie Nights romanticizes the heyday of porno - you can't watch it at home, you're going into a theatre.
What porn films from the 70's would you single out?
The first one I saw was The Opening of Misty Beethoven, directed by Henry Paris. When I first saw the John Holmes 'Johnny Wadd' series when I was 17, I thought, "This is fucking fascinating."
Are you a fan of Paris' other films?
I don't really know enough about the rest of his work, I've only seen a couple of his other movies. It's not an auteur-driven genre, you're really focusing on the actors involved.
Artistic aspiration or self-improvement consume all of the main characters in Boogie Nights one way or another. But your response to porn films seems to be a camp one: you don't expect genuine artistic value.
None are successful on the terms that I would consider make a great film, even a great porno film. But there are those - like Three A.M. at the Jade Pussycat, Amanda by Night and The Opening of Misty Beethoven - that get A for effort and have their heart in the right place. With genuinely wonderful moments of intent, of storytelling approach or shot choice - or cinematic approach to shooting a sex scene that can turn me on. One thing I was really fascinated by was the structure in the 'Johnny Wadd' series - in The Jade Pussycat for instance, which combines a murder mystery with a sex film. It set up - with some bad acting but also with some good acting - a mystery plot: where is the Jade Pussycat? So in the journey to find it, here are these set-pieces of sex in between solving the murder mystery. You want to see the story progress and see him find the next clue, but you're also there as the guy who sat down to watch a porno movie, wanting him to have sex with that girl he's getting the clue from.
Which is Jack Horner's ideal.
Absolutely. And I'd be a liar if I didn't say Jack's probably talking for any young romantic idiot like me who has notions of trying to make a good movie. It certainly projects my feelings onto him.
When you talk about porn as a genre stifled before it got going, what direction did you hope for?
Where I romanticize it could have gone was a place where acting, storytelling and camerawork got better. With interesting characters where you also had the luxury to show them fucking. We can't see Forrest Gump fuck Jenny Curran, to make that kid. But God, wouldn't that be a great scene? Not just because I want to get off watching Tom Hanks fuck Robin Wright, but think what can be told about Gump through watching him have sex. Here's this big long movie investigating this guy - well, what's he like in bed? What's that like for him? That's a big human question. My romantic notion is that if porno films had been allowed to breathe, and the stories eventually really did come first, then we would have been able to see an actor playing a role and then being able to try on a new way of having sex in a scene. Like trying on an accent. Which would do away with the gratuitous obligatory sex scene that every has to have, which is the ultimate bullshit moment.
So you see contemporary porn as a fallen movie form?
Pretty much, yeah. I still find it interesting to watch some of it. There's a series called Dirty Debutantes: when I first saw it, the mythology was that the pornstar was gone, and it's amateurs now, 'real-life people'. So it was wonderful when I realized that Dirty Debutantes was maybe 80 per cent faked. They're not 'real people' recruited off the street: most are actresses - a version of people off the street as they haven't done too much work, they mustn't be recognizable - but they have agents, porn agents. So now watch them again - you'll see some of the best acting you've ever seen.
How close to the porn industry did you get?
The only research was growing up in the Valley and watching a ton of porno movies and blooper tapes, which really tell you what goes on behind the scenes. When I finished the draft, I though maybe I should go verify what I think is the truth is the truth. I probably went to 20 sets over a couple of years. And I found I was pretty much spot on. But it was funnier than I thought, and sadder. It kind of got me down, watching six hours of solid fucking. You really don't have any desire to go home and kiss your girlfriend.
Most human collective endeavors tend to adopt the extended family as a guiding fiction, so as a structuring device this lends a certain realism - yet it also endorses a mythologically idealized view. Does such a mentality really apply in the porn world?
Absolutely. At the Awards Ceremonies there are all these tables, all these weird versions of surrogate families. It happens in so-called legitimate films, too, having to form a surrogate family during the making of them. But here's the thing: in porno, you have no other choice. You are doing something really odd that not a lot of people do. So you are forced to look for other people going through what you're going through and latch onto them. They can only find understanding with each other.
What Boogie Nights doesn't really acknowledge is that this industry thrives on the exploitation of people as commodities - that a lot of people working in porn are expendable and don't find a safe berth in some dysfunctional but caring community of peers.
That's true. You probably find that side with the Johnny Doe character, the guy who replaced Dirk - we just don't happen to branch off with him and watch him hang out at Jack's house, fuck around, go over here, fuck around, not really find anybody, really be a lost soul. But when Jack hugs Dirk at the end and welcomes his 'son' back, sure, it's probably only within a day or two that he's thinking of a box cover saying 'The Return of Brock Landers'. When John Holmes got out of jail, it was 'The Return of Johnny Wadd'. It was something to sell.
It's curious to me that you film inverts the porn industry paradigm in which the male stars have career longevity while the stars come and go within three or four years: in Boogie Nights the men are expendable, while Amber Waves remains a fixture.
That's true, but Amber is probably the equivalent of somebody like Seka, say, or Marilyn Chambers or Veronica Hart, actresses who were box office for a long time and still have a following. That's five out of 500. Rollergirl is more a novelty and certainly not as big a star as Amber.
There's the scene in the limo, where they pick someone up off the street to have sex with Rollergirl on live television. Does this maybe hint at this too?
'On the Lookout' in Boogie Nights is based on On the Prowl, a real video where they had a real pornstar in the back of a limo and went searching San Francisco for a real guy. Heather Graham watched it and she brought that stuff to it as Rollergirl. What she was doing was what the girl in the real video did: her behavior is very unnatural, like she's almost vamping and presenting this defensive facade - to me it suggested a decline into affect from an initially natural way of acting. All I had written was "HOLD ON ROLLERGIRL": I didn't know what it would be, and I wanted to get through it without ever having to talk to Heather about it and just see what would happen. She did what she did - you can't write that down for an actor, you can't explain it. There are younger girls I've talked to in the industry and you can't get a handle on them. You spend an hour grilling them - nothing. You won't get anywhere. "What's going on with you?" "You know." "Well, how do you feel?" "Oh, you know..." It's my theory they will one day burst the way Rollergirl bursts.
That's interesting, because what's striking about Boogie Nights is that none of the characters seems to know themselves or have real emotional honesty.
I think they have an emotional honesty but there's something stripped and raw and childlike about a lot of them. And that's what I saw in that world, so it's truthful. But for instance Jack introduces himself as 'Jack Horner' - I think he's a character who probably forgets his real name. And in the course of five minutes the Mark Wahlberg character goes from being Eddie Adams to Dirk Diggler to being 'John'. There's no going back for this kid, no way back to Eddie Adams. And then there's a third identity, Brock Landers. In the documentary, he's telling Amber, "I am Dirk Diggler, Brock Landers is a character that I play" - but he's looking in the mirror at the end of the movie and says "That's right. I'm Brock Landers."
This is the core of the film, everyone struggling to become some kind of alter ego and deny the reality of who they are.
Well, who wants to be the kid in Torrance being beaten up by his mother?
When Amber and Rollergirl get coked out together in the bedroom, Amber keeps saying, "You could be anything you want."
Oh, that's funny, that's a nice point, I hadn't really thought of that. To me that dialogue is really just true cocaine dialogue, the mentality when you get so hyped up on that stuff.
That's why I see the ending as being dreams coming true: Jessie is painting, Reed doing his magic at, Buck has his stereo store.
I don't think any of the outcomes is untruthful - I could point to real-life examples in the world of pornography that parallel each of these characters. That's not to say that I haven't taken it upon myself to give them five minutes of happiness - I felt it was important, even though we all know what's going to happen five minutes after the movie ends.
Your generosity towards the characters, and your ability to suspend the narrative and just stay on somebody for moments that are incidental, give the film much of its power, yet are also detrimental to it. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, I do. But there's a point where you have to say, Fuck it, I know I'm being slightly indulgent to this character here. I think that comes from hiring and writing parts for my friends. There is a part of me that knows what better storytelling and better momentum for the film might be, but there's also a part of me that really has an obligation to say, I've seen this actor do something that is wonderful, I was lucky enough to be there with a film camera and get it, and it's too late now, I've got $15 million, the movie's too long anyway, I am going to abuse the privilege and preserve it. If the moment happens, like Phil Hoffman who plays Scotty J, who gets in the car and calls himself a fucking idiot, it may go on too long, I don't care but, fuck it, that's what happened to Phil.
What things determined the style of the film for you?
In terms of structure and emotion, it was clear: first half/second half, 70's/80's. And this is probably more an afterthought, but I felt it should maybe resemble my personal experience of watching a porno film: incredibly funny one second, turns me on the next, then incredibly depressing and so on, up and down. The original script was also really trying to beat up the language: "Come on my stomach and my tits if you can." It could be very funny and odd to hear that in a movie within the first half hour, and I wish there could have been more it sprinkled throughout, but some scenes were cut down and there was some MPAA classifications stuff. My plan was that by hour two the stuff was still being said but it wasn't funny anymore, but boring and repetitive, like a porno movie.
Certainly, a lot of it was driven by trying to cram so much story into a reasonable amount of time. Stylistically the influences were Nashville, Goodfellas and The Battle of Algiers in terms of the immediacy. And the music led the way, to tell you the truth - camera moves and stylistic stuff really came from listening to the music, which I was listening to while I was writing the screenplay.
Do you have the songs written into the script?
I wrote it in a notebook because I didn't want to be tied down - because if you to get the publishing rights and they see that you've written it into the script, then they know you really want it.
You play with the tension between edited time, at its most extreme in the montages and in the drug sequence, and real time, where you'll do something in one long take or pause to study an actor reacting.
There are sequences where it was clear to me that we had to go into the front door and stay until we walked out. The drug-dealer scene is one and Little Bill shooting his wife is another, and there's one shot in the pool-party sequence that just kind of sticks. I'm a great believer in that rule of drama, Get in late and get out early, it applies a lot of the time, but there are moments where it's great to stop and suffer and watch something happen. To me, the moment of Little Bill walking through the house is the result of not being able to figure out when he decided to kill his wife, when he snapped. I could never really say, so I could only start with him as he walks into the party, follow him to find her and make sure I follow him all the way out. Is it when he sees them? Is it when he closes the door? Is it when Rollergirl flashes the Polaroid in his face?
As the film progresses, the style shifts from an almost dreamy poise to jittery, neurotic mannerism, particularly in terms of cutting and camera movement.
Maybe in moments, not as an overall plan. That kind of thinking I probably only applied to sequence D. We broke the film down into five sequences, and D was when everything spirals out of control after Dirk has been fired. It was sort of notorious - in shooting it, matching didn't matter, so everybody could just get freed up: "It's sequence D, it's a fucking free for all, cocaine madness." So the camera moves reflect that. That sequence in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta is running around, everybody responded to it. I got this sick-to-my-stomach feeling. I was working as a messenger in LA at the time and I would do coke all day long and run around and I swear Goodfellas accurately portrayed what it feels like. There's one shot in that Boogie Nights sequence that I really feel good about, when Heather Graham snorts a line of coke and the focus shifts from the mirror to the coke to her and it's blurry for a half a second, it's a very quick shot, then it whips over to Julianne Moore and then Heather brings her head up - that's the one shot where I can go, Yeah, that's what it was like to my eye. If you've ever leaned down to do cocaine, it's a really odd moment where you feel gross about what you're doing but you're in this panic and frenzy, you're so close to something your eye is trying to adjust, it's this weird blurry moment.
There's a real feeling of the camera going out of control, those whiplash pans and shots where you change the frame rate and rush in on somebody.
My first film I probably treated as something very precious, but this time I was really rough with it. If the camera move wasn't fast enough, I'd say, "Well, we've got to find a way to make it faster and if it's out of focus it doesn't matter. However it has to get there, get it there." That's something you see in Jules et Jim - if he didn't have a close-up, he'll iris in on something or box it in or blow it up with some kind of fucked-up optical, just [pounding fist into hand] being rough with it and saying I've gotta get there somehow. In the party scene at Dirk's house, when Julianne says to Mark, "Let's go walk," there was a very fast camera move we did on the set, everybody went, "Wow, that's so fast," but when I saw it in the editing room it wasn't fast enough, so we skip-framed it - we gotta find it, find how it feels.