Monday, February 23, 1998

Interview: "Boogie Fever"

Boogie Fever, Written By Greg King
February ??, 1998

Greg King gets down with Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights.

"I was just obsessed with movies, and I've done everything in my life just guiding towards that." Ever since he saw Rocky twenty years ago, 26 year old film director Paul Thomas Anderson has wanted to make movies. He admires the work of the late John Sturges, but he also loves the films of contemporary directors like Jonathan Demme, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese.

Anderson began working as a production assistant on television movies, videos and game shows and several independent movies before moving into writing and directing his own films. In 1992 he wrote a short film called Cigarettes And Coffee, borrowing a camera to shoot it. The film appeared at Sundance in 1993, and Anderson was later to develop it into a full length feature. The result was Hard Eight, a low key morality play about a veteran gambler (Philip Baker Hall) who seeks redemption for his past sins by teaching a down and out gambler (John C Reilly) some of the tricks of his trade. The film also starred Gwyneth Paltrow as a down and out hooker and Samuel L Jackson as an enforcer. Although described as a cross between Pulp Fiction and Leaving Las Vegas by some American critics, this down beat and ultimately flawed crime thriller disappeared straight onto video in this country.

"I have Sam to thank for having a career, really," Anderson acknowledges. It was the very busy Jackson's involvement that actually ensured the financing to get the movie made. "He was a dream to work with. He was great, and he responded to the script, really liked the part. It was just a quick, ten day shoot for him. But he not only lent his acting skills but his name to the movie, which helped get it financed."

Anderson's second film is Boogie Nights, which is set against the background of the porn industry in the late '70's and early '80's. One of the more strikingly original films to emerge from mainstream Hollywood, Boogie Nights is more than just the story of the rise and fall and rise again of a porn star. This sprawling, colourful and vibrant black comedy follows the personal highs and lows of a group of actors and film makers, but it also charts the changing mood of America as it moves from the freedom, optimism and easy going spirit of the '70's into the more cynical atmosphere of the '80's. The film itself grew out of a short film, called The Dirk Diggler Story, which Anderson shot on video tape in 1988. In the seven years since then he has continued to rewrite and refine the script and expand the original idea into this sprawling and vibrant take on the porn industry.

"I just wrote out of a curiosity factor and the humour that I saw in porno," he explains further. "I was watching a lot of porno films at the time. I felt that this was pretty fascinating and so I wrote this short film about the rise and fall of this porn star named Dirk Diggler."

But there were also more personal and selfish reasons for the Los Angeles native to write a film set against the seedy milieu of the LA porn industry of the late '70's and early '80's. "My inspiration was to make a move in the city where I live and the neighbourhood where I grew up, so I could walk to work," he says with the hint of a smile, before switching to more serious mode. "To tell you the honest truth, I think I was really inspired to make this movie by all the actors that I wanted to work with. I just thought, well, here's a great topic that lends itself to lots of different stories, and that means I can write 80 speaking parts and work with a great bunch of actors. So selfishly I thought that I could spend my whole summer with this great bunch of actors."
Anderson wrote many of the parts specifically with a number of actors in mind. He wrote the role of matronly porn star Amber Waves especially for Julianne Moore, who is his favourite actress. He also created the role of the cynical, world weary director Jack Horner, the film director who takes a rather simple minded but well-endowed teenager and turns him into a porn superstar, for Burt Reynolds.

What attracted him to cast Reynolds? "He appealed to me basically because of the way he looks. I thought he could have a good look for Jack. There was just something about Burt. I thought he would be good for this sort of father figure. It seems like Burt's seen a lot. Burt's been a round for a long time and had a lot of ups and downs. He could bring a world weariness to the part, and I thought it would be fine to use him in this way, put him against these up and coming young actors. He was fun to work with."
Anderson's confidence in Reynolds, an actor who has become something of a joke within the industry, has paid off, as the veteran actor recently scored a Golden Globe Award for best Supporting Actor, and is tipped as the hot favourite to take an Oscar in March. As a veteran actor and a director himself did Burt offer much advice on the set? "No," says Anderson. "And I didn't want it. I was too arrogant to ever want any advise from any one."

Anderson says that he initially wrote the role of Ernie, the kid who becomes porn sensation Dirk Diggler, with Leonardo DiCaprio in mind. But DiCaprio went off to do Titanic instead. However, he did introduce Anderson to former teen idol, pop star and underwear model Mark Wahlberg, who had made a strong impression with his critically acclaimed film debut opposite DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries.

After their first meeting, Anderson knew that Wahlberg would be just perfect for the role. "He just made it come alive," he recalls. "He was Dirk Diggler! It was just incredible to watch him know the character and know what he was going to do so well that I could just request anything from him. He was just fearless. He brought a fearlessness to it that I just loved."

Many of the other characters are played by an ensemble cast that includes Reilly, Hall and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, actors whom Anderson had directed in Hard Eight. Working with a talented cast of actors is the whole reason that Anderson wants to continue to make movies. "It's to be around these people who are my friends and who are just brilliant actors," he says. "It creates something on the set, where you're not making a movie with strangers, you're making a movie with your best friends. There's a kind of short hand and an ease to it, and there's a kind of understanding about what you're trying to do that's just - when it's working there's nothing like it."
"It's a weird situation, the way we have it. I'm very specific about what I want from them and they all know that, and they know what I like. The collaboration is in our bones. They give me what I want, but it's very hard to explain."

Anderson remembers how his neighbourhood used to look in the '70's, but he and his production designer and costume designer also used photo albums and old year books as resource material to help capture that distinct look and feel of the Los Angeles of yesteryear. The wonderful background music also plays an enormous role in capturing the feel and mood of the era. Most of the music used comes from Anderson's own record collection, and was largely the stuff he was listening to as he wrote the script. "It's just basically songs that I liked. If it works, it works. I didn't want to have to think beyond 'Hey, this is a cool song, let's put it in the movie.' I kind of structured it like a musical."
Anderson's love of music also segued into directing a music video for Try, a song written and sung by Michael Penn (brother of actors Sean and Chris), the film's scorer, during the editing phase of Boogie Nights. "It was so much fun," the director enthuses. "It was probably my favourite thing that I've ever done. It was really exciting. I just love his music, and it was a nice thing to do. If it's for a band or a singer that I really liked I would certainly do it again. But I don't want to do that for a job or anything."

Both of Anderson's movies have been set against the background of pretty low life milieus - gambling casinos, crime, and porno film making. What is it that attracts him to such material? "I don't know," he says hesitantly. "It's not that I'm a particularly sleazy guy, but I'm just drawn to this stuff. It turns me on, it's where I want to be, it's where I want to look. I keep looking there."

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