Wednesday, February 25, 1998

Interview: "Chicks...Dicks And Porno Flicks"

Uncut Magazine UK, Written By Simon Lewis
February ??, 1998


Welcome to the world of Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights, the first essential film of 1998. Simon Lewis is the man in the mac with the Kleenex

Paul Thomas Anderson is Hollywood’s first true Generation X auteur. Scrawny, plaid-shirted and unkempt, son of a voice-over artist, a grade-school drop-out who enrolled at university but never attended, he should have ended up making lo-fi, Kevin Smith-style flicks. Instead, after an apprenticeship as a production assistant on various TV shows, the Sundance Filmmaker’s Workshop gave him the backing to produce last year’s Hard Eight, a hard-boiled redemption tale of gamblers starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson that you probably won’t have seen (he was, he says, stiffed by the distributors). Its maturity and technical bravado won him studio backing he needed to make Boogie Nights, this year’s surprise Oscar contender and an epic journey through the myths of the Seventies’ porn industry. Gathering a funky ensemble cast including Mark Wahlberg, Heather Graham (last seen in Swingers), Julianne Moore and a wonderfully bemused William H. Macy, his biggest coup is a heartwarming, career-reviving performance from Burt Reynolds as patriarchal pornographer Jack Horner.

Simon Lewis: You shot instantly from obscurity to Oscar-level plaudits, and you’re still only 27. How the hell did you get so good so young?




Paul Thomas Anderson: “Technical skills, I just learned on the fly, from reading a magazine called American Cinematographer. Fucking great magazine, everything technical I know I learned from reading that, I didn’t go to film school, I learned by being a PA and from watching a lot of movies. Also, there’s a wonderful series of LaserDiscs called the Criterion Collection, where the director will do a second-track commentary and he’ll say, ‘Well, this is what I was doing here, and this what we were trying here.’ Everyone from Scorsese doing Taxi Driver to John Sturges doing Bad Day at Black Rock.

There are a lot of Scorsese touches in Boogie Nights – the long tracking shot through the disco, the dramatic structure…Ray Liotta thought Boogie Nights was quite similar to GoodFellas.

“I looked to GoodFellas as a kind of model. Essentially, I looked at gangster movies – GoodFellas being top of the heap in the genre, but any gangster movies from the roaring twenties to The Godfather – to find what kind of storytelling was at work, to make what people think of as a despicable world, with these people who are nuts and sociopahts, somehow interesting, and human and appealing. There are technical things and camera things that are there from Scorsese, but any film geek knows that a Scorsese move is not a Scorsese move, it’s a Max Ophuls move or a Truffaut move, so I was tracing back and finding out that kind of stuff.”

Hard eight was a gangster movie. It’s a genre that people never tire of. So why did you make a movie about porn when you could have made a bigger, more expensive gangster movie?

“Well, actually, if you were to know me from like 17 years old, Hard Eight is more out of the blue than Boogie Nights, because when I was 17 I’d made a short film at home with a video camera with some friends that was called The Dirk Diggler Story. One of the guys in Boogie Nights, Bob Ridgely who plays the Colonel, played Jack Horner in the short film. I knew him from when I was a kid. He was a friend of my dad’s. So the change to porn isn’t really a change.”

Mark Wahlberg says you’re an expert on porn.

“I think I am, unfortunately.”

What’s your fascination with it?

“Uh, horny, I guess. I think there’s a bunch of things there, I grew in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of LA, which was the capital of porn production in the Seventies and still is today.”

So it was part of your childhood?

“Yeah, in a way. That’s not to say that I was on porn sets or knew porn people, but in this peripheral way it was always there. I grew up in Hollywood, so you’d see movie making, you knew what movie-making was, and you knew the difference when you’d see a little van with one light outside a house. It was like that’s not a real movie, that’s something else, y’know what I mean? And people walking in and out of the house who clearly were not regular movie stars. That was always there.”

What was the first porn film you saw?

“It was a film called The Opening of Misty Beethoven, which is very famous and very, very, very good. I was about nine. Too young, I know.”

There was always a playground culture based on the mystique of those films. All those whispered names – Jeff Styrker, King Dong, John Holmes. Was it the same in your school?

“Oh yeah. I think the myth of the porn star is gone now, though. That happened when video came along, which is what happens in the movie: the myth of the porn star is stripped away because now anybody can be a porn star. With videotape, anybody can make a porn film, and they do. It’s not really about ‘Come and see John Holmes.’ Or ‘Come see Seka,’ y’know what I mean? It’s like, ‘Come see uncle Joey’s next door neighbor.’”

So is the Dirk Diggler story really the story of John Holmes?

“Pieces. It’s not intended to be a straight biography but certainly you pluck pieces – just like Hard Eight had pieces from stories that I’ve read and heard about, so Boogie Nights plucks pieces from John Holmes’ life, or Marilyn Chambers’, or Seka’s.”

Did you deliberately avoid the AIDS topic?

“Very deliberately, sort of thematically, but also because the truth is the porn industry didn’t even recognize it until ’87 when Holmes died. They were like, we don’t know anything about this, it doesn’t exist. Even now, those blinkers are still on. You say, ‘Aren’t you worried about AIDS?’ And they say, ‘No, no, no, because we all just fuck each other.” It’s not true, they definitely fuck outside the pack, but their proof is in the numbers: not many people in porn have been infected by AIDS. A really small percentage. Certainly, in gay porn, there’s been a dozen cases, but in the whole of heterosexual porn, maybe three or four.”

Burt Reynolds’ presence lends an authentic Seventies glamour to the film. Is that why you cast him?

“That was actually a concern of mine. The Seventies vibe that you just explained was like the perfect world scenario, this Seventies icon who can add a layer of authenticity without you remembering Smokey and the Bandit as being another movie about the Seventies. That was the dream, and the fear was that it would be too kitschy in a way.”

Were you conscious of “Doing a Travolta” on Burt? Re-inventing him?

“That was the other concern of mine, that I don’t wanna be the guy who brings someone back, I just wanna find someone who’s perfect for this. I really decided to use Burt because, when I sat down with him, he said something that was so fucking great, he said, ‘Listen, I just want you to remember that I’m an actor first and I’m a celebrity second. Please don’t forget that I’m an actor.’ And I was like, wow, that’s so Jack Horner. And he’s very like Jack. He’s very kind of fatherly, with that air about him that’s like, ‘Well, OK, you go off and play and I’ll be here, and when you wanna stop with your silliness come back and Daddy’ll take care of it.’

“But I nearly didn’t cast Burt. I got sidetracked for a moment with Warren Beatty. And anyone can, y’know? If you’ve ever talked to Warren Beatty, you can get sidetracked real quick. Burt was someone that I was thinking of when I was writing it, and then Warren Beatty read it and called me and said, ‘I think I want to be in this.’ And we talked for a couple of weeks until ultimately he decided against it. And I was considering Jack Nicholson for a part at one time, too, and Leonardo DiCaprio was originally supposed to play Dirk Diggler. I think those guys would have brought their own thing to the story, but I’m really happy with Burt and Mark.”

Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman are in Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Are you trying to build a family like the family unit in Boogie Nights?

“Yeah. That’s a good question, and yes, without sounding too clichéd and romantic, it is a great relationship we all have with each other right now. We all live in the same city and we’re all very close to each other, and we all plan to do another movie together. I’m writing right now and I’m writing parts for just about all of them. I don’t wanna jinx it by telling you what it’s about, but what’s great is everyone will shift around: where Mark had the big part this time around, Mark will be a fucking cameo next time. Y’know, it’s like, ‘You back low on the food chain and now it’s John Reilly’s part, or now it’s Macy.’”

There’s a very strong sense of family in both films – strong, complex father-figures gathering surrogate families around them.

“It’s just a very personal need, I’m applying a personal need to story-telling. I guess I only really realized it was a theme when I started to shoot Boogie Nights, I kind of looked back and opened my eyes a little bit and went, ‘Well, that’s kind of obvious. I’m kind of showing my cards there, aren’t I?’ And that’s fine. It’s the truth, y’know?”

Most Hollywood films are deliberately individualistic. One of the things audiences seem to like so much about Boogie Nights is that it actually pushes family values.

“Absolutely. And that was the hardest thing to try and convey. You can’t imagine. A couple of months before it came out, when people started to hear about it in America, it was like ‘Well, what’s it about?’ And you say, ‘Well, it’s really about the porn industry.’ And people just go [pulls suspicious expression] ‘uh-huh?’ And then you go, ‘Wait, no, no, no, it’s kind of about family…’ And then they’re like, fuck you! You know? All of us were really trying to prepare people, telling them that it’s not a porn movie, it’s about this weird, fucked-up circus family.”

Was the derision you faced reflected in the lines you wrote for Burt Reynolds? He says he wants to make a movie that’s “true right and dramatic”. Was that you?

“Totally. I think that speech that he gives is any filmmaker trying to convince someone of their worth.”

It speaks for Burt as well, though, doesn’t it? He hasn’t exactly been taken seriously throughout his career.

“Totally. Exactly. He even changed the line around. There’s a personal thing to him, where he says, ‘I’ve made films where there are a few laughs and everybody gets in there and fucks their brains out – that’s fine, but now I’m on to something else.” And he tailored that line to hi, you know what I mean?”

Was growing up in the Seventies a big factor in wanting to make a movie about porn?

“I really grew up in the Eighties. I lived 10 years of my life being told that if you have sex you’re going to die, you know what I mean? And I’m sick of that and I don’t wanna live that way, so I’m looking back on the Seventies and saying, what was happening there and what can I learn from that? You know, we wanted free love but we got AIDS. We wanted to fuck and do drugs but we all lost our fuckin’ minds. OK, how do we do those drugs, how do we have that sex without the come-uppance?”

But isn’t it idealistic to think that it was a happier time? Was there a group of porn actors who loved each other as much as the family in Boogie Nights?

“But it’s because of that atmosphere that they have to. They’re gonna latch on to each other. They have to. And they do form these surrogate families – they’re incestuous because they have no other choice.

“There’s also the notion – there’s a David Mamet quote – that no one in show business had a happy childhood. You could say no one in the porn business had a happy childhood. Everybody in that fucking industry is a product of massive sexual abuse. They’re going, like, how do I create some kind of family for myself?”

When Jack Horner directs a sex scene, he just sits there, totally impassive, like a judge. Were you that self-controlled? This was the first time you had directed a sex scene, right?

“Yeah. I was very nervous. The first sex scene I directed was the time that Heather – Roller Girl – takes her clothes off and gets on top of Mark. And, being a guy, I was pretty excited to see Heather naked. It was the first time she’d taken her clothes off in a movie, too, so we were both real nervous. But – it’s such a cliché and it might sound like bullshit, and I’m sure you’ve heard this before – that so quickly it just becomes like work. Like, you’re over that she’s naked. You’re over seeing her tits. It’s like, ‘All right, now that I’ve gotten over that, you’re actually doing this wrong – you should probably skate a little faster…’”

There’s a really funny set-piece, the Starsky and Hutch-style opening credits to the Brock Landers film, which looks a lot like the video for the Beastie Boys “Sabotage”. Did you steal their idea?

“No, not at all. And I don’t wanna be so bold as to say that they actually saw The Dirk Diggler Story short, which was made in 1987 and has the exact same title sequence, but when I saw the ‘Sabotage’ video I was like, ‘Did they see my fucking short?’ Because it got around, y’know?”

What about drugs – everyone in the film gets fucked up on coke.

“It was so popular in the porn industry. You see coke abuse, pure and simple. Also, it was the drug of the Eighties and it brings on that kind of manic paranoia that, to me, seemed the perfect extension of where Dirk Diggler was gonna go, which was like, ‘Who really does love me?’”

Talking about paranoia, the second half of the movie is extremely dark. Where do you  dredge up all that angst from?

“I have a lot of paranoia. I was never paranoid before, but I had a situation on my first movie that made me a paranoid person – I had a terrible time making it, cutting it, fighting with the company that paid for it and getting fucked over constantly and so atrociously that any kind of innocence or romantic notion of movie-making was fucking stripped away. So now I’m like, ‘Who’s trying to fuck me?’ Because everyone is trying to fuck me.

“It seems right now, and I know it is just right now, that I can make money and do what I want. I can probably do that for two more movies until I fuck up. It’ll be stripped away before long. They’ll take it away. I know how it works.

“The thing is, I’m really lucky right now because I don’t have to deal too much with that stuff because I already have these actors that I love, so I don’t have to talk to fucking idiot agents who represent actors and try and convince them to get their client in my movies. I still have to manage with the people who pay for movies, who aren’t the smartest breed of people, y’know what I mean? But I have a little more cachet now, which is great, because it’s one less conversation you have to have.”

Are you comfortable being compared to Tarantino and the way he bursted onto the scene?

“Sure. That’s fine. There’s a funny thing that happened when I first started doing press – a lot of the press was trying to get me to badmouth Quentin. They were really pressuring me to say I’m better than him or I’m totally different and I don’t like his work. But I do like his work. I love Pulp Fiction, I think it’s a fucking brilliant movie. So I called Quentin up and said, ‘Let’s get together and talk, because all the press is digging at me to say bad things you.’ I think we’re probably better doing our own things, though. He likes things that I don’t really like. Some of those junk videos he loves, I have to tell him like, ‘What are you talking about? That movie just sucks!’ I have the porn fascination, but that’s kind of the extent of my B-movie fixation.”
Do you like Kung-Fu? Mark keeps pulling those Bruce Lee moves all the way through Boogie Nights….

“I don’t really like it. I’ve seen a couple of movies, but I have a theory that – it’s a very preposterous and kind of a pretentious theory – that the funniest thing in a movie is karate. If you put karate in a movie, it’s gonna be funny no matter what.”

Karate and disco dancing as the ultimate combination?

“Right! So that’s where that comes from.”

Is the final scene – with Mark talking to himself in the dressing room mirror – a deliberate steal from Raging Bull?

“Oh, totally. I’ve read so many things where people just go, ‘This guy just ripped of Raging Bull!’ well, of course I fucking did, y’know? I thought that was obvious. I knew that the end of the movie was that he’s gotta prepare to go and make another porn film. And then, getting into it, I realized that what this final scene has to show is the movie fantasy world this fucking idiot, this kid, is living in. Here he is, it’s Mark Wahlberg playing Eddie Adams, playing Dirk Diggler, playing Brock Landers, acting out some fantasy of De Niro playing Jake LaMotta, playing Brando, playing Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront, doing Shakespeare. That kind of movie reference stuff is what this kid has built his life on. There he is at the beginning of the movie with his Al Pacino poster, and, just like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, he doesn’t know who the fuck he is.”

In the closing shot, we finally get to see the notorious 13-inch Diggler dick. If you never get to make another film and the last frame you ever shoot is a gigantic cock…

“…then I will die a happy man.”

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