Thursday, February 05, 1998

Interview: Cinemattractions Q&A With Paul Thomas Anderson

Cinemattractions, Written By Matt Grainger
February ?? 1998

Matt Grainger: You must be getting used to hearing how good Boogie Nights is...

PTA: I never get used to hearing that - tell me more!

MG: Was this your baby, a spec script?

PTA: Yeah, it was something that I wrote originally when I was about seventeen years old and something that I've had in my head and around for like ten years. Not that I was trying to get it made that whole time - it was about two and a half years ago and the first company that saw it was the first company that said yes.

MG: So it wasn't a hard sell?

PTA: No, not really. Surprisingly.

MG: What's Boogie Nights about?

PTA: It's about finding a family, to tell you the truth. I know that sounds kinda preposterous, 'cause it's about porno! You know, and that's a really kinda weird thing, is that you want to say "Well, it's about the pornography industry" and then you want to quickly say well, not really. And then maybe people might look at you sideways and go, "Come on, which is it?" But I think ultimately, the thing that I really liked most and really focused on is that it's about a lot of people searching for their dignity, and trying to find any kind of love and affection they can get. And they find it in really fucked up and twisted ways - but they get it, you know?

MG: What kind of research did you do?

PTA: Well, I did two sets of research - the sort of basic watching a ton of porno movies - and not solely as research but just as a kid, like a horny teenager or something like that. And then the sort of obvious thing of just going to a lot of porn sets. And it was at a time when I could be around the sets and I was just a friend of people that were there. I wasn't a guy directing a movie, doing research. I went to the porno awards, just hung out with all these people in porno who I got to know.

MG: Did you recreate those events faithfully?

PTA: Pretty closely yeah... but you gotta factor in that stuff has changed from the seventies to now.

MG: Were the porno awards a pretty outrageous experience?

PTA: Yeah, it's all very wonderful and funny and then sad and then boring and then ultimately you realize like, you know what? It's the same thing as Hollywood! I could be at the Oscars. That's the kinda funny thing, is that you just start realizing that it's not really about porno, and then there's the legitimate film industry, and then the music business - it's just interchangeable. It really is. So that was kinda funny to find.

MG: Boogie Nights is a movie about stars. We're used to seeing movies about stars, but these are stars in a different sense to what we're used to. What is a star?

PTA: Goddamn, that's a good question. Motherfucker! You know what happens? You get so miserable doing interviews all day, you know, with the same old questions and then someone asks you a good question that you never thought of and you just go like, I don't know, I don't have an answer!

MG: I'm glad I asked it at the start, then... I can get back to asking all the same old ones from now on.

PTA: Yeah. Get back to these fucking boring old questions, goddammit! No challenging stuff here! You know it's funny to me, because I had always had a definition, or maybe sort of a derogatory thing that I used to say sometimes, where I felt that there were actors and there were movie stars. I regarded certain actors as incredibly talented and gifted at that craft, and then I would consider stars, or movie stars, as actors second and sort of celebrities first. People who were really good at obviously doing press, and just taking photos - just a personality. But I think maybe that I may be thinking that, as there are some people like that that I do actually have some respect for, like Madonna. I kinda have respect for her - it's certainly a massive life and career that she's carved for herself, really without much talent. And God, I don't mean that in a really negative light, do you know what I mean?

MG: I do.

PTA: Kind of just that there must be some kind of weird kum-by-yah energy coming out of her that's made her such an attractive kind of magnet for all of us to study.

MG: It's kept her up there despite career low-points...

PTA: Yeah, there's still more to think about. That's a good question - maybe I answered it, but I'm not sure.

MG: OK, here's a slightly different tack: a lot of people think that when you see the shark in Jaws, it's too much - the shark in the mind of the audience is a lot more powerful than the rubber shark on-screen. Did you have any similar misgivings about revealing Dirk's penis at the end of Boogie Nights?

PTA: No. You know what, I did, but when we were shooting it I kept thinking, this is exactly like seeing the dinosaur in Jurassic Park or seeing the shark in Jaws or seeing E.T. for the first time. It's a reveal.

MG: That's a scary analogy.

PTA: I like the E.T. one, that was really a good one - I like that! And the reality is, when I wrote the movie and when we shot it, I wasn't sure what to do - whether we should see it right away, like within the first forty-five minutes - get it out of the way, sort of mortalise it - or whether it should stay to the end. It was never a question about whether or not to show it - it was about whether we show it earlier or whether we save it till the end. And we shot it both ways. You know, we shot it early on and then we shot it at the end. And then in the very first assembly of the movie it was the first thing I took out. I said, we're waiting till the end - it was just really clear to me. And the funny thing is, when I saw it - when I really sat back and watched it for the first time without seeing it early in the movie, I sat there not caring! I'd gone through the whole movie and I'd gone through it emotionally without having to see the dick! I just loved the silliness of twisting it all around, and seeing it at the end, and not caring. I don't know if I can really verbalize that well, I'm trying to explain... but I just thought it was funny to me as the guy that wrote it and shot every frame and sat through my movie one time and didn't even care to see it at the end, and didn't even know it was coming. And then got there, and kind of had this weird reaction, like a true audience member would almost - just in my gut, going "Oh fuck - it's just this stupid piece of meat - what have we been talking about the whole time?" And thought that it was kind of funny. And interesting. I still don't really understand why I did it, to tell you the truth.

MG: Why did you cast Mark Wahlberg?

PTA: I saw him in The Basketball Diaries and thought he was good. And then I met him - that was the thing that was like, "OK, you're the guy." Because I couldn't have been in the position with this movie where I had to talk someone into doing it. Cause that was just going to end in disaster sooner or later. And he wanted to do it and I could see that. And I could see that he got the script in all the right ways: it was like you get it - you think that's funny, you think that's sad, you think that's confusing, good - that's what I think too and let's go. And my only concern was him looking young enough, or losing enough weight to play the part. And he did both, I think, pretty well.

MG: And his musical persona - the whole Marky Mark thing - that wasn't a worry for you at any point?

PTA: I didn't really care about it. And it wasn't like I was totally ignorant of it - I was totally aware of all that stuff and I was aware of the Calvin Klein stuff. He was obviously - it's his career - he's very aware of it. I felt like, I know this movie's going to be good enough, I know the script is strong enough that if you deliver the goods as an actor, no one's going to give two shits about that stuff. Same thing with Burt, you know.

MG: Speaking of whom, there was an article that appeared in the Sydney press a couple of days ago in which you said there was some friction going on between you and Burt Reynolds... what caused that?

PTA: It's funny... it's so funny, it's like, I don't know what happened, but I must have taken like a truth pill when I got down to Australia. Or felt like, I'm in Australia, what do I care...

MG: Is the truth pill still in there?

PTA: Oh yeah. It's Burt... what's wonderful about him is that he brings about thirty years of experience. What's a pain in the ass is that he brings thirty years of experience. And he can be very set in his ways in a kind of patented Burt Reynolds style. And it was really my obligation to tell him to keep it simple and that he didn't have to do that. And there was a point certainly in the shooting where he gave over to that and that's why his performance is really good. I'm really proud of his performance. And look, there's a lot of times where he delivers the goods in this movie, without any question. But I just had to earn his respect.

MG: Was there an awareness between the two of you when you started that this had the potential to be a big comeback piece for him?

PTA: I had that awareness, but I don't think he had that awareness. I think he was a little bit more nervous about it, and just was kind of looking at it as a job.

MG: He certainly seemed surprised at the Golden Globes - I wondered if that was the moment where it really dawned on him that-

PTA: -it's a good movie and he was good in it? Probably. That's probably the moment where he realised.

MG: Obviously this is very much an ensemble movie. How do you go about casting it from that perspective?

PTA: See that was the easiest fuckin' part. Because it was half the fuckin' reason for me for writing the movie. Because all those people that you see, the majority of the people who represent the ensemble, are actors who are my friends. Like some of my best friends. Like John Reilly, Phil Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Ridgley. These are great character actors whose names don't mean a hell of a lot - you recognise their faces, I'm sure - but they're actors who are my best friends who I wrote parts for. And if I'm writing parts for my friends, they're not going to get lost! A, because I love them as actors, and B, just because I love them. So I'm at a good place - it helps me be a better writer and take care of all my characters and not lose their threads.

MG: And the sexual content wasn't a problem for any of them?

PTA: No. And everybody kind of knew that it's an ensemble movie, but it's Mark's movie. That was the thing. Everybody knew, Mark is the tree-trunk- ah fuck, I didn't mean that...

MG: It's going to be hard to get around these...

PTA: Yeah, I know, it's impossible - we could never go through a whole conversation without one of those. And they're all branches off of it. And they all knew that... maybe except Burt.

MG: What about the ratings board... you must have had some trouble there.

PTA: It wasn't that big a deal. Well, it's not a big deal now - if you'd talked to me in the middle of the three months of negotiations that we went through, it was a big deal. But I could show you the forty-five seconds that we had to trim out and you'd be like, "What's the big deal?" It's really nothing.

MG: It's funny, I saw a laserdisc version of Scream recently that had 22 seconds put back that stopped it from being an NC-17, and that was the exact reaction that I had.

PTA: Well, you know even why you're led to ask that question, and why I was led to buy laserdiscs that I thought had extra stuff on them, is because what I realize now after going through the process is that it's a marketing technique. All these stories that you hear about, I think it's all bullshit. "The Basic Instinct laserdisc, where you can see stuff that you'll never believe!" Then you go fuckin get it, and it's like 10 seconds of Michael Douglas's ass. And I realised too, when I was dealing with the MPAA, they're nice people. They're not censors, they're not fuckin' idiots - they're, like, cool. So it's all a big marketing thing.

MG: So you're not going to put those 45 seconds back in?

PTA: No. I don't miss it at all.

MG: Was it always your intention to set this story in this era?

PTA: Back from 1987. But I was also tied to that era because of the reality of the sub-plot in the movie about the transition from film to video. So I didn't really have a choice - because that really did occur from 77 to 84. So I was kind of tied in already.

MG: How did you approach the film from a writing point of view - was it ever tempting for you to take one of your groups of characters out of the ensemble and follow their story more closely than the others? Because for me, there's a very definite point in the film where the characters begin to break away from each other, and the stories begin to break away from each other.

PTA: Are you getting at that you think it should be shorter? It's a good question, and I can't really remember.... I do remember stuff where I would really be digging one story, and some days really be digging one story more than another one. But I'll tell you this: the reality of the editing of the movie is where that came into play more than in the writing. Because I think I probably over-wrote the movie. There's about 25 minutes that I took out. One of the sub-plots involves the character of Maurice, and the other involves Becky, the black girl, and her marriage to her husband - we see the marriage, but we don't see the aftermath of that marriage. And I'd taken that out.

MG: This is stuff you shot, and took out when you cut it?

PTA: Exactly. So taking those out came as a result of what you just asked, falling in love with certain stories more. Always remembering that Dirk is the thread. And then realizing, like, here's the Julianne stuff, which is essentially serving the same purpose that some of the Becky stuff did. If you'd seen it in the movie, it was at the end of the day the same kind of theme - which was looking at the domestic situation and how porno affected it, like Amber with her husband. I had the same thing with Becky, except it was looking at domestic abuse. To me, the whole point of it was looking at porno in the home and that was why it came out.

MG: This movie's given you the label of one of the year's biggest up-and-comers-

PTA: There's another one. Up-and-comer.

MG: Overlong - that was one too.

PTA: Right.

MG: Do you feel any particular pressure regarding your next project?

PTA: I do a little bit, and I'd love to be a little more artistic and say like no, no I don't... but I can't honestly say that. I do feel a bit of pressure. Only because I got to make this movie and nobody cared who the fuck I was - I got to sit alone in my room and no one cared and that probably freed me up. And now... you know, you get a stack of reviews faxed to your house and it's hard not to read them. And it's hard not think you are pretty fucking cool sometimes. But it's a bad time to ask me that question, in a way, because I'm in the middle of it. And I'm hoping that it's like this: if you've ever gone out and drank too much and you're at home and you're throwing up and you think to yourself, I'm never going to get better again... I'm hoping that it's going to be like that. That three months from now I'll have a little more of my head back, I'll have a little bit more of my life back and I can just sit back calmly and go, "What do I want to do?"

MG: Do you know what your next film will be?

PTA: No, I don't really. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of scripts that I've had that I would need to revisit and fuck with and read, but I need to take the time to not make any decisions based on what someone thinks I should do, or what's expected of me... I'm just making sure that I make myself happy.

MG: How do the comparisons to Scorsese and Altman make you feel?

PTA: It's a little embarrassing. I don't mean that... God, that's gonna sound weird: cause those guys suck and I'm better than they are! No, it's embarrassing cause it's like, well, it's very nice and it's very flattering and wow and it's a lot better than being compared to the guy who made Con Air. But at the same time, it makes me feel like, come on - don't do that to me, not yet, I don't deserve that. I mean hey, I got an ego, I'm proud of my movie, I really love it, I think it's good. But those guys have careers. Let me have a career first.

MG: Are there any filmmakers who have particularly influenced you?

PTA: Well, certainly those two guys, which I guess is why they would say that. The influence of Nashville and Goodfellas is all over this movie. But on top of that, Jonathan Demme is probably my biggest influence - contemporary filmmakers, that's my biggest influence. And then maybe from the past, I'd say Orson Welles and Truffaut, definitely.

MG: This is the second film where you've worked with Michael Penn - what does he bring to your movies?

PTA: It was his idea to have this weird kind of broken circus funeral march music that I think anchors the movie so perfectly, to kind of start off with that little prologue over black, it's just so great. It was his idea to do that and just kind smash it up against the disco music. And I hope that answers the question, because fuck, I think that was great! It's like, wow - thank you for bringing that to me.

MG: So it's not just a case of here's the movie, go do what you like...

PTA: No, it was like, Michael, I want to start with this big disco thing, I think I want something before it, I don't know what it is. And he says, I know what you want. Here's what you need, here's what this movie needs: it needs a certain kind of sadness that I will bring. And it's just really nice, because he's also one of my best friends. I think what a lot of filmmakers do is they get a composer, you know after the fact, to put some music in. But there's someone who's involved in my life, who can be there when I'm writing the script, so I can think about what kind of music he can bring. And it can all weave in. And he has a lot of little pieces of music lying around that he can give me on tapes that he can give me that I can write to. So we can start way before the usual process starts.

MG: Is the thought of the Oscar nominations sitting there in the back of your mind right now?

PTA: You bet. You bet. I'd be a big fat liar if I said it wasn't. But the wonderful thing has been that I've been nominated and the movie's been nominated for enough stuff and then not nominated for enough stuff, that it's helped me put it a little further back in my mind and not be so ridiculously obsessed about it. Because we only got two Golden Globe nominations and I was bummed out at the time - I was expecting more, and I think everyone was - but thank God it happened, because I got it out of the way real quick about how silly it is to be disappointed or obsessed about that stuff. I was mad for five minutes - I was like, Goddammit - and then you just don't think about it. So it was really nice to have that happen. But then, you know... I want it. It's not really going to upset me either way.

MG: Would you see winning best director at this stage in your career as having a positive or a negative effect?

PTA: Well, they say in some kind of jinx way, that if you get something like that - I mean, Quentin had told me that you don't want to win, because he felt like, that it was hard for him to find now where do I go, where do I keep working for... but I don't think that's true for me, because it's not like I'm working for Academy Awards. To me, it's just like: I wanna get a tuxedo and go and get attention. Because I'm certainly not gonna make my movies for an Oscar - I'll go after I've made my movie and feel like I'm the centre of attention at a cool party, because that's what it is. But I would love it, I really would love it. And you know what too? If it happens, it would mean that more people would go see the movie. Because the movie is kind of just staying where it is in America box office-wise and if we get nominations this coming Wednesday, we could add more theaters. We could probably make a lot more money out of it and a lot more people would go see it.

MG: Finally, how did you come up with the name Dirk Diggler?

PTA: You know what? You know the scene where he comes up with it? That was like me coming up with it. It was that dumb and that ridiculous. I remember sitting on my bed, I was seventeen years old, I was watching TV, and I swear to God, it just was like - bang! Dirk Diggler. Hey, that's a good porno name, and I wrote it on a little index card. And I still have the index card.

MG: Is there some kind of rule of thumb governing porno names?

PTA: Yeah. Like... actually, that's so funny, because the New Yorker asked me that, and I said two Gs is really good, a saint is always good, and jr. and sr. is really bad - never be a junior or senior. That's like the rule of thumb.

MG: Paul, thanks for your time and good luck on Tuesday.

PTA: Thank you.

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