Sunday, February 01, 1998

Interview: "Hanging Around With Director Paul Thomas Anderson"

Boogie Nights Articles & Interviews
Addicted To Noise - By Cynthia Fuchs
February ?? 1998

"Hanging around with director Paul Thomas Anderson"
Addicted to Noise - By Cynthia Fuchs
Paul Thomas Anderson appreciates porn. He not only watches it; he's also studied and contemplated it, and it shows. Anderson's randy, sprawling film Boogie Nights -- nominated for three major Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay -- explores porn as a genre, a philosophy, a business, a cultural metaphor and an art form.

In person, Anderson, director and writer of Boogie Nights, is an endearingly regular 27-year-old. A lanky, bespectacled white guy with tousled, brownish hair, he smokes, drinks coffee and is well-versed on all manners of movies. He is also visibly tired, having undergone interviews all day after attending a big Manhattan party the previous night. But he's certainly willing to talk about his breakthrough movie -- only his second feature film -- and its particular milieu.

Boogie Nights follows the career of porn star Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg) from the late '70s to the early '80s, when the porn industry switched from film to video. Before video, says Anderson, porn seemed poised to do something new.

"I think that a new genre could have been born," he explains, "a sex film with a story and characters. These films existed for a time: Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, Amanda By Night or any of the early Johnny Wadd films (starring the notorious John Holmes). It was a great concept, a murder mystery and a fuck film. Which scene do you want to watch more? Will he solve the case or is he gonna fuck the woman? It's great tension -- sex while the bomb is ticking."

Video, however, changed all that. Anderson breaks it down: "At $5 for a 60- minute tape, it encourages an assembly-line mentality: just shoot, shoot, shoot. You don't need to think anything through. So now, it's all kind of crap."

And watching porn is different now, too, he says. "There's a line (in Boogie Nights) about putting video projectors in theaters. There's nothing more pathetic than going to the Pussycat Theater, with 500 seats and a fucking video projector. The quality of the movies is different. I would have spent money to go to a theater in the '70s. There was a story. It could be a date movie."

The two-and-a-half hour Boogie Nights expands on a short film Anderson made when he was 17, The Dirk Diggler Story. The idea for it emerged from his own experience, growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

"Porn was always around," he says. "I knew what was going on. I went to school in Montclair, and there were these industrial-looking buildings with no signage, but you'd see people going in and out. You knew what they were doing."

After passing on the role of Dirk Diggler, Leonardo DiCaprio suggested Wahlberg -- his costar in The Basketball Diaries -- for the part. Anderson then cast Wahlberg as Diggler, a charming and prodigiously endowed young man looking for a stable family.

"I think anyone who saw The Basketball Diaries was like, 'Look at Marky Mark. He can act!' " says Anderson. "He just stole the movie from DiCaprio. And it was so clear, immediately, that what I thought was funny, he thought was funny. And not just the obvious jokes. When he said that he loved the karate move that Dirk makes toward (fellow porn star) Johnny Doe by the pool, I thought, 'You're in.' "

Wahlberg embodies what Anderson sees as Dirk's multiple appeals. According to Anderson, "He's so sexual. I find him appealing, sexually. I think everybody does. Not really in the big-dick way. It's something else less threatening."

But Dirk becomes seduced with his own image, the thrill of being a sex star. "With the '80s and the drugs, everything's taken a toll on him," says Anderson. "That happened in John Holmes' life, and it was reflected in the character (Johnny Wadd) he played. We did the same thing with Dirk, and in the movie, I blame the drugs and ego-building. Not to mention that there's a whole slew of mother issues there, which is a whole other novel."

Burt Reynolds, who portrays porn director/patriarch Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Julianne Moore, as the movie's pathetic porn diva Amber Waves, is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Yet the entire cast is laudable.

One of the film's less-heralded assets is John C. Reilly, who plays Dirk's on and off-screen buddy Reed Rothchild, and who also starred in Hard Eight, Anderson's first feature film. Anderson, lighting up at Reilly's name, says he believes Reilly is "underknown. But those who know him think, 'Yeah, that fuckin' guy, he's the best.' He's my favorite actor and my best friend. There's no one like him. If you're ever in a scene with Reilly, it's like, 'I'm in a scene with Reilly, I gotta pay attention.' Because he's just a steamroller -- not in any selfish way, but he's just so good. He can steal a scene if you're not paying attention. He's unstoppable."

Anderson is handling his own sudden celebrity with a healthy sense of irony. Comparisons with Tarantino, Scorsese and Altman are "all very nice and flattering," he remarks. "And part of you wishes their film vocabulary went back further than four years ago. But it's fine. I asked for it."

When asked if his celebrity is opening doors for him, he ponders the question, then responds. "The doors you want to open up aren't doors for bigger budgets. It's more like, contractually, I didn't have final cut on this film. I want final cut next time. I got final cut on this movie -- New Line just said, 'Do what you want,' but it wasn't in the contract. I also want (more expensive, better-quality) Kodak prints for all the major markets, instead of (cheaper) Fuji stock. I want 1100 Kodak prints next time. That's the kind of stuff you say, 'Good, I get to be a brat about this.' But the next movie's still gonna star John C. Fuckin' Reilly, you know what I mean?"

Anderson's own sense of Boogie Nights is that it's part ethnographic, part personal recollection and part social inquiry. For him, the character played by William H. Macy, Little Bill, "is the guy who's walking around in the movie with the subtitle, 'It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.' He's two different characters: a guy who finds his wife (played by real porn star Nina Hartley) with other men, so he's in pain, and then a weird kind of blank, by-the-numbers pro, instructing actors on the set. This is where he gets some kind of masculinity or strength back, not being around her."

However, Anderson emphasizes that social and political commentary aren't his primary interests in the film. "That's there," he says, "and people are noticing it, and I thought about it, but it was in the back of my mind. My first concern was the moral and political and social structure of Jack's fucking house: there's the pool, and the living room and the bedroom; here's the office. That's what the movie is, first. That's not to say that the other stuff isn't there."

As for the film's nostalgic air, Anderson is unapologetic. "It's nostalgic to me, because it's about the Valley when I grew up, through the music and the clothes and the neighborhoods where I lived. And I absolutely feel romantic about the glory days of '70s porn -- the filmmaking, people trying to do good work. Yeah, I'll romanticize that forever."

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