Sunday, February 22, 1998

Interview: "Naked Ambition"

Empire Magazine, Written By Jeff Dawson
February ?? 1998

Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson on how he became obsessed with porn......

"The basic bones of the story are the Busby Berkeley musical, A Star is Born," says Paul Thomas Anderson, 27-year old writer-director of Boogie Nights. "It's any of the backstage musicals, the kid with the dream."

It's probably not quite what Old Bubsy had in mind, but Anderson is right, for if one is to strip down his movie to its 100 per cent Rayon undies, it is essentially that - new kid on the block shows talent, is seduced by an industry that soon becomes a surrogate for his family, the rise necessitating the paradox of fall. Though here there is certainly no ingénue chorus girl waiting for her big break. Nope, the star-in-question's talent is fairly singular.

Anderson chuckles: "It's about a guy with a big dick."

But Boogie Nights isn't just about the rise and fall of one Dirk Diggler. It's about the porn industry itself, which changed radically through the film's screen life cycle, from 1977 to 1984, by which time the new medium of video had guillotined porn's golden age. If there is one constant, it is that L.A.'s San Fernando Valley has remained the skin trade's film capital. It is also where Anderson grew up.

"Porno has always been around in a peripheral way and I guess I have a fascination with it," he says. "Probably because, like anyone else, there are those questions when you watch it. Who are those people? Why? How? What happened?"

It you want to trace Anderson's interest back to a specific incident, he can recall a day in 1980, when he was ten, innocently rummaging around the family home and coming across something of his father's. Not a copy of Playboy but something in that new fangled format: a video cassette.

The flick in question may have been a relatively tame humporama called Misty Beethoven, but there it was, for the first time, full onscreen coitus, in his own living room. The kid watched it - again and again and again - and when more tapes followed, he copped a crafty gander at those, too.

"I watched them with a combination of sociological fascination and male hormones," laughs Anderson today. "As I got older I just formulated my own opinions about it. It's something that arouses me and yet something that disgusts me. There's a lot I still haven't figured out."

What he did figure out was that behind the constant copulating and measureless moaning was a whole community of people who saw this bizarre industry as a vocation - from technicians, writers, producers, directors, to the fornicators themselves, just people earning an honest crust.

"They eat, drink, and shit like the rest of us, they're regular people, who really have their own share of very specific problems," explains Anderson. "When I saw people in porn movies I always had a certain compassion or confusion about what they did. When they became real people it becomes a more tangible thing..."

Perhaps we should offer a small vote of thanks for Anderson Snr.'s private viewing habits, for it prompted junior to embark on Boogie Nights' 17 year odyssey, including The Dirk Diggler Story, a 30 minute short he wrote and directed at age 17 - Diggler was based loosely on the life of legendary over-developed star John Holmes, who died of AIDS after a prolific career in porn.

"Certainly there are pieces of John Holmes' life that we've plucked and twisted around other porn stars and even legitimate actors who branched out on a singing career, like David Hasselhoff," says Anderson, referring to a point in the movie where Diggler, flushed with success, veers off upon a short-lived Van Halen-like tangent.

Not that Holmes bothered with such stuff, though a number of "spy" films made under the guise of Johnny Wadd, a sort of amply-trousered International Man of Mystery, is also aped here by Anderson through Diggler and his super-sleuth alter ego Brock Landers.

"Johnny Wadd initially came out as the suave, sophisticated guy in these amazing murder mysteries which were wonderfully structured as porn films," Anderson explains. "No matter how much you wanted him to solve the case, you wanted to see him have sex with the girl."

Such shenanigans were only fleeting, as Holmes descended more and more into drug abuse - culminating in his involvement with the Wonderland gang and Laurel Canyon drug bust.

Meanwhile, video was threatening the porn industry. Sure, it opened up a whole new world to retailers, but it also meant that anyone with a camcorder could shoot a porn film.

"Porno is the guinea pig in any new technology," says Anderson. "Video? Porno. Internet? Porno."

Still, if it wasn't for video, Anderson would never have got going in the first place and certainly wouldn't be standing favourable comparisons with the likes of Robert Altman, for his sheer scope, or Scorsese, for his edginess. Though if there is anyone who bears closest relation to Anderson it is Tarantino, another LA film junkie who eschewed film school for a spot of self-education.

Anderson claims that the advent of LaserDisc and the accompanying commentary tracks are more or less a DIY course for directorial aspirants, citing that you can learn more from John Sturges' analysis of Bad Day at Black Rock than two years in classroom, even though his copious notes and a Sundance Institute workshop didn't help when his only previous film (last year's mis-hit Hard Eight) was re-cut by the producers and, as he sees it, scuppered by Byzantine bureaucracy.

"Nothing could have prepared me for that idiocy. I thought naively that 100 per cent of my job was to direct a good movie, " he says. "But that was 50 per cent of my job. Unfortunately, the other 50 per cent of my job is dealing with management and the politics behind that."

Still, he managed to get his own director's cut of that film into the Cannes Film Festival. In Boogie Nights, though, it is the casting which is surely Anderson's biggest triumph, not only by resurrecting Burt Reynolds film career, but by sealing Mark Wahlberg as a bona fide star.

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