Monday, October 11, 1999

Interview: Patriot Ledger

The Patriot Ledger (MA), Written By Bernard Weinraub
October 11, 1999

Magnolia is Cinematic Wake-Up Call

It's a day and night of heavy rains in the San Fernando Valley of southern California. Over the course of three hours, in the forthcoming film Magnolia, at least a dozen quite different people intersect in sometimes odd ways. There are a television game-show host and his angry, estranged daughter; there are a boy genius who appears on the game show and his ambitious father; there are a dying old man, his young sexy wife and his lost son; there's a policeman in love.

"It's funny," said the film's writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, 29. "I fell in love with movies as an adolescent growing up in the Valley, and I thought I could never be a great filmmaker because I had never lived on the mean streets of New York, or I had never been in a war.

"Once you get past that, and once you think where you're from and what you've seen makes for good stories, too, you realize you can do it too."

No one would dispute that.

Anderson's acclaimed 1997 film, Boogie Nights, about the world of pornography in the Valley in the late 1970s and early '80s, put him on the map as one of Hollywood's most innovative and talented young filmmakers. His newest film, which will open in New York and Los Angeles around Christmas -- and probably after the first of the year elsewhere in the country -- has dazzled early audiences. Executives at New Line Cinema, its distributor, predict that the alternately dark and funny movie will emerge as one of the most discussed and controversial films of the new year.

Magnolia breaks the standard studio mold of the usual prestige melodrama," said Mike DeLuca, New Line's president for production. "It doesn't pander, it doesn't manipulate, and it defies convention with its structure and its imagery. It's a cinematic wake-up call illustrating what ails us at the end of the century."

The film is set on or near Magnolia Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in the San Fernando Valley. Its common theme seems to be the loneliness of so many of its characters and the family relationships and bonds that break and mend over a day and night.

The actors, many of them from Boogie Nights, include Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Jeremy Blackman, Melinda Dillon and Philip Baker Hall.

Also in the supporting cast are Jason Robards as the dying old man and, of all people, Tom Cruise, as his son. In an unusual secondary, but flashy, role for the movie star, Cruise plays a charismatic sex guru who makes television infomercials for men's empowerment.

Cruise has never before played such an on-the-edge role. (Associates of Cruise said he might avoid promoting the film because he did not want to give the impression that Magnolia was a traditional Cruise movie.)

Anderson said that Cruise had called him after seeing Boogie Nights in London, while making Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Coincidentally Anderson was in London, and Cruise invited him to the movie set to meet Kubrick.

"It was like meeting J.D. Salinger," Anderson said. "I was thrilled."

Cruise also told Anderson to keep him in mind for his next film. Anderson, who had already begun writing Magnolia, said he had him in mind for a role and would call Cruise in six or seven months.

"I finally sent him the script, and the next day Tom called me and said, `Please come to my house to talk about it,' " recalled Anderson. "And away we went. What I said to him then was, `If you hadn't called me, I never would have thought of you.' A movie star like Tom Cruise was, I thought, out of my reach."

What may be out of reach for some viewers may be the film's length: three hours. (Boogie Nights ran 2 hours 35 minutes.)

"The challenge for us, quite simply, is not only having a three- hour film but also having a film that's not easily described in a single line," said Robert Friedman, co-chairman for marketing at New Line. "The challenge is to get people in to see the movie. Once they do, it's a pretty darn amazing experience."

Anderson said the people at New Line were "cool" to the length and knew that the movie would be this long from the moment they received his script.

"Making a movie at this length does set you up for criticism, and in this day and age it's slightly dangerous to do." He said, "It's slightly arrogant and a little bold to require three hours of someone's time to tell a story. It means you really have to deliver."

He laughed. "Like, if I hear a movie I'm going to see is three hours, I get a little uneasy."

Anderson, whose late father, Ernie Anderson, earned a living making television voice-overs, is now writing a script for Jonathan Demme. But he said he promised Demme he wouldn't discuss it.

"It's not set in the Valley," he said. "I'm getting out of the Valley."

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