The Independent Feature Project, Written By Lisa Y.C. Garibay
Paul Thomas Anderson discusses his latest, Magnolia.
In 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson broke into the film world with two risk-taking films - Hard Eight and Boogie Nights - and immediately distinguished himself as a promising director with a personalized cinematic vision. With his new film, Magnolia, Mr. Anderson delivers a heartfelt portrait of a lonely city as seen through the eyes of a dying father, a young wife, a male caretaker, a famous lost son, a police officer in love, a boy genius, an ex-boy genius, a game show host, and an estranged daughter. Although the film follows nine characters, each role is written with such intimacy and emotion that the viewer feels almost intrusive at times. Magnolia brings together an ensemble of actors often featured in Mr. Anderson's films including John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Philip S. Hoffman, and Melora Walters and also presents powerful performances from Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, and Tom Cruise. New Line Cinema will release Magnolia in theaters on December 24 (Editor's note: Actual release date is now 12/17 in NY/L.A. & 1/7/00 Rest of U.S.)
In your film, we follow nine different characters. Which one came first?
Claudia. I don't even know if there was a story in that, but I had an image of Melora [Walters], who I've always wanted to write a big part for. I've written small parts for her in the other two movies, but I wanted to really go and shine on Melora. I had this song Aimee Mann was working on at the time called Save Me, and I listened to little parts of it and got this image in my head of Melora, which is now the last shot of the movie. That led to the thought of Philip Baker Hall walking up these steps to her apartment, knocking on her door. And then it just started writing itself.
Also, there is a line in one of Aimee's songs, which is "now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?" It's the greatest line and I said, "Aimee, I don't know if I'm ripping this off or adapting it or what, but it's mine now." The concept of maybe feeling so polluted that you feel you are unlovable or that love is too hard a work to even invest in. And I ran with that. That's the way I feel sometimes and that's where I am right now, so I was drawn to that.
And the prologue of coincidences: did you write that before or after you completed the other stories?
The first image was Melora, but the first thing on the page was the events in the prologue. The goal there was to have a lot of cinematic fun. But it's also a promise that can be made very quickly- weird stories, weird coincidences, and fucking strange shit will happen. And then I'm going to ask for three hours of your time to investigate a lot of emotional stuff. And hopefully the promise is kept.
What is the advantage of working with the same ensemble of actors?
Well, there is the advantage of laziness - there is a "speak" between us which is very easy and very casual and we know what each other means through gestures. But on the opposite side of that, there is the advantage of pushing each other further each time. I wanted to write a part for Phil Hoffman that was the opposite of Scottie in Boogie Nights. That was my goal. Plus, these are my favorite actors.
Tom Cruise came to you after Boogie Nights and said I want to work with you. Did he request in which manner he was interested in working with you?
He said, "whatever you are doing, I'd love to be a part of it." It wasn't so blanket as to, "I'll do whatever you want me to do." It was more like, "Hey, keep me in my mind." I was like, yeah, I'll keep you in mind, you're Tom fucking Cruise. I think that I had a perverse thrill of being able to write that character for him. I think it helped make it a great role because I wanted to impress him. But in the same way, I wanted to impress John Reilly.
One incredible scene in the film is when Frank Mackey [played by Tom Cruise] was being deconstructed by a journalist during an interview. So, I have to ask you as we sit in the same positions… After Boogie Nights and Hard Eight you were thrust into the public eye. And you were being judged, not only by your art, but you personally. What do you feel people have the right to know about you and what do you want to be judged by: your past, where you went to school, or your work itself?
What the fuck, is that a good question or what? The answer is the movies, the movies, the movies. The movies that I make. I do feel an obligation to not be a jackass in my life only because that will infringe on the view of the movie. I remember when Husbands and Wives came out and Woody Allen was going through that whole thing and it was so terrible because that was one of his best movies. But everybody would look at it and see all the parallels of his life and the mistakes he was making- it polluted the movie. I guess my goal is to do everything I can to not pollute the view of my movie. It is a hard thing because you want to promote them. You want to have attention. You want to be interviewed and be liked. But at the same time you want to balance out, step back, and have the movie. But if you're Kubrick and you don't do any interviews, that becomes a little cancer on the movie too, and they say the movies are cold and distant, which I don't think his movies are. It's a very tricky thing. I just want the film to survive.
In your opinion, what do you think makes a film successful?
You know it is funny, because if it's good, it's good. I can answer the question, does it connect to me emotionally? Okay, there's that. Technically it's good, oh great, there's that. Now, as if I'm avoiding the question, if it is financially successful, does that mean it is any good? I have this weird theory and this thing in me that if a film is financially successful, it's successful because if the job is to communicate, then for whatever reason, it's communicating. I think that I am way off topic here, maybe I'm not, but if I were to make a commercial, I wouldn't want to make a great short film, I'd want to make a commercial that sold the product. And if it sold five hundred million cases of Budweiser beer and I made the commercial for it, I'd think it was completely successful and that is the complete artistic triumph.
The music in the film plays a very distinct role. At what point did you begin working with Aimee Mann?
It was more while I was writing. A lot of those songs were practically done or written or some even done completely before we started shooting. She wrote a couple afterwards that were put into the movie. But I took those in the writing stage and ran with them. It was great to have the music too, so the actors could hear it, the crew could hear it and I didn't have to do any kind of conversing about it. I just said, you hear that? That's the vibe. Okay, let's shoot.
On top of that, there was the score which was very seriously in the movie as sort of carpet beneath the whole thing. I thought that would be a great way to connect all these different stories. It could be a vignette movie, but it could be nine plots about one story. And the great connector there could be the music.
The paintings on the walls in Claudia's apartment were beautiful. Who did them?
That is Fiona [Apple]. She did all that artwork.
After you got your Academy Award nominations and your Spirit Award nominations, when you sat down at the table to write again, did you feel pressure to deliver?
Well thank God, I started writing before that all went down. I think I intentionally started writing before I saw waves of things coming at me. And you know what, you feel the pressure but you don't feel it when you are writing. When you are writing, you are alone in your room and you are just typing. And that is not artist-y of me to say that, but honestly it just becomes like that. Now, the second you stop and the phone starts ringing and you are not writing anymore, you become self-conscious and you are little aware that this is expected of me maybe, or this is. Do I want to make a left turn just because of what people expect of me? I think it is a good thing to be aware of what people think of you because it will force you to try and do new things.
Now that you have these films behind you, is the process getting any easier?
It's a funny thing, but what I have realized is, you make the first movie with a two- million-dollar budget. Then you have a bigger budget on the second one, and an even bigger budget on the third one. But I swear to God, the same exact problems exist-it doesn't matter what it cost. And you are like, can't we throw money at it, can't we do this? No, the street is closed. No, there was an earthquake last night, the negative was damaged. No problem really goes away.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
I would want to stress: never underestimate the power of writing. Because if you are a writer and you can write your own stuff and you get shit on. But writers don't realize they don't have to get shit on. They are dying for good scripts out there. If you have one, you have a gold mine. Any actor in the world is going to want to do a good script. Writers have all the power and they don't seem to realize that. Any young filmmaker should know. Just write and write really well because that means you can bribe anyone in the world that you have to direct it and then you are set.