Sunday, December 12, 1999

Interview: L.A. Daily News

L.A. Daily News
December 12, 1999

Anderson Soft on Valley

Filmmaker Boogies Back to Shoot Ambitious, Emotional Epic, Magnolia

“I unashamedly wanted to make the epic, the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie,” Paul Thomas Anderson exuberantly proclaims; then adds with characteristic, mordant honesty, “The competition was not hard, though."

Indeed, the greatest film set in the Valley, for better or for worse, is ``Boogie Nights,'' native-son Anderson's own 1997 study of the porno industry.

Until now, that is.

Anderson's three-hour emotional epic Magnolia is the most artistically ambitious and uncompromising movie of the year. Though hardly as incendiary, subject-wise, as Boogie Nights, this look at a day in the life of a dozen-odd, loosely related Valley residents is already more controversial. Declared everything from a visionary masterpiece to an indulgent endurance test, the film, which opens Friday in L.A. (though not the Valley), has left various viewers exhilarated, devastated, angry, exhausted or scratching their heads or some combination thereof.

With an ensemble cast that ranges from an astonishingly obnoxious Tom Cruise and a semi-comatose Jason Robards to Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore (both of whom just won the National Board of Review's 1999 supporting actor awards, as did the whole cast for ensemble work), John C. Reilly, William H. Macy and Philip Baker Hall, the film explores the mistakes and regrets of imperfect lives and the strange circumstances that connect them.

While set and filmed almost entirely in the San Fernando Valley, with a few specific exceptions Magnolia deals with universal human concerns. There's a game-show producer (that's local) who's dying of cancer, and whose much younger trophy wife (happens everywhere, despite what those who think Hollywood is dominated by dirty old men say) and empathetic home health-care giver must come to grips with his inevitable loss. There's a child quiz-show genius and an adult screw-up who used to be one (more-or-less local). We meet a lonely North Hollywood cop (precinct's specific) and the self-destructive young woman he tries to save (since time immemorial ...). And then there's the, um, motivational speaker, a character one might hope doesn't really exist anywhere on the planet.

"It's a street in the Valley and it's a flower," Anderson, 29, concedes, "but I'll tell you what: I always had the title of Magnolia in my head, even before I wrote this. Then a couple of weird things started to happen that verified the title for me. I started to do research on the magnolia tree, and there was a concept that if you eat the tree's bark it can help cure cancer.

"On top of that, there was this this thing that I discovered called the Magonia," he continues. "Of course, there's a recognizable similarity to the word magnolia, and the Magonia is this mythical place above the firmament where stuff just goes and hangs out before it falls from the sky. In other words, when you hear those stories about an anchor suddenly dropping on a farmer's barn, they explain that it came from the Magonia.

"Not to mention that Magnolia is a great street in the Valley and a great place to film."

And a lot comes down, literally and metaphorically, in Magnolia

As you may have gathered by now, Anderson does not think in what you'd call conventional terms. And his movies reflect that. Magnolia unfolds more like a symphony of emotion than a traditional three-act movie plot, with all kinds of smaller, music-based flourishes within it.

At one point, an assortment of characters in different settings sings along to verses of the Aimee Mann song "Wise Up" (singer-songwriter Mann's tunes provided inspiration for much of Magnolia's script, and are heard throughout the film; Anderson says that his girlfriend, Fiona Apple, is not jealous in the least).

An entire 40-minute montage, built around an episode of the astoundingly difficult game show "What Do Kids Know," is held together by Jon Brion's non-stop musical score. And some characters, like Moore's guilt-ridden spouse and Macy's lightning-struck ex-genius, don't so much speak dialogue as recite profane arias of unbearable pain.

"The movie is sort of structured like 'A Day in the Life,' the Beatles' song," Anderson explains. "It kind of builds up, note by note, then drops or recedes, then builds again. A movie that's this long needs something like a propeller, an undercurrent that's always just washing, especially when emotions are going from way over here to way over here. I get frustrated when people say that this is a vignette movie, because it's not, really. It's nine plots, maybe, but it's one story. And I felt like the only way to do that was to connect it all musically. It helped everything make sense in concert with the other pieces."

For Magnolia's actors, Anderson's unusual approach presented outstanding challenges and incalculable rewards.

"All of the scenes were so hard," admits the widely admired Moore, who earned an Oscar nomination for her Boogie Nights performance. "The difficulty I had as an actor in locating this woman's center is the experience that she has as a character: She doesn't know what she's feeling, doesn't know what's going on and is reacting to it in a hysterical kind of fashion.

"But Paul has such an amazing worldview and is such a great writer," she adds. "There is such a wonderful rhythm to his language, and the way his people speak is not artificial at all. And he's a tremendous humanitarian; he's got great compassion for the human condition. You see that again and again in his films; he knows how to take an ordinary life and magnify it so that we can see ourselves in it."

Reilly, a veteran of both previous Anderson features Hard Eight and Boogie,' appreciates the director's ability to link random weirdness with the common life traumas we all face at some time, but can never bring our hearts to comprehend.

"One of the themes of the movie is random ridiculousness," says Reilly, who plays Magnolia's inept but desperately well-meaning LAPD officer. "Why did, all of a sudden, that guy get hit by lightning? But I recently lost one of my family members to cancer, and that is the same feeling that I had. Why? What is this?

"That stuff is just as mysterious, as hard to process in your mind, as getting hit by lightning," Reilly continues. "Strange phenomena, crazy things happen every day, and everyone is trying to find some way to understand it and come to grips with it in their life, whether it's something that we think of as mundane or something we think of as extraordinary."

In Magnolia's scenario, Macy's messed-up former child-genius has been lightning-struck both physically and emotionally: His parents stole his game-show winnings, leaving him unable to trust anyone despite a consuming need for affection.

"I think the line 'I have a lot of love, I just don't know where to put it' sums up the character and, perhaps, sums up the movie," says Macy, a respected member of both Anderson's loose repertory company and that of playwright/filmmaker David Mamet as well. "He's a guy with a lot of smarts, a lot of information in his head, but dumb as a bag of hair. I just know people like that, real smart but have the weirdest automobile accidents, the worst-managed lives."

These and many other needy characters shuffle and wail their ways memorably through Magnolia. But if one performance is going to stand out among the group effort, it's likely to be Tom Cruise's outlandish portrayal of a seduction guru, a piggish manipulator who's made a small media empire out of teaching angry men how to get what they want from women with minimum emotional investment.

It's the wildest thing Cruise has ever done, and certainly the most unflattering role he's ever taken. Anderson says that the superstar approached him after he saw Boogie Nights, and expressed no reservations about the nasty character later written specifically for him.

"Believe me, Tom Cruise is not a prude, I'll tell you that," Anderson says with a laugh. "I guess there was a certain sort of naughtiness that writing for him brought out in me, just wanting to see him do something kind of insane and a little bit different. And I think that he was really anxious to do that because he'd been making Eyes Wide Shut for two years. After playing the repressed character in that movie, to get something this outlandish and bigger-than-life, I think, thrilled him.'"

Anderson knows show-biz personalities intimately. His father, Ernie Anderson, was Ghoulardi, a Cleveland TV horror-movie host who became a voiceover specialist after moving to Studio City. Paul grew up with a deep attachment to the Valley so deep that he still feels guilty about having had to replace a street sign on Sherman Way with a Magnolia/Laurel Canyon corner marker for a shot in the new film, as though he's betrayed some major truth about the place.

And then there's the deepest regret of the artist's young life.

"Here's the thing: I was looking and looking and looking for a house," he sheepishly reveals. ``I finally found this really great house in the Hollywood Hills and I bought it. And I am ... miserable! It's a great house and everything else, but we are now planning to move because Art's Deli is far too far away. Honestly, I'm not kissing back up to the Valley, because I totally abandoned it. I thought it would actually, maybe, be healthy for me to try to live someplace else. But I'm a homebody and I can't."

As for what Magnolia may say about life here, "I hope that it's not entirely specific to the Valley," Anderson says. "The characters are easily found here, but hopefully the themes don't parallel anything that is happening in the Valley. But who knows? There's certainly an interesting sort of grid effect to the Valley that, maybe, structurally, means something to the movie.

"It's funny. Now I'm the Valley filmmaker. I don't want to do a movie about the Valley next only so it doesn't become an obnoxious thing. I want to save it and leave it more precious as a place where I really do want to make movies for the rest of my life. I've just got to make sure that I don't do it every time even though that would be my instinct."

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