Sunday, December 12, 1999

Interview: L.A. Times

Los Angeles Times, Written By Patrick Goldstein
December 12, 1999

The New New Wave

Move over, Mr. Coppola. Take a seat, Mr. Scorsese. It's time for the next generation of film directors to shake things up, in the spirit of the French film rebels of yore.

Not long after his second movie Boogie Nights arrived on a crest of critical accolades, director Paul Thomas Anderson was asked to dinner by Warren Beatty. "I told him I'd love to go," says the brash 29-year-old director, who'd flirted with casting Beatty as Jack Horner, porno king of the San Fernando Valley, a part ultimately played by Burt Reynolds.

"But I told him, 'We're going somewhere public, a really brightly lit place where everyone will see I'm having dinner with Warren Beatty.' "

Beatty took him to Mandarette, one of the star's favorite eateries. While they were having dinner, Francis Ford Coppola stopped by to visit. Coppola offered Anderson a piece of advice. "This is the one moment when you have it, when you can do whatever you want to do," the director told him. "It's the one moment when you have a clean slate, with no stigma attached. And even if your next movie makes $400 million and gets eight Oscars, you'll still have to fight battles that you'll never have to fight right now. So whatever you want to do, do it now."

It was a symbolic passing of the torch: the battle-scarred godfather of 1970s cinema offering Jedi-like advice to the fresh-faced standard-bearer for Hollywood's new generation of hot young film directors. Just as Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut of the French New Wave revolutionized cinema in the early 1960s, Anderson and his peers are shaking up the film world today. They've adopted the Coppola mantra: It's your moment, so just do it.

As the century comes to a close, Hollywood has finally caught up with the explosion of creative energy that had been operating outside the studio mainstream.
Faced with a fast-emerging demographic wave of restless young moviegoers, the major studios have wooed, embraced and perhaps co-opted a fresh generation of film talent. In fact, the moment has arrived for a legion of new directors whom New Line President Mike De Luca calls "all the young dudes."

"Directors are the rock stars of the end of this century," says Jersey Films Co-Chairman Stacey Sher, whose company has nurtured such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Andrew Niccol. "You can see the burst of new energy everywhere. Kids now think they can pick up a camera and express themselves in the same way that they used to pick up a guitar and start a band."

The "dudes" list starts with Anderson, whose new film, Magnolia, due out Friday, is already being touted as one of the year's most ambitious films. But the new wunderkinder are everywhere. (Click here for LA Times list)

Next year will bring even more kinetic thrills, with ambitious new movies due from Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) and Darren Aronofsky (Pi).

The New New Wave directors are hardly kindred spirits. Some are classic storytellers, others are dazzling stylists. Some revel in whimsy or hipster cool, while others have a youthful fondness for brazen, jokey excess. Few learned their trade in film school. Spike Jonze made skateboard videos and ran a teen boys zine called Dirt. David O. Russell was a political organizer who made documentaries about Central American immigrants. Kimberly Peirce studied literature at the University of Chicago and raced motorcycles in Thailand. Except for Peirce, it's a boys' club of largely self-taught writer-directors who aren't as easily identifiable as Goddard and Truffaut of the French New Wave or as chummy as Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were in their heyday.

What they do share is youth, ambition and media savvy. They also have the hip-hop culture's fascination with scavenging and then reinventing old genres, using a rapid-fire, often nonlinear style of storytelling that's influenced by TV ads, music videos, Web surfing and video games.

As a group, the New New Wave directors are cocky and assertive, but without the hubris, pretense and drug-fueled mania of the '70s-era directors as described in Peter Biskind's 1998 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." They're also pragmatic--they don't have the instinctive hostility toward studio "suits" that marked much of the indie film movement of the early 1990s.

But in Hollywood, regardless of which generation you come from, the biggest hurdle is coping with the seduction of success.

"For a young filmmaker, the enemy isn't the studio or the critics, it's self-importance," says Soderbergh, who was the man of the moment a decade ago after making "sex, lies and videotape." "This is a gifted group of young directors, but what will happen to them is strictly a function of character. It takes a great amount of effort to stay hungry, but it's far preferable than self-importance, which is what has brought down nearly every great filmmaker."

One day, when Paul Thomas Anderson is working on TV commercials for Magnolia, his editor, Dylan Tichenor, receives a call from M. Night Shyamalan, who's getting $10 million for his next film after the success of The Sixth Sense. As soon as Tichenor hangs up the phone, Anderson teases him about the job prospect. "Hey, what'd your new best friend, Mr. Big Time Movie Maker, have to say? I hope he's gonna give you some of those 10 million smackers," he says. "Better yet, do it for no money and get some fucking points. It's about time editors started saying, 'Give me some points too!' "

As with everything else in Hollywood, economics plays a big role in the arrival of this New New Wave. For the past decade, the industry has been dominated by a group of fiftysomething directors--known in industry shorthand as "Ovitz directors" for their ties to former Creative Artists Agency czar Michael Ovitz--who served as magnets for the top star talent. They made hit movies, but at an increasingly hefty price, earning roughly $6 million a film, plus 10% of the studio's first-dollar gross.

It was a double whammy. As the older directors' movies became more expensive, they also became more out of touch with today's youthful moviegoers. The result: The studios were saddled with a series of costly duds from such top names as Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Ivan Reitman, John McTiernan, Harold Becker and Martin Brest.
"We're desperate for new talent," says Disney Films Chairman Joe Roth. "A lot of the older directors have gotten preoccupied with the preview process and selling the picture. The young directors haven't been poisoned by the Hollywood system. When Wes Anderson walks into the room, you just light up. He doesn't feel like a guy who's pitching a softball at 40 mph. He's got energy and fresh ideas--he's always throwing knuckle balls."

The fresh ideas come from all sorts of unlikely sources--almost anywhere but film school. "Film school is a complete con," says Paul Thomas Anderson. "You can learn more from John Sturges' audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school."

Spike Jonze's visual sensibility is shaped by old TV shows--his music video reel includes spoofy reworkings of Starsky and Hutch and Happy Days episodes. "The Matrix's" 360-degree freeze-frame effect borrows from the Gap's "Khakis Swing" ad. The Blair Witch Project derived much of its impact from the fuzzy, urban-legend ethos of the Internet. Go and Run Lola Run are fueled by the headlong blast of a video game. Magnolia takes much of its storytelling inspiration from a collection of Aimee Mann songs, one of which Anderson's characters sings, music-video-style, in the middle of the movie.

"I really set out to write an adaptation of her songs," Anderson says. "One of the characters in the movie says, 'Now that I met you, would you object to never seeing me again?' I completely stole that from one of Aimee's songs. For me, she's like the way Simon & Garfunkel were to The Graduate or Cat Stevens to Harold and Maude. Her songs become the built-in voice of the movie, tying all the stories together."

These disparate new-media influences are pushing films toward a new generational aesthetic. "The young directors have a fascinating new kind of browser mentality," says Bill Block, president of Artisan Films, which released Blair Witch and Aronofsky's Pi. "They've grown up immersed in MTV and Nintendo and PlayStation, and it's the software that's influencing the sensibility. Most of these films have bypassed the old studio-executive character arc rules. It's just a straight line now, like a bullet."

The New New Wave directors have a new sensibility about career maintenance, too. Anderson can quote from practically any Robert Altman film, but he also has an almost scholarly knowledge of the career arcs of his favorite directors. When he was editing Magnolia, he went to a pair of revered elders, Jonathan Demme and Robert Towne, for advice.

"These guys are very knowledgeable students of film history," says Biskind, author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." "They see the shambles that a lot of the '70s guys made of their careers. So they don't seem to have the enormous flamboyant personalities that you saw in the '70s. And they've grown up in a culture that's a lot more sober-minded than the coke culture that sent so many directors into outer space."

The younger generation doesn't have such a self-indulgent lifestyle--Anderson is a habitué of McDonald's, not Mortons. But he's just as insistent about his creative freedom as his '70s predecessors. Even though Boogie Nights was more of a critical success than a financial one--it grossed a modest $24 million in domestic box office--Anderson cajoled New Line into giving him final cut on Magnolia and according to De Luca, New Line gave Anderson a $150,000 budget to create alternative trailers and posters for the film. Anderson also has approval of the film's Web site design.

Warner Bros. production chief Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, who lobbied to bring Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski and David O. Russell into the studio fold, admits that he battled "in a good way" with Russell during the making of Three Kings. A longtime indie filmmaker, Russell insisted on casting director pal Jonze as one of the movie's other lead characters, even though he'd never acted before.

"I told him it was crazy and could screw up the whole movie," recalls Di Bonaventura. "But you can't tell a director to be daring and then get nervous when they really are daring. We tested Spike and he was great, so I told David, 'I still think it's crazy, but if you really want to do it, I'll back you.' When David wanted to use four different film stocks, we had the same debate. But we looked at his test footage and it made the film look so fresh that I said, 'OK, I'm nervous about this too, but I'll back you.'

"You have to look at this as the studio having a partnership with a director, so we try to challenge their vision, but if they really believe in something, we support them."
After the critical raves she got on the low-budget Boys Don't Cry, Peirce is now being wooed by studios too. She's proceeding with trepidation, having read of the struggles that her idols Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles had with studios in the past.

"To me, creative control is everything, so you have to be cautious, because studios are corporations and you're not," she explains. "People are already offering me $50-million movies. And while I'm not saying no, you have to realize that to have creative freedom, you have to accept limitations. So you figure that if you take less money for your budget, you can have more control over the cast or script."

The old indie attitude, which cast studio executives as rulers of an evil empire, has been replaced by a desire to accomplish what Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock did decades ago--make commercial movies with a personal sensibility. "These directors have a healthy ambition in the best sense, that they don't want their films to just play at the Nuart," says UTA agent John Lesher, who represents Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Russell and Peirce. "They're fiercely independent, but they don't want to just be arty, niche filmmakers. And they came along at a good time. Because after Pulp Fiction came out and made $100 million, the studios all woke up and said, 'What's that all about?' "

If anyone is the embodiment of a New New Wave director at full throttle, it's Paul Thomas Anderson, who's still so boyishly unprepossessing that when he's in the men's room at Art's Deli, his favorite haunt, a patron asks if he's the guy who runs valet parking. In Hollywood, though, he's getting the spotlight treatment. When the phone rings, it's Harvey Weinstein or Tom Cruise or his girlfriend, pop star Fiona Apple, whom he asks to buy some new pants for him when she's out shopping. One day he's out hanging with Tarantino, now a close friend, who's writing a new movie (described as "his Dirty Dozen war movie") and doing a cameo role in Adam Sandler's new film. The week of Thanksgiving, Anderson flew to Paris with longtime hero Jonathan Demme, where the two were plotting a possible joint project.

When Anderson stops in for dinner at Art's, the young waitress treats him like a king, mostly because she saw him there on Thanksgiving with Apple, having a hot turkey sandwich. Full of the kind of infectious enthusiasm that's fueled by Diet Cokes and Camel cigarettes, he admits he still doesn't know "if I'm the type of guy who'd want to run the world like Spielberg or retreat to a mansion in London like Kubrick. I haven't got it figured out yet."

His new film, a three-hour opus called Magnolia, has an ensemble cast that includes Cruise and Jason Robards, as well as Boogie Nights holdovers Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It uses the low-slung sprawl of the San Fernando Valley as a backdrop for a saga of intertwined family dramas.

Anderson calls the Valley his "back lot." Driving around in his Mercedes van one night, a milkshake in one hand, he acts as tour guide, pointing out favorite old haunts:
There, on the right, is Van Nuys High, where Roller Girl went to school in Boogie Nights. Here, at Magnolia and Whitsett, is the Foxfire bar, setting for one of Macy's big scenes in Magnolia. Soon we're at the intersection of Reseda and Sherman Way, scene of the opening shot from Boogie Nights. Over on Ventura Boulevard near Laurel Canyon is the Du-par's where Jack Horner teaches Dirk Diggler about the movie business.

Back at Reseda and Sherman Way, Anderson veers into a gas station. "This is our Mobil station," he says. "See that telephone poll, over by the appliance store? That's the pole Bill Macy climbs in Magnolia. . . . Up on the right on Sherman Way is a Miss Donut shop. . . . That's what we used for the Don Cheadle doughnut shop scene in Boogie Nights, Anderson says.

Anderson is such a creature of movies that it's sometimes hard to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins. When he was a kid, Anderson went to see E.T. and began dressing as Henry Thomas, determined to ride his bike off into the clouds. After he saw Rocky, he started drinking five eggs at breakfast and running every morning.
"I never had a backup plan other than directing films. I remember doing exactly what movies told me to do. Every time I eat mashed potatoes, I still think of Close Encounters."

Growing up in Studio City, Anderson got much of his love for film from his father, the late Ernie Anderson, a late-night horror movie TV host in Cleveland before he moved to L.A. to become a voice-over actor. (Anderson's production company, Ghoulardi Films, takes its name from his father's TV host character.) When Paul was 12, Ernie bought him a video camera. As a high school senior he made The Dirk Diggler Story, a 30-minute Boogie Nights prototype about a boy breaking into the sex film trade.

Anderson never went to college, working instead as a messenger and production assistant for a TV game show, "Quiz Kid Challenge," an experience he incorporated into Magnolia. After writing a few scripts, he made a short film that earned him an invitation to develop a feature at the Sundance Filmmakers Workshop. By the time he was 24, he'd directed his first movie, Hard Eight, which he says was mangled by its distributors, Rysher Entertainment, of whom he says with obvious relish, "those fuckers are out of business now, thank God."

Since then, Anderson has sought as much control as possible over his films. As he puts it: "I learned that 50% of my job is directing the movie. The other 50% is managing the studio." When he delivered the Magnolia script, only a few select New Line executives, including Mike De Luca, were allowed to read it. Anderson's crew had to sign nondisclosure agreements before being hired to work on the film.

Why such jealously guarded control? Anderson says that the bad experience he had on his first film "caused me to be slightly paranoid and obsessively controlling because I don't want to be burned like that again." When he first met with De Luca on Boogie Nights, Anderson went through the script line by line, telling him "when the movie comes out, it's got to look just like that," prompting De Luca to say, "Dude, fucking calm down!"

Anderson says he cut his own trailers as a way of circumventing the widespread studio practice of using a trailer to tell the entire story of a movie. "It spoils something. I think it's a more exciting experience if the movie is still a mystery when you see it. So with my trailer, I tell you about the characters, but I don't tell the story because, frankly, there's nine complicated, intersecting lives and I didn't want people to say, 'Oh, it's like Slackers or Short Cuts."

Like most of his director peers, Anderson is still struggling to find his identity; he's young enough to harbor lofty ambitions, but old enough to worry about the pitfalls of passing through what Beck, one of his favorite musicians, calls "the door of success."
"I want my movies to be appreciated, and I want the attention that any damaged person would want," he says late one night, driving back from the Valley. "But I don't want the whole spotlight--that would be too much of whatever that thing is you want."

He remembers walking down the street one night with Tarantino, astounded that so many people seemed to recognize the young director. "These people would come lurching out of the bushes, yelling, 'Quentin, dude! What's up man! That movie really rocked!' And of course, when they went running away, without noticing me, I was going, hey, you know, I directed Boogie Nights."

Anderson lights up a cigarette, blowing a cloud of smoke out the car window. "Is it possible that when you get older you get a little more clarity on these things?"

1 comment:

  1. Reading an old article like this shows how much has changed in the past decade and a half! Not that long ago interesting movies and directors were part of the mainstream film culture. Where here we had stories of young directors demanding (and getting) final cut of their pet projects, nowadays young directing talent is funneled into the comic book franchise universe. This current generation of film is probably the lamest in history. Any writers and directors of talent seem to have moved on to making great cable TV shows.