Thursday, January 06, 2000

Interview: Austin American Statesman

The Austin American Statesman, Written By Chris Garcia
January 6, 2000

All Paul Thomas Anderson Does

Sure, the director of 'Boogie Nights' saw 'Short Cuts.' Wanna make something of it? If you don't like his new movie, 'Magnolia,' you're wrong, anyway.

At the tender age of 29, Paul Thomas Anderson -- P.T.A. to his friends -- is making some of the most ambitious movies in Hollywood.

In 1997 he unleashed "Boogie Nights," an outsized and adrenalized saga about the 1970s porn industry in L.A. Starring Mark Wahlberg as well-endowed porn star Dirk Diggler, the uneven but technically impressive movie won rave reviews and a cult following. Important people in Hollywood noticed (including Tom Cruise, who stars in Anderson's new film). There's a new prodigy in town.

Thomas' follow-up is "Magnolia," an operatic examination of several discrete lives that cosmically intersect over 24 hours in the San Fernando Valley. In the heartfelt and strenuously ambitious epic, lives converge, souls are spilled, amends are made and frogs tumble from the sky with biblical fury. The three-hour drama opens Friday.

Anderson bursts with raw talent. The writer-director's trump is his capacity to anchor onscreen showmanship with an aching compassion for his multiple characters. He is interested in humanity, people and their lots in life.

In a by turns blistering and admiring review of "Magnolia," critic David Denby in The New Yorker favorably placed Anderson's name in the same sentence as John Huston and Orson Welles. It's the stuff that triggers seizures of jealousy in other young filmmakers.

A friendly guy during our brief conversation, Anderson has been known to flash the sort of pomposity common in young, insecure artists. He recently informed a magazine that the "world domination" he's after "is very complicated." (It's not clear if he was joking.)

When we spoke, he railed on Denby -- to many the nation's most astute film critic -- for his "Magnolia" critique, and said that those who don't like "Magnolia" are "wrong." And watch his defenses go code-red when I bring up his filmmaking influences.

"Magnolia" is Anderson's third feature. His first was the subdued 1996 drama "Hard Eight," whose taut structure and surprise ending recalled the work of Anderson idol David Mamet. Anderson declined to talk about "Hard Eight's" genesis at the Sundance Institute Filmmaker's Workshop, where he was mentored by some of the industry's best scripters. "Oh, it's so (expletive) boring," he sighs.

Anderson lives with his girlfriend, anguished pop poetess Fiona Apple, in Los Angeles. We spoke two weeks ago by phone.

Q: How's the response to "Magnolia" at this point?

A: Things are going really well. It's been wonderful. . . . You know, if somebody doesn't like this movie, they're just wrong anyway.

Q: Being really reductive here, what in your words is "Magnolia" about?

A: Oh, you're not going to ask me that one, are you? Oh, God! In the most generic terms, it's about three hours. I don't know. It's, it's, it's . . . about being nice to your kids.

Q: The film has obvious biblical overtones, and I noticed in at least a few scenes signs embossed with "Exodus 8:2."

A: Yeah, there's more than that. There's many, many more. I bet you could probably spot a hundred. Exodus 8:2 (describes) the plague of frogs in the Bible. The funny thing is, my reasons for using the plague of frogs aren't exactly biblical. I didn't even know it was in the Bible until after I wrote the script. The rain of frogs is something that really happens. Did you know that? It's a true thing.

Q: So did you go back and include the beacons of Exodus 8:2?

A: No. Right after I got done writing the script I found out it was in the Bible. So then I became very interested in looking at the Bible and figuring out what it meant there. I just thought it was a fun directorial, bored-on-the-set thing to do, to plant 8:2s all over the place.

Q: So there's no real biblical link at all.

A: No, sure there is. Yeah, there is. You're trying to get me to explain the frogs! That's fine, I just get scared of always helping it along. You'd hate me in the morning if I told you what it all meant. It's one of those things like, "God, that guy ruined it for me! It's a good movie, but then he started talking about it."

Q: How did you find the material for the film's clever prologue -- the fantastic vignettes about bizarre coincidences?

A: Some of it's true, some of it's urban legend, the sort of stories you hear in bars that make you go, "Oh, that's (expletive) insane!" It's all about coincidence and insane things that happen. You always hear about these things happening to a friend of a friend, but you go, "If that was in a movie, I sure wouldn't believe it." The truth is these things happen all the time.

Q: How do you manage a screenplay that epic and entangled? It seems so much like a puzzle pieced together in the editing. Did you write the various storylines separately?

A: No, I write it all as you see it. It works easier for me that way. The second I think I've answered a question in one story, I want to see what another story is doing.

Q: Did you use 3-by-5 cards to plot out scenes?

A: No, I just wrote it down. It took eight or nine months, with about three drafts.

Q: Martin Scorsese's influence is readily apparent in "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," what with the hyper-fluid Steadicam work and the overall electricity. I once read where you cited Jonathan Demme as your primary idol.

A: Yeah. Big time.

Q: How's that? I can see how you share an interest in big, quirky human tapestries.

A: Visually, for sure.

Q: Really? I always find him kind of flat.

A: (Big sigh.) You're crazy. You're fucking crazy. He is the king! Really, you don't like Jonathan Demme?

Q: I'm not wild about him.

A: I think he's the greatest American director.

Q: Better than Scorsese?

A: Sure. Demme's a humanist, you know what I mean? He puts his heart on the screen, whereas Scorsese's a stylist. I think "Kundun" is a wonderful movie, but I just consider Demme more of a humanist and a little less bleak. I don't know. I'm just a sucker for the human element.

Q: So he's your biggest influence?

A: For sure. Demme, David Mamet and of course Altman and Scorsese. I certainly get massive inspiration from music. When you talk about camera moves and stuff like that it's always just a musical thing for me.

Q: You seem to rely quite a bit on music. From what I recall, every scene in "Boogie Nights" had a song playing.

A: I don't know if I'd call it relying or depending or that it's just hand-in-hand with me. There's this terrible concept that a movie should be able to take out all of its music and survive. That's hogwash. That's like saying take out all the actors and it should be able to survive. It's part of the arsenal of what you can do to make the movie and tell the story. I plan the movie to the music. Music really comes first for me.

Q: How does that work?

A: I'll hear a song and it will trigger something visual or a story. (My friend) Aimee Mann's music was the source of inspiration for "Magnolia."

Q: I see a lot of similarities between your film and Altman's "Short Cuts."

A: I don't know what you want me to say. "Short Cuts" is a great fucking movie. I don't know. Yeah. Sure. I saw it. It's fucking great.

Q: Both films have a climactic catastrophic event that ties everything together . . . (Silence on the other end.) I guess you have nothing to say on this.

A: No, I guess I just ripped it all off.
Q: That's not what I'm implying.

A: No, I just fucking ripped it off! (Extremely testy.) You know, I've ripped it all off. That's what I do. That's all I do.

Q: What are the pros and cons of working with the stable of actors (Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly) you've chosen?

A: Well, they're my favorite actors in the world. They're amazing. They're just all friends of mine so I love working with them. It's not that I don't want to work with anybody else. I'm just working with exactly who I want to work with, which is cool.

Q: What kind of impact did the success of "Boogie Nights" have on your ability to get films made and on your career?

A: It made it a lot easier. It made a pocket of time where I could really kind of do anything I wanted to do, and I hope that I took full advantage of that.

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