Sunday, January 02, 2000

Interview: Boston Globe

Courtesy of the Boston Globe, Written By Bob Strauss
January 2, 2000

Wising Up

Paul Thomas Anderson understands what he's doing as a filmmaker with Magnolia

LOS ANGELES - Making movies as a form of therapy?

The cliche gag - based, like many stereotypes, on observed reality - is that filmmaking is more like group psychosis, with various sources of megalomania vying for control of the script, the set, and the agenda.

But Paul Thomas Anderson's movies do look and play like the working out of troubling emotions, both in "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights," and now his magnum opus, "Magnolia," which opens Friday in Boston. In the three-hour-plus film, Anderson explores the family traumas and frayed personal connections of unhappy people with all the passion of youth - he turned 30 yesterday - and an insight into human feelings many of his elders never achieve. Anderson's characters are typically miserable - which is, perhaps, the primary thing critics have been slamming "Magnolia" for - but so vulnerable and surprisingly compassionate, too, that they can't help rep re sent ing the deep desire we all harbor to live better, more loving lives.

"For the most part, you're writing what you are, but the other half of what you write is the kind of person that you want to be," says Anderson, whose discursive, often vulgar speech marks him as a guy who grew up in LA's San Fernando Valley, but doesn't disguise a sharp intelligence and enthusiasm for all the expressive possibilities of cinema. "I'd like to be a better listener, you know what I mean? And I'd like to not judge people and [to] do good things.

"I think that when you write those things out, you're putting into black and white something that you have in your head, but that you can then look at and make filmable. And when you film it, you hear someone say it and they, hopefully, start speaking back to you. I'm just trying to be a better person, always, and just using the movies to do it, I guess."

"Magnolia" runs a series of contrapuntal, often mirroring story lines about people struggling against the odds to improve themselves - or, at least, to bond with someone else in a real way - on one particularly strange day in the Valley. There is a bungling cop (John C. Reilly) who tries to start a relationship with a drug addict (Melora Walters) who hates her father (Philip Baker Hall). A dying game-show producer (Jason Robards) mournfully regrets his infidelities while his trophy wife (Julianne Moore) vociferously regrets hers, and a visiting nurse with no life (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets too personally involved with their dilemmas. Meanwhile, a child genius (Jeremy Blackman) has a crisis during the game show's live broadcast while a former child genius (William H. Macy) rails about the mess he's made of his adult life. And Tom Cruise, wearing long greasy hair and a belligerent attitude, plays an obnoxious lout who teaches "Seduce and Destroy" seminars to loser guys who resent women.

All these people, to put it mildly, need help. Indeed, "Save Me" is the significant title of one of the half-dozen Aimee Mann compositions that play an important role in the film's complex and sometimes outrageously inventive soundtrack. But even though he's been accused by some of condescendingly exploiting his lost characters' longings, a clear reading of "Magnolia" makes it pretty evident that Anderson could not be more sympathetic to their plights.

"Paul has an amazing perspective on human behavior," says veteran actor Hall, who has appeared in all three Anderson features (and his short film "Cigarettes and Coffee"). "He comes from a large family, a lot of brothers and sisters, and maybe you have to look deeply in a big family like that or get washed away or something. But something there gave him this ability to understand a lot of the hidden things that go on with human beings."

Or maybe that's just how you turn out when your dad's a ghoul. Ghoulardi, to be more precise, was the TV horror-movie host the late Ernie Anderson portrayed when he wasn't lending his voice to commercials. Though he prefers to keep the details of his upbringing private, Paul obviously loved his father enough to name his production company Ghoulardi and dedicate "Magnolia" to him.

From an early age, Paul would play around with Ernie's cameras, and instead of going to film school he apprenticed in low-level positions - on, yes, game shows and the like - in order to learn the trade.

Obviously, Anderson's lifelong exposure to the less-prestigious areas of show business led directly to "Boogie Nights," his acclaimed study of the pornographic-film industry. But the skill with which he designs his artistically ambitious films - "Boogie" as a kind of delirious, sustained drug party turning bad, "Magnolia" as a huge orchestral arrangement of images and feelings - seems very much the ability of a born filmmaker.

"Paul is a clever lad and he's able to hold many things in his mind at one time," says Macy, a veteran of David Mamet's repertory company. "You see all this technical wizardry - I mean, his long, sweeping shots are becoming legendary - but when the shot is done, he always comes back to the moment, just people talking."

While not denying the praise, Anderson tries to maintain a humble perspective.

"I only know how to do one thing, and that's make movies," he admits. "I would say that I'm a born filmmaker. I hope that doesn't sound egotistical, but I only say it because it's all I've wanted to do my whole life and I just love to do it."

Of course, such dedication can lead to overindulgence, another complaint that's been lodged at Anderson's work in general and the marathon "Magnolia" in particular.

"The length with `Magnolia' is, truly, an accident," he explains with evident sincerity. "I set out to write something really small. It's true! `Boogie Nights' was so long and intense, I wanted to do something I could just get a couple of actors for and just go shoot. But as I wrote it, it just kept going and going and going, so much emotion came out.

"You always have to look at it as a writer and go, `Have I been indulgent or has my emotion taken me away or am I being lazy?' Or: `Is this what it should be?' And, look, for better or for worse, I just said, `This is right.' There will be people who hear `three-hour movie' and roll their eyes. . . . I don't want to alienate the audience, but I feel like I did deliver a good three-hour movie. I wouldn't change a frame of it."

It comes as little surprise that Anderson lives with singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, whose acclaimed second album has one of the longest titles in the history of recorded music.

"Yeah, I know," Anderson laughingly acknowledges when asked about the couple's apparent obsession with length. "I guess we have a lot to say."

Of course, Apple and Anderson share a more vital creative interest in how psychic pain is passed from one person to another, and what in the world might be done to alleviate it.

"There's a great thing she once said to me," he recalls. "She said that abuse is a relay sport. And it is, but at what point do you stop blaming the past and what others did to you, and start standing up to your own mistakes?

"You know how it is," Anderson continues, casually summing up his film and his art. "Anybody who's even remotely self-aware is always wondering how to make themselves better, or why they seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over. There's another Aimee Mann song that everybody sings along to in the movie, called `Wise Up.' The concept of it is that it's not going to stop until you wise up. . . . That's the movie right there.

"I guess that's the theme of my work, too, or it's becoming it. Remember, I've only made three features so far."

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