Tuesday, January 04, 2000

Interview: Calgary Sun

Courtesy of The Calgary Herald, Written ByJamie Portman
January 4, 2000

Road to Redemption

Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson leads an ensemble cast along the road to redemption

Paul Thomas Anderson rushes into the hotel suite clutching a cigarette in one hand and a bagel in another. He's a young man in a hurry, so much so that he starts answering questions about Magnolia, his new marathon of a movie, while his mouth is still full of bagel.

"You'll be happier if I eat this," he says by way of apology. "Otherwise, I'll be grumpy."

Actually, he isn't grumpy at all. He is nervous, wired, intense -- but also friendly. He peppers his rapid-fire comments with a lot of four-letter words. Everything about movies -- writing them, directing them, watching them -- keeps him on a perpetual high. "I have no great insights. This is the thing I've always wanted to do. It's my job. I can't do anything else. It's the best."

At 29, there's still a preppy quality about him. He's neatly turned out in a brown sports jacket, open-necked white shirt and black trousers. He looks incredibly young. Yet this is the whiz kid who turned Hollywood on its ear two years ago with Boogie Nights, his provocative examination of the porn film industry, and who is now making more waves with Magnolia, a movie that juggles at least nine different stories in the course of its 180-minute running time.

Anderson didn't set out to make a movie of such "epic proportions." But once he started writing Magnolia, he got carried away.

"I wrote down one sentence. I wanted to make something small, intimate and personal. I wanted it to be cheap so we could do it real quick. And then I just kept writing. You always have to decide as a writer whether you are being lazy and indulgent or whether you are following your gut. I just went with my gut."

He had started out with an image in his mind: the face of actress Melora Walters, who in the movie would end up playing a despairing cocaine addict. But at the time, he had also been listening to performer-songwriter Aimee Mann's plaintive song, Save Me, and knew he wanted to use it at the end of the film. Then he had a further image of Philip Baker Hall, as Walters's father, walking up the steps of her apartment and having a searing confrontation with her. "I saw him trying to talk with her, trying to communicate with her and God knows how it happened, but it went from there to all these other things. You know what I mean? That's what happened."

New strands of narrative and new characters kept insistently working themselves into his screenplay, and Anderson began picturing the cast he wanted to use. The movie, which opens Friday in Calgary, is much different from what he originally envisaged. Set in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley -- the place where Anderson grew up and which is his spiritual home -- it offers a series of interlocking stories. Among them:

- A dying millionaire (Jason Robards) is desperate to communicate with his estranged son. The son (Tom Cruise) is a successful television guru who caters to a male macho sensibility which holds that females have been put on this Earth to be lied to and seduced. The millionaire's wife (Julianne Moore) is in anguish over the fact that she's fallen in love with the man she originally married only for his money.

- A child genius turned quiz show star (Jeremy Blackman) faces a moment of crisis during a round of on-camera questions, a crisis which threatens further damage to his relationship with the father (Michael Bowen) who lives vicariously off his success.

- A former child quiz show star (William H. Macy) broods over his former triumphs and his current dead-end job in an electronics store.

- An aging quiz show host (Philip Baker Hall) is forced to confront his own mortality at the same time as his relationships with his devoted wife (Melinda Dillon) and desperate daughter (Melora Walters) hit rock bottom because of revelations about his past.

- A bumbling L.A. cop (John C. Reilly) finds himself falling in love with a most unsuitable person.

Moore, Macy, Reilly and Hall are among the performers who have worked previously for Anderson -- both in Boogie Nights and the earlier Hard Eight -- and they're part of a virtual-stock company ready to work on his films whenever he calls on them. "These really are my favourite actors," Anderson says. "It's not like they were in my first movie because I couldn't get anyone else. They were there because I wanted those particular actors. And they've continued to be my favourite actors. Working with them has turned into this new thrill where I can write parts for them that they don't usually get to play."

The characters in Magnolia can be destructive, cruel, hypocritical, self-pitying and desperate -- but Anderson insists that the movie is ultimately about the various roads which must be traveled to find personal redemption. He's also candid in saying that he's probably writing about aspects of himself. "I think maybe it's a big version of therapy to a certain extent, of reaching self-awareness. You're trying to write about problems that you have or are trying to conquer."

Ask Anderson what he likes about filmmaking and he has a one-word answer. He likes "everything."

"Writing is wonderful because it's me alone in a room. It's a wonderful, precious, alone time. But then there's the thrill of being able to give it to the actors because then it becomes our group effort and we get to shoot it together and it's so contagious and fun.

"There's nothing I can do but give you superlatives about what filmmaking is."

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