Sunday, January 02, 2000

Interview: Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Free Press, Written By Terry Lawson
January 2, 2000

Young Filmmaker Probes Heads, Hearts

Oh, man, you just got to wait a minute," says Paul Thomas Anderson, who suddenly has found himself in the middle of a moment that could have been lifted directly from his new movie Magnolia.

The film is about people who find themselves disconnected from humanity at large.

"I have got to move. I'm standing here in the middle of an outdoor mall talking really loud on a cell phone about how great my movie is.

"I'm creeping myself out."

Relocated, Anderson is not simply more comfortable talking about his follow-up to the acclaimed Boogie Nights, he is unabashedly elated.

"I am so proud of this movie I'm just bursting," he says. "I know that's not cool to say, but I have such an emotional investment in this, it's so dear to me, I would have been crushed if I hadn't been able to pull it off. But here it is, and I'm good with it. Great with it, in fact."

It is not easy to describe Magnolia, but Anderson takes a stab, calling it a "multiple-character, multiple-plot, multilayered" movie that takes place on one humid day in the San Fernando Valley. To prepare the audience, Anderson wrote a prologue in which magician Ricky Jay, who also appears as a game show producer, tells us allegedly true stories of seemingly incredible coincidences "that you wouldn't believe if they were in a movie."

"The fact is, weird and unexplainable things happen in our lives every day," says Anderson, who saves one such well-documented incident for a climax destined to be talked about for some time. "And we accept them, because we see them, we feel them. But when someone else experiences it, we tend to reject it because it's out of our reality."

Anderson says Magnolia was inspired by a single line from an Aimee Mann song that is given to one of the characters in the film. A cocaine addict who finds herself connecting to, of all people, a cop responding to a report that screams were heard in her apartment says, "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?" "That line just cut right through me, because it summed up so much I had been thinking about, about the way we all long to connect, yet protect our vulnerabilities in so many ways. I mean, I really believe it is something like an epidemic."

With that thought, Anderson set off on a collaboration with Mann, whose husband, Michael Penn, was the musical director for his first two films -- the overlooked gem Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Using lyrics Mann wrote as "directional signals," Anderson wrote intersecting stories with specific actors in mind. John C. Reilly is the cop, who encounters the cokehead just after she has a mysterious confrontation with her veteran game-show host father, played by Philip Baker Hall. Both Reilly and Hall were in the earlier films.

Anderson also wrote parts for William H. Macy as a former quiz show whiz kid, Julianne Moore as trophy wife to a dying Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robards' nurse and other principals from Boogie Nights. His boldest stroke, though was to write a role specifically for Tom Cruise, one radically different from anything Cruise had played on screen: A misogynist infomercial guru who teaches lonely men how to "Seduce and Destroy."

"Tom had called me after Boogie Nights and said if I ever made a movie in which there was something right for him, to let him know.

"So I wrote this specifically for him, because it would be such a kick to see him do it. But I also knew that there was a great possibility he wouldn't be able to do it, for any number of reasons.

"So I wrote scenes that I thought would be irresistible to any actor, and it worked. But he had to show up and nail it, and he did."

Since Cruise's screen time essentially equals that of the other actors, it was agreed that the superstar would be unbilled, and not be featured in the print and television advertising.

But after Cruise saw a rough cut last summer, he decided he would be happy to take a credit; after all, uncredited actors aren't usually nominated for Academy Awards, a distinct possibility.

Anderson says he would love to add Cruise to "my little rep company," actors he hopes "I'll be writing for as long as they will be in my movies."

By tailoring his films for specific actors and employing overlapping and intersecting story lines to arrive at a dramatic destination, Anderson has done everything but invite critics to compare him to Robert Altman, whose classic "Nashville" is a clear influence on "Magnolia."

But Anderson argues that his first two films were "far more Altmanesque" and that with "Magnolia" he's moved closer to establishing a unique style.

"I know people are going to call this film indulgent, and I know people are going to say it's self-conscious, and to some degree, I'll agree with them. There are things in this movie I left in just because they are cool. But you know what? Sometimes cool is enough."

That's exactly the attitude that has endeared Anderson to young moviegoers. They've anointed him the filmmaker they had hoped Quentin Tarantino would turn out to be: someone who makes get-this movies for their hip heads, while speaking directly to their hidden hearts. Anderson says the affection is mutual and natural. "I grew up on the same movies and television shows; I listen to the same music."

Anderson, of course, doesn't just listen to Fiona Apple, he dates her, but that's an advantage of being the filmmaker of the moment; you make connections.

"I think what people respond to in these movies is that they don't look like machinery," Anderson says. Magnolia is very organic. I mean, I love classic structure, and I always sit down with the intention of writing a classically structured screenplay, because what I prize above all else is good storytelling."

"But then I tend to go off, to follow the characters, and let them lead me to what usually seems to be the right place. That's the truth in Ricky's narration at the beginning of the film; if this happened in a movie, you wouldn't believe it. But it is what happens. There are new stories, and we're living them. Our stories change."

As do movies, and Anderson, a New Year baby who turned 30 Saturday, says he's witnessed exactly that in the movies he saw this year while finishing his own.

"It does look like a sea change, doesn't it? 'Three Kings' I thought was terrific. 'Sixth Sense,' so smart, so original. 'American Beauty.'

"There's no such thing as an independent movie anymore. They've handed guys like me the keys to the kingdom, and we're, like, abusing the privilege, but in a positive way, I think.

"Some of the critics who have already seen 'Magnolia' have said stuff like, 'This could be a cinematic masterpiece, or an indulgent piece of crap.' Is that hedging your bet, or what? But I'll take it. Either way, I've swung the bat."

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