DGA Magazine, Written By Darrel L. Hope
Making Magnolia Blossom
If ever there were a poster boy against the problem of U.S. runaway production it would be director Paul Thomas Anderson. Foreign locations and exotic settings have no appeal over him. For Anderson, all the intrigue in the world can be found a few steps from his front door in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. After all, he shot his last two films there, the critically applauded depiction of life in the porn word fast lane, Boogie Nights, and the eagerly anticipated almost indescribable ensemble drama, Magnolia.
In Magnolia, Anderson set out to make what he has called "the Mother of All San Fernando Valley Films." The film weaves together nine story lines, each connected to the other by tethers not immediately apparent to the audience, but revealed over the three-hour course of the film. Magnolia's cast of characters include a kindhearted beat cop (John C. Reilly), a troubled drug addict (Melora Walters), a troubled child genius (Jeremy Blackman), an addled former child genius (William H. Macy), a game-show host (Philip Baker Hall), a brash personal motivator (Tom Cruise), a troubled young widow-to-be (Julianne Moore) and her soon-to-be-deceased husband (Jason Robards), and his caretaker (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) - all shedding their secrets and looking for love, acceptance, redemption and forgiveness in their various lives along the boulevard that bisects the San Fernando Valley.
"I didn't want to make a vignette movie," he said. "The goal was always to make each plot intricate to the other. We tried to do that through all of the good old-fashioned methods that you have to tell a story when you're directing a movie - visually, musically, color, that sort of thing."
The complexity that Anderson was striving for is prefaced by several short scenarios in Magnolia's prologue, each of which illustrates an odd connection of coincidences that led to a tragic outcome. Although these scenarios have no true connection to the main body of the film, they set up the proper attitude for what is to follow.
"It is a slight bit of a sucker punch," Anderson confesses, "but the prologue sets things up in such a way that hopefully it hooks you in and says, 'I promise by the end of this movie that our stories will get as strange as the ones that I've just shown you.' Hopefully, that enables me to do the best thing that a movie can do, which is to keep you asking, 'What is going to happen next?'"
After the success of Boogie Nights, Anderson was looking to do a smaller project that he could shoot in about 30 days. He was not exactly successful in that endeavor. Magnolia weighs in at slightly more than three hours and according to Anderson, "took 200 pages and 90 days to get it small and intimate." But for him, the movie was always there, even before the editing process began.
"The truth of the matter is that the editing process on Boogie Nights informed the writing process on Magnolia. When there was anything I recognized in the editing room that I didn't feel I successfully took care of in Boogie Nights, I immediately ran to my computer to start writing the next movie to make up for mistakes that I felt I made. The editing process, to me, is fun and it's wonderful but it's truly just trying to keep it as honest to what I mean to write."
With a film as rich in story line and performances as Magnolia, one wonders where a director would begin to make edits. Anderson says that making those kinds of decisions is self-evident and instinctual.
"It's usually not a decision that you make. It's just a decision that is smack dab in front of your nose, where you say, 'You know what? This scene just does not belong in this movie. I feel it in my gut.' What happens is you start to whittle down the sub-plot that maybe doesn't work. And then you whittle it down and you whittle it down until it's practically nonexistent, and then you wonder, 'Why is it almost nonexistent as opposed to just completely nonexistent?'"
The final print of Magnolia only has two full scenes that didn't make it from the earlier versions. Anderson's final cut was more of a tightening process.
"It was really just the heads and tails of scenes. That, to me, is the editing process. As you start, you just keep asking yourself over and over again, 'What can I get into a little bit later and what can I get out of a little bit earlier?'"
He also credits New Line Cinema for backing his cut, despite the fact that distributors generally tend to shy away from longer films.
"They were wonderful about it, to tell you the truth. I think that if you're up front with the studio about what kind of movie that you're making, they appreciate that honesty. And, listen, it was their choice whether or not to make the movie. I was very clear about how long it was going to be, and they didn't have a problem with that. I was actually pretty dam close to what I thought it would be. I thought it would be about 3:10 and it turns out that it's about 3:08 with credits."
If the characters in Anderson's earlier work were, as he says, "all searching for their dignity," his Magnolia characters are in search of an equally elusive quarry. "I think they're all in search of the good old-fashioned thing called love. We've seen that in movies before, but hopefully we haven't seen it like this. On top of that, they are all characters who have made mistakes, who either through the process of what the movie does to them don't want to make the same mistake twice or are trying to make their mistakes right. Redemption is a big factor, but the truth of the matter is that you try and figure out where redemption is possible and most of the time it isn't. So what you should ask yourself is, 'What have I done wrong before and how can I be sure to not make that same mistake again and how can I not?' You know, the question is asked, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) says, 'If we can move through this life and not hurt anyone else, then that's the goal.'"
One of Anderson's trademarks has been the ensemble of actors he has used and reused in previous works, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Magnolia will mark his second collaboration with Julianne Moore, Alfred Molina, Luis Guzman, Ricky Jay and William H. Macy, and his third with Melora Walters, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Baker Hall.
"The simple fact of the matter is that they're my favorite actors. Faced with the choice between Robert De Niro or Philip Baker Hall, I'd take Philip Baker Hall. And that's nothing against Robert De Niro, but just a way for me to highlight how much I love these actors. On top of that, there's a wonderful comfort that I have in working with them. It's not laziness, believe me. I take them very seriously. It gives me the ability to write for people who don't normally get to play these kinds of parts. I like to think, in a very fatherly way, that I give them a chance to shine. Each role is tailor-made for that actor. If I write the part well, my job as a director becomes so much easier. I don't have to worry so much about rewriting. I don't have to worry so much about explaining to each of them their characters. The other benefit of having them all as friends is that we've been able to talk through the process far in advance of shooting."
Anderson says that it's in the writing stage where his actual rehearsal period begins. But he admits, it's a very low-key affair in the beginning. "Right after I've written a first draft, before we start shooting, it's like 'Can you come over to my house for, like, 45 minutes and just talk through this new scene that I wrote?'"
William H. Macy once said that one of Anderson's directing strengths is the fact that he really loves actors. Anderson replies that his respect for them came as a process of working with actors who were already proficient at their craft in the very beginning of his career.
"The first actors that I got to work with were Phillip Baker Hall, Sam Jackson, John C. Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow. So I got to see four different styles and four different personalities. I love actors just because I have so much respect for them. I think acting is the hardest job in the world, and it's one of the most embarrassing and sort of debilitating things that you can do. I appreciate that so much that I just feel like a great protector of their work and I take it very, very seriously."
That respect for great actors almost resulted in difficulties for the young director when it came to calling the shots for acting icon Jason Robards.
"With Jason, I was truly intimidated. And for no reason other than he's a great actor. He is such as sweet person. The first two hours of the first two days he shot, I was truly tongue-tied and embarrassed to give him direction. At one point he just said, 'What's going on? Are you going to direct me?' Once I felt freed-up to give him direction, it was a wonderful experience."
Anderson's producing team, cinematographer, composer, costume designer, casting director and editor are all former collaborators. And his 1st AD, Adam Druxman, was Anderson's 2nd AD on Boogie Nights.
"Once you find a group of people that you really work with well, that understand what you're after, it's a wonderful thing to promote from within and give opportunities," said Anderson. "Adam did a wonderful job as the 2nd AD on Boogie Nights and I felt like he was ready to do this movie. It's kind of amazing that, as a 1st AD, this was his first movie. I mean, I think even the most seasoned 1st AD would have had a hard time getting through it. And he just did an incredible job."
Part of that job was bringing 2nd AD Christina Stauffer to Anderson's attention.
"Adam found her. I told him...'I want a woman around. There's far too many men fucking around on this set.'"
Magnolia's UPM, Daniel Lupi, is also credited as the film's co-producer. However, Anderson believes the title is a more accurate reflection of all Lupi brought to the picture.
"I actually think that it is one job. It's just a way for me to give him a title that accurately reflects the work he did on the movie. Danny's the ringleader of the whole operation, and that is deserving of a single card co-producer credit."
Still, Anderson sees the inherent danger of knowing his cast and crew so well that they fall into line like the usual suspects. "What you do is strive to push each other. You strive to not get comfortable. You strive to say, 'You know what we did last time? We're going to do the exact opposite this time.' And that makes everybody not get lazy."
Perhaps the greatest uncredited collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson's films has been the San Fernando Valley, where he grew up. Anderson's love for his hometown is evident in a long, sweeping collage of scenes transitioning from one end of the Valley's Magnolia Boulevard to the other as the characters all sing the same tune.
"One of the great advantages of shooting in the Valley for me is that I know it, I live there, and it's where I from and so I'm able to write around locations that I know. So as I'm writing, I'm visiting those locations as well as mapping out shots."
Plus, filming in the Valley has its practical advantages. "My vision can be produced and I can sleep at home, " said Anderson. "And that, at the end of the day, is the bottom line: making movies is hard enough without sleeping in a strange bed every night."
Growing up in the Valley, Anderson set his sights on becoming a filmmaker from the point "when I came out of the womb," he laughs. His first actual hands-on film experience came as a PA on several small independent films.
"I was the best in PA in the world," Anderson recalls, "I knew how to get coffee and get shit done better than anybody."
But if he was getting his practical film education in the trenches, the theatres were his schools of higher learning.
"I didn't really work with any directors of note as a PA. The directors that have majorly influenced me are Jonathan Demme in particular, Mamet I really love. And of these sort of older school filmmakers, Max Ophuls and, of course, Orson Welles. And certainly Scorsese and Altman are big influences. I think that, besides any kind of technique or anything like that, it's just a persistence of vision that all of them seem to have, and a stubbornness to get their vision on the screen."
Anderson first recognized his need for the protection of a strong Directors Guild during the making of his debut feature, Sydney (a.k.a. Hard Eight). Developed at the Sundance Filmmakers Workshop, Anderson ran into creative rights issues with the film's financier and the distributor Rysher and Samuel Goldwyn.
"There was a point where they had actually taken the movie from me and recut it. I said to them 'I want to take my name off of it.' They said, 'Well, we're not going to let you take your name off of it because you're not a member of the DGA.' Eventually - and this is very important to print this - eventually, I got the movie back. But it opened my eyes to the reality, which was, I better get in that goddamned Guild because I need them and I need some help. No matter how hot shit you think you are, you're going to need some help sometime. And I was in a position where I would not have been able to take my name off the movie. And I had no one protecting me or helping me from these evil people. Rysher Entertainment has eventually gone out of business, which is good news, and so has Samuel Goldwyn.
"More than anything, the Guild is helpful just that they exist in your back pocket. Do you know what I mean? Whether or not you've used them or not, to be a member is just like having this little pile of ammunition in your back pocket when you go in to meet with the studio. Going, 'Oh, by the way. If you ever want to start fucking with me, I have this pile of ammunition in my pocket you should know about.'"
Of the issues the Guild is facing into the next century and beyond, the one Anderson most wanted to address was the current controversy over violence in the media.
"I think that it is a big, fat, silly lie to pretend that we don't have a social responsibility. Or that violence in movies doesn't cause violence. It does. It absolutely does.
"I know, as a kid, I would do what I saw in the movies. And I just happened to be lucky enough that it has resulted in a really well-paying job. But the fact of the matter is, is that another, a different set of circumstances and I could have ended up imitating movies in a very bad way."
"There was one scene in Magnolia that I cut eventually, but it was a scene where a little kid had to hold a gun. And the little kid held the gun in this sort of sideways, gangster-style. And I said to him, 'Why do you hold the gun like that?' And he said, 'Because I saw it on television.' That scared the shit out of me. And it opened my eyes to the reality, which is we don't need violence raised as a topic anymore in movies. That's just not an excuse. It's not good enough. We need to not raise it as a topic. Do you know what I mean? We need to not put it in our movies as a statement. I feel really, really strongly about this."
To the assertion that even Magnolia portrays scenes of a violent nature, Anderson replies, "It's on display in Magnolia, but I don't think that it's a movie that centers around violence. But I'd also like to see drama made out of more everyday, human issues. Like, will I take phone call from my dying father who I haven't talked to in years? I'm not saying that we should all be pussies and not address the issue. But enough is enough. Thee is a glorification of violence. Kids do what they see in movies. Period. You know? Let's not help it."
After wrapping his three-hour opus through the hearts and minds of the citizenry north of Mulholland Boulevard, Anderson is planning to recharge his batteries before delving into his next directorial project.