The Kansas City Star, Writen By Robert W. Butler
January 6, 2000
Characters Make it Hard to Keep Simple
A little over a year ago, after the hubbub faded in the wake of Boogie Nights, his paean to the '70s porn industry, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson thought he deserved a rest.
His next film, he decided, should be simple, uncomplicated.
"Boogie Nights was such a big epic experience, I figured maybe I should let my mood take me somewhere small," Anderson said in a recent telephone conversation from Los Angeles. "I mean, I was tired. I thought I should let myself relax a little."
Uh, think again.
Anderson's latest opus is Magnolia, a sprawling, multi-character, three-hour panorama of life in his beloved San Fernando Valley (where he grew up and where he set Boogie Nights). The film, opening here today, has made many critics' 10 best lists. Most of the reviewers agreed with Bob Strauss of the Los Angeles Daily News, who called Magnolia "the most artistically ambitious and uncompromising movie of the year."
"When I sat down to start writing I really was aiming for something that could be shot quickly and cheaply," said Anderson, 29. "But my gut took me somewhere else, and I found myself dealing with a dozen characters and their stories. At one point I had to stop and ask whether I was simply lacking the discipline to write small. What I decided was that this was a movie that was desperate to get out of me."
The several plots that Anderson weaves throughout Magnolia paint a portrait of America as a lonely place populated by people desperate for meaningful connections. Two of the characters are dying men hoping to be reconciled to their alienated children. Two are current and past contestants on "What Do Kids Know?," a TV game show in which brainy prepubescents square off against adult foes.
The cast includes such regular members of what Anderson calls "my little rep company" as John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy and Melora Walters, plus Tom Cruise as a woman-loathing motivational expert.
"I always plan to write a classically structured screenplay. You know, just great storytelling. But then I get to know the characters, and I have to follow where they take me.
"So in the end, Magnolia is a statement of who I am, of where I am in the world right now," Anderson said. "You can look at it as sort of a time capsule for me. The movie might be too long, it might tackle too much, but it's an absolutely accurate depiction of where I am.
He paused for a moment, considering his own words. Then he laughed.
"You know, that's kind of presumptuous. So I'm worth a three-hour movie, huh?"
He hastened to add that while he gets sole writing credit for Magnolia, he was inspired throughout by songwriter Aimee Mann, whose husband, Michael Penn, was the musical director on Anderson's first two films. It was a line from a Mann song -- "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?" -- that got him to thinking about the themes that dominate the film.
"That line just summed up so much I'd been obsessing about, about how we want to connect but are terrified of revealing our vulnerabilities," Anderson said.
Although he's currently living with singer/songwriter Fiona Apple, Anderson says he knows all about loneliness.
"I'm never alone on a film set," he said. "There are always people to deal with, decisions to be made. But between shoots I have a lot of down time when I'm alone in my room writing another movie. And that really is lonely, because writing is solitary work. Alone with the typewriter you soon find out how comfortable you are with yourself."
For Magnolia, Anderson spent a lot of time listening to Mann's recordings. Each of the film's characters and intersecting plots was inspired by a Mann lyric.
"Nine plots -- but one story, really," Anderson explained. "I decided the way to express that idea was to connect it all musically. I build huge chunks of the film around the music.
"Ultimately, though, all of these characters are me," Anderson continued. "I think that I write who I am and who I want to be. You pick characters whose voice you would like to have. The cop played by John Reilly for instance -- he's a decent, well-meaning guy who's kind of clumsy and inept, but he wants to really learn to listen to other people. I can identify."
Well then, what about Frank T.J. Mackey, the leering self-help guru played by Tom Cruise? Here's a slime ball who teaches lonely guys how to get any woman into bed. So that's a part of P.T. Anderson as well?
"Well, yeah, since I thought him up," he said. "But when you really look at Frank, he's not even about sex. His thing is empowerment, punishment. If Frank was truly about sex, women would probably love him because his seminars would make men more attentive. But as the film points out, his feelings toward women are founded in the belief that he was abandoned by his mother. All Frank is interested in is revenge."
Shortly after Boogie Nights made a splash, Cruise had called Anderson and volunteered his services if the right part came along. The flamboyant, hateful Mackey was created specifically with Cruise in mind. And the actor, Anderson said, "absolutely nailed it."
The director described Cruise as "a dream. He is any director's dream."
"What I learned is that any performance you see Tom Cruise give is the performance the director asked for. As an artist he's amazingly selfless. He's like an action figure who can do absolutely everything, and he's a great collaborator, always contributing. But above all else he wants to be directed.
"He's so full of ideas but lets the director be the editor. He sets out an entire buffet of possibilities and lets you pick what you want: beef or cheese, rye or white bread. He's got enough there for a dozen meals. You decide."