National Post, Written By Katrina Onstad
January 15, 2000
Doing It To Music
Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson says he owes the inspiration for the film to Aimee Mann. 'Her music is in my DNA, always has been'
Asked about the first album he bought, Paul Thomas Anderson goes into a full-body nostalgia fit -- slapping the table, cigarette waving wildly. No doubt part of his excitement about the question comes from a welcome change of pace: "You don't want to talk about Magnolia? Greeeeeat!" he says with relief, in San Fernando Valley-dude speak -- "great" has three syllables.
For the past two months, writer-director Anderson has been travelling the world chatting up Magnolia, his critically acclaimed follow-up to Boogie Nights. An ambitious, ranging collection of L.A. stories that twist around each other like the freeway that joins them (the film's title comes from the San Fernando Valley's main thoroughfare), Magnolia has brought Anderson to Toronto to pick up best director and best film of the year awards from the Toronto Film Critics Association.
Anderson has a galumphing likeability, his big kidness furthered by gangly limbs and a lightly freckled face. He is a laugher. At 29, he seems at once younger -- the more he likes the question, the more he says "f---" -- and older than his age; Anderson is settling into his success, and is confident enough after only three films (the first was Hard Eight) to refer to Warren Beatty as "a good friend, a life preserver" in an off-handed, almost jaded way.
His live-in girlfriend, singer-songwriter Fiona Apple -- defiantly sporting a midriff-baring T-shirt in --15 degree weather -- wanders the hallway outside the hotel room in which Anderson is conducting interviews, politely asking a publicist how to arrange a cab to the airport. It's Friday, and on Sunday, the couple will be back in L.A. to watch the Golden Globe Awards on television, where they will see Tom Cruise take home a best supporting actor trophy for his role in Magnolia as an infomercial slimeball who instructs men in the art of the pickup. But it's the mention of the other nomination, for best song -- Aimee Mann's Save Me -- that gets Anderson giddy. Anderson, a self-described "film geek," is an even bigger music geek.
"I really want Aimee to win, you know what I mean? Tom F---ing Cruise -- whatever. He'll do just fine the rest of his life," he says with a hiccupy laugh. Mann was Anderson's muse for Magnolia: "Her music is in my DNA, always has been," he says. "I edited Boogie Nights to [her CD], I'm with Stupid. Never took it off."
Anderson was a fan before he became close friends with Mann, the spiky-haired blond from the '80s band 'Til Tuesday, whose solo work has created a hard-core cult following but little commercial success. Following the weird, incestuous laws of Hollywood celebrity, where cool people are drawn to other cool people, Anderson met Mann through her husband, Michael Penn, who scored Boogie Nights. Via Mann and Penn, Anderson met Mann's producer, John Brion, who went on to score Magnolia and to produce Fiona Apple's album -- hence the young woman wandering the hall.
Post-Boogie Nights, Anderson was trying to decide on a next project just as Mann got the unceremonious boot from her label. She was sitting on "a bucket of songs," as Anderson says, and listening to an unfinished version of one, he heard the line that sparked Magnolia: "Now that I've met you / Would you object to never seeing each other again?" He wrote the character of Claudia (Melora Walters), a drugged-up thirtysomething, around this line, and the film's other stories -- the earnest cop (John C. Reilly) who loves Claudia, the dying millionaire (Jason Robards) and his estranged trophy wife (Julianne Moore), the crushing failure of a grown child quiz-show star (William H. Macy) -- all grew from there.
"Whether I'm directly quoting her or not, she creates the mood," says Anderson of Mann. "Falling in love, the hell of love, the f---ing torture and great thing that love is -- that's the basic stuff of Aimee's songs, and the movie is that all over the place."
Mann became Anderson's Simon and Garfunkle to his Graduate. Her songs weave through the film, her lyrics sometimes cutting into the characters' dialogue at the same sound level. In tribute to Mann's addictive music, he has Claudia snort cocaine off an Aimee Mann CD. "Aimee hated that," grins Anderson.
I would not have wanted to be in the room with Anderson -- a man who swears like Lenny Bruce when he's happy -- at the moment Mann lost the Golden Globe to You'll Be in My Heart (Tarzan), by Phil Collins. Movies propped up by a soundtrack make Anderson physically wince: "Anytime you see a commercial for a movie, and the last thing up there is 'New music featuring so-and-so,' and there's no discernable pattern to the songs at all, it's just a hodgepodge, you get a little nervous. You know the studio has obligations to record companies, and the director isn't paying attention. It's about selling soundtracks, not making films."
Since Hard Eight -- a film he has said had "interference" -- Anderson has demanded complete control of his work, and that starts with music. "There's this terrible theory you should be able to take the music out of the movie, and if it still works, it's a good movie," he says incredulously, lighting another cigarette. "That's like saying let's take the actors out of the movie, and see if it still works."
Boogie Nights, an ode to the California porn scene that burgeoned down the street from where Anderson grew up (he is proud to mention that "the adult classic" Amanda by Night was filmed a few houses from where he was raised), is nearly wall-to-wall music: It's a grand document of the shift from the frivolity of '70s disco to the meaner, guitar sound of the '80s -- in mainstream music, an ultimately dumb decade best defined by the oxymoronic phrase "power ballad." It is the era in which Anderson, who turns 30 in June, grew up. "I don't really want to be 30. I gotta keep that boy wonder shit going," he says, laughing.
Boogie Nights' unforgettable climax has Alfred Molina waving a gun around while "Mix Tape #6" spins in the deck, Molina air guitaring to Sister Christian by Night Ranger. The song (from 1984) is a classic Anderson choice: a long, maybe best-forgotten radio hit, more valuable for nostalgia than music. Not surprisingly for a man whose films are choked with big, overlapping conversations, he is partial to any song with a narrative -- Rick Springfield's Jesse's Girl, Supertramp's Goodbye, Stranger. Though some of these choices have been written off as irony, talking with Anderson, you get the sense he's too big a fan to make fun of these songs -- even bad music is important to someone. To wit, he admits: "My first album was probably by Oingo Boingo." This would be an utterly shameful admission were it not for one thing: Danny Elfman, arguably the most popular film and TV composer of the past 15 years (The Simpsons, almost every Tim Burton movie from Edward Scissorhands to Sleepy Hollow), was a member of this over-gelled New Wave band.
"My family would make fun of me, saying: 'This fucking band is terrible.' I'd go: 'No, no, no! There's something about Danny Elfman! When I get to make movies, Danny Elfman is going to score them.' " When Pee Wee's Big Adventure came out, with Elfman at the helm, a 15-year-old Anderson "honest to God cried." "The first time I met Tim Burton, I said: 'You don't understand, man, you stole Danny Elfman from me.' "
Anderson's movies have been praised for their showy looks -- long single shots and Scorsese-rich lighting. But the visual flourishes, says Anderson, only come with the music in place. "I always have the music before I write, or as I write. Even structurally, the movie becomes a little like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge."
Anderson has four or five musicals in his head that he'd like to make, with Mann and Apple as possible collaborators. First, he wants to make something small, a shift from the three-hour-plus long Magnolia.
"I have a couple of thoughts," he says, of this unwritten film. "But I actually haven't been triggered to write it because I haven't found exactly the right music."
While the now infamous, biblical moment of the frog shower in Magnolia had some people scratching their heads (for his part, Anderson won't even attempt to answer the frog question: "I just dodge those questions and bullshit. I thought I knew what I was talking about when I was writing it, but I've gotten so far away from being interested in it now."), Magnolia has an earlier climax that's equally genre-shattering and ambitious, or irritatingly opaque, depending on where you're standing. One by one, every character -- including two who are comatose -- join in a singalong with a song by Mann called, appropriately, Wise Up. In the theatre where I saw it, the crowd seemed distinctly on edge during the scene, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. They coughed a lot. Anderson nods vigorously at this admission; he's heard it before, and says he is genuinely surprised.
"OK, I could see somebody saying, with the frogs, what the f--- was that? I kind of expected that, but I never in my wildest dreams expected the singing to be something that would offend people, or take them out of the movie," he says. "I always thought it was a natural progression from the scene before it. I consider it a musical number, but I actually also consider it real. I think we've all been in situations where you're so sad or so lonely, and a song comes on the radio that you use to allow you to wallow in your sadness, just to help validate it, put a little soundtrack to your life."