Nitrate Online, Written By Cynthia Fuchs
January 7, 2000
It's a Weeping Movie
Paul Thomas Anderson describes his new film, Magnolia, in language that only seems simple. It's a complicated and large-scale movie, running over three hours and covering one day in the lives of multiple characters living and dying in California's San Fernando Valley. But for Anderson, the movie is part of his own lifelong exploration of what it means to be human, to forgive and endure despite what seem impossible circumstances. Mostly, though, it sounds as though he's happy to have it released and to be talking about it, which, he observes, is part of the process. "I was exhausted when the movie was coming out in New York and LA, but then I took a couple of weeks off for the holidays and I was able to kind of get my juice back, and think, okay, I can do phone calls and talk show things. I try and balance it out. I mean, I don't want to be blabbermouth-young-white-director-guy, but I gotta help. You just don't want to get a disgusting sheen on yourself."
Anderson sounds a little rushed, but more than that, he sounds at ease with himself and with this deranged business of film promotion. Since Magnolia is his second high-profile film in as many years (after Boogie Nights), he knows what to expect, how to survive what he calls being "burned out," how to squeeze in breathing between phone interviews and sit-downs with Charlie Rose or Letterman.
While his first films -- Hard Eight as well as Boogie Nights -- were critically acclaimed immediately, Anderson is now coping with a range of responses: people love it and don't, sometimes in the same review. Anderson laughs. "More surprising to me than anything is something like The New York Times review, which says, it's a masterpiece for two hours and then this fucking singing happens. And I'm thinking, you know, the singing is not that fucking crazy. For me, once they sing, the movie becomes so much more traditional, the camera doesn't move as much, people are having conversations, it's picking up the pieces of the first two hours. But, I'm loving this kind of critical polarity. It's the first time it's happened to me and I'm actually getting off on it a little bit."
I ask him about some of his choices for Magnolia, which is dense with symbolism and populated by grief-stricken and shell-shocked characters. He was inspired in part by his close friendship with John C. Reilly, who plays the LA cop Jim Kurring. "That stuff," he remembers, "happened about three or four years ago, during one summer when we were really bored, and he had grown a mustache and it just made me laugh. He would do this character, this guy who was on Cops, and I had a video camera and we'd drive around and improvise, and call up actors who weren't working at the time, so we'd call up Phil Hoffman and say, go to Moore Park and fuck with the trash cans and we'll drive by in ten minutes and catch you doing it. Then we got a cop uniform and improvised all these altercations. And eventually I started writing all that stuff down. A lot of Jim's dialogue is based on that improvisation, like the Mike Leigh style. It really is a pretty fucking cool way to work. We've gotta try that again."
For the subplot involving black characters -- Marcy and her aspiring MC grandson Worm (correction: grandson - Dixon) -- Anderson notes that originally, "there was more of that, and I took it out, but here's the thing. I stand by the fact that it does function really well the way it is now. It is the most truncated and elliptical bit of the movie, but I thank God that there is something truncated and elliptical in the movie, which does pretty much hit its points. The movie needs something that has mystery, and this one is sort of a representation of spending a couple of days in the Valley: that's how much color would come into your life."
Anderson is plainly thrilled to work with all his actors -- Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina -- many of whom have appeared in one or both of the previous films and are close friends. He sees them as forming a "family" that helps to insulate against industry stresses and expectations. He's also not surprised that Tom Cruise's role, as the outrageous "Seduce and Destroy" pitchman Frank T.J. Mackey, is garnering the actor all kinds of attention. "Tom's part is the showcase part, the smorgasbord for an actor. You get to say 'cunt' and you get to cry at your daddy's bedside, and get redeemed at the end."
But Mackey is only the most sensational aspect of a theme pervading the film, damaged children. Anderson adds that this is connected to another concept -- fathers nearing the ends of their lives, now suffering for their past sins. While this general idea may sound familiar, in Magnolia, it doesn't look quite like anything you've seen before. Anderson asserts, "It feels like the sort of thing that comes out of men. Don't they seem like the best vehicle for that kind of fucking regret? I mean, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt."
The film shows costs as well as laments. I wonder about the dead dog, for instance [a dog who dies at the same moment that his owner does, such that the tragedy of the man's demise is punctuated by a semi-comic and totally surreal event, and such that the two bodies are carted out simultaneously on matching gurneys]. Anderson says of this episode, "When I wrote it, I thought, what exactly is this saying? So I decided to leave it alone. And then, ironically enough, Something About Mary came out and there's all that wacky, funny dead dog shit going on in that movie, which actually propelled me to not worry about it anymore and really do it for real. I felt some beautiful dead-dog power touching my shoulder, saying, 'No, really. Just do it. You have some kind of weird reasons that are okay.'"
Anderson's faith in higher powers stretches into a willingness to roll with ideas that come to him and his many friends and collaborators, no matter how strange these ideas might seem at first. He recalls that his friendship with Aimee Mann generated early versions of characters and situations. Anderson calls Mann "kind of the start of it. By which I mean, I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head, probably too many ideas, and she's a really good friend of mine, and was privy to stuff she was working on. It was great to have her music as a thing to latch on to, to help corral all the stuff that was sort of circling around in my brain. So I wanted to just adapt Aimee's songs, like you would adapt a book or a play. It certainly branched off from there and didn't become a direct adaptation of her songs, but I ended up stealing many lines from her, first and foremost, "Now that I've met you would you object to never seeing me again?" That's the first song of Aimee's song, "Deathly." And the whole story of Claudia [played by Melora Walters] was born out of that."
Related to this collaboration is the now legendary story of Mann's troubles with record labels -- Imago collapsed just as it released her first album, a second was released two years late, and then Geffen and Interscope (once they merged) decided not to release her last album when she wouldn't come up with a "hit single" on demand. Working with producer Jon Brion (who did the other music for Magnolia), Mann has now released the Magnolia songs on a CD, some of which were originally recorded for that still-unreleased album, Bachelor No. 2. Anderson says that he admires Mann's resistance (after the label's "abuse," he notes as well "Aimee's kind of abuse back, in a noble way"). He says that his knowing all that history informed some of the songs' translations into characters, and he feels lucky that he was able to work without similar demands from New Line, who backed his project.
"It's so weird," he observes, "that it's a contrast like that because movies cost so much fucking money. But I actually think that's why situations like Aimee's arise, because it only cost $100,000 to make a record, so they will look at you and tell you to go fuck yourself so fast, you're like, what just happened? And they're thinking, $100,000 doesn't mean anything to us, which is why these corporations won' t take any shit from you. But the funny thing is, with movies, they cost so much money, that at a certain point, once you start in production, they're kind of at the mercy of the people making the movie."
Still, Anderson won't be straying too far from the music industry any time soon, given that his girlfriend is Fiona Apple, who helped with music for the film, and for whom he has now directed three videos, including last year's "Fast As You Can," and the upcoming "Limp." While they like working together and obviously benefiting from it, he says that they're aware of the super-couple stigma. He says they are consciously "trying to keep a slightly low profile because we realize that we would hate us. We want to stick to the work. I wanted to direct Fiona Apple videos before I went out with Fiona, so generally what we do is do cool videos together and keep our mouths shut about them."