NY Times, Written By Damon Wise
January 23, 2000
Progress from Hardcore to Soft Sell
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has followed the success of `porn romp' Boogie Nights by talking down his new film, Magnolia. Bernard Weinraub met Anderson on set, while Damon Wise applauds his use of anti-hype
It's a day and night of heavy rains in the San Fernando Valley and, in the new film Magnolia, at least a dozen disparate lives intersect in sometimes strange ways. The characters include a television game-show host and his angry, estranged daughter; a boy genius, who appears on the game show, and his ambitious father; a dying old man, his young sexy wife and his lost son; and a policeman in love.
`It's funny,' says the film's 30-year-old writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson. `I fell in love with movies as an adolescent growing up in the Valley, and I thought I could never be a great film-maker because I had never lived on the mean streets of New York, or I had never been in a war. Once you get past that and once you think where you're from and what you've seen makes for good stories, you realize you can do it too.'
No one would dispute that. Anderson's acclaimed 1997 film Boogie Nights, about the world of pornography in the Valley in the late Seventies and early Eighties, placed him on the map as one of Hollywood's most innovative and talented young film-makers. The dark humour of his new film, which opens here in March, has already proved a hit with audiences in the United States.
`Magnolia breaks the standard studio mould of the usual prestige melodrama,' says Mike DeLuca, of the distributor New Line. `It doesn't pander, it doesn't manipulate and it defies convention with its structure and its imagery. It's a cinematic wake-up call illustrating what ails us at the end of the century.'
The film is set on or near Magnolia Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in the San Fernando Valley. Its theme is the loneliness of its characters as family bonds break and mend over the course of a day and a night. The actors, many of them from Boogie Nights, include Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Jeremy Blackman, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall. Starring as a barfly, and pivot for one of the film's killer twists is impressive newcomer Melora Walters.
Also in the supporting cast are Jason Robards and Tom Cruise as the dying old man and his son. Unusually for Cruise he takes a secondary role, as a charismatic sex guru who makes television infomercials on men's empowerment.
Anderson says Cruise called him after seeing Boogie Nights in London while working on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Anderson was also in London, and Cruise invited him to the movie set to meet Kubrick. `It was like meeting J. D. Salinger,' Anderson says. `I was thrilled.' When Cruise asked Anderson to keep him in mind for his next film, Anderson, who had already begun writing Magnolia, said he would call him in six or seven months.
`I finally sent him the script, and the next day Tom called me and said, `Please come to my house to talk about it',' says Anderson. `And away we went. What I said to him then was, `If you hadn't called me, I never would have thought of you.' A movie star like Tom Cruise was, I thought, out of my reach.'
At three hours the film's length may put off some people. `The challenge for us, quite simply, is not only having a three-hour film but also having a film that's not easily described in a single line,' said Robert Friedman, of New Line. `The challenge was to get people in to see the movie.' (Which they have done in a steady build-up in the States.)
`Making a movie at this length does set you up for criticism,' says Anderson. `It's slightly arrogant and a little bold to require three hours of someone's time to tell a story. It means you really have to deliver.' He laughs: `Like, if I hear a movie I'm going to see is three hours, I get a little uneasy.'
Anderson is now writing a script for Jonathan Demme and has promised Demme that he will not talk about it. `It's not set in the Valley,' he said. `I'm getting out of the Valley.'