The San Francisco Chronicle, Written By Edward Guthmann
January 2, 2000
The Actor's Director
Magnolia filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has a big cast of admirers
After Boogie Nights, the ambitious 1997 drama about life in the porn-film industry, Paul Thomas Anderson thought he might take it easy.
"I was like, 'I'll just go do something small.' " Anderson recalls. Instead, the story he decided to tell, about a disparate group of people whose lives change over a 24-hour period, just grew and grew.
The result, Magnolia, is a three-hour moral fable with overlapping story lines, 12 major characters, an unusually dense soundtrack and a bizarre, cataclysmic event that arrives with a splat toward the end of the film -- and propels Magnolia into a new area of surrealism.
"Something small" is the last thing anyone would call it. Anderson packs more information, visually and verbally, into a frame of film than anyone else working today. There's a sense of emotional engagement that his films demand -- and so much physical detail that one wonders how he got it all on the screen.
"I work my ass off," says Anderson, who at 29 is considered one of the most promising young filmmakers today. The Los Angeles Times recently dubbed him "the standard- bearer for Hollywood's new generation of hot young film directors."
"I don't want to complain," he says, "because it's the greatest job in the entire world and I get paid a lot of money. And people like what I do -- it's just great -- but it's just hard. It's just fucking hard. It takes a lot out of you."
Wiry and bursting with energy, Anderson is such an interesting personality that he ought to make himself a character in one of his films. He chain-smokes, swears a lot and talks with unbridled animation -- his eyebrows wriggling, his shoulders, legs and torso performing a series of tiny spasms throughout a conversation.
A native of Los Angeles, Anderson grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He had "one toe in show business," he says, but was lucky to live in a neighborhood that was "very suburban and slightly removed" from the entertainment industry.
His late father was a voice actor for television ("he didn't know any Hollywood types"), and Anderson was an early bloomer who got his first production-assistant job at 16. He worked on various TV shows and TV movies and got his break when he directed Cigarettes and Coffee, a short film that won him a spot in the Sundance Institute's Filmmaker's Workshop.
At Sundance, Anderson developed Hard Eight, a tight little thriller set in Reno with Philip Baker Hall and Gwyneth Paltrow. Boogie Nights followed, winning Anderson an Oscar nomination for his intricate screenplay.
Along the way, he became one of the most respected young filmmakers in years. Actors frequently call him a "genius" -- the same word he uses to describe his girlfriend, singer Fiona Apple. They marvel at his ability to command the technical aspects of filmmaking without losing his grasp, as many post-Star Wars filmmakers do, on storytelling and performances. "He's such a dynamo on the set," says William H. Macy, a veteran of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. "I mean, he's the first out of the chute, talks fast, talks loud. He's got an indefatigable knowledge of filmmaking. You're in great hands, and you know it all the time."
Actors also mention the security of an Anderson set -- the satisfaction of being part of a repertory of actors. "I'll do an awful lot for Paul because I've known him so long," says Julianne Moore, an Oscar nominee for Boogie Nights who plays the wife of a dying man in Magnolia. "I'll go out on a limb because I want to learn something, and I trust that he'll teach me."
"It's a real family feeling," says John C. Reilly, who's acted in all three Anderson features and plays a lovelorn cop in Magnolia. "We get to do something together. That's why actors go off and do TV shows, because they miss seeing the same people and having long- term relationships."
Asked why he likes actors so much, Anderson grins and pauses, as if he can't put into words the huge affection he feels. "I don't know," he says. "They thrill me. I get a fucking kick out of them. It's always exciting. Oh, fuck, man. I don't know.
"Maybe I'm a frustrated actor myself,'' he continues. "Maybe that's why some of my movies are slightly overwritten: If I'm writing something for Julianne and she's going to explode in that pharmacy (in Magnolia), it's just heaven for me. I get to give her all that stuff to say and see her burst that emotion out."
Anderson says he likes to "impress" his actors, make them feel happy and fulfilled. "I'm sure (the press) will turn on us because we all make movies together. But I just love them all so much and I love to write for them because I don't like to see them do bad work somewhere else."
The big addition to the Anderson repertory is Tom Cruise, who came off his two-year hitch with Eyes Wide Shut to play the flashy role of Frank T.J. Mackey, a male-power advocate who runs seminars called "Seduce and Destroy."
In early reports, Cruise's part was described as a cameo, but in fact Magnolia is an ensemble piece and Cruise plays a significant role. He's the only cast member to be nominated for a Golden Globe award, as a supporting actor.
Rather than demanding superstar treatment, Anderson says, Cruise blended in just fine during his three weeks on the Magnolia set. "Tom knew he was coming into a group of people that works in a certain way, that had a certain vibe going. And that's what he was after: 'I want to play with you guys.'"
The fact that his character is so sexually defined was "a major draw for him," Anderson says. "I made fun of him after I saw Eyes Wide Shut. I was like, 'No wonder you were so anxious to be in this movie. You were repressed Dr. Bill for two years. You had to not get laid in that movie.'"
Open and gregarious in most regards, Anderson turns private when the subject turns to his family. He says Magnolia grew from the fact that I have experienced a lot of death in my life the last couple of years" and says he "latched on to a kind of spirituality" after that period.
But when asked to be more specific about whom he lost, he turns mum. "Next topic," he says. "I'm sorry. I feel bad because I made a movie about it and I don't want to tell you."
EXHAUSTED BY MAGNOLIA
Anderson says he'd like to work with his girlfriend on a film -- he's directed videos for her -- but also seems exhausted by the work that Magnolia required.
During the shooting of the film, he says, he'd go home and want to talk to Apple "and lie around and watch movies," but usually he just fell asleep.
"You just can't go anymore," he says. "And it's weird because your entire day is spent answering questions and dealing with problems. And it's a version of culture shock when you're not doing that.
"This is giving a lot away,'' he says. "I have an ego that's regular- size or a little bit big-size. But what happens is, you have such free rein on a movie set -- this ability to make it rain, make it cloudy, whatever -- that this God complex starts to take over."
After a while, he says, "you find yourself driving a little faster than you should, or you can't understand waiting in line to buy cigarettes. And it's not that it's ego or an evil thing taking over. You're just accustomed to a film set and getting done what you want to have done.
"You have to wean yourself off it and go, 'Wait a minute, I'm a regular fucking member of society here. Calm down, this is not a movie set. I can't make it rain.'"
Anderson acknowledges a spiritual theme in Magnolia, and sees his film as something of a wake-up call -- a cautionary tale about the ways in which we forget to be accountable to one another, and the importance of being morally responsible.
It's a tricky thing, he says, because he doesn't want his film to be seen as self-righteous, any more than he wants to appear that way in print.
"When you're writing," Anderson says, you're writing who you are, and your flaws -- but you're also making sure to write what you wish you could say. The person you wish you could be.
"I get scared doing interviews because I'm very nervous that I'm just not as good a person as my movie is, that I'm still not there -- at that place in my life of being able to uphold all that I've said in the movie.
"Does that make sense?"