USA Today, Written By Claudia Puig
January 7, 2000
Life and Love and Death and Genius
Self-taught filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson tackles alienation, rage, love and redemption in latest flick. He plans a short, playful film next season.
Being labeled a genius is nothing new for Paul Thomas Anderson.
Critics gushed over his previous movies, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, both structurally complex and emotionally wrenching. His Magnolia, which is expanding across the USA today, has been called one of the most ambitious films of the past year, and the word is being bandied about again.
There are no explosions, no elaborate sets, no choreographed car chases and only a few special effects. Magnolia's ambition lies in tackling such intensely emotional terrain as alienation, rage, love and redemption.
The story chronicles 24 pivotal hours in the interconnecting lives of nine people in a Los Angeles suburb. Among them are a millionaire misogynist (Tom Cruise); an adulterous but repentant wife (Julianne Moore); abusive fathers (Philip Baker Hall and Michael Bowen); emotionally scarred sons and daughters (William H. Macy and Melora Walters); and a dying parent (Jason Robards).
Magnolia's weighty subject and unorthodox cinematic moments (like a cast sing-along) also has elicited charges of self-indulgence upon its writer/director.
"You get criticized for being self-indulgent, but if I weren't self-indulgent, they'd be p----- off because I'd be making something very slight," says the affably brash Anderson. "Aren't I supposed to try and indulge who I am, to try to put that on the screen? They're mad if you don't put enough heart in your movie, and they're really mad if you put too much heart in it."
By all accounts, Anderson, 30, put plenty of heart into Magnolia, his most personal film, inspired by a series of songs by Aimee Mann.
"I put such a massive emotional investment in this movie," he says. "We were unashamedly trying to make a great movie that is talking about all the big issues. People ask, 'What's the movie about?'" His answer: "I don't know - be nicer to your kids?"
Anderson has shown a propensity for portraying intense emotions in operatic style. Boogie Nights - which starred Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg and Moore - explored the human wreckage that littered the San Fernando Valley's porn film industry.
Magnolia is "sort of borderline pretentious enough and preposterous enough to tackle," Anderson says, self-deprecatingly.
With it, he was "on dangerous ground right off the bat. So, you're going to deal with life and love and death. Good one! Good luck!"
Yet this self-taught filmmaker boldly forged ahead, as he has from the start of his career. He attended NYU film school for just a few days before heading back home, tuition refunded, to southern California.
"There's nothing you can get there that you can't get somewhere else for a much cheaper cost," he says. "You can rent a camera and buy film. They show you movies you can see anywhere. They're going to show you Citizen Kane, and you'll only feel intimidated that you can't do something that good."
His inspiration comes instead from veteran and contemporary filmmakers and writers. Anderson's take on Hollywood is a disarming blend of youthful exuberance and savvy cynicism.
"It's so hard not to get your back up under the studio," he says. "I shouldn't complain, I've been really lucky, but sometimes you just want to bite the hand that feeds you. You want to bite it off, chew it and just go crazy."
He may be the youngest director in the industry to be accorded the Holy Grail of filmmaking - final cut, granted to only a couple dozen big-name moviemakers.
"It's a weird combination of wanting to abuse the privilege but also be really respectful of it," he says.
Anderson is a perfectionist, driven to control during nearly every aspect of Magnolia's production: the length (over three hours), the poster (he nixed the first one and designed an artier version), the soundtrack (he wrote the liner notes), the marketing (he pushed to avoid overhyping Cruise at the expense of the rest of the cast).
Though much of the film is about the pain adults inflict on their children, Anderson is tight-lipped about his own childhood, except to say it was "just as great or weird or bad as everyone else's." He grew up in the Valley, the setting for all his movies. At 20, he worked on a TV quiz show (which inspired a key plot point in Magnolia), and at 23, attended the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, trying out scenes from what would become his first feature, Hard Eight. Hollywood immediately recognized his potential, and Boogie Nights followed a year later.
Though Magnolia may seem like an odd title for a drama about family, Anderson says it's multi layered. It's the name of a large thoroughfare in the San Fernando Valley, a boulevard that many of the film's characters are seen driving on. A film poster features a simple image of the pale flower.
"There's a lot of weird, maybe arty, things that I have in my head about why I decided to call it that. "One clue is that many of the women in the movie are named after flowers: Rose, Lily. Women with strength of heart."
Anderson clearly admires the actors he works with. "I write movies so that I can be around my friends who are actors."
But John C. Reilly - who plays a police officer in Magnolia, the film's emotional center, and has worked with Anderson on his three movies - sees it differently.
"It's more like, 'I write movies for the actors I want to be my friends, because nearly everyone has gotten to know him through working with him. He's sort of like a snobby music collector with actors. He has his favorites. It's not like someone who's following the trends of who's hot. He has strong opinions about what he thinks good acting is, and once he finds it, he sticks with people. He also gets a lot in return for doing that. Actors are willing to be more vulnerable and even do things they don't quite understand because of that loyalty he's shown them."
In Magnolia, that is especially evident in Cruise's performance. He plays Frank T.J. Mackey , a slimy infomercial king whose relationship credo is "Seduce and Destroy," and Anderson wrote the part expressly for Cruise.
"I knew I was writing it for Tom, so I was really pushing it because I wanted to impress him," Anderson says. "It's Tom Cruise. You really want to kick ass on every last word."
He wrote the part of Big Earl Partridge, a blustery game-show producer dying of cancer, for Robards. When Robards was initially unable to play the role due to a serious staph infection, Anderson approached George C. Scott. He laughs at Scott's reaction.
"He threw the script across the room saying, 'This is the worst f---ing thing I've ever read. The language is terrible.'"
Anderson seems amused by reactions to the completed film. "This interesting polarizing of critics is kind of fun," he says. "There are strong reactions either way."
Having just completed a video for his girlfriend, singer Fiona Apple, Anderson now is looking forward to "sleeping, eating and energizing again."
But he always seems to have his mind on making movies.
"This movie has totally tripped me out on wanting to make an 89-minute one," he muses, "something a bit more playful, like a funk song. Maybe a screwball comedy.
"I want to try to make something that's experimental, light and fun. Because I probably have enough angst for the rest of my life."