What does it take to get a movie made in Hollywood that runs longer than three hours and stars Tom Cruise and Jason Robards? Jess Kornbluth talks with 29-year-old director Paul Thomas Anderson and thinks he has the answer.
After the screening, I was supposed to meet friends for dinner and a concert. But Magnolia didn’t end. An ex-boy genius (William H. Macy), a game show host (Philip Baker Hall), a sex guru (Tom Cruise), his dying father (Jason Robards) and his young adulterous wife (Julianne Moore) and a mushy policeman (John C. Reilly) – all these characters (and many more) showed up on the screen in what seemed like real time.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer-director, made Boogie Nights, and he used that success to make as long a film as he damn well pleased. But Anderson has always been supremely confident. At the age of seven, he announced that “I know everything; I know how to do everything” and declared his career goal: “writer, director, producer and special-effects man.” He enrolled at New York University’s film school, but left – after just two weeks – when a professor remarked that he had no interest in students who wanted to make movies like Terminator 2. Why wasn’t Anderson worried? Because, at 17, he’d made a short film that pleased him. Later it pleased others, and he won a fellowship to Sundance. From there, it was clear sailing to his first feature, 1997’s Hard Eight.
That kind of confidence gave me some comfort as my watch ticked away the early evening. Not that ZI could have left. This is a Cruise performance that, for sheer intensity, tops even Rain Man. And Robards is just…beyond. So the time for dinner came and went. At the start of the concert, my seat was empty. No matter: I had been among the first to see a film that’s unlike anything else out there – unlike anything that’s ever been out there. I loved it, I hated it, I couldn’t wait to speak with Paul Thomas Anderson, who is, by the way, just 29 years old.
Jess Kornbluth: I reeled out of the screening and found myself in an elevator with some New York media heavies. “It was great,” one said, “but it was even greater when it was four hours.”
Paul Thomas Anderson: There was no four-hour cut. The longest version screened was 3:23. You saw it at 3:11. Now it’s 3:01 – and it’s my favorite cut.
JK: Still, it’s surprisingly, shockingly long. Was the studio as surprised as I was?
PTA: I told New Line from the beginning that I thought it would come in at 3:15. And when I gave them a 198-page script, they knew I wasn’t kidding.
JK: When did you write it?
PTA: At the end of postproduction on Boogie Nights.
JK: Why write when you had so many other things to do?
PTA: I didn’t want to be affected by the reception of Boogie Nights. I thought I’d write something small, cheap, quick. But the pad led to nine months of writing, 100 days of shooting and a respectable Hollywood-size budget.
JK: What was your writing process?
PTA: Not writing. Stewing and making lists: what interested me, actors I wanted to work with. In terms of any continuing themes, that was accidental – it was like there was material I hadn’t gotten out of my system.
JK: Magnolia is often painful to watch. How painful was it to write?
PTA: I don’t remember, so that means probably very painful. I know I spent two to four hours a day at my desk. And I’d smoke – I smoked so much I’d get tired from smoking. In three hours, I’d smoke a pack. After writing, I’d fall asleep.
JK: Was Tom Cruise on your list of actors?
PTA: I never thought of him, because no one does – you can’t get him.
JK: He called you up?
PTA: I was promoting Boogie Nights in London. He’d seen it. He called. I went to see him. He said, “I’d love to work with you.” I said, “I’d love to work with you – and I may have a part.” I sent the script to him nine months later. He called within 24 hours, and we were off.
JK: How did Cruise’s coming on board change things?
PTA: I was in a pretty damn good position because of Boogie Nights, so the real thing it did wasn’t with the studio, it was with the cast and crew. When Tom is around, the watermark rises. Everyone wants to do better. The same with Jason. People strut their stuff. And it pushed me, too. I wanted to impress Tom and Jason.
JK: In the movie, Cruise is the estranged son of Robards. As anyone who has ever read a profile of Cruise knows, his parents separated when he was very young. As I watched the scene of Cruise at his father’s deathbed, I couldn’t help wondering if there was more than great acting happening there.
PTA: I couldn’t address anything personal about a friend.
JK: I know you don’t like to speak about your life, either, but let’s look at some biographical information about you that other writers have managed to gather. According to the clips, you and your mother are estranged. And your father died last year. Were those facts driving the Cruise-Robards relationship in your film?
PTA: A three-hour movie says “Pay attention to me” in a blatant way. But I think it’s smart for me to keep my mouth shut so I don’t hurt any future movies I might make. I want to be personal in movies, but I don’t want to inform a viewer what is being worked out.
JK: As long as we’re at it, the significance of the title…
PTA: You’re not going to ask me that, are you?
JK: Oscar Wilde said something like, there are no impertinent questions, only impertinent answers.
PTA: There are no impertinent titles, either.
JK: I’ll let other writers ruin a truly remarkable sequence at the end by describing what happens. Let’s just say something unusual – something most people think is impossible – happens. Did the studio say, “Hey, what is this?”
PTA: How could they? It’s so insane, you either go with it or not. There was no question an executive could ask. I work with smart ones. But even the dumb ones would shut up.
JK: That action sequence is an anomaly. Most of the scenes in the film are long, generally between two people. We fell we’re watching life unfold. How do you shoot those scenes?
PTA: I usually do 15 to 20 takes. But I rarely call “Cut.” I keep shooting. So within one take, there are often a dozen
JK: If you had to choose between shooting and life…
PTA: I’d just shoot.
JK: You may be a prodigy, but you’re still a kid. And there you are with Cruise and Robards.
PTA: Good combination, don’t you think?
JK: I admire your modesty.
PTA: Fuck that! I have Tom and Jason, and I should be casual? I’m gonna scream it! It makes you feel really confident and good. Having them in the film makes me think, I’ve done OK, I can continue to do well if I keep it up. I can’t play the humble young guy who gets to make movies – until I see Jason’s name in my credits. Then I giggle, because I’ve got this great American actor dying in a bed with a 2- minute monologue.
JK: Shooting those scenes…
PTA: You step outside of your job and just become a fan – of movies, of acting. The situation was that we’d shot with Jason for two weeks, and all had to do was lie in bed. I relaxed. I thought, this is so fun, so great. Then we got to his meaty acting scenes and I went back in my shell. I had to smack myself and say, “Hey, he’s one of the great actors, but he’s doing a little thing wrong….”
JK: A little thing in what is surely the longest monologue in the history of film…
PTA: It used to be longer. In the script, it ran seven, eight pages. On the film that’s 20 minutes. Now, a regular camera load gives you only 10 minutes, so I had special loads built that last 20. That’s why I’m so high on that scene. It wasn’t Jason piecemeal. It was Jason, in a bed, like watching him onstage, something I’d never been able to see.
JK: Will you give him the entire take as a present?
PTA: It’s shorter in the film, so I’ll give it to everyone. My plan is to put that on the DVD release as a special supplement.
JK: Very nice. And something only a successful filmmaker can do. What would have happened to you if it hadn’t worked out, if you didn’t get to direct?
PTA: It would have worked out. But, I would have had a smaller job, and I would have been bitter.
JK: Was it hard to get your first directing job?
PTA: It’s not that hard if you’re a writer. There’s such a shortage of scripts that actors want to be in. So fi you can get actors, you can say, “Hey, I’m driving. In my car. And we’ll listen the music I want to hear.”
JK: In Magnolia, you’re telling a number of stories. Call me old-fashioned, but most of the time when filmmakers do that, it’s because they really don’t have a single story worth telling.
PTA: I thought about that. Boogie Nights was, at the end of the day, a one-person story: the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler. With Magnolia my inspiration comes from Nashville. But that’s a fairly plotless movie – a few days in a few lives. My thought was to pull of a combination of Robert Altman and David Mamet, to tell a few stories, but with plot and trajectory. That was the goal, anyway. But I know that crosscutting can be a source of laziness in a lot of writers.
JK: What’s your weakness as a writer?
PTA: Writer’s block in reverse. I write too much.
JK: What’s next?
PTA: Sleeping. After Boogie Nights, I was tired. This is different – I’m sucked dry.
JK: Do you travel?
PTA: Yes. No. Not really. I do a lot of staying home.
JK: Can you read while you’re working?
PTA: No. And I want to. And I want to watch movies. I collect 16-millimeter prints – and I haven’t had a chance to watch them.
JK: And, presumably, you’ll spend your downtime observing human behavior. Which reminds me: How, at your age, can you have learned so much?
PTA: Depends on what you’re referring to.
JK: What happens between people.
PTA: Hmm. [Long pause] I’d give too honest an answer. I’d better keep it to myself.