Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Interview: PTA & Mike Figgis

Paul Thomas Anderson & Mike Figgis
February 2000

How does Forrest Gump have sex? Paul Thomas Anderson's `Boogie Nights', a story about LA's porn movie industry and its stars, caused a storm when it was released two years ago. Fellow director Mike Figgis talks to him about sex on the screen, who it's made for and why

MIKE FIGGIS: I thought Boogie Nights was fantastic.


MF: One of the best films I've seen in a long time, just the whole way you made it. So, is it something you'd been with for a long time?

PTA: Long, long time. When I was 17, I wrote a short film called The Dirk Diggler Story, and shot it on videotape. I was a big fan of Zelig and Spinal Tap and it was that format, fictional documentary. Also I was completely immersed in watching porno, in a horny-young- boy way but also in a filmmaker's way. I wanted to make movies and here were these terrible movies, but I also got off on them, they were so goofy and bad. Plus I lived in the San Fernando Valley, which is the capital of porn production. So it was always peripherally around me.

There were warehouses near where I went to high school; some of them had signage, then there'd be one that didn't but it had a ton of expensive cars parked out front. So you're thinking, "What the fuck is going on inside of that one with no sign?" It's because they were making porno movies. So the story obviously stuck with me for nine or ten years. I was 25 or 26 when I made Boogie Nights.

MF: I want to ask you about the porn industry. You said earlier that you got fascinated as a willing participant, as a teenager. What do you think about the way they're made? Could they be better?

PTA: Oh yes, God, there's so much to talk about here. Porno movies could and should be a genre. There's a whole series of John Holmes movies about "Johnny Wad" - it was a character he created, a suave, sophisticated detective, a bit James Bond, a bit Sam Spade. The Brock Landers stuff that Dirk Diggler creates was modeled after that. These were essentially murder mysteries, but they were also fuck films. So you wanted to watch him solve the case or defuse the ticking bomb just as much as you wanted to see him fuck the beautiful girl.

MF: Were they well made?

PTA: Well, they pull it off because they're actually sexy. They were on film, and certainly it helps that the girls are at least natural. My hormones go towards, "Oh, she's pretty. And, no, she doesn't have enormous fake tits. There's a little zit on her butt, she's got a little tummy. It's natural." The same thing with the guys - the guys are not appealing in porno today. They're like fucking robots, chiseled to perfection. There's nothing you can relate to, it's like watching space aliens.

The Johnny Wad stuff pulled it off because it didn't take itself too seriously. And John Holmes was quite an actor, really natural. The main thing about them is that a lot of the sex doesn't happen for the camera. Most porn actors now complain that every position in porno is completely uncomfortable.

Seventies porno was much more "Let the camera figure it out". It was a bit more hand-held, and trying to get into the spot where you got the good juicy close-ups. Somehow it comes out more sexy and natural. Nowadays they're in contortions that are clearly guided towards the camera. It doesn't come off in any way. And the goal of a porno movie should be to give you a boner.

MF: What else? I mean, my experience of porn movies is being in Hamburg, in some generic concrete block of a hotel, away from people you love, alone in a bedroom. And there's a porn channel and you find yourself watching it. You end up with such a feeling of loneliness and desolation, and, at that point, it's almost as if we have a duty here as filmmakers. Somebody should be making better stuff that doesn't leave you quite so devastated.

PTA: Well, I think some of that devastation comes from just watching the sadness in a lot of the performers' faces nowadays. You instantly think, "Who are they? How did they get there? How can I help?" And it's almost like they're looking into the lens going, "Save me." It's funny because, late Sixties, early Seventies, this sort of porn was fashionable and OK to see in the theatre - it was a date movie. Deep Throat was the highest-grossing independent film of all time. Behind the Green Door was happening. But Midnight Cowboy was also happening. Had it not been for video, I think more porn movies would have come closer to legitimate, traditional narrative stuff.

MF: It kind of did in other world cinemas - like Ai No Corrida in Japan, in France, and in Spain, such as in what Pedro Almodvar does.

PTA: Totally. Or even in Betty Blue. One example I've used before - not to be salacious or anything - but how interesting it would have been to see Forrest Gump and the Robin Wright character making that baby that we see in the end. How does Forrest Gump have sex? And it's not trying to give you a boner, to show you Tom Hanks and Robin Wright, in bed. What could be more -

MF: Human.

PTA: Right. What could be more of a revelation of a character than watching them have sex? That says a lot about someone, how they touch another person in bed.

MF: I have a theory. Because the way that porn treats the sexual act influences TV and mainstream cinema, it's almost as if actors imitate porn movies when they do sex scenes - which is then what young women and men watch, and they think, "Oh, that's how sex is". So real people end up impersonating porn. You think, "Hang on, this is all wrong".

PTA: Totally. I wrote a scene in Boogie Nights for Don Cheadle's character, Buck, and his wife, Jessie. They're lying in bed, they decide to have sex, they suggest to each other, "Maybe we can try to do this, like, real". But Don fucks up a little bit because he starts to say, "Baby, oh baby, yeah" - and then he catches himself, and then she starts doing it. It's a funny, small, tender scene where you watch these two people who are so caught up -

MF: You didn't shoot it?

PTA: No. We rehearsed it and it was great, but I knew it would never be in the movie.

MF: Why? I think that's very strong.

PTA: I thought it was taken care of in other places - porno people trying to be real people. But it is funny: I've been in a situation with a girl and suddenly you think, "Where did this Elizabeth Berkley Showgirls-sex thing come from? Do you think this flopping around that you're doing is making me excited?" I think porno movies have trained a lot of young people how to have sex, unfortunately - especially the new ones.

I think it would help if they were shot on film, I really do. It's more expensive; it requires more of a plan. And I think they fail to plan. Video is a blessing and a curse. It's created an assembly-line mentality. If the concept is that you're making a movie for a consumer - well, the consumer is at home with a fast-forward button. This guy wants to fucking see some dick and some pussy and he wants to see it now. And he's going to fast-forward past all this other shit.

MF: I don't know about the economics, but there's a huge market comprised of captive audiences in hotel rooms, where you can't fast- forward.

PTA: Now they have these different systems of pay-per-view. There's one where you can click the button and get two or three minutes free, so you can preview it. Within those two or three minutes, you'd better see some fucking or else they're going to go to pay-per-view channel two, and if they see fucking, they're going to stay right there. That's why a lot of the pay-per-view stuff now is basically highlights. They usually stay away from stories and just do best-of stuff, so you know you've got a constant-fuck thing going.

MF: I think if I had the balls I'd make one. Just to try it.

PTA: But I think you have had the balls to put sex scenes in your movies that are explicit. You've injected a bit of porno - in the best possible way - into some of your films.

MF: That's your first feature?

PTA: Actually my second. Hard Eight was my first one, I wrote and directed it.

MF: Is that a good film?

PTA: It's a great film.

MF: How would I see that now?

PTA: You can see it on tape or laser disc, or I just did a retransfer for a DVD, which I'm excited about. It was financed by people whose roots were in bad television, Baywatch-type stuff, and they decided to try and get into movies. Clearly they hadn't read the script. I delivered the movie and they were really confused. All I could do was point to the script and say, 'This is what I shot, this is what you paid for, this is what you agreed to.' And this argument would always come up-- 'Well, the script is not the movie, and the movie's not the script.' I had the most horrendous, terrible time in the editing process. I fought, and I was fired off of it, then eventually got it back. So now the movie is my movie, it's out there-- with the exception that the title was 'Sydney', and it was changed to Hard Eight.

MF: I just had a similar situation. I spent two and a half years on one movie, Mr. Jones. Now they've actually asked me to re-cut it, do a director's cut.

PTA: Oh, great.

MF: And I've discovered the footage all still exists, they don't throw anything away. So I think I'm going to do it. At first I thought, 'Fuck it, I don't know if I want to revisit all of that.' Then I was lying in bed thinking about certain scenes. I remembered shooting them, thinking, 'This is good.' So I thought, 'No, life is about closure, and I would like to finish this.'

PTA: You'll feel great. I had to spend all my own money to finish Hard Eight after I got it back. But I did it, and now I'm happy. It came out last February and died an instant death, because it was always a bastard child for this company. They'd had so much trouble trying to get me to make their cuts. They were saying, 'We don't like the movie, we don't like you, we don't even care that Sam Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow are in it. We're not going to do anything for it.' It got amazing reviews, almost as good as Boogie Nights, but it played for about a weekend and then it was gone. Now, a lot of people have found it on video because of the success of Boogie Nights-- frustrating that it's on video, but that's fine. And the company that paid for it, Rysher Entertainment, went out of the business-- which is wonderful. The greatest part about the day they went out of business was that Daily Variety published a chart of Rysher's film history, what the movies cost and what they made. And at the very bottom, the lowest-grossing movie in Rysher history was my movie. So I was happy that I aided their downfall in some way. 'My movie made ten thousand dollars and it cost you guys two million.'

MF: So why are you especially excited by the DVD release?

PTA: My cut came out in theatres, and that's what was put on video. But they brightened it up, because that's the tradition, 'It's got to be brighter.' And they did it behind my back. Then when I got my laser disc at my local video store it was like, 'This is my cut but it sure doesn't look like the movie I made.' So Columbia Tri-Star Home Video had the rights, and I convinced them, they were kind enough, to sink a couple of extra bucks into it and release it properly on DVD, with some commentary and extra scenes-- to really preserve it properly. It wasn't good enough for me that my cut was preserved when the colour was all wrong.

MF: When Leaving Las Vegas came out on laserdisc--director's cut, widescreen, blah, blah--some real film buff from Birmingham, England, called me and said, 'You know the frame line is right across the eyes?' I'd never seen it, didn't know it was out. But they'd got it out in time for Christmas. So I went out and bought one. It was Super 16, and they'd done a widescreen version where they'd just literally and arbitrarily sliced through it. They hadn't racked it, it was just a complete mess. I couldn't believe what I saw. So I got the negative out and forced them to do it again. But people had already bought it. You have no control, unless you're Kubrick and you watch every frame...

PTA: I watched every frame in the process of Boogie Nights towards the end. But I think I drove a lot of people nuts, like 'Why do you have to sit here all day?' 'Because it will be wrong otherwise.' It's not distrusting people, it's just that things get handed down in an assembly-line nature, it goes from one lab to another, one transfer house to another, and honestly, it's just that mistakes get made on order forms because people don't pay attention. There's no conspiracy-- although generally if it comes across someone's desk, they want it brighter. It's just about keeping on top of basic POs--okay, this has got to be blue and it's green. I've only made two movies but I can't imagine being able to make as many as I'd like to make, because it takes so much time.

MF: And there's a certain point when maybe you have to let go. Because if obsessively controlling the detail of a film stops you making the film... well, there's nothing quite as close to watching paint dry as filmmaking.

PTA: Or watching paint not dry.

MF: Exactly. What was the time span on Boogie Nights?

PTA: We started shooting in July of 1996. We shot until October and then edited until October 1997. We finished everything a week before it came out--we waited till the last minute.

MF: And your first movie?

PTA: I shot that in twenty-eight days, then I had three weeks to cut it. But then came the melee with Rysher, which lasted a year, essentially. I thought the movie had been taken away from me, and the only way I could deal with that was to go make another movie. So I started prepping Boogie Nights, but in the middle of that I essentially stole back my work print elements on Sydney.

MF: How did you do that?

PTA: I hade a dupe work print made. I submitted it to Cannes, and they invited it to come into Un Certain Regard-- a big deal. So I called Rysher and I said, 'Listen, I know you guys own it. But I took my dupe work print, I submitted to Cannes, and it's in. It's a big mistake if you guys don't give me some money and let me finish the movie.' And they said, 'No, we don't care.' What was great is that we ended up going to Cannes, and Rysher had made their flyers promoting the products they were unveiling at the Festival. And my movie was nowhere to be found on their product list. It's like, 'You guys have a movie in the Official Selection...' Of course, I didn't want to go into the Grand Palais with my dupe work print, so I had said to Rysher, 'Let me have the original negative elements.' But they'd already cut negative on their version, so I couldn't just match up my dupe work print to the negative.

MF: That would cut into your shots...

PTA: Exactly. I had to go to alternate takes, which weren't always as good. There were three or four very long Steadicam shots and, of course, they cut right into the middle of those.

MF: Can you splice back in now?

PTA: You can, but pretty much you'll always lose a frame. I had to do it. I had to go through the whole movie and lose a frame at the head and tail on either side of each shot, pretty much. It made for a great study in what one frame is. Because a lot of times you cruise along, taking your frames off, and you think, 'I don't miss them.' Then you get to one, and you find that one frame makes all the difference. It's insane. You don't want to believe it. But in one or two scenes, there's a slight rhythm change that will always stick with me. It was the best I could do.

MF: You know how films are speeded up for cable? Scorsese pointed this out. Say the cable schedule slot is two hours and twenty-two minutes. And maybe the movie is running two hours and thirty-two. They get a calculator out and say, 'What speed would this have to run at in order to fit in the slot?' Then they use a harmonizer to take the voice back down to original key, so we don't notice. But everything is speeded up.

PTA: Oh, shit. Maybe there is a conspiracy.

MF: The conspiracy is capitalism because there is no cohesive system.

PTA: There you go.

MF: One thing about Leaving Las Vegas that pissed off the technical community was the 16mm. Because everyone's invested in lightweight 35mm. The last thing they want to hear is Super 16. 'Fuck off, Super 16, we don't want to know, we don't have the cameras, we don't have labs set up for that.'

PTA: But single-handedly you made that a viable format. You convinced everyone else. Super 16 has taken off now, in terms of the potential for independent movies to possible break out.

MF: If there's a problem with budget and schedule, that's the way to go, without a doubt. Stocks are good enough now to blow up from Super 16.

PTA: No director has final cut, projectionists have final cut. Theatres are so fucked. This THX is the biggest scam going. THX doesn't mean anything, it means that George Lucas gets a check to say that some theatre is now THX-approved. It sounds good, but it's bullshit. Not to mention the projectors. You spend all this time, you want the film to look right. A few months after Boogie Nights came out, my girlfriend and I were walking by a theatre on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I said, 'Let's look in.' It was a Fuji print and it just looked terrible. The scope, the ratio were fucked up.

MF: That's because New Line has a Fuji deal.

PTA: Yes. But now I got rid of that.

MF: Did you?

PTA: Oh, yes, I said there's no way I'm making a movie with you guys again unless you get all Kodak prints. So they signed off, which is good. At the same time, I was thinking, when I was watching my movie on 3rd Street, 'If I can't enjoy anything bad about this Fuji print, and this bad mono soundtrack, have I done my job? This movie should still come off, the story should still work. So do I want to be the guy who's got a Kodak print that's precise and perfect, and that's the only way it can work? Or do I want to be the guy who say's, 'Yeah, I know it looks like shit and it sounds like shit, but you liked it, didn't you?

MF: My first American movie was Internal Affairs. Years later I'm in Cuba doing a commercial, and I'm at the airport waiting to meet the plane, because my crew's coming in. It's delayed, so I'm hanging outside and a guy tells me, 'The drivers will be in that little hut if you need them.' So I'm standing by the hut and I hear Any Garcia's voice and I think, 'That's Internal Affairs.' I go in and they're all watching a little black-and-white telly, a broadcast of a bootleg print of Internal Affairs. It looks terrible. I'm stunned and I start to say to the guys, 'You know, that's-', and they go, 'Shut up, we're watching this movie.'

PTA: But in that case it's probably a better feeling even than going to the Hollywood premiere at Grauman's Chinese.

MF: Were you happy with Boogie Nights?

PTA: Yes. There's probably a couple of things I'd like to have done differently, but it's not like I didn't stick to my plan that I had. The first assembly of the movie was three hours and fifteen minutes. And I took about a half-hour out of it, it's now two hours thirty-seven. But the Boogie Nights that's out there is the director's cut.

MF: The scene with the firecrackers-- was that always written in?

PTA: Yes.

MF: That's impressive. I enjoyed the scene more that most things I've seen in cinema, just because it's such a funny idea.

PTA: Well, the idea came from two places. It's a distant piece of background action in a movie called Putney Swope, directed by my idol Robert Downey Senior. I called Bob up and said, 'This is the greatest fucking thing, I want to take it and run it through a whole scene, make it foreground action. And I want to say that it's my idea.' He said, 'Great.' Also, my dad was in early television in Cleveland in the mid-sixties, he was the horror talk-show host. He would introduce bad horror films like Beast from 50,000 Fathoms. And he was one of the first guys to chroma-key himself inside the movie and comment on how bad the dialogue was and so on. He would constantly blow stuff up with firecrackers, take little skulls and throw firecrackers at them. So it's a combination of those two father figures with firecrackers. There it is in the movie.

MF: What experience did you have with actors prior to making movies? Have you acted?

PTA: No, but it's always been my favorite thing in movies. I love the pizzazz and the cool camera stuff and that's why I'm a director, but I'm just an actor-freak fan. My first experience with actors really was on the short film that I made. Philip Baker Hall who's in Boogie Nights and Hard Eight, he was in it. He was the first real actor that I met, and he introduced me to how to look at acting and how to write for acting. For my first movie I had Gwyneth Paltrow and Sam Jackson and John Reilly and Philip Baker Hall. You can't get into it any better than that.

MF: No, you can't. I've had such a crush on John C. Reilly. I met him on Internal Affairs. And for some reason he couldn't do the part I wanted him to do. His voice is brilliant. I was so pleased to see him in your movie.

PTA:  He's the main man of Hard Eight. John is my best friend. A listing of the people whom I see the most and who are my friends would be all actors. So I get sick of agents and directors, 'Oh, actors are crazy, all the great ones, we love them, but they're crazy.'

MF:  There's such a clear division now between filmmakers who like toys for boys and that rarer breed who are actors' directors and who are story-driven. One of the things I loved about your film was there's a real gentleness about it, which I found really moving. Because I'm so fed up with the way films are going. I really don't like movies anymore.

PTA: I don't know, I want to be with you there, but I'm scared to say that, because I feel like I'm bad-mouthing the cause. Even though I know in my back pocket that there's shit out there-- yes, it sucks-- I almost want to keep it to myself, because I don't want anyone to see our collective cards. But, yes, we're fucking up like crazy, and I wish it wasn't going on. The action genre, that little club, is fucking up lately. I love those movies, and I want them to succeed, I want to see good action-adventure films. I wanted Godzilla to be wonderful, I love monster movies.

MF: That department is a committee filmmaking process. That's like the sacrifice that cinema has made. Okay, you guys, you can have that genre because that's money and everything.

PTA: I think it's unfortunate because there is an intelligent Godzilla movie to be made, an intelligent action-adventure film. But that genre's getting killed by committee. I've wanted for a long time to make a real romantic comedy in the most traditional way. I mean, I'd fuck it up in an untraditional way, but I'd dive into it thinking it was traditional.

MF: I want to do a smart thriller. I love the genre. You can do what you like, you can make a surreal film-- because once you're in the genre, people don't care what you bring to it, as long as the dynamics work. All those genre's, the horror film, the monster movie, they're great. Are you going to do one?

PTA: Absolutely. I've got a million ideas and scripts I've tossed around and played with. I write my own stuff.

MF: I've found (and you may find) that the limitation of being a 'slash,' as we're called-- a writer-director-- is that you're tied to the project you're tied to. But if you've got a quick brain, you might have six of those ideas, and it maybe takes eight years to realize them. That's a little bit depressing. I'm desperately trying to find writers now, so I don't have to commit myself to every script. I can oversee. I'm trying to come up with a script factory, where we have script meetings, talk about it, come back a week later with a couple of scenes, and divide them up, so there's maybe three of us writing together. It's an experiment, but I can't carry on being the assigned writer.

PTA: What about television? Have you ever--

MF: I think television and video are disposable non-sacred formats are wonderful for storytelling.

PTA: I've been thinking about this for a while, and then The New York Times Magazine asked me and a bunch of other people to write about what our dream TV shows would be, if we could create them. I gravitated instantly to the variety show. Look at Boogie Nights, there are so many actors in it. I'm saying the variety show could be the perfect place where actors and directors go-- so that, say, John Reilly doesn't have to do Armageddon to support his family. He can just come to the show for three or four months. And Bill Macy can do the same, or Heather Graham-- like a pit-stop for great actors who want to keep their wheels turning, get paid a little bit of money, and not have to go sell their souls in crap. I think you'd have enough interest from some really talented actors.

MF: I love ensemble. I think that's healthy. The problem with film is it's on the altar and it takes a long time and it slows us down. And creative people are fast and tend to fire things out quickly.

PTA: What's the fastest you ever made a movie?

MF: The last one was a four-week shoot. Three, four months editing.

PTA: See, that's pretty good.