Rolling Stone, Written By Mim Udovitch
February 3, 2000
The Epic Obsessions of P.T. Anderson
In Demand with Tom Cruise and in Love with Fiona Apple, the director of Magnolia calls himself a lunatic work freak
Paul Thomas Anderson is barreling through the darkened streets of the San Fernando Valley in his Mercedes Wagon. "It's what all the big-shit directors drive - say what you want," he announces. The just-- turned-thirty-year-old director and screenwriter is wearing a rumpled, button-down shirt and black pants, and looking, as he tends to, like he is part graduate student, part twelve-year-- old, and emanating, as he tends to, the focused, all-consuming enthusiasm that both halves of that simile suggest. Anderson is practically levitating with enjoyment as he punches his fist in the air in time to the song blasting from the car's CD player, which happens to be "Limp," by his girlfriend, Fiona Apple. "That's my girl!" he says. "Listen to that voice."
It is not the least of Anderson's talents -- and he has many, as demonstrated by 1997's dazzling, revved-up Boogie Nights and his new movie, the beautiful, majestic Magnolia - that he is a world-class, virtuoso enthusiast who registers his delight in things with every particle of his being, a person who, if aesthetic pleasures were measured in decibels, would not infrequently be bouncing the needle all the way to the right. "Are you aware of Adam Sandler?" he'll ask, intensely serious, his tone practically quivering with the joy of discovery. "I mean, are you truly fucking aware? He is headed for a level of genius in creation and acting that I just cannot wait to see keep going." Of Tom Cruise, whose Golden Globe-- nominated performance in Magnolia is drawing Oscar buzz, he says, "Tom Cruise is the fucking greatest of all time, ever, ever, EVER. It's like, no kid thinks he's going to be president of the United States, you know what I mean? No kid thinks he's going to get Tom Cruise in his movie. He's like, 'What do you want me to do, do you want me to stand on my head, do you want me to do back flips? I'll do it, I'll do anything you want.' He is the guy you think he is, in terms of, 'Let's go get 'em, let's do the best we can and try as hard as we possibly can' - he is that guy to a T. I met his mother for the first time the other night, and I said I find it very ironic that her name is Mary, considering that she gave birth to Jesus, because he is, you know?"
This level of enthusiasm pays off, both in the performances Anderson elicits and in the affection of his actors. Many of the Magnolia ensemble, including Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall, Ricky Jay and William H. Macy, have appeared in two or in all three of his movies. (His debut, 1997's Sidney, was retitled, amid much proverbial creative conflict, and released as Hard Eight.) "It gets to the point where if you click with a director, you find this other language," says Cruise, who contacted Anderson after seeing Boogie Nights and for whom Anderson wrote the part in Magnolia of Frank T.J. Mackey, a sexually predatory self-help guru who hawks a seminar series for men titled "Seduce and Destroy." "The exciting part of acting, I don't know how else to explain it, are those moments where you surprise yourself," Cruise continues. "I remember being on the stage with Paul doing the second part of the seminar, and we had tried ending a scene a couple of different ways, and I went over to the table onstage for a second; it was in the take, just at the end of it, and I just really wanted to throw the table. And I didn't say anything, and I didn't really make a huge move to it, but he came up to me right afterward, and he just walked over to the table and put his hand on it and sort of tapped it a little bit as if to say, 'It's OK, let's do it.' He's that in tune with his actors. He just loves them. And you feel that way around him, too. He does take care of you, and you want to take care of him, you want to make sure he's OK."
Magnolia follows the lives of nine interrelated characters over the course of one day in the San Fernando Valley, clobbering them with a combination of love, death and weather. A passionate, sprawling rock album of a movie, Magnolia was, according to Anderson, structurally inspired by the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." (An interesting choice, considering that among Beatles songs, this is the one that is - in terms of its shifts in mood and tone - the most obviously composed by two writers.) "I think Paul is saying that he's all these people," says Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the lambent, compassionate home-care nurse trying to reunite Cruise's character with his estranged, dying father, played by the awe-inspiring Jason Robards. "When I watch Magnolia or Boogie Nights," adds Hoffman, "I see Paul in all the characters - the selfish Paul, the caretaking Paul, the little-kid Paul, the mature Paul - he is all those things at a given time, and I see him telling a story about all aspects of himself."
Actually, to stick with the Beatles analogy, Magnolia's prologue, which offers hints of themes and events to come in three free-standing tales of apparent coincidence, makes it clear that this movie is concerned with the ways that instant (and distant) karma is going to get the characters and knock them right on the head. (In mood, the movie is closer to John Lennon's primal-scream tour de force, "Mother." With perhaps a dash of "Eleanor Rigby.") Magnolia's cinematic antecedents are less easily characterized; vaguely Altman-esque (Short Cuts, Nashville) in the size and number of its cast and plotlines, the film is not obviously derivative of any one style or form. (When asked, during a phone conversation, what movies he thinks of as influences on Magnolia, Anderson replies, with gusto, "Retarded Dog!" But it turns out that he was just addressing his retarded dog.)
Anderson is certainly the most upbeat tortured person you'll ever meet. "I'm a true template-obsessive, lunatic work freak," he says. "I don't like to go home from work, I don't like to sleep, I don't like to eat. I just love it, I love it, I fucking love it. I love shooting. I love it. I love to wake up early and fucking shoot all day, and shoot and shoot and shoot! For Magnolia, I looked at the schedule and it was like, 'A ninety-day shooting schedule - I'm in heaven!"' Anderson's characters, whom he treats with all encompassing sympathy, are all damaged souls seeking redemption -- through control, through drugs, through orthodontia and, above all, through love -- even Cruise's guru, who adjures his followers to "Respect the cock" and "Tame the cunt," is motivated by the need to find somebody to love.
Boogie Nights pursued its themes of dysfunctional- and surrogate-family drama against the backdrop of the Seventies porn scene, and primarily from the perspective of the child, but Magnolia explores the same themes in the context of the whole time-space continuum, and primarily from the perspective of the child who has grown up. It also has a game show, a cast singalong to an Aimee Mann ballad, Masonic symbolism, chaos theory and references to the work of Charles Fort, the early-twentieth-- century scientific skeptic and compiler of paranormal phenomena, who said that a society's existence could be judged by the health of its frogs. This all makes for an idiosyncratic vision. Cruise says that after he read the script, "I just looked at Paul and said, 'Who the hell are you? Who the hell are you?' I mean, he's got frogs, and people singing."
Magnolia is, in some ways, quite literally a labor of love. Partly inspired by and prominently featuring Mann's music, it is very much the movie for anyone who has ever lain on the floor crying and listening to records, waiting for their one true love to knock at the door. It was written in part for Fiona Apple, whom Anderson met shortly after the release of Boogie Nights. ("We sort of mutually wanted to meet the other person. I certainly wanted to meet her. I mean, she was a foxy rock star who seemed really cool.") In a lot of ways, Anderson's life is like one of those foreign-language books that have the original text on one page and the English translation on the facing page. There is his actual life, which remains largely opaque, and there is the cinematic translation that he puts up there on the screen. In some cases, the correspondence is discernible. "Oh, fucking hell, that's the problem with a third movie," says Anderson. "You start to become a big, clear, naked thing. As Dylan Tichenor [Magnolia's editor] pointed out when we were cutting the scene where Donnie [William H. Macy] is professing his love for Brad the bartender, 'Here we are with a second time in a movie of yours where the gay character has to get drunk to profess his love.' And I said, 'Well, great, here comes the chapter on my closet homosexuality.' I thought that was a good one. I was sort of excited about that."
Suggestive symbolism aside, Anderson did actually work as a production assistant on a game show, which like Magnolia's What Do Kids Know? pitted three adults against three children. And Anderson did nurse his father, who died in 1997, through the final stages of cancer, an experience that is emotionally reflected in Magnolia in the tender relationship between the characters played by Hoffman and Robards. Aside from inspiring the love story at Magnolia's center, Apple is in part the basis for the character of Stanley the quiz kid, played by Jeremy Blackman. Of a scene where Stanley tells the game show's contestant coordinator that he has to go to the bathroom and is told to hold it, Anderson says, "Fiona told me a story, and it's funny, because I don't remember it in detail now, because I've twisted it around and made it my own, but she had to go to the bathroom in some sort of taping situation, and they just said, 'Well, can you just hold it and do this thing for us first?' And she did. And when she told me this story, I wanted to strangle every single person involved. We had just fallen in love, and I was just becoming protective of her, you know, as protective of her as I am now, as my girlfriend and, you know, as my love. And to hear this story made me want to crack someone's head open and say, 'Let her go to the fucking bathroom.' "
The sources of many other details, however, remain clouded, the advantage of which is, of course, that anything could fall from them old clouds. "There is something to all those tired old maxims like, 'Write what you know,'" says John C. Reilly, who plays sweet-natured cop Jim Kurring in Magnolia and who has known Anderson since starring in Hard Eight. "And Paul really does that -- in this movie especially, but in all his movies. Without getting too specific, because he specifically asked me not to, a lot of the things that happen to the characters in the movie come right out of his life. But at the same time, he spins it a little bit. It's almost like he gets better perspective on his life in the movies than he does in real life."
In real life, Anderson grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where both Boogie Nights and Magnolia take place. The bigshit-director Mercedes Wagon is parked, and he is sitting, a cheeseburger and a bowl of onion soup gathering dust in front of him, with his knees drawn up, in a booth in a local diner, a very tired twelve-year-old/graduate student. (Enough of a fuck-up in grade school to get expelled from one, he has only the most glancing acquaintance with higher education, having briefly showed up at Emerson College in Boston; he later attended a day and a half of film school at New York University.) Anderson's opacity as a person is nowhere more evident than on the subject of his family, which, since family is one of the central subjects of all three of his movies, is probably not simply a matter of chance. "I don't have a lot of family, I'll say that," he allows. He is estranged from his mother, whom he does not discuss. His father, Ernie Anderson, was a legendary voice-over actor and, before Paul was born, a local celebrity in Cleveland, where he hosted TV horror movies as his alter ego, Ghoulardi, for whom Paul's production company is named.
Given Anderson's status as a volitional orphan, it is telling that his cast members speak of him, and he of them, in terms of family. "Paul and I over the last five or six years have developed a kind of father-son relationship off the set," says Philip Baker Hall, who plays game-show host Jimmy Gator. "I have several daughters, and his dad died a few years ago, so we have a very affectionate father-son relationship. However, on the set, I would say the relationship is reversed: He's the father and I'm the son, because his vision is so clear and so powerful that I wouldn't think of questioning whatever he thinks is right for a scene or a moment."
Hall, who met Anderson on the set of a television movie back in his production-assistant days, appeared in the young director's first short film, Cigarettes and Coffee, which was shown at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and eventually developed into his first feature, Sidney, starring Hall, Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow. "What happened," Anderson explains, "is I got hooked up with a guy named Robert Jones, who I literally met on the street at Sundance. And this is sort of a warning to young filmmakers with their movies up at Sundance: When people approach you on the street, watch out." It is now late at night, and Anderson is sitting in a hole in-the-wall bar in Hollywood, drinking beer and tequila, and surreptitiously, illegally smoking Camel Lights. Anderson and the production company, Rysher Entertainment, fought bitterly for control over the film. Ultimately, Rysher re-cut the movie while Anderson, who had kidnapped a work print, gathered money -- his own, Reilly's and Paltrow's - to complete his own version and submit it to the Cannes Film Festival. "We took it to Cannes, it was wonderful, it was great, everyone loved it," says Anderson. "We came back, and I handed it to Rysher and said, 'Here it is, it's yours if you want to release it,' and they said, 'We'll go with it, because we know Gwyneth will do publicity, but the one concession you have to make is, you have to call it Hard Eight.' And I caved, and I said, 'All right, call it Hard Eight, but make it my movie.' And it is my movie, with the exception that the credits are at the beginning instead of the end, where I normally like to put my credits. One nice thing about success is that a lot of people discovered Sidney and say so in this really wonderful way. It makes me very happy. It was such a bastard child, the way it was released and the fights I had to go through."
Despite these conflicts (or because of them), both professional and personal, Anderson certainly has a robust ego. "He and I both have some kind of Irish American bratty something in common," says Reilly, "like we would both get the check on our report card that said, 'Lacks self-control.'" For a director, as with psychiatrists and the office of the independent counsel, ego is a little bit of an occupational hazard. "I think when the movie gets bigger and costs more and more, it becomes harder to be a control freak," Anderson says. "But I'm doing a pretty good job of maintaining all the proper paranoia and control that I should. That's why movie directors either go crazy or start making bad movies, start making crap, because you could lose your fucking mind doing this job. You could lose your mind if you realize that you can make it rain and you can change that sign from red to green. It's a scary thing when you finish shooting a movie and you're still driving a little too fast because you used to be able to drive that fast because you had to get to the set and 'Goddammit, cars, get out of my way.' You kind of go to a maniacal, egotistical place in your own little mind. And it's not like I'm running around on the set saying, 'Everybody be my slave" but you really do realize that when you have shut down four city blocks of the Valley for your needs, it's a little hard not to carry that into your house."
Anderson is, however, not without a certain becoming modesty. He speaks of Eyes Wide Shut with an almost religious awe. Cruise invited him to the set in England to meet Stanley Kubrick, the late director whom Anderson regards as a higher order of being. "It was all the standard things, where he's smaller than I thought he would be, because you expect, you know, Orson Welles, someone who's eight feet tall. And I asked him about his crew - did he usually work with a crew this small -'and he just said, 'Well, yeah, how many people do you need?' And I just sort of felt, 'Yeah, fuck, I'm an asshole, man, I spend too much money, you're right, I'm wrong, there's nothing I can say.'" Anderson is a control freak, but a self-conscious one: Asked whether he feels that the interest, even the imperative, he demonstrates in imposing order on chaos in both his work and his life is perhaps, maybe, possibly the survival reflex of someone who grew up in the kind of emotional chaos that devastates the families in his movies, he says, quoting one of the game-show scenes in Magnolia, "You're absolutely right, Miss Mim! For $250, the next question!" Pressed further, he says, "Really, I think my answer is a good one and acknowledges it in a way that's hopefully amusing, but, also hopefully, not an excuse for why I might act badly at times. And that's a little bit what the movie is about. My reluctance is the answer. My trying to be funny is the answer. And the movie is the answer." Still, Anderson is not incapable of ceding control - he is currently working on a script for his favorite director, Jonathan Demme, his first time writing for someone else. He also recently "stalked and tracked down" Adam Sandier, but it's unclear whether these two things are related.
Anderson is aware that there is such a thing as being too opaque. "I'm scared," lie says. "I don't want to be Mr. Fucking-- on-a-Hill, and I don't want to dumb my movie down. But even though I'm making the movie for me, there's a point where you have the fucking job of communication and engagement." On one level, at least, Magnolia is transparently almost embarrassingly sincere. "It's about love," Anderson says. "It's got a lot of shit about love. And that's not as in 'My movie's about love!'- don't take that and run with it. But, come on, it's not like I don't wear my heart on my sleeve in this movie. I mean, this guy comes into the room, sits on the bed and says, 'You are a good and beautiful person,' and then it cuts to black and says THE END. That's a big fucking pound of love, you know?"
Anderson's reaction to Magnolia's critical reception reflects both the robust ego and the becoming modesty. He didn't resent Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times: "I kind of like that she says that the first two hours are good and then the moment comes when they start to sing and then frogs fall from the sky -- I don't mind that she doesn't like that, because I can see it being objectionable. I just like that she wrote it well. There have been wonderful reviews, through the-roof ones, and wonderfully mixed ones. And the people who say it's just a big piece of shit are people like Rex Reed and Joel Siegel, and they're just big, fat losers who go to movies, you know what I mean? You really want them to hate your movie, because if you ever get a review from them that's good, you have made a really bad movie. I'm saying that out loud and in capital letters - that's just a given for anyone who makes movies." Anderson is also not shy about other people's movies. Of David Fincher's Fight Club, he says, "I saw thirty minutes of it only because our trailer is playing in front of it. And I would love to go on railing about the movie, but I'm just going to pretend as if I haven't seen it. It's just unbearable. I wish David Fincher testicular cancer, for all of his jokes about it, I wish him testicular fucking cancer." He also hated the innocuously insubstantial Go! ("When does valuelessness become offensiveness? I don't want to see a movie about a wacky Vegas vacation where everybody gets shot.")
Sitting over a last drink, thinking about Magnolia, speculating on what is to be gained from indulgence, from not smoothing out the rough edges, Anderson says, "Something more honest, question mark? It is what it is. I honestly set out to write an hour-and-a-half movie. But I guess I don't know how to make an hour-and-a-half movie. I really don't know how." His cell phone rings. "My girl is calling me," he says. "Hello? I miss you, too. But I'm hanging out. I'm talking and I'm having a beer. I love you. I'll be home soon."