Sunday, March 12, 2000

Interview: The Age

The Age, Written By John Patterson
March 12, 2000

When all the simmering conflicts finally come to a boil in Paul Thomas Anderson's 70s porn-industry epic Boogie Nights, protagonist Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), porn star and possessor of a much-coveted 13-inch penis, issues a perfectly inarticulate, impassioned, if ultimately useless declaration of independence.

Dirk's erectile capacity has been badly eroded by his coke intake and he knows at best he only has a 20-minute window of tumescence to exploit before his talent turns once again to, well, to ashes in his hand. But director and father-figure Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) isn't ready, and there's a big fight that turns nasty. Before long they're being pulled off each other by the crew members as Dirk screams, "You're not the boss of me, Jack! You're not the king of Dirk! I'm the boss of me! I'm the king of me. I'm Dirk Diggler! I'm the star! It's my big dick and I say when we roll!" Anderson is 30 years old. He's made three movies, Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and now Magnolia, each of which has been called a masterpiece. He is routinely heralded as one of the great hopes of the American cinema, someone who got started early and who may have a lifetime of great movies inside him.

The producers of his first movie, Hard Eight - which he still calls by its original title, Sydney - tried to be the boss of Paul, the king of Paul, but he fought to have his own version released and against all the odds, he won. "It fucked up my entry into this whole world," he says. "Or maybe it actually helped, because it sure as hell put me on my guard." On Boogie Nights, Anderson was able to release the movie he'd envisaged, having developed the armour to keep the money men off his back. And with Magnolia, he got what every director twice his age still dreams of the moment his head hits the pillow: Final Cut.

Even Martin Scorsese had to wait more than 25 years for the right not to have his films molested by the suits. "It's pretty unusual," says Anderson, "but the concept is that once you've got it, you've got it for life. It feels great!" Now no one's the boss of Paul Thomas Anderson. Paul's the king of Paul. It's his big dick, and he says when we roll. There are those who'll say that Magnolia, at 188 minutes and featuring some 20 characters, is a repudiation of the very notion of final cut, that no movie deserves to carve that much time out of a viewer's life, that surely the backers could have imposed some discipline and order on the project had it not been for the director's special privilege.

This might be more plausible if Magnolia weren't as compelling and cussedly ambitious as it is, but it isn't the kind of film that can be shoehorned into any safe categories, and that alone will always make the unimaginative critic reach elbow-deep into his arsenal of uncomprehending put-downs. Magnolia is hip enough, I suppose, but it's also unabashedly, transcendently emotional, which is about as unhip as you'll ever get in Los Angeles. It's a semi-independent movie in financial terms (mini-major Fine Line is the backer) but it's about parents and children, life's bystanders, and about love and security lost and found. There are none of the tired tropes and tics one associates with post-Tarantino indie film-making - no five-way Mexican stand-offs, no arch quoting of naff movies, no brand-name humour, and no genre-twisting. The result is a giant mosaic that makes up one day in the life of the characters, constructed tile by tiny tile until a huge collective portrait emerges, with characters linked by what the film's narrator call "things that are not, one hopes, merely a matter of chance".

Anderson never intended that it become so big. "It came from a much smaller plane," he explains. "I wanted to make something that was intimate and small- scale, and I thought that I would do it very, very quickly. The point was that I wanted to shed myself of everything that was happening around Boogie Nights. And I started to write and well, it kept blossoming. And I got to the point where still it's a very intimate movie, but I realised I had so many actors I wanted to write for that the form started to come more from them. Then I thought it would be really interesting to put this epic spin on topics that don't necessarily get the epic treatment, which is usually reserved for war movies or political topics. But the things that I know as big and emotional are these real intimate everyday moments, like losing your car keys, for example. You could start with something like that and go anywhere."

As a writer, Anderson starts with lists, actors and music. "Magnolia came out of Aimee Mann's songs, which I was listening to at the time I was starting to write. I had her two solo albums and a lot of her demos, because she's a friend, and I think the tone she gets is really beautiful. So I thought about using them as a basis, or as inspiration for the film."

Indeed, certain lines of dialogue in Magnolia come directly from Mann's songs, including "Now that you've met me, would you object if you never saw me again?" which is the crux of one thread of the narrative. And towards the finale, Anderson lays Mann's Wise Up on the soundtrack and cuts all across the San Fernando Valley to his different characters, who all dreamily sing along with a line each from the song. It should be a ridiculous moment, but it's the emotional high point of the movie, capable of reducing entire rows of filmgoers to tears.
"I wondered about that moment too," says Anderson, "but I tricked everyone by getting Julianne Moore to do it first. She can always set the pace, because actors are so competitive. Then everyone was up for it." Anderson's scripts, he says, start out as "lists of things that are interesting to me, images, words, ideas, and slowly they start resolving themselves into sequences and shots and dialogue."

For Magnolia, he first saw an image of the smiling face of his friend, actress Melora Walters, and went from there. Having consolidated an Altmanesque de facto repertory company in the course of making Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, Anderson is now free to write with specific actors in mind, actors who he stresses are his friends off-set, not just his employees. "John Reilly came up with most of his character a couple of summers ago, after he grew a moustache for fun. He started to work up this not very smart cop character and we did a sort of take off on Cops (a Fox reality show in which camera crews go on police call-outs) with me chasing him around the streets with a video camera. We did several - Jennifer Jason Leigh was in one - and some of the Reilly character's line come from that far back.

"That's a case of an actor really bringing something in, because John basically co-created the character. But I always try to sneak a little bit of them in there, their little traits that I know. I also wanted to make John a romantic lead, because I've always seen him that way." The other actors all received similar care in the development of their roles. "I really didn't want Phillip Seymour Hoffman to play another character-character, you know what I mean? I wanted him to play a really simple, uncomplicated, caring character.

"And Julianne Moore, I just thought I really wanted to see her explode. I just haven't seen her do that. I said, 'I want you to go fucking nuts!' Crazy is so hard to play, there's nothing you can really tell an actor. You end up saying, 'She's nuts, and she's on so many pharmaceuticals, and I can't rationalise her behaviour. Just go nuts'." As for William H Macy, "I think he's scared of big emotional parts - he thinks actors shouldn't cry - so I wrote a big tearful, emotional part just for him."

Anyone who knows Anderson's movies knows that they celebrate the San Fernando Valley, the city "over the hill" that Angelenos feel duty bound to hate in the way other Americans feel duty bound to loathe Los Angeles itself. "Boogie Nights and Magnolia are both fuck-you celebrations of the Valley," says Anderson. "I don't hate it simply because I grew up there, in Studio City. I'm just always nostalgic for it. It makes me comfortable. I wrote this article for the New York Times about it and I said as a kid I was really self-conscious, because I wanted to be a director but I was 'from the Valley...' It wasn't like I was in a war with John Ford, or I grew up on the streets of New York. I'm from the Valley. What do I have to offer? And once you get past that insecurity, you're all set. So many people from Hollywood, the other side of the hill, they just rag it so hard. Whatever, fuck it, I love it."

Anderson's late father Ernie, to whom Boogie Nights was dedicated, was for years "The Voice of ABC" and made a living doing voiceovers for the ABC network. In a previous life, back in Cleveland, Ohio, Ernie had worked as a local TV announcer who gained fame as the Ghost-Host Ghoulardi. He introduced broadcasts of horror movies in a costume and mask, interrupted the screenings, talked over the dialogue and generally delighted his juvenile audience with every manner of inspired idiocy.

They still mention him from time to time on The Drew Carey Show - and always in tones of reverence. "He was very wonderful, totally unique," says Anderson, whose films are filled with fathers both real and surrogate. Anderson scorned film school, though he attended NYU for two days. "I had a feeling that I didn't want to go there anyway. The first day I took some pages from a David Mamet script and handed them in as my own - and it got a C-plus. I thought they should go fuck themselves because Mamet - you know, Pulitzer prizewinner, great playwright - he deserved a little better than a C-plus.

"I met all these people who said 'I'm gonna go learn about movies at film school.' And I would say, 'You're what? Watch your fucking TV! That's what it's for!'" Anderson once said you could learn more from the director's commentary on the laser-disc version of Bad Day at Black Rock than from 10 years in film school.

After that he worked odd-jobs ("messenger, bird shop assistant") before securing a place in the Sundance director's workshop. "I'm not really a Sundance baby, but they helped me so much I feel I have to acknowledge it," he says, perhaps reluctant to associated himself too closely with Planet Redford. Then came Sydney, a noirish character study with Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Baker Hall ("one of the best American actors alive" and an Anderson regular) set in Reno. Anderson is very happy that the backer, Rysher Entertainment, is now defunct. "They were altering the performances. They were butchering it. Rescoring it, reformatting it. I shot the film widescreen and they reformatted it 1:1.85. I mean that's fucking insane - its a very conscientiously framed movie - and every shot changed. Literally every composition."

Luckily he had his own cut and it was this version that won awards at several festivals. "It made me very gun-shy, anxious to be in total control." With Boogie Nights he was in the gentler care of Fine Line, but still had to deal with the MPAA ratings board. "They're not bad people and a lot of the things make perfect sense, but a lot of them don't. We'd say, 'I understand that blood and sex is not good in the same scene or the same shot, but can you explain about humping and talking at the same time?' I don't get that - what should I do?"

You meet the megaplex movie fan in Anderson when you ask him who he'd like to work with in future and whose work he's looking forward to. Where previously he has sung the praises of Max Ophuls as the world's greatest proponent of the moving camera, and namechecked Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, now he's talking about how much he wants to see the new Jonathan Demme movie ("Whatever it is, I don't care"), and the next Tarantino film. "I'm really looking forward to Mission: Impossible 2. I'm a John Woo fan, sure, but I'm really a Tom Cruise fan. I asked Cruise about it after I saw the trailer (an absurdly kinetic 45 seconds of Woo magic) and he said, 'It's all like the trailer!' I can't wait."

The real surprise came when I asked him who he'd like to work with. "Somebody I'd really like to use is Adam Sandler. I just cry with laughter in his movies." As far as I can determine he's not being facetious. He also admires Daniel Day-Lewis. "He's just a powerhouse. All of his films are really solid." And of his own future? "Images, thoughts, ideas, preliminary stuff. But I'm determined it'll be 90 minutes. I'm gonna show the whole world."

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