LA Times, Written By Kenneth Turan
May 20th, 2002
The filmmaker whose creative drive was seen in 'Boogie Nights' and 'Hard Eight' has taken on the romantic-comedy genre, and he's determined to push the limits.
CANNES, France--"It's so simple," Paul Thomas Anderson says, looking out at the rain from the marble-floored living room of the rented villa shared with about a dozen of his cast and crew just outside of town. "A camera, film, a microphone. Stuff comes in, stuff goes out. That's it."
Except that with Paul Thomas Anderson, nothing is ever quite like that. Simple is just not in the cards.
It doesn't take more than seconds in the presence of this gifted, aware 31-year-old writer-director to feel the intensity and creative zip that led to "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." He is, in the best sense, a filmmaker who is driving everything--the audience, the form, his collaborators, himself most of all--to go further than they have before. Which is how his latest film, "Punch-Drunk Love," which premiered at the Festival de Cannes on Sunday, came to be.
The idea, Anderson explains, was to shake himself up, "to strive for a 90-minute length, to strive for romantic comedy," to not, in short, do business as usual. "I felt like I'd become pretty good to a certain extent at my job," he says. "I wanted to scare myself."
The result is a blithe misfit tango starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, a romantic comedy as wonderful as it is strange that expands the genre to its absurdist outer limits and makes us believe. Sandler plays a nonflying small businessman obsessed with amassing frequent flier miles, an innocent as prone to violent moods as only someone systematically squashed by seven sisters can be, while Watson is the woman who still manages to fall for him.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were never like this, but then again, maybe they were.
"I've always loved the romantic comedy genre, especially Astaire-Rogers movies like 'Carefree' and 'The Gay Divorcee,' but they're a bit out to pasture, they've kind of become standard, like action movies," Anderson says. "These are dark, confused days for movies; stuff is not working. It's a good opportunity for small revolutions to happen, for filmmakers to feel a responsibility to mix it up a bit."
Anderson also had a long-standing passion for working with Sandler, for a very basic reason. "He's always just made me laugh, he gets me, I wanted a piece of him," the director explains. "And he's amazing in his approach. He just does it; he works from instinct, from his gut. Sometimes there's nothing more disturbing than an actor parading the work, where you say 'look at the cheese on that.' I want to see acting with a capital A when I'm in the mood for it, but sometimes it's 'back off on the fromage.'"
Anderson wrote Sandler's character of Barry Egan specifically with the actor in mind, and it's hard to imagine someone else playing the man's particular contradictions. "I wanted just to write a real guy," the director explains, "not to be afraid of getting caught in the trap of character. Writers are always worried about moments that are 'out of character,' but everyone does things they don't want to do, where you wonder 'where did that come from?' We're all a bit of a mess."
One of Egan's most noticeable traits, his determination to take advantage of a marketing loophole and accumulate huge numbers of frequent flier miles, is based on a real person, a civil engineer at UC Davis who gained 1.25 million miles by buying 12,150 cups of Healthy Choice pudding for $3,000.
"This made sense to me," says Anderson, who read about it in Time magazine. "And, for whatever reason, pudding is funny."
Egan's other defining characteristic, having seven sisters, though partially due to Anderson's passion for "high concept ideas, like the seven dictionary makers in 'Ball of Fire,' " also has a real-life connection. "I'd seen an episode of 'Cops' where the guy had his shirt off, he was all scratched up and crying; one of his sisters had beaten him up. The cops needed to take him somewhere, and he kept naming all these other sisters he couldn't go to. Someone asked how many there were and he said, 'I have seven.' And it was like, 'That poor guy.'"
Not only is some of "Punch-Drunk" based on real people, it also has real people in it. Lots of them. The four blond Mormon brothers from Utah who are the bane of Barry's existence are played by four Mormon brothers from Utah, and four of the seven sisters are related to each other (two are sisters, and two others are their cousins.) More than that, with the exception of Sandler, Watson and co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman and Mary Lynn Rajskub, everyone on screen is a nonprofessional.
"I just thought that would be more fun or more interesting, and I got a bit bored by casting sessions," Anderson explains. "You go on a location scout, you find a place with people and you say, 'We've got to make the actors look like that.' I thought, 'Why don't we just ask them if they want to be in the movie?' That's better than having 20 people outside an office waiting to say, 'More pudding, sir?' until someone says, 'You've got the job.' It saves lot of heartache and trouble."
Using real people also fit in with Anderson's overall determination to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. "Picasso said he spent his youth trying to paint like the old masters and the rest of his life trying to paint like a child," he says. "We had a plan of attack not to have a plan of attack. I told Emily to throw the ways she's worked before out the window.
"The main thing was, 'We don't know where we're starting, but we're not starting here.' OK, but what does that mean? We'll find it as we go along."
That finding turned out to take longer and be more complicated than anticipated. "I struggled initially; there were scary moments when I didn't know what I was doing," Anderson says. "We scrapped the first two weeks of shooting because I was still making the same movie. I had to educate myself on how to keep it simple."
Proving an unexpected ally was the threat of Hollywood strikes in 2001, which although they never materialized had actors so lined up with back-to-back projects that both Sandler and Watson had other movies they were committed to before filming on this one originally was scheduled to end. "That was the best thing that ever happened," the director says. "We were able to stop and then start again. We stretched the shooting and editing out over a year and a half; it just became a great accidental way to learn. So much about making movies is not conducive to any kind of creative thinking. It was a luxury to sit with it for a while."
One luxury Anderson denied himself was dunning Joe Roth, whose Revolution Studios financed the picture, for funds over and above the film's estimated $29 million to $30 million budget. "I told him, 'I'll never come ask you for more money. I can make it for this.' Movie-making can become a fair and simple game if that stuff is respected and kept to."
It is finally the filmmaking itself that means everything to Anderson.
Ask him about any aspect of this intricately put-together film, details such as the hypnotic digitally created plasma screen art by Jeremy Blake that fills the frame at key moments, and his eyes burn with the excitement of it all.
"That's the fun, that place where ideas come from, what you're seeing, doing and thinking about," he says. "I love to work."