Saturday, October 12, 2002

Interview: "Director Now Punch-Drunk Over Comedy"

Seattle Times, Written By Moira MacDonald
October 13th, 2002

Paul Thomas Anderson, Oscar-nominated writer-director of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," has developed a trademark style over the past few years, crafting ensemble dramas about lost, confused souls seeking connection and community. And now he's made an Adam Sandler comedy.

Say what?

"It was a really conscious decision to do something else," says Anderson, 32, in town last month for a sneak preview of "Punch-Drunk Love." He was in a happy frame of mind and decided to try something new. "I felt good. It's all where you land."

The soft-spoken Anderson, whose 1997 breakthrough film was the remarkably confident mood piece "Hard Eight," doesn't really do things like anyone else. For one thing, a publicist warns me beforehand, he doesn't like to meet press in a hotel suite, as is standard — it's too artificial. (During our talk, he speaks passionately against the soul-deadening process of assembly-line junket interviews.)

So we meet in an elegantly lit bar at cocktail hour, where he strolls in sans publicists or entourage, and the whole thing feels a bit like a pleasant Internet-arranged date, with one person scribbling notes throughout. We talk about old movies — Anderson loves musicals, from the Astaire/Rogers vehicles to the '50s MGM classics, and says he's "really obsessed" by the film and TV works of the late comedian Ernie Kovacs — and, inevitably, about Sandler.

"I wanted to learn from him," said Anderson. "Audiences just connect with him on a massive level." He recalled an evening at home when his girlfriend (musician Fiona Apple), after a bad day, said, "I just wanna watch Adam Sandler!" Anderson, no stranger to A-list celebrities (he's cast the likes of Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow), describes walking down an L.A. street with Sandler and being "absolutely mobbed" by fans.

For a director whose films receive critical acclaim but limited audience exposure, it's understandable that Anderson might be intrigued by what Sandler could bring. The comedian plays Barry Egan, a low-rent businessman (he sells novelty plungers — "the kind that don't break" — from his office in an anonymous warehouse) with anger-management issues, seven smothering sisters and an unspoken, desperate longing for love.

When blue-eyed Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) strolls into his warehouse, his life changes in ways at first unpredictable, then in the gloriously conventional path of romantic comedy. Along the way, there's some of the strangest pillow talk you'll ever hear, and the naïve charm of Shelley Duvall singing "He Needs Me" (from "Popeye").

"Punch-Drunk Love" is a story both dark and light; and the way Anderson coaxes different shades into Sandler's performance is uncanny. The film made its premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where Anderson was one of two recipients of the best-director award.

While a few members of his unofficial repertory company appear (Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman), many of the supporting roles are played by nonprofessionals. "It's a new group of crazy people," said Anderson of the new ensemble, acknowledging that it's hard to find young actors for small parts. "They're all concerned with headshots and cellphones — everything but the job."

Of Barry's seven kvetching sisters, six are played by non-actors (four of whom are related). Recalling their scene, a party at which all seven simultaneously harass their brother, Anderson grins. "I would call 'Cut,' and then 'Did I call cut?' Nothing would happen — they just kept going." Also cast were four blond brothers from Utah, as a group of thugs who pursue Barry. Anderson's casting director found one of them, who mentioned that he had three brothers. "It was perfect," recalled Anderson — "a guy with all these sisters being chased by four brothers."

In addition to finding love, Barry has another quest: He's buying massive amounts of pudding to cash in on a frequent-flyer promotion. This part of the movie is based on a true story, and was the original spark for Anderson's screenplay. David Phillips, a civil engineer at University of California, Davis, purchased 12,150 cups of Healthy Choice pudding two years ago, earning 1.25 million miles, for a total of $3,000.

"He's hysterical," said Anderson, who met with Phillips. "I mean, he bought all that pudding." Anderson optioned the rights to Phillips' story, and thus "Punch-Drunk Love" was born. (Phillips is still using his miles; last time Anderson talked to him, he was off to Sweden to pick out a Volvo for his wife.)

Anderson's brief Seattle visit, with Sandler in tow, was part of a five-city tour to slowly roll out the film. Turns out Anderson loves Seattle's Cinerama Theatre, and wanted to see one of his films play there. "I just wanted to come to Cinerama — to sneak away and show it, to put the movie out into the world. It's nice for the movie, and makes me happy."

Finally, publicists arrive and spirit Anderson away. A few hours later, he's answering post-screening questions to a packed house. He's less forthcoming than he was one-on-one; a question about the meaning of Barry's ever-present blue suit is answered with, "I don't know." (Earlier, he'd said it was a tribute to Technicolor MGM musicals, like "The Band Wagon" and "Singin' in the Rain," where there's always somebody in a bright-blue suit.)

Whether or not he's comfortable in front of a crowd, Anderson is clearly tickled by "Punch-Drunk Love." As for what's next — well, it depends on how he's feeling. This time, said Anderson, "I was just in a romantic-comedy mood."

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