Saturday, October 19, 2002

Interview: "Director Punch-Drunk With Joy"

Seattle PI, Written By Paula Nechak
October 19th, 2002

Paul Thomas Anderson has only made four feature films but he's one of our most original, insightful and invigorating filmmakers.

"Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and now "Punch-Drunk Love" have earned Anderson two Oscar nominations for original screenplay, a spate of awards from film festivals worldwide and the coveted best director's prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival (for "Punch-Drunk Love").

No wonder he's so darn cheerful when I meet him in the lounge of Seattle's Four Seasons Olympic Hotel. Anderson is rumpled and casual, easy to talk to, self-deprecating, unpretentious -- and he smokes like a chimney.

If anything, he's the antithesis of the guy who writes what might be deemed heavy, surreal films, teeming with characters wading through chaos, catastrophe and calamity in search of order and meaning -- you know, the stuff of great literature. It's a comparison that makes the 32-year-old writer and director laugh.

"If I ever set out to do something literary it would be preposterous. People probably only think that because my films are just kind of wordy."

Anderson had jetted into town because he wanted to screen "Punch-Drunk Love" at Paul Allen's Cinerama Theatre. He says it's the best movie theater around, and he was so excited about watching the film with an audience there that he urged his pal and the film's star, Adam Sandler, to fly up and join him in a Q&A after the movie.

"Punch-Drunk Love," which opened yesterday, is a departure for Anderson. It's smaller and goofier than the all-star ensemble productions of "Boogie Nights" or "Magnolia," and its dark screwball comedy and romance found their inception in a source other than Anderson's mind. His inspiration was a Time magazine article about civil engineer David Phillips, who became the "Pudding Guy" to the airline industry after he accumulated 1.25 million frequent-flyer miles by purchasing 12,150 cups of Healthy Choice pudding during a mileage promotion.

Anderson fleshed out the idea, renaming Phillips "Barry Egan," and added a romance with enigmatic Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a hilariously dysfunctional set of seven sisters from hell for Egan and a subplot about a phone-sex scam. He wrote the script for the film's two stars, Sandler and British actress Watson, who was looking for something contemporary and light after "crying or dying" in films like "Breaking the Waves" and "Hilary and Jackie."

I note these two disparate-seeming talents both have roots in repertory -- one comedic and the other classic, and that they have more in common than people know.

"Right," he says. "They also have a similar work ethic and come from a communal place of doing that work. It's why the three of us got along so well. You always hear that -- 'we got along so well' -- but we did, we had difficulties but we also had a ball.

"Good actors make a film have weight, you know? And now Emily was allowed to have a try at a Hollywood film ("Red Dragon") as a result of doing this movie. If you're a British actress in a movie with Adam, more Hollywood people will know who you are."

Anderson is one director who allows a superstar like Sandler to transcend his screen persona in a film. Think of him casting Tom Cruise, who got away from his hero image to play an angry, swaggering "seduce and destroy" guru in "Magnolia." It earned Cruise a best supporting actor nomination and a Golden Globe award. Similarly, "Punch-Drunk Love" may nudge Sandler out of his lightweight-comedy niche.

Anderson says they are both actors who "control their own destinies. They're both auteurs of the things they do, so it's probably nice when someone comes in and says, 'I can take it from here.' It lifts a burden off of them." That said, Anderson's making of a film that was smaller in scope was still fraught with what he calls his penchant for "making everything as challenging as I possibly can when it could have been so simple." He laughs. "We probably could have been in and out of there in 30 days, but alas.

"The script was always changing. I've never worked this way before and it was pretty addicting. I'm not in a rush to do it again but we were in a great position. We'd already gotten our jobs as director, actor and actress and so it was a little indulgent. So often you make a movie and miss out on the process, you have to make your days, you can't show up and not know what you're doing that day.

"But with a certain kind of movie, a project like this with a small crew, you can have that happen. But you have to be careful and not mess around or behave too stupidly. Do you know how many times you can rewrite something only to find it was right the first time?"

Still, Anderson, for all the attention paid to his scripts, concedes it's the actors "who help make a film have weight. I think I made a big leap in figuring out how to do my job when I realized the only thing the audience is looking at is a person's face."

What about the acclaim as a filmmaker? How does it feel to win the best director prize at Cannes? "Acceptance always feels good," he says. "But I've always got to ruin it in some way, though, so I don't feel comfortable. I mean, I always feel like an imposter anyway so when (it) fades, I'm always consumed by 'what am I doing?' and 'what do I want?' "

"It's a funny thing, because my memory of making this film is that I'm always concerned with the audience. I'm thinking, 'Does this communicate, does this work, is this funny, is this scary?'

"I try to please myself and challenge myself but not be selfish," Anderson says. "I want it to be exciting for the audience."

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