Boston Globe, Written By Wesley Morris
October 14th, 2002
Paul Thomas Anderson scales back his scope with 'Punch-Drunk Love' but remains committed to stretching your mind.
Paul Thomas Anderson is tall. He might be lanky, too. Today, he's kind of shaggy and fidgety but totally affable - if a little out of sorts. Somehow, he's managed to irritate his tailbone. This is a self-diagnosis: ''I must have sat on it weird."
Were he paler, he'd qualify for gaunt - like a self-styled hipster fronting a band whose records sell in the thousands and inspires talk of being the next great you-name-it.
But Anderson doesn't make garage rock. He makes movies, which is where he does his styling.
He might be the next Robert Altman, mining specific corners of America for irony, tragedy, and human comedy. For now, Anderson's corner is the San Fernando Valley, which is where his last three movies - ''Boogie Nights'' (1997), ''Magnolia (1999), and now ''Punch-Drunk Love,'' opening Friday - have been set.
''Punch-Drunk Love'' is neither a sprawling porn-industry family saga, like ''Boogie Nights,'' nor a three-hour saga that ends with a torrent of frogs, as did ''Magnolia.'' It's an Adam Sandler movie - a deeply felt one that dares to give Happy Gilmore a psyche, a soul, and a girl (Emily Watson) who's as lonely (and odd) as he is.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, a reclusive entrepreneur prone to implosion. He runs around the film in a post-office blue suit that evokes Gene Kelly in ''Singin' in the Rain'' as well as Jack Lemmon in ''Save the Tiger.'' The character is somewhere in between, veering from joy to pathos.
In a mere 90 minutes, the film includes a scam to get frequent-flier miles through proof-of-purchase coupons; an insidious phone-sex operator; and an orphaned harmonium. There are vibrant and undulating painted interludes, and the camera dances, sometimes to songs we don't hear, enough for the film to effectively pass as a musical, too.
Anderson is struggling to unite fringe and mainstream sensibilities. Maybe you're tired of hearing it, but at 32, he and his work are where this country's cinema should have the daring to go.
Has critical success spoiled Paul Thomas Anderson? No. He's an excellent listener - and, apparently, an even better friend. Not long after this conversation, he ran to check out his pal and P. T. Anderson player John C. Reilly, who's in town rehearsing for ''Marty,'' the musical. Then later in the week, he was off to Chicago to hang out with Altman himself.
Q. The high-five to Altman in ''Punch-Drunk Love'' is the Shelley Duvall song you use from ''Popeye.'' How does he feel about that - because he won't even talk about ''Popeye?''?
A. [Completely giddy.] Well, I'll tell you this. I showed it to him. We watched it together. And he's sitting in this chair. And ''He Needs Me'' came up, and he went [makes small conductor's gesture], and he started nodding his head. I said, ''What do you think?'' And he says, ''Great.''
A. [Back then] it was Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks and Bob Altman and Robin Williams in Malta in the late '70s. And you will hear [expletive] that will blow your mind. There was this Maltanese orchestra completely out of tune, bleeding through Shelley Duvall on the headphones, and they're kind of laughing at her. It was all just this disaster area. I asked [Altman] about it, and he was just completely confused: ''Well, those were the dark days.''
Q. How much of each new project for you is a desire to clear your brain out from what you were last working on?
A. I always think of it as wherever you last were, you always want to go left. I've been at this party. You spend so long with something in one mood that you're desperate for another mood or whatever's invaded your life at that moment. It's like a combination of wanting to dictate where you want to go and never really having a choice.
Q. So it sounds like a lot of your process is instinctive.
A. Yeah, I remember when I sat down to write ''Magnolia,'' after ''Boogie Nights. '' I was like, ''I just want to do something small. I just want to do something small.'' And it turned out to be the complete opposite. And in some ways it is, to me, still really small. It's long, but it's still really small.
Q. Here's the difference between those two movies for me: The smallness in ''Magnolia'' is protracted intimacy, and ''Boogie Nights'' is covering an era. ''Magnolia'' feels like a day, but a complete, lived-in day. All the things that can happen in a day happen in this one day.
A. That's how soap operas are! When you watch a soap opera, you're like, ''[expletive] that's a thick day.'' Getting from one side of the hospital to the other in a soap opera can take a week.
Q. How did you get from the scope of ''Magnolia'' to something smaller like ''Punch-Drunk Love?''
A. I have a hard time remembering which came first. I had pieces and chunks, and they're always in search of something. You know that feeling when you've got huge stacks [of ideas]? Well, what's gonna eventually win here? A lot of things needed a trigger or help. And somewhere around the same time, I wanted to do something with Adam Sandler. So he and the coupon thing [an actual case involving a man who got millions of frequent- flier miles from Healthy Choice pudding cups] were real triggers. But in a movie-movie sense I probably wanted to go ''How nice to make a romantic comedy.''
Q. Was that the result of having seen so many and thinking, ''That was bogus''?
A. Not so much. More like, if the movies that I go home and watch are Astaire-Rogers movies, why wouldn't I want to make one of those? Why wouldn't I try to make a movie that I would like to watch on a Saturday night? If I'm gonna get stoned and watch a movie, I'm not gonna watch ''Magnolia,'' you know what I mean? And that's the thing about Adam's movies that really appealed to me, too. I really got into them as I was editing ''Magnolia.'' And I thought [he bangs the table], ''I want some of that. How do I do that?''
Q. So you wrote this with Adam in mind.
A. You know what, as a real exercise I was really trying to figure out how movies that are 90 minutes make so much sense. I think it was about putting some kind of discipline on myself. Honestly, 90 minutes is good for your [expletive]. I was also thinking that I can't do this again when I make a movie, just invest so much emotion. As a result, I wrote it pretty quickly, really quickly - like four months. But then going to make it, we completely ended up taking another tack and shot almost as long as we shot ''Magnolia.''
What I was thinking about, too, was communicating with an audience. That's what I fell in with about Adam: That dude communicates to so many millions of people and does it obviously so very, very well. I was wondering, Isn't that the job? Isn't that the job we've been given, to communicate to people? What could be better than that?
Q. You're always gonna feel like a failure if you can't communicate with everyone.
A. Listen, at the end of Magnolia, I remember feeling like everyone is gonna see this. I think this movie will make $300 million. I think we did it guys. And then, you're like, ''Well, OK. '' You want everyone to see your movie. You want everyone to like your movie - now, because it's about to come out on Friday.
Q. Some people would argue that having a Tom Cruise [in ''Magnolia''] or having Adam Sandler in this film is a way of ensuring that people would see it.
A. [His face gets tight. And he can't find the words to respond. He looks wounded, like he might cry.] That's people that don't pay attention to Adam Sandler.
Q. You've gotten something out of him - or put something into him - that nobody else has.
A. I think it was nice for both of us. We're both really similar. He works with a very tight-knit group of people, and he's the auteur of his movies. And I have the same thing: a small group of people, and we make them together, and we put them out. And I think it was nice for both of us to step outside ourselves a little bit and come to each other. And we both benefited from a kind of like: ''Are you a little scared right now? I'm pretty scared, too. Good - let's try and go to work.'' And I've never had such nice time working with someone. I want to make a lot more movies with him.
Q. We were talking about communication before. And I was thinking about the Jeremy Blake artworks in the film. They add a sensory dimension; millions of Adam Sandler fans will see this and wonder what these interludes are trying to convey, in a way that the frogs posed a similar challenge in ''Magnolia.''
A. I hope it creates another kind of experience. But they come from a cornier place than you might think. Like something should go here. [Big laugh.] There's three of them. One's at the beginning of the movie. There's a second one in the middle of the movie because I had to cut something out. And I thought, ''I got just the thing to put there!'' It was like making music. You know, this could really use a guitar solo. And the third was toward the end when I was trying to figure out how to teleport somebody to another place.
Q. Let's face it, they're also pretty druggy.
A. Yeah, I think this is a good pot-smoking movie. I think that plays into the 90-minute thing.
Q. And ''Magnolia''?
A. Bad. Long. Bad idea. Don't smoke pot and watch ''Magnolia.''