Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Interview: "Pleased As Punch"

Toronto Sun, Written By Bruce Kirkland
October 8th, 2002


Director of Punch-Drunk Love Delights in Dark Side of 'Goofy' Sandler

Maverick Hollywood filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson sips a fine white wine and gobbles down a plate of greasy french fries smothered in ketchup. He swears like a sailor on shore leave and is as sweet and good-natured as Bambi.

We're sitting in a back room of the bar at the swank Toronto hotel The Windsor Arms and Anderson, with his tousled hair and vaguely sleepy look, is dressed casually in battered jeans and a rumpled white shirt.

Looks are deceiving. This is the genius who, in the past seven years, has made some of America's most daring, innovative, intellectually risky and visually dynamic films: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and now Punch-Drunk Love. The new film opens Friday in limited release after appearing to much acclaim (but some minor nay-saying) at the Toronto film festival. Punch-Drunk Love is dark and brooding, at odds with its supposed positioning as a romantic comedy. It is prickly and eccentric. It is provocative and hypnotic. It is everything that cinephiles admire and Hollywood marketing teams hate: A film which cannot be neatly packaged, labelled and sold as a product tie-in with burgers and candy.




Yet Anderson cast gross-out funnyman Adam Sandler in the leading role, opposite the sublime English siren Emily Watson. But, instead of indulging the superstar comic with scenes awash in his usual juvenile jokes, he plumbed the depths of Sandler's psyche to explore the anger, the angst and the ache for love that only he saw hiding there in the train wreck of his comedy sketches.

"I just got such joy from his stuff," Anderson tells the Sun about his unbridled admiration for Sandler, particularly for his Saturday Night Live routines and three of his most popular movies: Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer and Big Daddy.

"It can be so fucking goofy," Anderson says, salting the phrase with one of his favourite words.

"But then it can be so filled with rage. It goes right from when he's the goofball -- and you can't help yourself, you giggle at how fucking stupid and silly it is and just funny for no reason -- to when he's really intense and really angry and really scary and still fucking funny. I thought, 'Oh my, this guy, there's a lot going on here!"

So Anderson was seized with the idea of Sandler, the idea of putting him into a flashy blue suit, the idea of making his character an obsessive compulsive who could not function in love or in the real world. He seized upon the idea of channelling Sandler's energy into collecting thousands of containers of junk food to capitalize on the frequent flyer miles they would generate (that notion came from a Time magazine article about a California civil engineer who scored 1.25 million miles by buying 12,150 cups of pudding for about $3,000, an air-travel bargain that made a mockery out of the true-life promotion).

BIZARRELY ROUTINE

The fictional character's bizarrely routine existence is thrown out of whack when he meets a sexy, if eccentric, woman played by Emily Watson. He is also thrown into chaos when he has to go home and interact with his gaggle of overbearing sisters, who bring out his inner demons.

Anderson figured Sandler could do all that and still maintain the creative impulses that make him so popular with mainstream audiences. So he went and met Sandler on the set of Little Nicky. They went to dinner together and Anderson was in awe of Sandler's persona in public, his ability to interact with his legion of fans.

"This is only validating what I thought was the truth when I was on the couch thinking it," Anderson says. Equally important was teaming him with Watson.

"The best," Anderson says of Watson. "God, she is the queen. I wish she could be here (at the Toronto film fest) but she's doing a play in London, which is such a drag because she's the engine behind this whole product. She is the key, the warmth and the class, without any pretension. You want to be great when Emily Watson's around. You want to do it right."

Anderson's fans already think he always does it right. Magnolia is a masterpiece, even if it did mystify many people with its rain of frogs, an inspiration from the Biblical plague that makes sense if you look up Old Testament passages that are sign-posted on screen.

Anderson also has a common, trashy side, such as the interest in pornography that led to Boogie Nights and inspired the phone sex that drives Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (routines Anderson says were from personal research).

DROPPED OUT

The Hollywood-born, 32-year-old Anderson has always gone his own way. He dropped out of film school at New York University and used his tuition money to fund a short debut film, Cigarettes and Coffee, in 1993. His first feature, Hard Eight, was released in 1996.

Ask him why he makes movies and he answers, with a wry smile, "To get attention."

Pressed further he says, "It's ego -- I've got something to say. The impulse is probably equal parts being really angry about things and being absolutely in love with a lot of things. I have so much interest in things and so much to say and, having a big mouth, you know, I ..."

His "big mouth" is expressed on screen, in his movies. But, right this moment, it's being stuffed with fries, which will be washed down with a delicate, refined white wine.

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