Thursday, November 07, 2002

Interview: "Practical Insanity"

Honolulu Star, Written By Nadine Kam
November 7th, 2002

Paul Thomas Anderson chronicles the heroics of surviving from day to day

I am waiting for Paul Thomas Anderson to call, but in the daylight savings switcheroo, I'm wondering if "his people" got the time right given the time difference from L.A. They say 10:30; I'm thinking 11:30 is more likely. I'm not risking the chance of missing the director's call, so I'm waiting by the phone by 9:30 a.m.

Trouble is, I also need to feed my parking meter before the meter maids start circling my car because I refuse to pay for monthly parking because it's like paying for six feet of nothing when I have more pressing expenses and somehow with streets full of two-hour meters I end up at a one-hour one. After several cups of water I need to head off to the restroom and I have bill payments due yesterday to get into the mail. Do I stay or do I go now?

The waiting is agony and I feel as anxious as Barry Egan, the protagonist of Anderson's latest effort, "Punch-Drunk Love."

In Anderson's universe, where normalcy equals strangeness, that's not a bad thing. I relay all of this information when he calls close to noon and he chuckles softly even as he apologizes for being late. He had errands to run in preparation for his trip to London where he will screen "Punch-Drunk" at the London Film Festival, which started yesterday. Earlier this year at Cannes, the film won him the Best Director prize, an honor he shared with Korean director Im Kwon-taek for "Chihwaseon" .

His films, including "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," are all about pointing out the absurd ways in which people blunder their way through life, but rather than being critical, Anderson seems to find something heroic about the effort to keep forging onward, and that heartfelt empathy comes across in his work.

Take the "Punch-Drunk" character Barry Egan. He was modeled on a real "Pudding Guy," civil engineer David Phillips, who accumulated 1.25 million airline points -- a lifetime of travel -- by spending $3,000 on 12,150 cups of Healthy Choice pudding in a grocery promotion awarding bonus miles for purchases.

"I was intrigued by this kind of weird insanity that is also so practical," Anderson said. "I laughed when I heard about it, but I related to it, where you get so caught up in something that you see it as truth and commit 100 percent to reaching that goal.

"I thought that was really sweet and something really nice at the end of the day, to do something that would get you out of the house, and I can understand that because I like to travel."

Maybe in another life in which he wasn't an acclaimed filmmaker, Anderson might be that pudding guy, but he considers himself "quite normal" -- eating at Tokkuri Tei, Buzz's in Kailua and ramen at Jimbo's (you can almost hear the drool over the phone line as he reminisces about the curry and hot udon with egg and veggies), just like the rest of us when he's in town. Simple pleasures for a simple guy, save for his facile way with complex stories and obsession with filmmaking.

Anderson got his start working as a production assistant on music videos when rap and hip-hop music were beginning to hit the mainstream. "Every week there was a new hip-hop album, and the videos were kind of ... bad. But I wasn't making them. I was getting coffee, setting up cameras and dollies. Being there, I learned; mostly I learned I didn't want to do that other stuff. I wanted to be a director."

That he did, on his own terms, writing his own scripts even after famously dropping out of a New York University screenwriting class after two days, finding their way of thinking too formulaic and stodgy.

He struggled to make the 30-minute short "Coffee and Cigarettes," which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993, and formed the basis for 1996's "Sydney," retitled "Hard Eight" a year later.

Anderson's breakthrough came with the highly praised "Boogie Nights" (1997), starring Mark Wahlberg as an innocent who finds refuge in the porn industry of the '70s and early '80s. But even that amazing ensemble tale could not prepare audiences for Anderson's three-hour masterpiece "Magnolia." The tale of love, loss, loneliness as affecting individuals whose lives intersect was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999 for best screenplay (losing to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense") and was realized well before the director turned 30.

Tackling such an ambitious project "takes a combination of confidence and arrogance and ego," he said, "But that sounds kind of negative. Really, it takes a kind of will, a persistence of vision, knowing that for me there really is no other option."

At the time "Magnolia" was released, much attention was focused on the soundtrack, with music by his friend Aimee Mann punctuating the story line with texture and lyrics. Songs ranged from the 3-decade-old Three Dog Night tune "One," to her own "Save Me," "Deathly" and "Wise Up," which is sung in the film by cast members, including Tom Cruise, in a contemplative, music-video ready montage.

Music and sound are essential elements in Anderson's films. Who can forget the scene in "Boogie Nights" in which a young man continuously drops firecrackers onto the ground at the home of a drug lord, making the audience feel the same jumpiness as the film's characters in not knowing what's going to happen next, except that it's likely to be bad?

Music that's dissonant and grating is brought to the forefront in "Punch-Drunk Love" to reflect Egan's, played by Adam Sandler, state of mind. After a time, anyone watching will feel driven to grip the edge of their seat or hold their heads, hoping the music will end. And it does. But only after Egan makes it to Hawaii in pursuit of the woman he loves, played by Emily Watson.

That's when the sickly blue-gray of California's San Fernando Valley gives way to a lush, healthy Technicolor glow, and at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Egan's lulled by the sounds of local performers the Ladies K -- Kaila Gouveia and Maggie Kuulei Bilermo -- singing the Andy Cummings tune "Waikiki."

In most films, music seems like an afterthought, with the director handing an edited copy of the film to a sound guy. For Anderson, music is integral to the film and his writing. Composer Jon Brion was brought in early to create music played while the actors did their scenes.

For "Punch-Drunk," Anderson said, "I wanted something abrasive, percussive, mixed with lush, good old-fashioned romantic Hawaiian stuff.

"I think movies are 50 percent seeing and 50 percent hearing, and if you don't have one, you're shortchanging the audience."

Anderson was not even born when Three Dog Night released "One" in 1969, and only 9 when Supertramp released "Breakfast in America," with two songs off that album, "Goodbye Stranger" and "Logical Song," featured in "Magnolia."

"I had older brothers and sisters who listened to any kind of rock music, and my father was into big-band jazz. There's not a lot of music I don't like," he says, confessing to be a frustrated musician who "can't play a lick of any song."

He cast the Ladies K after a visit the Royal Hawaiian to examine life in touristville. "As many times as I've been to Hawaii, I'd never visited this famous place, and I decided to check it out one night."

Head Lady Gouveia recalls, "He was in the audience one evening with his girlfriend Fiona Apple, and he said he liked what we did. They were both so gracious and sweet, and he said he was coming back and would maybe put us in a movie.

"I wasn't going to hold my breath -- I didn't know who he was -- but I said, 'How nice.'"

That was in August 2000. He was back in January 2001, and the Ladies K were on the set for three days in March 2001.

"I heard a lot of horror stories about Hollywood types, so I was very surprised that we had such a nice experience with the whole production," Gouveia said. "People told me to get an attorney, make sure we get a contract. Something told me not to do anything, and I'm so glad I didn't."

Anderson seems to be the last person who would try to take advantage of anyone. He's being viewed as a champion of underdogs for having cast the unproved Mark Wahlberg -- still more widely known then as Marky Mark -- as Dirk Diggler in "Boogie Nights." The trend continued with his casting of animated doofus Sandler, long a punching bag for critics, in "Punch-Drunk."

And though it's expected that the Ladies K will be new to a national audience, they are equally obscure to most locals who never take the time to explore their own back yard.

"I think they're so wonderful, so gifted," Anderson said. "And when things are good and people don't pay enough attention, I get mad. It's like when you spot something great and you want to shout it to the whole world."

With so much to shout about, it's no wonder the writer-director doesn't bother with anyone else's scripts.

"I have enough trouble in my own brain, stories I want to tell from my experience. I think it would be interesting to adapt a book someday, but I just love writing. It's just one of the most exciting things you can do when it's cooking."

He's a frequent visitor to these isles, and holed up for two months in a private home to write "Punch-Drunk."

"It's helpful if you're writing in a place where the wind, mountains, temperature and ocean frees you to go with their rhythm. When I'm in Hawaii, I'm in a better mind-set."

He said he was going crazy while he was in New York after "Magnolia," challenging himself yet again by trying to write for "Saturday Night Live," where he met Sandler.

"I did that for a couple of shows. I wanted to try my hand at it, learn how they did it," he said. "I'm my own boss, but I wanted to see what it's like for writers for hire, and it was very stressful, so my hat's off to anyone who can do that. I think I'll stay to my day job."

And that goes double for his chanteuse girlfriend.

Asked whether he has any Guy Ritchie-Madonna ambitions, he said of their film "Swept Away," "Well, that didn't work out, did it? Not that I don't think (Fiona) wouldn't be great, she would be. But I'd worry about us killing each other."

He doesn't worry about critics, but he enjoys getting feedback from those affected by his film, even if their ideas have no relation to his intent. "It's always a trip when someone says they got something out of it, because after the film's done I feel removed from it. It's out in the world and it's confusing -- you have to wonder, Does it mean anything to anybody? So it's nice when people say it made them think. That's what it's supposed to do."

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