Guardian, Written By Xan Brooks
January 27th, 2003
Will filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson ever cool down?
Standing in his hotel kitchenette, Paul Thomas Anderson veers between the conciliatory and the combative. On the one hand, he's truly sorry to have cancelled our meeting yesterday, and then to have kept me waiting around today. And on the other he's really not, "because, y'know, these interviews make me feel like a fucking asshole. They can't be good for my soul. The whole thing just isn't natural, is it?" He fixes me with a bug-eyed stare. "You want coffee? I don't want coffee, I'm too wired to drink coffee. Wine? I could do with some wine." And he stoops to fish a bottle from the fridge.
Two minutes in, I understand why Anderson claims that the hero of his latest film, Punch-Drunk Love, is largely autobiographical. As played by Adam Sandler, lowly Barry Egan is a clown with anger management issues. Henpecked by his seven sisters, he responds by kicking out a picture window. Flustered during a dinner date, he excuses himself in order to smash up the bathroom. Anderson - slender, cerebral, a boyish 33 - says he's a lot like that himself, prone to temper tantrums and hailing from a large family (three siblings, four half-siblings) where he had to scrap for his space. He reckons such behaviour has served him well during a vibrant Hollywood career. "You have to be a brat in order to carve out your parameters, and you have to be a monster to anyone who gets in your way. But sometimes it's difficult to know when that's necessary and when you're just being a baby, throwing your rattle from the cage. So I can be a real arrogant, bratty prick at times. But maybe not so much now," he says. "Really."
Anderson's two previous films - Boogie Nights and Magnolia - were works of huge ambition for one so young: teeming, multi-layered ensemble pieces. But Punch-Drunk Love is something else again. It's short (90 minutes), sharp and altogether unstable; a nail-bomb in the guise of a romantic comedy. The director has described it as "an art-house Adam Sandler movie", which only begins to pin down its unique pedigree. Sandler, of course, is best known as the gurning putz from such mainstream outings as Big Daddy and The Wedding Singer. But Anderson has somehow flushed out a darker, more dysfunctional side to the clown's persona. With Punch Drunk Love, he's isolated a subtext and expanded it into a movie.
So on the one hand Anderson's film is brilliant: wired with jittery emotions and threatening to break off in any direction. And on the other it's possibly just too abrasive for comfort. "Yeah, but I guess that's what I like in films myself," he explains between slugs of wine. "I really subscribe to that old adage that you should never let the audience get ahead of you for a second. So if the film's abrasive and wrongfoots people then, y'know, that's great. But I hope it involves an audience. If not, that's my fuck-up."
I suspect, however, that he doesn't believe this for a moment. For a start, Anderson does not strike you as the type to doubt his own abilities. Then there is the fact that the pared-down Punch-Drunk Love is actually just as thought-through and refined as his (lush, abundant) Magnolia. The film already sounded fully conceived three years ago, when Anderson presumptuously told interviewers that his next project would star Adam Sandler and clock in at 90 minutes. The director lights up when I remind him of this. "I did pretty good, huh?"
But today he's being more wary with his predictions. "Well I'd really love to work with Robert De Niro," he says vaguely, "because he's still the most talented actor out there. Maybe he makes some bad choices, which can be frustrating. On the one hand, you want to say, 'What the fuck's going on?' On the other, you can't get mad at him for wanting to work, because most actors would be murderers if they weren't working." He drains his glass and eyes the depleted bottle. "But I don't know what film I'm going to make next. I don't have much of a roadmap right now."
Then again, Anderson has never steered the conventional route. A rowdy kid, he was kicked out of junior high and later despaired of ever making movies. After graduation, he rattled from community college to Boston University to New York film school before bailing out to raise funds for his first movie. The result was Hard Eight, a modern-day noir starring Philip Baker Hall, John C Reilly and a pre-stardom Gwyneth Paltrow.
But hanging over this eccentric career path is the shadow of Anderson's father, who died in 1997. Ernie Anderson was, variously, a links man at American TV network ABC and "the ghost host Ghoulardi", a costumed presenter who introduced horror films on a local station in Cleveland. The trouble was that Ernie really wanted to be an actor, and never quite got the breaks. Or as Anderson puts it: "He was a bad actor, so he never really made it." Surely that's a little harsh. "No, he was bad," the director insists. "When we used to make home movies, he'd be in them and he was bad. We'd be like: 'You fucker. No wonder you couldn't get any jobs'."
You can't help wondering if Anderson's career isn't driven, in part, by his dad's failed ambitions. Certainly it would explain the preponderance of flawed father figures in his films, be it hangdog Baker Hall, Burt Reynolds's porn producer in Boogie Nights or Jason Robards's dying patriarch in Magnolia. Off-screen, too, Anderson appears to have sought out a surrogate dad in Robert Altman, the white-bearded maverick of US movies.
Most hotshot young directors go to great lengths to conceal their influences. Anderson makes no such effort. His Magnolia is nakedly Altmanesque in style, while the one song featured in Punch-Drunk Love (Shelley Duvall's sugary rendition of He Needs Me) is lifted straight from his idol's most notorious folly. "Oh yeah, Magnolia is obviously influenced by Nashville, and He Needs Me comes from Popeye. And that's fine. If people want to call me Little Bobbie Altman, then I have no problem with that at all. He's always been a big influence. Almost him as a man more than his movies. Just his fucking spark, y'know. And I've had the privilege to hang around with him a lot, and it's good to see him still angry. Still throwing punches."
It transpires that Anderson was in close contact with Altman during last year's controversy, when Altman lashed out at Bush's policies only to find himself demonised as an anti-American and harried by the right-wing press. "I think that bugged him out," Anderson says. "And I think it hurt him too. Because he's a curmudgeon, but he's also very sensitive. The whole thing was crazy. There were death threats, and that's a bit scary. But then they were also sending him pizzas." For a moment I think I must have misheard. Pizzas? Anderson nods vigorously. "Oh yeah. Oliver North gave out his address and phone number and said, 'Call up Bob Altman and give him a piece of your mind.' But their big act of aggression was to send him pizzas that he had to pay for. So all these pro-Americans were sending pizzas." By now Anderson is spluttering with laughter. "Like, are we in high school or what? I mean, what else were they doing? Making crank calls? Ringing up and asking: 'Is Mike Hunt there?' Lighting a bag of dog-shit on his porch? The fucking morons."
The director collects himself and eyes me, somewhat blearily, over his wine glass. "But that's funny, huh?" he says. "Isn't it funny?" And, a little bleary myself, I assure him that yes, it is indeed funny. Actually, I'm torn. On the one hand the notion of American patriots waging a pizza war on Robert Altman is highly amusing. And on the other there's something faintly disturbing about it. Rather like Punch-Drunk Love, in fact. Rather like the man who made it, too.
Punch-Drunk Love is released on February 7.