Spiegel, Written By nina Rehfeld
April 13th, 2003
The exceptional American director Paul Thomas Anderson about his new film “Punch-Drunk Love,” his penchant for unorthodox casting, and the connection between love and violence.
Spiegel: Mr. Anderson, you obviously like to engage apocalyptic scenarios. In “Magnolia” there were raining frogs, and in your new film “Punch-Drunk Love” there is a type of catastrophic whirlpool, in which your lead actor Adam Sandler is the catalyst. Where do these ideas come from?
PTA: From this secret place, where all ideas come from. But the situation, where one is pulled into such a whirlpool, is very old: that is Buster Keaton: the little man in the middle, who has shit always flying around him. One of the proven methods to bring verve into a story is to have a little fun.
Spiegel: Adam Sandler’s figure, the sympathetic/eccentric loser Barry Egan, is allegedly based on a real person.
Anderson: In part, yes. There is an engineer in California, who in fact bought $12,000 of pudding to get these frequent flyer miles. But it went even further: There was an promotion of seven or eight South American airline companies that wanted to advertise their flights between North- and South America. If you would fly on these airlines within a specific timeframe, they would promise you one million frequent flyer miles. This guy really did it. He was in twelve countries in four days. He now had something like five million frequent flyer miles. But I have no idea if he had violent outbursts, or what kinds of suits he wore.
Spiegel: Until now, Adam Sandler had mainly starred in crude comedies like “Big Daddy” or “Mr. Deeds”. For many, the casting of him in one of your films was a surprise. What do you see in Sandler that others miss?
Anderson: I believe I simply pay attention. I look very closely. I really love his films. I see what he does, and one should not take them so lightly. I wanted to write a film for him, although I originally only had pieces. He has something magical, a wonderful, soft confidence that is very rare.
Spiegel: You are notorious for casting big-named stars in unusual roles: Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights”, Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” – and now Adam Sandler.
Anderson: I simply get those who I think are right for the role at the time. Above all, I am interested in what kind of people they are. I don’t want to see them in a role, I want to see them as they really are. You should not try to make them into something completely different. I always try to build from their own personalities.
Spiegel: In this film, there are some very unnerving love scenes, in which Adam Sandler says to Emily Watson: “You face is so beautiful, that I’d like to smash it.”
Anderson: You don’t know that feeling? That feeling that you love someone so much, that you would like to devour them or kill them?
Spiegel: Do love and aggression go hand in hand for you?
Anderson: That question is too big for me. I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe it is a feeling of being run over by love and not being able to steer it in one direction – not to know how to get control of it again.
Spiegel: Sandler’s aggression seems to be coupled directly with his seven sisters in the film. Is your own life also full of dominant women?
Anderson: No, I only have one sister, a great woman. But I know a guy, who has seven or eight brothers, and slept every night with his eyes open, because they would always scare him and surprise him in the middle of the night. And then I saw this police show on TV, there was a guy who was arrested wearing a bloody shirt. He had fought with his sisters, who, as it turns out, had beaten him up. They asked him where they should bring him, and he said: to Shelley or to Dianne, I have six other sisters…I thought that didn’t sound too good for him. I wouldn’t want to change places with that man who stood there in the bloody shirt. But maybe it was also just my fantasy.
Spiegel: In “Punch-Drunk Love”, one’s imagination sometimes gets rattled from the hard contrasts and constant tempo changes.
Anderson: There is a lot there, when you don’t know what will happen next. There is an old rule that says, you can annoy your audience for two minutes, but don’t let them know ten seconds in advance what’s going to happen. I try to surprise the audience – they resist that.
Spiegel: Does this speak to your filmic dogma?
Anderson: What worked once does not necessarily have to work again. I often try out new things. You should not stop pushing yourself, to chase after things and to scare yourself a little. When I am excited about filmmaking, the audience will be also. When you lose sight of that, you risk shooting yourself in the ass.
Spiegel: After two films that were well over two hours long, you have made a film that is a brief ninety minutes – a measure of discipline?
Anderson: Yeah, I wanted to intentionally challenge myself and scare myself a little. I thought that’s how I would have to sort it out, by what I liked to watch and what bored me.
Spiegel: How difficult did you find that?
Anderson: The first two weeks were the real battle. I had the feeling that we were picking around at the idea, having no idea what we were doing, and somehow that it all didn’t make sense or didn’t work. First, the feeling finally set in: Okay, here it is, that’s right. Do you know the feeling when you write something and then rewrite in 900 times, but the only one that worked was the first one? But somehow you have to get through that whole doubt and searching first to understand that. It is as if you pulled it out of your ass, and it creeps into your head.
Spiegel: In Hollywood you are seen as kind of a prodigy, with your films regularly featured at all of the top festivals in the world. How do you handle that?
Anderson: Well, above all, there is a buzz and you always have to keep that in sight. It’s really bad when it starts to have influence on your work. You just have to put your head down and do your job. Otherwise you lose the understanding of that too quickly.
Spiegel: Are you actually a political person? Many of your colleagues have come out as sharp critics of the Bush administration…
Anderson: Isn’t George W. Bush the most exemplary American that we have? I think that he has lost sight of it! As a politician you can probably count him with the big ones – he is slick as an eel and clever, and he has been through the most impossible things. And no one can stop him. I always ask myself if George W. Bush really knows how powerful America actually is. It is like the bullies in a school who don’t know their own power. Every movement of America can harm the entire world. And Bush is like an elephant in a porcelain shop.