The Onion AV Club, Written by Josh Modell
January 2nd, 2008
Paul Thomas Anderson famously dropped out of NYU film school after just a couple of days, intent on beginning a career making movies. It worked: At 26, the writer-director released a remarkable debut feature, 1996's Hard Eight, which featured several actors that would become part of his troupe, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and Philip Baker Hall. Anderson's real breakthrough, though, came via 1997's Boogie Nights, a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking ensemble piece set in the porn industry. His even more sprawling Magnolia—another melancholy love letter to southern California—earned Oscar nominations and high praise; he followed that with the unsentimental, beautifully off-kilter romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler. Then Anderson seemed to disappear.
It turned out he was working on his magnum opus. The film, loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, stars Daniel Day Lewis in a remarkable performance as a single-minded 19th-century oil prospector. A departure from Anderson's other films, Blood ditches modern-day L.A. and his regular group of actors and focuses largely on one character—Day Lewis is in nearly every scene of the 158-minute film—and the effect of his dark drive on those around him, particularly a young preacher played by Paul Dano. One of 2007's best films, it renders this seemingly small story huge and powerful. A jovial Anderson recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Day Lewis, the melancholy of finishing work, and "message movies."
The A.V. Club: How did you first encounter Upton Sinclair's book?
Paul Thomas Anderson: I was in London, in Covent Garden, and it's impossible to miss. The title is in this enormous red lettering with an exclamation mark. Oil! That was the first I ever saw it, or heard of it. I had never read Upton Sinclair. I didn't read The Jungle in high school or anything like that. But it's pretty terrific writing.
AVC: What's your process of adapting like? Had you ever tried to adapt something before? All of your produced screenplays have been originals.
PTA: It felt like the first thing, but when I first started out, I got a job adapting a book by Russell Banks called Rule Of The Bone. I didn't do a very good job. I didn't really know what I was doing in general, let alone how to adapt a book. I really was confused by that, because I loved the book. I remember being taught in school that you would underline things that you liked. I remember just underlining everything as a kid, thinking, "This has all gotta be important!" I would just underline the whole thing! [Laughs.] I remember my dad saying, "I don't think you understand. Just underline key ideas." Anyway, I think that's what I did on that Russell Banks book. I felt like my job was to somehow transcribe it, which in that case, really wasn't the right thing to do.
So with There Will Be Blood, I didn't even really feel like I was adapting a book. I was just desperate to find stuff to write. I can remember the way that my desk looked, with so many different scraps of paper and books about the oil industry in the early 20th century, mixed in with pieces of other scripts that I'd written. Everything was coming from so many different sources. But the book was a great stepping-stone. It was so cohesive, the way Upton Sinclair wrote about that period, and his experiences around the oil fields and these independent oilmen. That said, the book is so long that it's only the first couple hundred pages that we ended up using, because there is a certain point where he strays really far from what the original story is. We were really unfaithful to the book. [Laughs.] That's not to say I didn't really like the book; I loved it. But there were so many other things floating around. And at a certain point, I became aware of the stuff he was basing it on. What he was writing about was the life of [oil barons] Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair. So it was like having a really good collaborator, the book.
AVC: When you finish a film, are you generally pretty confident in it? At what point in the process do you know that it's good, or great, or the opposite? Do you need to see it with an audience?
PTA: It's back and forth all the way along. You definitely have moments of confidence, where you feel like, "We got something great today!" And you go home at night, completely unable to sleep, mad with enthusiasm and confidence. A couple of days later, you're lost again and struggling to make sense out of something. But that's okay. I actually enjoyed the struggles that we had trying to shape Blood, to get the pacing right, the rhythm of it. I showed it to family and friends, and we kind of knew the parts that we didn't like, or that we wanted to work on. Speaking for me and Dylan [Tichenor, editor], we knew the parts that we wanted to work out, that we weren't happy with. But there's a certain point where you're desperate to show it to somebody, and you put it in front of friends and family, and, lo and behold, the thing that you suspected wasn't working certainly was not working. And then you get that thing that opens your eyes to the bits and pieces you thought were flying that really weren't as great as you thought. Face to face with having to show it to your friends, you find yourself becoming a little less confident. It's that battle, a never-ending thing. Then when you do get to the end—I know when we got to the end of this film—we were really happy. I really felt like we did what we wanted to do, that we'd worked it hard enough that we could be proud of it. But that said, nothing prepares you for that melancholy when you've finished it. It's always a little bit depressing.
AVC: It's strikingly dissimilar to the rest of your movies; did you feel, when you were making it, that you were outside your comfort zone?
PTA: The struggles are the struggles no matter what. It definitely felt good to be outside of the comfort zone. I remember feeling like, "I should really try to enjoy this, because it will be over so fast." And it was. We had such a good time making the film, and I remember jumping ahead to the end, saying "In three months, it's going to be over." Quite honestly, I wish we were still making the movie. It's been really hard to let go of.
AVC: And yet it's easily the darkest thing you've ever done.
PTA: Definitely. But I like that. That's a good thing—it feels right. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've described it as a horror movie. Do you still feel that way?
PTA: I do feel that way, in the way of, "What's the best way to look at this story?" You're always coming up with bullshit ways to describe it, that for whatever reason can help communicate to everyone, like, "We've got to think of this movie as a boxing match between these two guys, and attack it like a horror story." Those are just ways to describe whatever the marching orders might be. They come in handy, those kinds of descriptions.
AVC: It's a bit surprising at how many laughs Daniel Day Lewis gets in uncomfortable spots, especially at the end.
PTA: It's great, isn't it? [Laughs.]
AVC: Is that how you felt when watching it with an audience? Were you expecting people to laugh?
PTA: I wasn't expecting it, but I was hoping for it! We used to laugh so much, but there is this completely nerve-wracking feeling, like, "Fuck, I hope they laugh."
AVC: How much, if any, of Lewis' character's misanthropy do you share? I just read this New Yorker review that described you as "pessimistic, even apocalyptic," which seems incredibly off the mark.
PTA: Yeah. Fuck, I'll take it. Sure. Yeah. [Laughs.]
AVC: But do you have that in you?
PTA: Absolutely, absolutely. We all do, don't we? I know that I do. It would be insane to say that I don't, that we all haven't had murderous thoughts. But we're socialized. We don't really do those things that we think about doing.
AVC: Do you have any of the character's "competition" in you?
PTA: From time to time, certainly yes, of course. But mostly, no. As I get older, I have less and less of it in me.
AVC: You wrote the part for Daniel Day Lewis. Had you met him before?
PTA: I hadn't, no.
AVC: So was sending him a half-finished script a shot in the dark?
PTA: More or less, but we had a mutual friend who had let me know how Daniel felt about Punch Drunk Love, which was that he was incredibly complimentary. So I was armed with that to give me a boost of confidence. Without that, I don't know what I would have done. I mean, yes, I would have made that leap and risked failure. But it was really nice to have that kind of encouragement to think, "Well, he liked that."
AVC: You've said that you spent a lot of time preparing, the two of you. What was the process like, working out what his character would be like, and how you were going to tell the story?
PTA: Well, we spent a couple of months together in New York. I just remember a lot of eating breakfast and a lot of walking around, more or less getting to know each other and not talking that much about the movie—just this flirtation, like dogs sniffing each other out, to get to know somebody that you're gonna get married to. We decided that we would make the film together, or more to the point, he decided that he would make the film with me. [Laughs.] Then we went in separate directions; I was back in California and he was in Ireland. That was a really good time, because we were separately doing our work. I was still working on the script, and he was doing whatever he was doing. We never really asked each other what we were up to that much. As far as I'm concerned, I didn't need to give him anything more than he wanted to know. I was just there to answer any questions he might have. It was certainly not my job to start babbling away.
Those were really good days, and they accidentally went on for two years, because we tried to get the film going, and we couldn't get it going, and life intervened. There were babies born, backs broken—he hurt his back. One thing led to another, and we just did that more or less for a year. We thought it was time really well spent, and then when we started filming, I can't even tell you: It was like we were cooped up in the starting gate, and the second the starting gate opened, we fell flat on our faces with all of this energy. We had the most horrendous beginning of a film, for two weeks, just completely off of the mark. We got it together finally, but it was hilarious. We had been cooped up for too long.
AVC: So did you have two weeks of wasted film?
PTA: A little bit. There was some stuff that was salvageable. There was some stuff that we got that was good, really good, actually. But mixed in was some stuff that I wouldn't show to anyone—the most embarrassing, off-the-mark kind of stuff.
AVC: Do you recall, either in conversation or rehearsal, the first time you heard Daniel speaking in the unmistakable voice he uses for the film?
PTA: The voice came in these little Dictaphone recordings that Daniel would send me from time to time. It was funny, because my first impression of them was "This is insane!" [Laughs.] But those are usually the best things, the things that you have no preconceived idea about that rattle your world. When you're writing it, and you're alone in your room, it's great. It's just you. But the great thing is opening it up to someone else. You have to be selfless and allow this thing to happen. So I would get these Dictaphone recordings, which were alternately exciting and nerve-wracking. But after sitting with them, just for a day, I could see where he was heading. Somewhere along the way, he just kept finding it, and finding it, and finding it, until it settled into what it became. He must have a Dictaphone from the 1930s, because everything sounded antique coming out of this tiny little speaker. So it all sounded old to begin with. And he talked about this: A great benefit of what we were doing was that there were no voice recordings from 1911 that we could draw from. We could really do what we wanted.
AVC: Were you worried when you first got the recordings that the voice was too over the top?
PTA: I don't know what it was; it was as exciting as it was nerve-wracking. But I've had that so many times before. I remember Phil Hoffman showing me what he was going to do in Boogie Nights, and going, "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" [Laughs.] I remember being the same way when [composer and Radiohead guitarist] Jonny Greenwood was sending me score pieces. I was like "What?" But ultimately you have a day, maybe two days, to get out of yourself and see what another person was thinking.
AVC: It's been pretty widely reported that Daniel stayed in character the whole shoot. What exactly does that mean, and how does that affect your relationship on set?
PTA: I still don't know what that means. It's a major misconception that somebody is off the planet or something. But it's a level of concentration that is unparalleled, that's really what it is. Somebody who's come to do one thing, and only one thing, to be Daniel Plainview, and indulge in that for three months. Why wouldn't you take the opportunity to inhabit something else on a free pass for three months? It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. It really is the best way to do it, in my mind.
AVC: He's gotten tons of deserved ink, but what about Paul Dano? What do you feel like he brought to the table, and what was the chemistry between Daniel and Paul like? Loathing with some admiration?
PTA: That's a good way to put it, loathing with admiration. They had the benefit of working together before, so Paul knew what to expect, and Daniel gave Paul respect, underneath all of it. That said, they kept their distance from each other. But you can only play that game if there's an understanding—"I get it, you get it, let's get on with it. This is my line, don't cross it." It was like S&M, but we didn't have any safewords. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were there to provide the safeword.
PTA: But I was the last one who wanted a safeword! [Laughs.] It's my job to not have a safeword.
AVC: How many people are around when you're doing some of these really intense scenes, like the one in the bowling alley? It seems like, for actors working in that intense a scene, almost anyone would be a distraction.
PTA: It can be, if people are misbehaving or talking loudly, or wearing bright clothes, or chatting away. Ideally, in a perfect world, everyone is doing what Daniel is doing—concentrating on doing their job. And that's what we were all doing. You could say that we were all in character the whole time. The bowling alley is a particular situation, because it was so narrow that there could only be a very limited amount of people at any given time, maybe five or six behind the camera and then the two boys.
AVC: That was actually shot at the Doheny mansion, right? Was it ghostly?
PTA: It was great. It was funny, because that mansion has been used so many times in films; it's kind of this notorious location. Your first instinct as a filmmaker is, "Can we really shoot someplace that's been shot in so many times?" I think we had a free pass because this was the guy we were basing the film on. It's definitely pretty ghostly around there, without question. Daniel called it a pyramid that Doheny built to himself. I think that fits. It's kind of a mad place.
AVC: Some people will surely see it as a message movie because Upton Sinclair's name is on it, but for other obvious reasons as well. Were you thinking about modern-day strong-arm capitalism and mega-church religion while you were writing and shooting it?
PTA: I was thinking that we'd better be very careful not to do too much of that. And what I mean by that is what I said earlier, that we should approach the film as a horror film and a boxing match first. You know you're walking into a film about an independent oilman and a guy that runs a church. The risks that you run are big, long speeches that would help in paralleling or allegoricalizing, if that's a word. [Laughs.] We thought, "Let's be careful." That's a slippery slope, isn't it?
AVC: Sure, but you know it's there. Do you let a tiny bit of it in to avoid the floodgates opening?
PTA: I suppose that's probably what it is. It's so funny, because ideally, once you get underneath the skin of these men, that stuff falls away.
AVC: Is there a small part of you that hopes people take away an anti-capitalist message?
PTA: Do I hope the film brings peace to the Middle East? If we can help in some small way. We're just one film. [Laughs.]
AVC: One long film.
PTA: That's true. Maybe we should count as two.
AVC: Long films are required to have messages.
PTA: It's true, it's true! [Laughs.] That depends on how progressive you are, actually.
AVC: Do you think that people can watch it and not get that? Could a big oil tycoon watch it and just get a cracking good story out of it?
PTA: Chances are. I don't know. We've got to show it to the oil circuit, and see how they respond. [Laughs.] Maybe we'll take it to the religious circuit and see what they think.
AVC: It seems pretty obvious what kind of reaction you're going to receive there.
PTA: Does it? What do you think they are going to say?
AVC: I mean this in the best way, so don't take it the wrong way…
PTA: Uh-oh, I always get nervous when I hear that.
AVC: Your movies always seem very tidy. They might be sprawling, but they're very unambiguous. The conceit of so many independent films is to be ambiguous, maybe for its own sake.
PTA: I take that as a high compliment, actually. Thank you. I really do. We could have titled the movie There Will Be A Morally Unambiguous Ending. [Laughs.] That's really nice of you to say. Thanks.
AVC: Is ambiguity not in your filmmaking genes, then? Does it not appeal to you?
PTA: I don't know. It would require me to get objective and think too much. I'll just take the compliment.
AVC: The film is dedicated to Robert Altman. Was your experience working with him on Prairie Home Companion what you hoped it would be? You knew him a little bit, right?
PTA: I knew him pretty well, off and on for about 10 years, but I had gotten to know him particularly well in the last three or four years. I got to watch Bob navigate that film, and I watched how good he was at evading questions, in the best way. He was really good at not committing himself too early to something. He didn't impose his will early. He loved to work with people. He loved to see what they came up with. He would give things time to settle, to rise or to fall, and watching him do that was a great lesson in patience. Because at the end of the day, he invited everybody in to work on this film, but he ended up getting exactly what he wanted, and everyone else felt that they had been part of it, because they had. They really made the film with Bob. How he did that was a lesson to me.
AVC: Is that something that you feel you emulate? It seems like There Will Be Blood was very collaborative with Daniel.
PTA: I've had great collaborations in the past—some of the actors and the crew have been working together for years—and it felt like we were all working in great sync on this one. Maybe it was because we hadn't made a film together in a long time. We were all so happy to get back together and go to work, and work with some new people, like Daniel, and [production designer] Jack Fisk, and Jonny Greenwood. We really enjoyed making the film. I daresay a lot of us still wish we were making the film, and have had a hard time letting it go.
AVC: Will that spur you to dive into another movie more quickly?
PTA: Ideally. It's something we're all talking about. We'll take a little time off, and talk about what we'd like to get done in the new year. It would require me getting some writing done and finding some time to do that. Hopefully it won't take too long.