Interview Magazine, Written By (??)
American Epic 'There Will Be Blood'
Director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis on blood, oil, and how 'Gangs of New York' probably isn't Day-Lewis's most mom-friendly performance.
Quiet, stoic, and self-reliant Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) rapidly transforms into a wealthy tycoon when he discovers oil in the hard scrub of Southern California and is then driven by an almost demonic desire to extract the riches from the land he has acquired, regardless of the physical and spiritual price to himself and to the people who live there. Plainview eventually meets his match in the supposedly unassuming and deeply religious Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young yet quietly ambitious preacher in the charismatic tradition. The two recognize the same desire and ambition for power in one another and become locked in a bitter struggle that will bleed from one century into another.
The origins of There Will Be Blood can be traced to a bookstore in London, where homesick Paul Thomas Anderson spotted the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, which then became an unlikely life raft for the struggling writer/director.
"I had been trying to write something, anything — just to get something written," Anderson says. "I had a story that wasn't really working. It was about two families, fighting. It just had that premise. And when I read the book, there were so many ready-made scenes and the great venue of the oil fields and all that. So those are all of the obvious things that seemed worth making a film about."
Anderson explains that he quickly became engrossed in the book's early focus on rural California and the proliferation of derricks and oil fields as prospectors began crisscrossing the state. But he was reluctant to turn the film into a didactic treatise on power, capitalism, and religion, despite the fact that the source novel is rich with allusions to the big issues that confronted America's rapid expansion.
"[I was] aware of it [enough] to know that if we indulged too much in it or let that stuff rise to the top that it could get kind of murky. And it [becomes] a slippery slope when you start thinking about something other than just a good battle between two guys that see each other for what they are. [I was] just trying to work from that first and foremost…everything that is there falls into place behind it. It would be horrible to make a political film or anything like that," he says.
With a story and a setting firmly in his mind, Anderson then realized that Blood would be the ideal chance for him to work with an actor he admired and longed to collaborate with: Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis accepted the role two years before he finally got a chance to play it and says he relished the chance to put his unique spin on Plainveiw's forceful egoism and dark misanthropy.
"I never really saw him as a miserable prick," the actor says. "The challenge, I dare say, is the same as it always is, which is just to try and discover a life that isn't your own. And Plainview, as he came to me in Paul's beautiful script, was a man whose life I didn't understand at all. It was a life that was completely mysterious to me, and that unleashed a fatal curiosity, which I had no choice but to pursue. He's just a fellow trying to make a living. I believe you see the seeds of the man you meet at the end in the man you meet at the beginning. So it never occurred to me to think that his journey was a short one."
Shooting took place primarily in Martha, Texas — the same setting for the Cohen Brothers' No Country for Old Men and, perhaps more famously, for Giant, the 1955 classic starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. As a prospector, Plainview works the unyielding earth in solitude and, in an early scene in the film, falls down a mineshaft and breaks his leg. Taking on the role of Plainview was not just a physically demanding part; it also permitted Day-Lewis to experience first-hand the difficulties with which early pioneers of oil drilling struggled in order to learn and ultimately excel.
"When you discover Plainview at the beginning, he's almost learning himself how to do it. Anyone can swing an axe or a sledge. They kind of just made it up as they went along. Before cable rotary drilling became common use, they began by scooping this muck as it erupted out of the earth, scooping it up in saucepans and buckets. And then someone had the bright idea of trying to set up an A-frame and plunge the equivalent of a telegraph pole down into the ground. It was incredibly primitive. As the story progresses, then, there is something to learn about because the drilling procedure is a fairly complicated thing. But at the beginning it's just sheer blood and sweat," Day-Lewis says.
As Anderson began piecing his film together, it became clear that his minimal use of dialogue and vast open spaces would put a big burden on the score. Much of the energy and the pacing of the film would come from its music, so Anderson decided that a traditional composer might not be the most effective choice. Instead, he turned to Jonny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead, a British rock band known for its experimentation.
"[Greenwood] had a couple of pieces that existed before, that he had written for orchestra," Anderson says. "But he has written a few orchestral pieces I had heard that I thought were terrific. He also did an experimental film called Bodysong that he did the score for. I gave him a copy of the movie and then about three weeks later he came back with about two hours of music. I have no idea of how or when he did it, but he did it. It is kind of amazing. I cannot say that I did any real guiding or had any real contribution to it, except just to take what he gave us and find the right places for it."
Day-Lewis also found himself awestruck by Greenwood, in particular his self-taught technique: "The funniest thing about Johnny is that he didn't study composition. He studied violin, and then he went into the band, and the band became his life, but somehow along the way he taught himself composition. And he is the resident composer for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. [He] played a lot of the music, and scored the whole thing himself. I don't know how he did that."
But perhaps the film's greatest revelation is Dillon Freasier, who makes his film debut as H.W., Plainview's "son" and partner. When one of his workers is killed in a mining accident, Plainview decides to raise the man's boy as his own, and the pair travel around California in a Ford Model T, encouraging farmers and ranchers to sell their oil-rich properties at bargain-basement rates. During negotiations, Plainview exploits the boy's innocent looks to curry favor with women and Christian families. But when H.W. loses his hearing in an oil derrick explosion, Plainview is not emotionally equipped to deal with a handicapped child and partner.
"We did start out in Los Angeles and New York," says Anderson of the struggle to find an actor suited to the role, "reading young men with headshots, and that kind of thing, and resumes, and we thought that they should be sent to their rooms. We thought we needed a boy from Texas who knew how to shoot shotguns and live in that world. Casting director Cassandra Kulukundis asked around at the schools. She said: 'I am looking for a man in a young boy's body.' And one principal said: 'I have just the boy.' And it was Dillon."
Anderson didn't have Freasier read scenes, but simply talked with him about the part and says, "It was pretty clear that he was a very special young man. He took to it really well." Freasier, who had never been on a movie set or even seen a movie camera, reportedly loved the experience, and costar Day-Lewis says they immediately connected.
"I felt very close to Dillon, very fond of him," the veteran actor says. "He's a cowboy. His father is a rancher. Dillon has got his rodeo buckles. He's won numerous events. He does the round-ups. He's the real thing, and so he has this strange maturity that's very unusual."
According to Day-Lewis, Freasier had an insatiable curiosity for everything that happened on set, constantly absorbing new information "with such excitement and vision." But, adds Anderson, when it came to those scenes where he was expected to vent his physical frustration, he needed just a little push of encouragement — and a helping hand from mom.
"He had to struggle with Ciaran [Hinds] and he had to slap Daniel. He didn't like to do it initially," Anderson says of instructing Freasier to hit Day-Lewis across the face as hard as possible. The director recalls that it was only when Freasier's mother said, "You'd better do it, Dillon. They told you to do it. You can do it. It's okay," that the newly minted actor mustered the willpower to strike.
"His mom just raised him so beautifully and very respectfully," Day-Lewis says. "[She] is a state trooper and she wanted to do things right. And thought [that] she'd better check out this bunch that were going to be taking care of her son. So she went and got Gangs of New York. She was absolutely appalled. She thought she was releasing her child into the hands of this monster, and so there was a flurry of phone calls, and so somebody sent a copy of The Age of Innocence to her. Apparently," he laughs, "that did the trick."