Sunday, April 23, 2000

Interview: Magnolia Shooting Script Book

Magnolia Shooting Script, Written By Chuck Stephens
January 2000

Writer Chuck Stephens met with Paul Thomas Anderson on October 6th, 1999, for the following interview.

Where did Boogie Nights leave you, and what did it leave you feeling like you needed to do next?

My goal, really, in writing Magnolia, was to not think about that at all. To not let things that other people were saying about me, or going to say about me, affect my work. I didn’t want a bunch of stuff like that rolling around in my head, and I didn’t want to take a vacation and wait to start my next film. I wanted to do my job, which was to start writing. And my plan was, I’m gonna write something that’s 90 pages long. I’d just been through this mammoth motherfucker, tow and a half hours long, and based on that, I was thinking let’s go do something quick and immediate and cheap to make, so that whatever was buzzing around in my head in terms of Boogie Nights, I could make sure it didn’t affect me. And it didn’t – because if it had, I never would have written this three-hour movie.

But what did happen was that, in my life, I was falling in love [with Fiona Apple] and writing a movie at the same time, and all that that implies.

I’m sure there was stuff from Boogie Nights that I wanted to tackle without the shackle of porno, or that I wanted to have done better than I did in Boogie Nights, but at the same time, I wanted to be very self-conscious about not repeating myself.

The “shackle of porno”?

Well, mainly what that means is, I didn’t want to come out of the gate every time being expected to be the guy who tackles “that” topic, or any other specific topic.

Was there a “first thing” about Magnolia that you had in mind?

Absolutely. It was the situation between Claudia and Jimmy Gator. It was Philip Baker Hall coming through the darkness, through the rain, and up the stairs to Melora Walters’ apartment, and he’s knocking on her door, and she’s not answering.

That, coupled with the lyrics from this Aimee Mann song: “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again?” It was just this notion that I am so disastrously fucked up that you have no chance of loving me. Just the whole notion of people feeling unlovable.

Did the title come to you early along?

Yeah, but at the time, I couldn’t say exactly why. Yes, Magnolia is the name of a street in the Valley, and I knew something was going to happen at an intersection in the Valley, but it was still not totally clear why that was going to be the title.

And it wasn’t until the last two weeks of the writing that certain validations for the title really started coming. One of them was the discovery of this thing called the Magnolia, which is this mythical place above the firmament where shit goes and hangs out before it falls from the sky. I think I’d come to it through Charles Fort, who wrote about strange phenomena like rains of frogs and Greenberry Hill. The Magnolia is this place where, when ships disappear from the ocean, that’s where they go, and only later on will an anchor from it fall from the sky.

Another validation was, for me, a purely coincidental thing I did in naming a number of the women in the movie after flowers: Rose, Lily…

You’re often thought of and referred to as a quintessential product of the San Fernando Valley – what does that mean?

I grew up on the very far edge of the bleed where Hollywood stops and the Valley begins. And there truly was a sense, living in the Valley, of “going over the hill” – of there being something not as comfortable, not as safe, over there, over the hills, on the Hollywood side. But there was also the very definite sense, when you’re an adolescent, of “Oh, you live in the Valley – what a loser.” A sense of alienation, and for me, as a wannabe filmmaker, a sense of humiliation. No movies are made about the Valley; movies are made about wars, movies are made about urban jungles – what have I got to add to the movies? Fortunately, at the same point, a long time ago in his career, Steven Spielberg made it okay to make movies about suburbia.

What was it that attracted you to the world of game shows?

I’d worked once as a P.A. on a game show called Quiz Kid’s Challenge, an update of an old radio show. Part of my job was to go through and edit together videotape of all the kids they’d interviewed across the country as potential contestants. Doing that really linked up with the J.D. Salinger short stories, with the Glass Family, and their involvement with a show like Quiz Kids. This idea of, hey, let us go through you and pick your brain and use it for entertainment. All that, coupled with wanting to see Philip Baker Hall do a new kind of role, and especially to see him do something like a game-show host.

But it also all touches on the idea of what it means to grow up in L.A., but not be part of the industry – or to only hold the most marginal relationship to it.

For whatever dark undercurrents Boogie Nights contained, it was, for the most, a kick – a very pleasure-filled movie. Why go so far into despair and darkness this time?

The subject matter led me there: family problems, cancer. Without getting too personal, I’d been through a lot in the past two or three years, and especially a lot of cancer-related things – with everyone from people who I knew just a little bit to people I knew very well and truly loved. And I came to recognize the way that, when cancer comes into people’s lives, it seems to come in a wave. And I’d been there; I’d just gone through a really severe cancer spiral.

Magnolia is filled, even crowded, with a number of fascinating characters. Could we go through and talk about them one by one? Let’s start with Earl Partridge.

I know and have known many guys like that. Loveable, curmudgeonly older guys who are really, really strong, but at the same time, total softies. Guys who had been around, who were old enough to still speak in kind of jazz rhythms. And with Earl, for me as a cineaste, wanting to write four-page monologues – especially in writing them with somebody like Jason Robards in mind for the role – it was like, okay, I get to do my Eugene O’Neill scenes now.

Frank T.J. Mackey?

Long story short, I had been turned onto a cassette someone had surreptitiously made of two guys talking, and using expressions like, “Dude, what you’ve got to learn to do is respect the cock and tame the cunt.” It turned out that they were actually quoting another guy, named Ross Jeffries, who taught courses and gave seminars on how to seduce women. On, basically, how to destroy a woman.

And I’d already been fascinated by Don Dupree, who does infomercials, and has speech patterns and a demeanor which just really represented the Valley to me. He is exactly like somebody I had gone to high school with.

And around the time I had been thinking about all this, I got a chance to go to the set of Eyes Wide Shut and meet with Tom Cruise. You know, you never even consider getting Tom Cruise for one of your movies, in the same way you never even consider becoming president of the United States. But tom Cruise called me, and suddenly, there I was. And I found myself in a position where, wow, oh my God, I really want to show off for Tom and to create a real gold mine for an actor to work with.

Is there a way, other than the enormous rig he has in his pants, that Frank is related to Dirk Diggler?

Probably so, especially in the sense of his being – like Mark Wahlberg was in Boogie Nights – an outsider coming into a group, a bigger star joining an ensemble that was already familiar with each other. And as a character, there’s this sense of a flamboyancy and a slight stupidity, and of being damaged by parents. And a peripheral, bad version of show business that’s being acted out in both character’s lives.

What about the boy genius, Stanley?

I’ve always thought that Spielberg did such a great thing with portrayals of kids in his earlier career. The kids in Close Encounters and in E.T. – they were like portraits of kids that only Salinger had done. And I remember seeing Anna Paquin in The Piano and seeing how a kid could be so fascinating and complex, that she could both hold on to her mother and betray her.

Add all that to the psychoanalysis inside me, writing about a kid character while Boogie Nights was coming out and there was all this pressure and observation on me. And feeling like, hey, I wanted this and I created it, but I’m far too young and I’m far too fucking juvenile to truly be in this position.

On top of that, I had just recently met Fiona and she had told me this story about how, when she first stared performing, there was a situation where she really wanted to go to the bathroom, but her managers or whoever made her go out on stage. Here’s this nineteen-year-old girl who was totally feisty and strong as a motherfucker, but also at times, as she would totally regret having to say now, Bambi-ish and beaten up. She wanted to go to the bathroom, but was being forced to “grow up” to be a fucking professional, and get out on that stage. And with Stanley, there’s this thing where you really feel like, wow, I’m a genius, but I can barely tie my shoelaces.

And one other thing Stanley provided me with was the opportunity to write some really direct and very simple lines; lines like “Dad, you have to be nicer to me.” It’s “See Spot Run” – an expression of an emotion that was really clear and exact.

Jimmy Gator?

Well, in one way, Jimmy Gator is an homage to Robert Ridgley [the late, great character actor who played The Colonel in Boogie Nights] and his character in Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard – the game-show host Wally “Mr. Love” Williams. I wanted to expand on that character, and to approach him in a more realistic way. To make him more Alex Trebek – harder, less fun and games.

I also wanted to do something mew with Philip Baker Hall; to give him an opportunity to be stuttery, to shackle him with some stuff, because in my other two films, he’s so eloquent and exact.

And it’s funny, because while the character isn’t exactly something new for me as a writer, it’s the first time when Iv been able, at the end of a film, to hate one of my characters. There is truly a sense of moral judgment at work with this character. I can’t even let him kill himself at the end – he’s got to burn. And that’s what he deserves. I wanted it to be really clear that with this character, I’m saying “No.” No to any kind of forgiveness for him.

Donnie Smith?

It’s the good old fashioned study of Gary Coleman, or Jackie Coogan, or potentially what might happen to Stanley. A “How did I get there to here?” kind of character. His is a scandalous kind of “true Hollywood story,” like the true genius who ends up becoming a crack addict.

Phil Parma?

That one’s simple – I wrote it for Phil [Philip Seymour Hoffman], and it is Phil.

When Phil played Scotty in Boogie Nights, that’s an actor playing a part. But Phil’s been called upon to play so many weird parts by now, I wanted to see what would happen if I just wrote Phil: the way he talks, the way he is. And I hadn’t even seen him in Happiness when I wrote this part for him, but I’m really glad, in retrospect, that I decided to write Phil’s part kinda against the roles he’s been getting recently. And the emotions Phil Parma goes into – this nurse who cries way too much – that’s just the way I could see Phil Hoffman reacting to those moments in real life.

Jim Kurring?

That came out of a time in our lives, John C. Reilly’s and mine, when we had made Sydney, and during the editing, it was being taken away from me. And as a way to get away from all that, we just took a video camera and went out driving around, improvising would-be scenes from a Cops episode. We’d come up with a beginning idea and just see where it went – John with mirror shades, driving his car, doing these monologues, talking to himself.

And I just loved that stuff. But where that stuff was really schticky and having-fun-in-the-summertime kind of goofing around, I wanted to take it as a basis for something a lot more real. So I put some meat on him: Now he’s divorced, and he lives a lonely, truly lonely life. He’s talking to himself in his car as if he’s on Cops, and it’s really sad.

At the same time, I wanted something that would allow John to be a romantic leading man. I’ve always seen him, even if no one else has, as a kind of Jimmy Stewart or a Joel McCrea figure.


She’s my love. My affection for her is just massive. And I worry that there may be a lack of connection, by audiences, with her because she’s a drug addict. But I’ve had a massive desire to write that character as truthfully as possible, because I have known that girl. I’ve known so many girls like her, and having seen representations of girls like that in cinema before, I wanted to get to a new level of nuance with her. To something that might have previously been lost on mass audiences. Getting to the level of nuance of, she’s doing drugs and there’s a knock on the door, and instead of throwing the drugs away in a panic, she hides them and saves them for later instead.

I wanted to deal with the whole situation of struggling with drugs and trying to figure out when not to do them. Like when Claudia goes on the date with Jim Kurring: It’s like, I’ve been doing drugs all day, but this is something that might be important, this date, and I’ve got to get through without drugs, but I’m doing the drugs anyway because I can’t get through it without drugs. Here was something I really wanted to do without drugs, and here I’ve just corrupted it by doing the drugs. And so that when Claudia kisses Jim Kurring, it becomes a curse. Did I just do drugs to get up the courage to kiss him, which I knew I could have done if I’d been sober? And then why did I need the drugs to do it?

And I also wrote the part specifically for Melora, whom I’ve known for so long. I just wanted to write something great and star-making for her. I wanted to be, in a way, her lover in the moviemaking way. And it turned out to be my personal favorite performance in the film.

Do you think of yourself mainly as a writer, a director, or a filmmaker?

[Big pause.] This is the part of the interview where you’ll be writing, in brackets, “Big pause.”

Because my gut response is, well, I don’t know, I forgotten my gut response already. But now that I’ve taken too much time to think it over, I’ve got to say filmmaker. Because I think I direct in a way that’s technical and show-off-y, and that’s not something that’s generally said about writers who direct. With those sorts of writers who direct, like David Mamet or Woody Allen, you don’t usually think of them applying a lot of cinema – in the Scorsese or Oliver Stone kind of way – to their movies. I can say to you right now, I’d never direct anything that somebody else wrote. But I would write something for somebody else to direct – and I am doing that right now.

How did you decide to make Aimee Mann’s songs a kind of character in the film?

Because she’s so fucking cool, and I wanted to be able to tell everybody that I think so.

Specifically, though, is was that line, from Aimee’s song “Deathly”: “Now that I met you, would you object to never seeing me again?” So much stemmed from that.

Aimee writes songs that are, underneath, basically songs about her torture in dealing with record companies, but much closer to the surface, they’re love songs. Nothing is good enough for people like you; you have to have somebody to take the fall – that’s her singing to a lover, that’s a relationship song. But truly what it is, is Aimee singing to a record label, and I really wanted to deal with that kind of ability to make something function twice. This is a love song, but this is also the biggest “fuck you” around.

Aimee was the person who turned me on to the investigation of who you are and what your background means to you. And there’s this theme that recurs in her music, and in Fiona’s; this idea that being in love is the hardest fucking thing in the world, and you don’t want to put yourself through the tragedy of trying to be in love with me.

And another thing is, instead of the thing you’ve already heard a million times – “This was influenced by the Bob Dylan record from 1960-whatever,” etcetera etcetera – this is a situation where Aimee and I have been friends so long that I’ve been able to watch the evolution of her songs. And not just that, it’s that she’s my friend and I can call her on the phone and get in touch with certain things that are going on in her songs that were created, at least in some ways, in relation to things that were going on in my life. And hearing things in your life re-created by another artist really gives you a greater awareness of the way things are going on around you. And a greater sense of how to put them into your own stuff.

This must all be related to the scene where all the characters begin singing along with one of her songs.

“Wise Up” is the name of that song, and the line is, “It’s not going to stop.”

I can truly remember the moment I wrote that scene. Usually when you’re going into writing a script, you sit down at the table and you know there are all these things you want to get into the movie. It’s like what you’re thinking, well, I want it to be sad and funny and have action set pieces in it [laughs.]

And sometimes they just happen, and sometimes you feel like you’re wedging them in there, and it just doesn’t work. Writing that scene, when Phil has just dropped the morphine into earl’s mouth, I was crying myself as I was writing it; it was all coming from a true emotional place, and I suddenly realized, I’ve always wanted to do a musical number, how about right here?

And in production, everybody was really curious about, well, is it going to work? Can he pull this off? But every time we’d get to the point of shooting a character’s “Wise Up” scene, it was kind of like, okay, ante up. Will it work as well with this person as it did with the other one before…and it did, every time.

I also think – as a cineaste and as a person – that is the sort of thing that happens, no matter how gimmicky or clichéd, all the time. Characters, or people, who are going through some really tough emotional shit, suddenly find themselves singing along to something that’s playing on the radio, and they just go with it. They just surrender to that moment, sink into it, and sit there and cry their eyes out.

“It’s something that happens”; “But it did happen” – these are both refrains throughout the film.

There it is, right there, the simplest possible expression of a truth. “It did happen.”

I’m a film geek; I was raised on movies. And there come these times in life where you just get to a spot when you feel like movies are betraying you. Where you’re right in the middle of true, painful life. Like, say, somebody could be sitting in a room somewhere, watching their father die of cancer, and all of a sudden it’s like, no this isn’t really happening, this is something I saw in Terms Of Endearment. You’re at this moment where movies are betraying you, and you resent movies for maybe taking away from the painful truth of what’s happening to you – but that’s exactly why those moments show up in movies. Those things “do happen”

And I also wanted to get those moments in life that don’t get covered in movies. Like, you’re going to a funeral and all the parts of it that you’ve seen in movies are there – the mournfulness, the sadness – but then there come those moments that are foreign to you because, in a way, they haven’t been shown to you in a movie before. The part where, say, you’re going to the funeral and you’re faced with the little realities of things like, where am I going to park my car?

But the two things do intersect all the time. It’s like that moment when Phil Parma’s on the phone at Earl’s house and says, “This is the scene of the movie where you help me out.”

One thing I learned as a writer, happening when I was writing Boogie Nights, in the scene where Rollergirl and Amber are doing drugs, and Rollergirl suddenly says to her, “Will you be my Mom?” I’m still pretty far from being able to make stuff like that happen on all 190 pages of a script, but what it totally clued me in to was this: I looked at the scene right after I had written it and realized I’d just written it almost as if it was an out-of-body thing. It was totally from my gut. And while I looked at it and said, well, something seems odd about that moment and the smart writer in me could go back and “fix it up.” I could make the rhythm better, and make the rhythm of the writing and the scene better, but I realized instead, wait a minute, I’ve just broken through a barrier here. There’s something odd and wrong and embarrassing here, but if I just follow through on it, it’ll become a scene where you’ll go [inhalation of surprise], I’ve just seen a scene I’ve never seen in a movie before.

Those are moments that are golden, and it came from writing and writing and letting everything just pour out.

Of all things, why frogs?

It truly came from a slightly gimmicky and exciting place. I’d read about rains of frogs in the works of Charles Fort, who was a turn-of-the-century writer who wrote mainly about odd phenomena. Michael Penn was the one who turned me on to Fort, and who, when I went to one of Michael’s shows in New York once, made reference on stage to “rains of frogs.” At that moment I just went, Wow! How cool and scary and fun to do that would be – and what does it mean?

So I just starting writing it into the script. It wasn’t until after I got through with the writing that I began to discover what it might mean, which was this: You get to a point in your life, and shit is happening, and everything’s out of your control, and suddenly, a rain of frogs just makes sense. You’re staring at a doctor who’s telling you something is wrong, and while we know what it is, we have no way of fixing it. And you just go, so what you’re telling me, basically, is that it’s raining frogs from the sky.

I’m not someone who’s ever had a special fascination with UFO’s or supernatural phenomena or anything, but I guess I just found myself at a point where I was going through some shitty stuff and I was ready for some sort of weird religion experience, or as close as I could get to one.

So then I began to decipher things about frogs and history, things like this famous notion that, as far back as the Romans, people have been able to judge the health of a society by the health of its frogs. The health of a frog, the vibe of a frog, the texture of a frog, its looks, how much wetness is on it, everything. The frogs are a barometer for who we are as people. We’re polluting ourselves, we’re killing ourselves, and the frogs are telling us so, because they are all getting sick and deformed. And I didn’t even know it was in the Bible until Henry Gibson gave me a copy of the Bible, bookmarked to the appropriate frog passage.

What made you decide to use the sequences dealing with episodes of weird historical coincidence as a framing device for the film?

In a way, it’s a promise. A promise that, hey, look at these three stories which, to whatever extent are true or not, are weird and fantastic and filled with amazing coincidence – and that, if you gave me three hours, I will give you a story that is just as filled with weird and fantastic coincidence as they are, because “this stuff does happen.”

Is the end of the film, for you as a writer, cathartic, or unresolved? Is it a matter of, despite everything that has happened, there is some sort of hope at the end of the day? Or is it a matter of agreeing with what’s come before, that all the sadness is just “not going to stop”?

For me the writer, Yes, it equals totally cathartic, and totally hopeful, and Yes! They are going to get together at the end!

But it’s also completely gratifying to hear that question, because everything you’ve seen for the last three hours has been so fucked up, and so emotionally confusing, that the real reality is that, yes, they’re going to get together and form a relationship, but in no way is it ever going to be easy or entirely possible . but it is a surrender to falling in love, no matter how much shit that’s going to entail.

The problem is, in traditional movies, it’s usually one way or the other. And for the people for whom that sort of resolution is important, then Claudia’s smile in that last shot is about, yes., it’s all going to work out, I am going to be happy. But for the people who are comfortable going a little deeper, hopefully what it’s really saying is, yes, I do lean toward the side of happiness, but there’s too much in life to go straight to the point of okay, we’re getting married and living happily ever after. It’s not that simple.

And finally, my goal, at least at this point in my work, is that I want to always go to the place when I’m going to write the saddest happy ending I possibly can. That’s just the way that feels good to me.

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