Sunday, April 23, 2000

Interview: Total Film

Total Film, Written By Steven Goldman
April 2000

Total Film: Paul Thomas Anderson Interview

Paul Thomas Anderson may be fast on his way to becoming his generation's top auteur, but he doesn't fit the bill when you meet him in the flesh. Sporting a shock of unkempt hair which accents his unshaved face, PT ("Most people call me PT or PTA... PTA for the most part... I just like the way it looks") is an unapologetic all-American gone to seed. A dynamo of motion, tripping over himself, his shoelaces and his sentences, the entire unstudied mess is obscured by a cloud of smoke from a never-ending stream of Camels. Bundled into a green tweed jacket, his wrinkled white shirt half tucked into his trousers, he looks more like your run of the mill 28-year-old scruff than the acclaimed director of Boogie Nights and the forthcoming Magnolia. An Altmanesque ensemble meditation on intersecting LA lives, the latter film has, not surprisingly, been tipped as one of the hottest prospects at this year's Oscars.

"The ironic thing is - and I swear to God this is true - when Boogie Nights was about to come out, I felt really anxious because I had made this two-and-a-half hour epic about the porn industry," says Anderson. "So I just wanted to do something that was light and quick and cheap. I figured we'd probably just do hand-held stuff and run around LA. I didn't want to be around when Boogie Nights came out, I didn't want to be influenced by anything anybody might say about me or was saying about me, or anything like that. So I sat down and started to write this very small intimate movie. And I just kept writing. And it just turned into what it turned into..."

But what it actually turned into hasn't been that easy to find out. Prior to the movie's US opening, Anderson and his cast kept mum about it all. And even now - when it's been on release in the States for a good while - the director isn't that keen on spelling out all the details.

"I'm not just giving jobs to my friends. It's because I'm either a great director or the stalker of all time"
"I still hope that to a certain extent some of the plot elements will be kept a secret... It's much more fun to go see a movie that you don't know anything about. You see these fucking trailers and you know everything about the movie. I just figured, fuck it, we'll try it this way. Besides, how do you describe this movie? It's a couple of different stories. It's in LA. It's a day.

"I started out not even writing a movie. I started out just writing a list of concerns in my life at the time. Things that were interesting to me. I could point to one of the main things being Aimee Mann's music, which is really prominent in the movie. She was working on a song, just a little demo. She had a couple of lyrics written for a song called Save Me which is the end title song in the movie." Mann's music obviously had a real effect on Anderson - other examples of her work are spread throughout the length of the film.

Most of the actors that Anderson's built up from previous films like Hard Eight and Boogie Nights (Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H Macy, John C Reilly, Philip Baker Hall) return to work with the director again. Talk to him about it and Anderson's affection for working with his "repertory company" of actors, as opposed to pampered stars, shines through. "There's no fucking egos in the room at all. If Burt Reynolds isn't there, you have no ego problems at all," says Anderson. "It's heaven. And it's not like I'm giving jobs to my friends. They're my friends because I'm either a great director or the stalker of all time."

"I found them out. I searched for them. Phil Hoffman? I have to work with him. I have to find him. John C Reilly has the same thing. It's not like I'm just working with my friends. I'm working with my favourite actors. There are other people that I do want to work with here and there. But it's so lovely to be able to do it. And I think it also equals a great product, because they can be privy to stuff while I'm writing it. They can have the script way in advance. They can work on it forever. We can talk about it forever. I think if you're working with big movie stars and shit like that, you don't have access to rehearsal periods or conversations on the phone in the middle of the night.

"And also too, as they would probably tell you - and sometimes they get mad at me for it, sometimes they don't - I'll write them or something about their life into the movie." The fact that Boogie Nights star Mark Wahlberg wasn't in the movie gave rise to persistent rumours that he and Anderson had fallen out, rumours that Anderson vehemently denies ("I fucking love Marky. People just shift in and out of the old repertory company"). But any gap is more than filled by Tom Cruise. His turn as a misogynistic sex therapist, which Anderson specifically wrote for him (deliberately inverting the image of the world's biggest star), has already secured a Golden Globe.

"When I met him, I was just starting to formulate that particular character," says Anderson. "I called him up and he was just finishing Eyes Wide Shut. We sat down, read it, and he loved it. Now, I can't truly decipher why. But I think it's an actor's kind of dream part. You get to be the macho fucking asshole on stage and you get to do the daddy bedside scene - I mean that's like A-Z. So he was in love with that.

"But on top of that, after seeing Eyes Wide Shut and the repressed character he had to play for two years, I figure he must have been running to play this guy. 'Yeah let me go say cock and pussy and shit and all this stuff - yeah, here we go.' I said to him: 'No wonder you fucking did this.' And he's like: 'Oh man, you have no idea... You have no idea...'"

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