Monday, November 12, 2012
Transcription by Nikhil Venkatesa & Isaiah Lester.
Announcer: He has been doing events for us for 12 years. And now our special guest; the one and only Paul Thomas Anderson.
[PTA hugs Jim Clements in the crowd and then takes his seat amidst applause.]
Paul Thomas Anderson: Jim Clements, best Gaffer in the business, as they say.
Interviewer: Paul, Welcome. The last time you and I had a conversation, you know, we were, well, there was a time a few years back, you had just finished There Will Be Blood and we were at some banquet and we were just talking about writing. We were both dealing with a similar thing and I thought it would be a good place for us to start now because you didn’t say what you were working on, I kind of…in retrospect I think it might have been The Master. It was right after There Will Be Blood and you said that you had been working on something and you were very excited but there was something new that was taking over inside it. You were puzzling over whether to follow it or not. You were basically, you know, just, catching your breath to kind of jump in. I guess the first place to talk about it, just about writing, is about surprising yourself and going with the surprise, and does that relate to The Master…?
PTA: It must have been, it must have been. I mean, that sounds exactly right. That sounds exactly like something that I’d say, particularly at that time. I don’t remember it exactly, but I do know that feeling when you’re done with something and just enough time has passed that you’re clearly moving on to something else. And it’s a great time because, in some ways, you get your energy back, you get your excitement back, and anything becomes possible. You‘ve been working so long, finishing a film. You’re finishing something. It can be depressing actually towards the end because it’s kind of is done and its out and there is a sadness that happens. And then you get to writing, and there’s just a world of possibilities. At any turn something could inspire you or get you excited again. Or you’re working with something that maybe you’ve had pieces of…that sounds like exactly what was going on. Something happens, you write something down, or somebody says something and there’s a world of possibility, possibly. It’s a great time, as maddening as it can be, it’s a wonderful time. And particularly because, yes, there is a road in front of you, but it’s not costing anything. There’s no clock ticking, there’s no people sort of, it’s private which is a great thing.
Interviewer: I mean watching The Master, part of the excitement for me, maybe a hint of that conversation but it seems to me, when it happens in any movie, I try to trust it. In The Master, you get us involved with Freddie Quell, played Joaquin Phoenix, and you don’t know where it’s going because he manages to surprise me in each new scene. The previous scene does not predict the next one. And then when he wanders past that boat and gets involved with Lancaster Dodd…even anticipating he was going to meet the guy because of the promotions say who’s in it, it’s like okay this is not following…the way I. He’s on the boat and he doesn’t have the conversation with him, I just…could you talk about..well, a lot of the arguments people have about the movie is, “Who is the protagonist?” I am wondering how much of that was your argument even with yourself?
PTA: Well, yeah, god, it’s funny you should say that. It reminds me of…I mean there’s like…our voice of reason tends to be Dylan Tichner, who’s the editor. He didn’t end up doing The Master fully, but I give him things that I’m writing…and he’ll say things like really strong classical screenwriting things to me all the time. “Well who’s the protagonist?” you know? And usually I’ll like, you know, throw the pages at him and storm out and say, “What the fuck…” you know…but he’s there kind of to provide these questions. If I’m pushing in a kind of direction that’s less, kind of classical, he’s there to sort of push back, and the same thing I think with Joanne. And I think it’s about hearing those questions enough and knowing that you’ve provided enough thought to them. That you are ready to dismiss them. You can feel confident saying, “Yeah, but that’s not what I want to do.” you know, and I know that’s maybe a more traditional way to take the story or perhaps I should answer that question. Until you can kind of reach the spot where you feel enough confidence to sort of, that you’ve genuinely thought it through, to say no I don’t want to do that and I know that. Perhaps that’s what we should do or perhaps I guess that is sort of the classic screenwriting question to ask you know, “What’s the plot? Who are the characters?” You know?
That if you can get to a place where you say, “Fuck it!” but with enough authority and confidence. It just means that you’re trying to listen to some other part of yourself that’s at work. So, yeah, I don’t know.
Interviewer: Well, you know, it’s an interesting problem. Let’s take Lancaster Dodd for instance. If you say what’s a protagonist, who’s the protagonist, it’s like who is going to transform the most. That would be the classical thing.
PTA: That’s right.
Interviewer: And so, okay, here’s Freddie Quell. He’s transforming when he becomes a salesman in a store, but he’s already working on that girl, getting her to drink with him in the dark room. And so it’s like, you think it is going to be about them, because he’s asking here to transform in some way.
Interviewer: But then…what really surprised me, what took me aback, even as a viewer, not trying to formulate it, but just trying to understand my reaction later, it surprised me about Lancaster Dodd that he wanted to get in on that liquor that this guy’s brewin’. That’s why it’s like who is the protagonist? Who’s going to transform here? And it remains the kind of question throughout the movie. So that, you know, so…[trails off]
PTA: Yeah, but then again…gosh, you’re making me think about this film more than I probably thought about it, which is good.
But, maybe part of the story we were telling is somebody selling transformation and the possibility of transformation. And maybe how either possible that is or how impossible that is so, there’s a rub there ya know?
PTA: If you have a character who, maybe fundamentally is not going to change, then you’ve got a real screenwriting problem on your hands. And I guess the only thing to do is to invest in THAT in of itself, you know. Invest in a character that cannot change, that maybe the most he can change is to put a suit on him and have him handing flyers on the street and not wallop somebody in the back of the head for not taking the flyer. That’s enough of a change. And I suppose it’s sort of taking stock and realizing that maybe you’re going to tell a story that requires an investment from the audience solely on the characters and at the expense of any possible plot that they might be expecting. And if they do invest with them, then hopefully, ideally, every nuance of their struggle is what makes it dramatic. That every nook and cranny of how that goes can be worth two hours. For some people it probably isn’t, you know, it’s not enough.
Interviewer: Well it is true too though, you know, that each of us…you know we were talking about, we were naming a couple of movies, Full Metal Jacket and other films that come up in peoples estimation because maybe they give them a second try and it seems like it, I wonder if you’re not conscious of aiming for that second try hoping that there’s enough mischief in the movie that people will actually go, “Uh, I’m going to take another look in this thing.” Does that ever enter your thoughts while you’re formulating?
PTA: No, no it doesn’t. No, no, no. God it’s be great, we’ve had sort of this weird thing with this film where people were really not liking it the first time they saw it but, for some…gravity took them back to it again and they say they loved it the second time, which is weird. I mean we could never attack something feeling like it was obligatory to see it twice, you know? You should attack it feeling that it can work successfully, you know, whether it’s on a big screen or whether it’s on a phone or whatever it is. Um, but, perhaps the way that the story navigates and twirls around is not as, traditional as it should be, so I don’t know…[silently swears]
Interviewer: Off of something you said a little earlier, you were saying that if the people are there, you watch them for two hours, it’s like…I feel like that when people come back to something, it’s not that you’re obliged to see it twice, but that maybe the character was so damn alive you actually reacted to them as if you had really met them. You know you see in movies people are like “I hate that fucking guy”, you know and so it’s like, then they’re like, “Oh, shit, you know, was he right?” and you’re thinking about it and you get to meet the characters again. Anyway, that’s the sort of weird physics of somebody changing their opinion in the movie after the fact. It’s usually something that hooked them that they didn’t want to have a hook in.
PTA: Sure. I mean, I’ve had the experience of seeing films that I absolutely loved and then you know, you see it again a few months later and it doesn’t connect to you at all. But I’ve had the experience of films…I have it with records too. I will get a record from somebody, I’m dying, I’m dying for the record to come out and you put it on and you just go, “What’s going on?!” And perhaps it’s that you had expectations about what it was meant to sound like. It didn’t and, you know, 8 listens later, suddenly you’re like, “What was I thinking?! This is great!” You know you just kind of can groove into what they’re doing. God I don’t know, you just kind of made me think…you talking about, you know, when Freddie gets on that boat there, just always talking about rhythms. I mean I always remember reading you’re supposed to have on page 30, there’s a big action.
Interviewer: Some indelible event, yes.
PTA: And on page 60. I’ve always tried to stick to that, I always thought that was a really good thing to swim back to shore with. And, when we were editing the movie and putting it together, my goal was to get to that first scene when they are processing each other… I’m hoping everyone here has seen the film, or this would be really dull. But that first scene when they’re processing each other, that that would start around 30 minutes. We struggled for a long time and…suddenly, magically, we did it. That starts about 32 minutes in, if there is a rhythm that audience are used to that something happens at that moment that defines the film. We kind of hung our hat on that being rhythmically, or page count wise, minute wise, what would be an indication of what the film is about. Because I think that’s all we really had, was a film about these two men connecting to each other. So I suppose I was trying to, I suppose it’s a long winded way of saying you’re abusing the privilege of the first 30 minutes to do what you need to do. To sort of meet this guy and to meet that guy and introduce anybody else and then land at 30 minutes with what an audience may traditionally need to hold onto. Make sense at all?
Interviewer: It does, it does. And something you said earlier about just a guy who sells transformation for a living, right? So it draws a good circle around Lancaster Dodd, but I wonder, at what point did that enter your thinking? Was that just something you were thinking about waiting for the character to arrive or was the character already in your head?
PTA: You’re talking about Dodd?
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean did you begin to define him after the fact, just in terms of your own process, dreaming him up and putting him to work for you? Did you have a theme in mind early going in or did that emerge?
PTA: No, no, no, no, no, no, no…no, no, no, if I’ve ever had a theme in mind, usually that’s just like the worst, you know. Then you feel yourself writing, and there’s nothing worse than kind of chasing after a theme. That’s always like writing at its worse for me. The best things kind of become something and you’re just happy it’s there. I think I had a character that was a sort of larger than life character. Yes, there is inspiration from L. Ron Hubbard, and all these different things I was sort of dragging from. I had the two of them together, which never seemed ideal, just because they were actually quite similar. The better way to go, in terms of better writing, is having two characters that are more opposite, that way you have more traction and stuff. But ultimately if things are going well and the characters are coming out of you, or they’re going to guide you how they’re gonna go. Um, I lost my train of thought.
Interviewer: No, that’s okay, let me help. In terms of Freddie Quell, one thing that struck me about him was, he has cousins elsewhere in your work, you know, like Barry in Punch-Drunk Love. There’s an aspect to him that’s like, you don’t know if he’s gonna… he’s in his warehouse is he going to bite the head off the guy, he has that same violence bursting up in him, in a very different form in a way. But he’s somebody who has the same challenge. Oddly enough, although he is much more articulate, and seems to be more high functioning, Daniel Plainview is not far removed from these guys. I’m just thinking, what gets you rolling? It just seems like there’s this guy that you can call upon, and Lancaster Dodd is not that different either. Even though they’re alike, when they’re in the jail cells opposite each other, you see, here is the real Lancaster, or maybe one of the guys in Lancaster Dodd.
PTA: Right, right. Yeah, well that’s the classic thing. You always set out, you think you’re writing drastically different characters. But ultimately they share, they have so much in common. But hopefully they, you find different ways to sort of deal with them or manage them. I had a little bit of that Freddie Quell character just that, stuff that was based on…stuff that wasn’t even a character, it was stuff that was based on facts. Stories that I’d heard about guys coming back from the war, stories that my dad had told me, stories that I’d heard just around, you know, guys drinking booze out of torpedoes, this kinds of stuff. So, It was a collection of episodes and I remember at a certain point reading a great short story called, I believe it’s called “Bucket of Blood”. John O’Hara wrote a great story about a fella. It starts out, he wakes up in a hospital, and he comes to and he’s having this great conversation with a doctor. He’s just had his appendix removed, because he appendix is burst on this train, he wakes up and doesn’t know where he was. There is just this great conversation at the beginning of it between the doctor and this patient, this guy and…I started to transcribe it, I wrote it down in script form, thinking maybe this will be an adaption or something. Or as I have done before too, you sort of steal something, you’re bored, you got nothing to do. There is no better exercise than just write somebody else’s words down just to see how they looked typed out, just to get you inspired again, or to get it moving. That’s what I was trying to do with this John O’Hara thing. By the look of it and the sound of it, it seemed to fit with these other things that I had lying around. So that character started to come more and more, and you just start finding pieces of them. You hope that they start to talk to you, talk back to you, in a weird kind of, sounds kind of hocus pocus, but in séance kind of way. You hope that you’re not there at a certain point, that they are doing the work for you. That’s when it’s at its best, you know?
Interviewer: When you were talking about how you start out and you think its differed every time and the same things are coming up, I don’t mean to put all those characters on the same petard, but it’s like…I remember when Daniel Day Lewis was speaking about There Will Be Blood at one point. He had actually approached you because he loved Punch-Drunk Love so much. And I think that what’s going on, and I don’t want to read into Daniel Day Lewis’ mind, but I’m just thinking, I sorta sparked to what he was saying because I thought, you know, there’s something about Barry, in Punch-Drunk Love, that’s universal about all men. Even though he’s got this condition that puts what every guy goes through, but he puts it on his sleeve so we get to see it. You don’t feel it’s the same old same old, you feel it’s something more, much more true, that this is a universal thing and I’m so glad to be seeing this out in front. So as a dramatist, I don’t think you’re in the position of having to say the same old thing, but you’re going…there’s something that interests you and you’re setting for the horizon again. You’re moving off the guy you did before but you’re moving in the same direction. That’s kind of what I was thinking. And it seemed like somehow, Daniel Day-Lewis caught the gold fever too. He liked the guy that you were trying to find and then…you know?
PTA: Yeah, I mean, something like Daniel…I mean I was thinking two things when you were saying that and this might sound funny but there’s…the unifying thing there besides me, sure, is Adam Sandler, Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix share so much as performers, you know. You know people will laugh because some people don’t consider Adam as a serious actor but I do. And their attack on acting and performing is, believe it or not, quite similar. And so a lot of that, that thing is there. But I was just thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis in that movie, in that role, could talk about that for a second. There’s something so much clearer about that character too, just because his ambition to have a character like that, his ambition is so clear. I mean it’s kind of can be gold and for screenwriting. There’s no, kind of limit to pushing that thing forward. When you get into something like Adam’s character that you’re talking about, it is more ambivalent, it is a bit more confused about exactly what the fuck is going on here, you know, whether it is mental illness or just basic frustrations or whatever, you know, it’s something else. Probably equals box office dollar sign [draws dollar symbol in the air and laughs]!
Interviewer: It’s an intangible because one of the things that made me sit up – I mean I’d enjoyed Adam Sandler and other things – what you had him do in the first part of that film is you know, he’s sitting in a warehouse without anything on the walls. He’s just wearing a suit and he’s at a bare desk and not saying, well he’s talking into a phone but there’s no actual dialog. And I’m watching this guy, I’m watching practically the back of his head so there’s something going on here that you’ve managed to tap into, I mean, it’s in the staging but it’s also in the physical presence. There’s something going on inside this guy that I’m trying to find out. I want him to turn around so that I can find out what’s in him. And that’s a very real wavelength you tuned into with that guy and it seems that that’s where he’s in common with Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix because they all have that going on and you can’t name it.
PTA: Well, yeah, that and you know, for lack of a better word, it’s called a movie star. They just, they have some kind of thing that makes them so watchable and you film them with a movie camera and you can’t take your eyes off them and it’s…if all of us had it here, we’d be movie stars, you know, it’s like fuck. But, it’s just like, to talk, I love that you’re talking about Adam and that film because I like that film a lot too and I have to say, that was something that I wrote specifically for him. That was like a ground up creation to kind of write something for him. And I didn’t like really even know him, I just had a sense of him, and had a desire to work with him and a desire to kind of mix things up at the time when I was writing. I wrote it very, very quickly and I have to give… you know if anybody likes that film, it’s because of Adam, because it sure exists because of him, wanting to get to know him and allowing him to do something with it.
Interviewer: And you do get to do something, I don’t know if complex is the right word, but it’s like, you’re asking…what I loved about it and when I’ve revisited it is here’s this guy. He’s got all these things like the Seven Sisters. I mean, that’s like a fairy tale character, you know. He’s like Snow White and he works in this warehouse. But he gets into this conversation with a girl on a porno line and she’s asking him all these hot questions “Are your pants off?” and he’s like “No, I’ve got my clothes on.” “Are you jerking off?” “No, no!” And he’s like, he’s being really nice to her. He’s like, and he’s talking about his life. So he’s just this guy with all these chivalrous instincts and because of these chivalrous instincts of course the girl on the other end is feeding it to her guy and they’re all, they’re going to blackmail him. So no good deed goes unpunished. Here he is chivalrous and he’s getting screwed. And it almost ruins his life. And then he has to actually become a real, chivalrous guy and go out and slay the dragon. And so, it’s a very primal little story. And I guess it’s such a pleasure, so unexpected the dangers he gets into, you just don’t expect it. I was wondering, in finding, you said it came together quickly. Did you have a sense that he was going to get into that kind of phone call or did that surprise you the day that you were writing it and suddenly he’s in a conversation with that girl. I mean, do you remember…?
PTA: Awww, good question, I’m trying to remember. Um, and I don’t know if I do. I feel like, um, I knew a little bit about that phone sex world, just sort of tangentially from just some stuff that was left over from Boogie Nights. Researching that world a little bit and knowing some people that were involved and maybe I always had that lingering that there could be a great opportunity to do something there. You know, stories I’d heard, of blackmail situations and stuff like that. But, um, but the fairy tale thing that you’re talking about…I suppose, I remember maybe there was some like half-cooked ideas or things I wanted to do when I wrote that movie and…more than anything, it was trying to just like completely find a new way to work. With Jim [points to audience] we’d just made Magnolia and that was like, a hundred days of my life and three hours long and all like, heavy-duty stuff. And I just remember the last thing I wanted to do was that again. So it was just like how to keep it fresh and how to kind of like shake that off. The thought was like to make something small and bite-size and attack it different, just work in a different way. You know, a hundred and ninety page script, that’s just insane. So it’s just like, how to do something, the films that I’d loved, that I always watch, that I was really inspired by at that time. I was watching Adam’s films, just because they were on all the time and I was like, I’d come across TV and I’d love them and whatever Woody Allen does, and that was the stuff that was floating my boat at the time, that was making me happy, so…trying to do that probably meant not lingering too long with it, just writing fast and trying to follow first instincts and trying to kind of just dig away and not get too hung up, not get to inside my head and try to write impulsively. I mean, those are the things I remember about writing that. And sort of went away for a month and said, “Well, I’ll come back in six weeks and I’m gonna have something.” And I did, and it was kind of pretty good. It was probably 75% of what we actually did. And we just started shooting…
Interviewer: With 75%?!
PTA: Yeah, I thought it was 100%. It turned out to be 75%. I mean, that was kind of the lesson there, it was just like, “Let’s just move, let’s move fast.” And kind of, disrupt the apple cart in how we were working and, yeah it was great for the most part. And then, there were some big, huge, gaping holes that were obviously the result of working that instinctually and that FAST. So thank God we just sort of took a break and…
Interviewer [interjecting]: In the filming you took a break?
PTA: In the filming we took a break and we kind of, we sort of rethought and reshaped and came back again and did more and got it to where we wanted it to go. Yeah it was just…and ultimately it was a successful exercise because it was the opposite way of working on Magnolia, which is the goal, you know.
Interviewer: You had Adam Sandler firmly in mind, but you’re writing the script knowing he hasn’t said yes yet necessarily, do you think away from him in terms of getting Barry, the character, whole in your head? Did you think of other actors or did you think of somebody you’d see on the street? How did you keep that character alive apart from the casting choice? Or did you feel the need to?
PTA: That’s a good question. Normally I would do something like that, is to not get too hung up writing so specifically for an actor. You know, you’ve got to write this person first and hopefully…But I had enough pieces and half-baked ideas like I said that I did approach Adam. That I said, “I want to do this and I want to do this in March and we should get going and I want to finish writing it for you.” Something, again, just to do it differently that he knows really, like 100% for and about him and collaborating and doing this thing together. You know, yeah, I had some other pieces lying around but it was so clear to funnel them into this thing…yeah no it was all about Adam. But, but otherwise, like with Daniel Day-Lewis, I was writing this character Daniel Plainview and I think obviously at a certain point you have to start asking yourself if this is a real thing that you’re going to pursue, who’s an actor that could do this. And obviously he kept popping into my mind. But I probably did the best to kind of push that away and even not get too hung up because you start to think: Well, what if he says no…?But wait, I shouldn’t even be thinking about that kind of stuff. You just have to tell the story. And luckily the phone rang and somebody said he liked me and wanted to work with me. So…
Interviewer: Well, there you go. In terms of like other actors you know, you know, like at what point did Emily Watson enter your mind? ‘Coz she’s so perfect opposite him, or did you think somebody completely unlike him, were you strategically working your way towards that order or did she come into your mind right away in terms of your conception?
PTA: She came to mind very early on too. I mean it was kind of one of those things, to talk about trying to work impulsively and quickly and trying to get that going. Obviously I’d loved Emily in Breaking The Waves and had been following her since then. And she had a wonderful bit in Rock The Cradle, you remember, oh sorry Cradle of Rock, Tim Robbins film. And that was on and I was watching that and she has this great bit in it and I just remember feeling, just sort of gravity towards somebody. You know, and they seemed like a wonderful couple together. The three of us had a fantastic time together.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful. I want to ask about, I want to go further back because, you know, there’s a point a lot of people are working on their scripts right now, just trying to get something launched. I’m thinking of, you know, Hard Eight which was originally called Sydney and that’s really the first thing that you managed to get mounted. If you can talk a little bit about where you were before you got that up and running. How did you develop yourself as a writer and a director? And just, what were the steps that you took to make that first success happen?
PTA: [sighs] Um, well the first thing I just thought of when you said that was, um, that – and I’ve never really thought about this before – when I was 17 I made this short film that was called The Dirk Diggler Story which became Boogie Nights. But the distance between being 17 and making this short film, which the format of that was like a fictional documentary kind of like Spinal Tap and stuff like that, you know, which was very easy to do because we were shooting with a video camera. And it didn’t matter, that was a great format, if that’s what you had, you know? It fit that kind of style…I remember watching Frontline, do you remember, Frontline is still on I guess…
Interviewer: On PBS…
PTA: On PBS, and they did this piece on Shawna Grant, who’s a pornstar, who unfortunately ended up killing herself. But they did a piece on her that I saw, that really inspired The Dirk Diggler Story. Anyway… the distance between making that when I was 17, which was this little script that I wrote out was like probably, you know, 14 or 15 pages, and writing the script that was Boogie Nights, I was constantly writing for 9 years. I wrote like a full version that was a fictional documentary like Zelig, like 80 pages or something, I expanded it out. And then I wrote another draft that was the same thing. But then I decided: But no, I should try and turn this into a film, you know. And I tried, and I wrote it as a…very probably close to what Boogie Nights is now. It was, in other words, an exercise to learn how to write. It was almost like um…
Interviewer: Your first novel…
PTA: I suppose a first novel, it was more um, like I wrote some story out that I thought was true, like it really happened. It was like a documentary. And then set about adapting it. But when I look back on it now, you’re talking about how did you practice. I don’t know, I guess I just practiced for like 8 years writing that one story, trying to learn how to write, learn how to try to feel good about putting words together and scenes together and getting it to…shaping it so that it felt good, that I was confident and that I wasn’t embarrassed by looking at it on the page. I mean that was really…isn’t that so much of what writing is? You’re not humiliated at looking at it, right…
Interviewer: Yeah, definitely. And it’s such a populist movie. There’s so many characters that are alive, I wonder in those 8 years were you, did you tackle it from the point of view of Amber Waves or Rollergirl? How did you work those characters? Did they take over, did you leave Dirk Diggler behind? Did you just get…. [unintelligible]
PTA: Sure, sure, sure, absolutely, yeah, absolutely, now I’m remembering. You’d follow a character and you’d write about them, you know? You’d write like little short stories about all of them. There’s lots of stuff that I would write about the Amber character that Jullianne Moore plays and sort of, her relationship with her ex-husband, and her relationship to her strange son, she has a son I think, that survives in the film, and there was much more about that. Or there was much more about every character really, um…yeah! I mean I hadn’t really thought of this until you asked. This was probably…
Interviewer [interjecting]: This was probably part of the reason why, watching the movie again recently, you feel the weight and extension of the characters. You feel that something’s going on down the hallway even if you can’t see what’s going on…
PTA: That’s good!
Interviewer: You know…it’s a great feeling you know, it’s exciting to watch a movie and feel that. But I think that for a writer I want to know whether it’s a challenge. Talk about the challenge of what to leave in, what to put out. Is there a way you’re making those decisions? That to say what do I leave down the hall, what do I keep in…
PTA: I don’t know, I don’t know, I mean I still don’t know…that’s like yeah I mean…but that’s the fun of it! That’s the endless fun of it! The fucking like endless Rubik’s cube of fun of doing what we do, I guess everyone in this room chose to do. I can’t play piano, but I imagine it must be sort of similar. Just like, here’re these 88 keys and all these different combinations, you know? The fun of it is just sort of wondering what you can do without and what do you nee. Inevitably I write way more than I need, but, god, the fun discussions in the editing room atleast last for like, like what do we need? You don’t know, you hope that you find it and you hope that you make the right decisions. I’m no sure if we’ve made any of the right decisions all the way along, but they’re the ones that we made, you know.
Interviewer: Now all the iterations of Boogie Nights as it was developing, did you show them to friends or did you test it on people and say, “Ah, they’re not getting that.” Or did it grow along the lines…
PTA: What, Boogie Nights?
Interviewer: Yeah, across the 8 years that you were developing it you know, letting it, I mean keeping it to yourself?
PTA: Yeah I mean I might have shared it…I think I kept most of it to myself and I might have shared it with a few people here and there. But no, I think it was something private, that I was keeping to myself.
Interviewer: And Sydney aka Hard Eight, was that something you wrote quicker and almost like a, I don’t want to reduce it to being strategic, but in order to get something like Boogie Nights made, you needed to establish your credentials with you know, you’ve got a film that’s intimate with a couple of characters and the dynamics are pretty clear. It’s got crime and you know, but it rides off the development of all that other stuff. So did you strategically go for that first with the hopes of landing Boogie Nights up the line?
PTA: I don’t remember thinking that strategically, perhaps that was there, you know. Maybe the more strategy that I might have been thinking was: I wanna make a film, and um, how do I make a film and um…small seemed something that was containable, that I could go and do, that I could shoot seemed right. I’d spent time in Reno, um, with friends and I’d worked up there on a film, so I knew Reno pretty well and I loved this actor Phillip Baker Hall. I loved this actor John Reilly and I’d worked on a short and there was similar stuff that I stealing from that and it just seemed like, uh, stuff that I was watching at the time formed it and it felt like to write something that was that size was something that I could actually go and get enough people together and go and do. Um…but I never, if I’d thought through what it was like to make that film, you know, I probably would’ve given it up then, you know. It was like, I did not realize what I was getting into but thank God I didn’t. I was hooked you know, the second I was there.
Interviewer: We once talked a little about that movie before and as I recall, you regarded it as something of a very heavy baptism of fiery education because you were in the position of having to fight for your version. You prevailed; your version actually got out there, but it was like, I think every writer in the room can relate to having to…how do you keep your thing alive, you know, to keep it from being interfered with. Is there any general observations that you can make that would be useful? I mean, things you can advise out of what you experienced based on that?
PTA: No! Only because um…I mean yeah, sure, but I…it’s funny to look back at that and feel, and see my own mistakes in handling that, you know. I was so young and I was completely defending every bad idea that I had and because I didn’t know any better, you know. I just didn’t know, I mean. But that said, I was right some of the time. But I just didn’t know how to navigate other people talking to me about what I was doing. But that said, if the actors every talked to me about what was going on, there was some instinctual thing that had me give over to whatever they thought, you know. In other words, they were the people that were saying it, so I just wanted to make them comfortable saying it, you know. It didn’t matter, but anytime anybody outside of that sphere, actually making the film, had something to say, I got into a paranoid panic; I don’t know what it was.
Interviewer: Well it sounds like, I mean if the actors are giving you a note saying, asking you a question, it’s like well it’s emotional and actually it’s in the direction of what you’re trying to do. Whereas these people saying, “Well, who’s your protagonist?” sometimes it’s like, “Get the fuck outta here.” You know, you’re interfering, ‘coz they’re not, they’re going off a recipe and not looking at what you were cooking but…how do you sort that out because you have to navigate it you know?
PTA: How do you sort out like…
Interviewer: The bad advice from the good advice…
PTA: You know, it’s a good question.
Interviewer: You test it. Somebody gives you a note and is there a way you can test it, so you can say to yourself? Is there a way for you to look at your own work and…?
PTA: I’ll tell you, I think the only way that springs to mind for me because I mean, I am a fucking slow learner, and is [really!] time. You know, if somebody sort of made a suggestion to me and I usually kind of tighten up and I panic and I couldn’t tell what was going on. But somebody makes a suggestion you know, and if I have two days to kind of like sit around on the couch and think about it, I don’t care who made the suggestion, I’m gonna steal it and it’ll be my idea, you know, but that’s my own personal experience with navigating it, is just the time to sit with something. It doesn’t matter who comes up with something anymore, probably used to have chips on my shoulder about that kind of stuff. But I wish I hadn’t because at any moment there can be a good idea from anywhere, it just doesn’t fucking matter you know. And hearing somebody who you may perceive as your enemy just because they have a suit on, or whatever this kind of thing is, is a bit horseshit too because they have their point of view. That point of view is valid, I mean, it just might not be what you’re doing or what you think. But if anything, you want hear, you know, where are you coming from. Just to kind of get a measure of the course of what you’re doing, you know? Does that make sense?
Interviewer: It does, and I guess the one counter would be like…is it that, sometimes people, if they’re having a problem, well maybe they’re naming the wrong problem, but maybe there’s a problem. Is that the kind of…?
PTA: Totally, totally, completely. Somebody says something…yeah I’m thinking of an example, that’s exactly right, you know. Oh God, I’m gonna come up with a great example when I’m in the car on the way home. But, you’re exactly right, you know. Hearing somebody say something…fuck…you said it best. No, maybe somebody has a problem with a scene in your thing, and maybe it is that scene. But maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s something around it, something that’s hovering right around it, and there’s a solution that’s just within reach. And trying to ascertain how to deal with that, that’s the fun! That’s the kind of neverending fun.
Interviewer: Was there anything in The Master that you had to defend even to your coworkers or your actors? Was there anything that stood out where people say, “Ugh! Okay I’m with you, but where are we going?” You gotta think, “Oh shit, what do I say?”
PTA: Yeah, like all of it.
[Everyone bursts into laughter]
Interviewer: Yeah, on that note, I’d love to invite questions from the audience and get people interacting with us. We have a question here on the second row.
Audience Member: Thank you for coming out tonight. I’ve heard a lot of writers-directors say that when a story comes to them, it comes to them in the form of a single, vivid image. I’m wondering where a story comes from for you? Where a story, at its rawest…?
Interviewer: Good question.
PTA: Yeah, good question. Ummm I’ve never had that, I’ve never really had that experience of a single image as vividly as that. Maybe I can remember Magnolia, I remember seeing Melora Walters’ face looking into the camera, something like that. That was a really strong thing. But other than that…
[Interviewer tries to butt in]
PTA: Sorry, I was just thinking for The Master, just to think about that. It was more of a collection of odds and ends and pieces that I had for a very long time, that were in search of something that was going, you know, could squeeze it all together. Some kind of glue or…Or just working with it long enough that it started to present itself as something that was impossible not to do. You know, ‘coz if you’re writing something and it’s going well, I mean, your fucking house would have to burn to the ground for you to stop, you know? I mean, that’s, you know…but if it’s not going well, all the slightest distractions of a bird outside or, you know, the phone ringing, you know, will take you away. You could care less. And maybe it was just working with enough things that I had that was getting to the place where the house could’ve burned down and it didn’t matter.
Interviewer: I mean, to focus on The Master’s imagery for a moment. You know there is something that’s very arresting about it that’s, I wonder, how it interacted with the narrative when you were conceiving it. Because we heard a lot of talk because you shot in 70mm you know. And it’s a particularly valuable experience that I found because what stays with me are a couple of things. It’s like, images of course, Freddie Quell lying on the sandwoman, which is an image you return to, so it becomes an image that we take away with us from the film. But, you know, God, when did that occur to you, because it seems so primal. But around that is the light in the sky on the beach over those veterans. I was feeling like I was looking at 1940s light, right? And it reiterates when he’s accidentally poisoned that poor farm worker, he’s got to run across the field and we’re zapping along, you know, and it’s the same light and it’s an intangible. It’s made tangible reading about it because it’s 70mm but it’s like okay, you were chasing something and was that – off this question – were you early on the in the writing kind of chasing that kind of light? Rather than the image, was that what you were going for?
PTA: Um, yeah you know, God what’s the quote. “It’s always night, otherwise we wouldn’t need light?” Okay I’ve got two things that popped into my head when you were saying what you said, and I know this is a writers, you know thing, guild, foundation thing so you’re not supposed to say this, but that kind of thing with the sandwoman that we have in that film and all that stuff we have on the beach was like, is the kind of thing when you just write. In the script it just says: Freddie is on the beach after VJ Day. That’s all I wrote, because I had nothing, I had no ideas. I just knew we needed to do something on the beach, you know, so it was like, you know, it was like the director took over there. But the idea as a writer was to not write anything, to kind of leave it, so you know, hopefully you find things and you know, it was the last thing that we did and along the way, Jack Fisk kind of came up with these pictures of these sandies, they called them. Sand dolls that they would make in the sand and the sailors would have. We saw those pictures, it was just too good not to try and do one of those. So the sailors, they were extras that we had, would make them and…you talk about the light, listen, you know, good light is good light. You get lucky and you get a nice day and all that. But talking about 70mm cameras is that you know, the fun of working with any kind of old gear is that you hope and you pray that um as much of a pain in the ass it is to work with, you hope that whatever little ghosts and critters are inside those cameras, that have been there, been used before, hopefully they’ll seep under your film and maybe give it some good karma and it can go back out. So when they’re not breaking down hopefully those go through…
Interviewer: Well, this actually triggers a couple of thoughts in me. Because you know, to talk about something as technical as 70mm with the writers, I don’t mean to impose that on the writing except that it seems, as with your opening, I looked at your script for There Will Be Blood and you specified in the first shot that there would be a crescendo of almost violent music going over this desert. Now that’s a very startling effect in the film, so that was there early in your process for writing. Before there was a film, there was the music in your head that you were honoring. So that’s, I’m talking about the more, not so much the technicalities, but the technicalities were serving something you were trying to get to. And I guess to formulate this into a question…you found the sandies in the research and I’m thinking that, as a writer, there must’ve been stuff that you were tripping over from the 1940s and the early ‘50s where, just in your research – and this is for everybody about researching your own idea and trying to trigger research – because you didn’t need to get those sandies then until you were on the beach. But when you were writing, there were other things you needed to research, And how did you go about that to stimulate yourself?
PTA: Well, it’s more like um, it’s more like how do you tear yourself away from that research to actually start writing again, you know, I mean in some ways I feel like…it’s just to say I was writing the film was a way I could lie to my girlfriend and my three kids. But really you’re down there researching. Because that’s the kind of, it’s the logs on the fire, it’s the fuel: it’s everything. Just because, the writing part, it’s fast, isn’t it? Kind of mostly, you know, usually it’s pretty good the first couple of times it comes out of you, work a scene, maybe sometimes it gets better, sometimes it doesn’t. But that time spent trying to hold hands with another period or time, you know, trying to get inside that mind of whatever land you’re writing about and the ways things can lead you, you know. Even if they’re dead ends, doesn’t matter you know, just the time to read about soldiers who come back from the war. There’s a great thing called ‘Pacific War Diaries’ by James J. Fahey, I don’t know if you’ve read it. But he kept diaries on a battleship. I mean, you know, that’s like a 300 page book, just to site down and read that, to read those experience, to go through that. A wealth of material that we had about Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard and that kind of stuff, it was just endless amount of stuff.
Interviewer: There was like a newsletter from the Arizona or something that you found…?
PTA: The Abarie…
Interviewer: The Abarie yeah…
PTA: Which, I couldn’t get through all 12 years involving, I mean that was too much. But to kind of go through all that stuff was…The reason to do this, I mean, the reason to do it was to spend that time looking for anything, looking for anything that might trigger an idea or some kind of compassion or something. So many ‘Letters to the Editor’, so many people writing into this thing, and that’s where you could get stuff. You could find people’s voices, find what they were feeling about their life or their movement or whatever they were involved in and, and um…
Interviewer: Yeah, ‘coz the wonderful lines that were spouting from characters like Laura Dern and various others and just…you do feel you’re eavesdropping on that time, you know…
PTA: Well, that’s not me. I mean like, you know, good writing is stealing and finding little things that people had written or said and navigating it and trying to get in…that is the fun I have to say, at least right now for me that is so much fun. I get off on that, that’s what really floats my boa, is being able to do that stuff. Um, yeah, it’s timesucker, but it’s…
Interviewer: Gives back.
PTA: For sure.
[interviewer selects another Audience Member to ask a question]
Audience Member: Um, last time I was here, Diablo Cody was speaking, and someone asked her if she could have written any script what would it be and she said Boogie Nights. So I’m wondering, you know, if you could’ve written any script, what would it be?
PTA: Uhhhh, first thing that came into my mind was Sweet Smell of Success, I wish I wrote that. If I had that on my resume, can you imagine? If I had my name and if you look it up on IMDB and it said Sweet Smell of Success, North By Northwest, those two are Ernest Lehmans…Treasure of Sierra Madre, Network, I’d put that on my resume. I can keep going, I could keep listing films all night. Pulp Fiction I’d put on my list, I’d say that I wrote that. We could play this game all night; it’s a great game. It’s like a drinking game or something.
Interviewer: Treasure of Sierra Madre and Network, how young were you when you saw them for the first time? When did you----
PTA: Dr. Strangelove too! I saw Treasure of Sierra Madre on Channel 9 when I was a kid. Um, and it made an impact, but not kind of a severe impact, it made on my life when I saw it. Again in the middle of…I mean I’d seen it a couple times and stuff and thought this is great, but when I saw it in the middle of writing There Will Be Blood it was like WAKAAAAAaaaaa [makes sound showing explosion in his head], my fucking head exploded. And funnily enough, if anybody was watching TCM it was on this morning. And I, you know, there it was, my head exploded again. And I was like this is as good as it, you know, as it gets. Dr. Strangelove is another one I said, I mean, I saw that one when I was a kid. My dad said, “Oh you should watch this.” It was on Channel 9, and I didn’t get the humor, I must’ve been 10 or 11 years old. And the main thing I remember was you know, Slim Pickens riding the bomb. If you’re 10 years old and you see that, WHAT?! You know, great.
Interviewer: Yeah, and what’s interesting, I mean this by the way folks, there’s the great Kubrick show at the LA County Museum and at the Academy theatre on Wilshire LaPierre, in the lobby, they’ve got all the screenplays, color Xeroxes of Kubrick’s personal copies of what became Dr. Strangelove, sometimes it’s called ‘Edge of Doom’ and you see its various evolution. Because I only mention it because it’s very related to the sort of process that you’ve been laying bare for us tonight, which is like, discovering it as you go. I mean, part of the power you can wish you could have written but it was, it was growing out of like you know, a whole cluster of inspirations and sort of being logically worked out and discarded as you went along.
PTA: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny, I found an old file the other day, I was looking for something else entirely and came across what obviously became TWBB. I mean, I’d never done this before, I could watch myself going in this direction, in that direction. I thought: Oh wow, look at my mind going this way and that way. And I finally think: God I figured that out, or got rid of that, you know. I don’t have the ability to do that with anything before TWBB because I didn’t save things like that, that…Yeah it was mad to do that, it was crazy.
Audience Member: I had read an article on the Indiewire I think that said parts of The Master were inspired by a certain John Steinbeck story or there was the Steinbeck influence on some of the early scenes. Can you talk about that at all?
PTA: Yeah, that’s just, I was reading – this is what we’re talking about. I had read a great John Steinbeck biography, I think it’s just called ‘John Steinbeck: Writer’ and it chronicled his life, really well written. I’m blanking on the writer’s name, I’m sorry. But it just chronicled his life after Salinas and going to Stanford and splitting from Stanford and working in different fields. And contained inside there were these great anecdotes of him working in a beet field, as a bench chemist where, it was during Prohibition, if you worked as a bench chemist in a beet field, you had all access to all kinds of chemicals and stuff like that. So you could make a really nice kind of potion, you could make a really nice kind of booze. And the way that the story goes in his life was that he realized that he was coming up short on dome chemicals and he thought: Who the fuck is stealing my booze? And so, he also had, as a bench chemist, he also had another chemical that was essentially a laxative. So he spiked this booze with his laxative, and there he was out in the field one day and he sees these guys way over by a tree like squatting down, taking their pants down. And he said: I knew it. I knew you were stealing my booze.
So there’s a couple of things like that and that I sort of embellished or that were just used to write and get something cooking.
Audience Member: Do you ever write something without the intention of directing it? And knowing you’re the director, does that influence your writing process?
PTA: I write pretty selfishly, feeling like I’m writing for me, for myself. Not to direct, but just to write, you know. Like, I mean, for instance, I didn’t get a chance to really write today and I don’t feel right, you know. I mean I feel fine, it’s been an okay day, but it’s not as good a day…at the very least if I’d had 15 minutes this morning to write I would feel just more fucking together, you know.
Interviewer: But you can do that, like 15 min will get you, just make something out of it…
PTA: It’s just enough of a dose to feel like: Okay, I did something, you know. I try to work everyday and if it doesn’t happen, yeah, I just don’t feel as good. My day doesn’t tumble forward as well. Anyway, but directing, like when you’re saying…I forgot that I wrote that thing at the beginning of TWBB in the script. I mean obviously I had an idea in my head that there would be music and…sometimes you write a lens down, you know, as a director. I mean you write it in there just because it’s an idea you have. You may completely throw it away, but it’s just you don’t wanna forget it, you know. So I’ll do stuff like that. But, but also try to leave things open sometimes so that it doesn’t get too, there’s enough room to keep doing more things, you know, do you know what I mean?
Interviewer: Yeah, exactly, it’s, you’re tricking your memory and your unconscious to, you know, show up, so that they remember to come back. “Okay, yeah, this is what we were talking about. Oh!”
PTA: Do you know Wells Tower, this writer Wells Tower? Anybody here, go get Wells Tower, he’s got a great book of short stories called ‘Everything Ravished, Everything Burned.’ Yes, great, great writer. And he – I was reading about something, he was talking about writing – says, “You have to get yourself into a form of auto-hypnosis.” I was like: That is exactly right. I never heard anybody say it quite so perfectly. Yeah, go get this book, it’s great.
Audience Member: Hi Paul. I get the sense that you create from a really unconscious place, um, and it’s sort of the place that Stephen Gaghan calls “The Magical Garden” where great shit gets handed to you for free. And I’ve heard you talk about sort of, like, writing from the gut and I know you do the early morning kind of thing. Um, but my question, and there’s a question here, but um…I love the first three films of yours and they come, they’ve such amazing empathy for your characters and humanity. Some of the speeches in Magnolia are just amazing, amazing stuff and um, I’m wondering, the last three movies, when I saw them, the first time I saw them it was like, I had to see them a second time to really kind of get them. Whereas the first three movies, they went down very smoothly. And I was wondering, is it coming, is it you finding, is it coming from a more, are you finding yourself in these more recent movies or like, is it making sense? Is it coming from a more unconscious place? Like, you know, when you see 2001 for the first time, it’s like, “What did I just see?” And then you see it again and then you’re like, “WOW, now I get it.” It’s like your last three movies have felt very much like that for me. I’m wondering if there’s a shift that went on in your filmmaking that you’re aware of.
PTA: Um, aw, we’re getting more obtuse and more confusing. Well…
Interviewer: Or perhaps just reaching further. 2001 is a good analogy because after Dr. Strangelove he could’ve done another comedy after that, but he goes, he goes way further out, you know? But yeah…
Interviewer: And I guess the question, in trusting your unconscious you know, do you worry about getting ahead of your own curve?
PTA: You know, you have to, I mean, I suppose you’re gonna have to…listen…when you talk about trusting your subconscious when you’re writing a film, I mean, part of that’s completely fucking ridiculous and part of it’s completely, you know, maybe sometime all you’re trying to do for the next year is protect the vast distance between when your instinct wrote something down and what it means to actually try to get it financed, get it together, go get everybody out there, shoot it, shoot it in some way, and get it…by the time it reaches the theater that gulf you know, between whatever your gut was doing and something else, your brain’s had a lot of time to think about what’s going on. And so I don’t know how, if the film business is the best place for that kind of intuitive filmmaking, you know, intuitive thinking to do that. But um, I guess to answer your question…I feel like with PDL when we made that film, something seemed to feel, I don’t know, based in all the insecurities and kind of like panic around during the making of that film, we kind of – I, we, the people that we worked with – emerged with a sort of newfound confidence, you know, as funny as that sounds um…just a different way of working, a different way of feeling good about what you were doing, or your confidence. That’s not to say that you get so confident that you don’t get stricken with doubts of confusion and depression but that’s okay, you kind of know that those things will change and you trust that they’ll change. But that felt like a little kind of, maybe just a, I don’t know, a different way of working and it kind of felt, it felt more us. Felt like we were somehow getting into our own skin. I was getting in my own skin and the people I was working with, felt that we’d just put enough miles between something. But, that’s not to say we’re not all completely still baffled by what we do. You know, but we maybe enjoy it a little bit more.
Interviewer: Well, off this gentleman’s question about, you know, in a sense the question seems to me, the theme under it is also challenging yourself. ‘Coz sometimes, I mean it’s not that you have to see a movie twice. But sometimes an audience is challenged by what you tried, because you challenged yourself. That’s, it’s not becoming more obtuse, but it’s like you didn’t want to do the same thing twice. You gotta, you gotta try and do an extra somersault. But, you know, an audience will challenge itself and come back. But I guess in relation to that, looking at say Magnolia. Magnolia is, is a movie that feels like you challenged yourself to do something really wild. It’s like a trapeze act; you’ve got all these characters sort of flying and they’re flying in symmetry, almost in formation. And it’s good because they keep you following one curve but there’s a lot of them. You know, it’s like juggling, you’re keeping a lot of apples and oranges in the air. And with PDL, you’re got to a kind of simplicity. But are you tempted, I mean you’ve moved in different directions even from that in your more recent films, but are you tempted to go back into a kind of symphonic sort of idiom like you were in Magnolia again? Is there any kind of movie that’s, that’s you know, calling to you now? Or do you see yourself doing a broad canvas like that again, anytime?
PTA: Um, yeah I know what you mean, but I’m not into the stuff that I was into when I was making that film. I’m into different films and different stuff and different stuff that’s just getting me off and making me feel excited about making films. And um, whatever that’s gonna be, whatever crops up that you see that just suddenly kind of gets you excited about films again or um, you know, um you’re gonna have to rely on that that’s gonna spark something in you that’s gonna push you in a certain way. I mean I’m like, I’m completely obsessed right now with Archupon, whatever his name is, they call him Joe. He made Syndromes and the Century, you know the Taiwanese director?
Interviewer: No, no…
PTA: It’s fucking great, you gotta see his stuff. Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives?
Interviewer: Oh, Uncle Boonmee I’ve seen.
PTA: Yes, okay.
Interviewer: Okay, wow.
PTA: Maybe you didn’t like it but…
Interviewer: No no, I liked it a lot, but, I Loved it!
PTA: See, but that’s…
Interviewer: But that’s not a movie like…
PTA: I wish I could make a film like that, you know. But I guess that’s like…
Interviewer: No, and it’s funny about Uncle Boonmee which is a strong recommendation, but it is, I don’t know, trying to explain it, if I try to explain it to somebody, it would be like the great Orson Welles line: A filmmaker should make films innocently, like Adam and Eve made the animals. ‘Coz that’s not a movie that I’ve seen anybody else ever make.
PTA: Right, yeah.
Interviewer: And sometimes you can even, I had to think how do I know that name, ‘coz it’s like I even forgot it. And it’s no disgrace to him, it’s kind of like my mind kinda left it behind for a second ‘coz I can’t, I don’t have an easy handle to put on it except that you say it and I’m like: Oh yeah THAT film.
PTA: Right, well it’s like anything. For some reason last night my two girls got out of bed at like 10.30 and obviously they were up chatting away in the room when they’re supposed to be asleep and they came in and…I was making a sandwich ‘coz I was starving and something was playing on TCM, I don’t know what it was. It was obviously like a, I don’t know what the display said, but it was basically just a series of vignettes, performance vignette: two girls playing piano, two girl acrobats that were sort of walking, it must’ve been like mid ‘30s, late ‘30s. And then a kind of comedian who literally ate everything. Starts smoking a cigarette, he eats the cigarette. Starts taking apart his suit, it’s a vaudeville act, you know. Starts playing the harmonica, eats it. And you know, talk about inspiring, just watching these kind of vignettes, it was kind of like the thing that you see just gets you going again. And my first instinct was, “I wanna do that!” That looks like fun, that looks like so much fun. With performers, and getting a camera like that. Those are were those inspirations come from, talking about going back to something. I never want to go back, fuck that. I mean I want to keep going, I want to keep finding new things that are exciting to me and keep you know, I don’t wanna go back. That would be fucking horrible. No, no really…
Interviewer: No, no I get you…
Audience member: Hi, I came in late, I’m sorry if I distracted people at the door. I just want to apologize but hi! I guess my question…
PTA: You did…
[Laughs all around]
Audience Member: I ruined the evening, I’m so sorry. But I guess my question was what’s always attracted me to certain films is the character development and the reason I think I’ve enjoyed so much of your films is just how, I guess, deep you go into the character in the film, even though it’s not as apparent to other people I’ve had watch TWBB and everything, they just kind of see it as a movie. But there’s so much more to all the characters, but I was wondering if you have some sort of like, system in developing. Like you keep like writing about the characters? Like as you’re writing the screenplay do you develop a whole background for them? Or if it’s just the way that you write, like there’s so much to them.
PTA: Yeah I have like a computer program. Um, I don’t, I mean, you hope to get to know your characters and you hope to trust that if you start writing something that they don’t want to do, that they’ll fight back. In other words, you know, you kind of um, if you like TWBB, hopefully you try to write a scene where Daniel suddenly becomes a really nice guy, you know. Donating money to charities or whatever, or he learns sign language for his son, stuff like that. And you know, you should do, you should try to write that scene. You should try it on your characters and just see how long they let you do it to them before they reach out from inside your typewriter or computer and smack you across the face. “Dude, you’re fucking kidding yourself! Let’s get back to what we were meant to be doing.” Does that make sense?
Interviewer: Yeah, it’s interesting to point out that in the script which I reading today of TWBB, when you introduce Daniel Plainview, you don’t describe him physically. You simply say DANIEL PLAINVIEW, LATE 30s AT THIS POINT, I had it written down. It’s like he’s, there he is in the 110 degree heat of New Mexico, hunting for silver.
PTA: That’s all you need right?
Interviewer: That’s all you need.
PTA: Probably too much already, I could’ve taken off four words outta that.
Interviewer: Yeah right, but it’s action as opposed to adjectives. And it just seems like, as I checked everywhere else in the script, it was like yeah, there’s no mood, no purple, no, it was all just whatever the heck they were doing but it’s wherever they are, like 110 degree heat, there’s a physical element to it.
PTA: I mean I was taught, I don’t know where I learned this or who taught me, but like screenwriting is not real writing. It’s, come on, it’s not, you’re not writing a book, you know. You’re writing the basic, you know, let’s just, the situation, where they are, what they’re doing should really say everything you know. And leave room for an actor to do something, you know. I always felt like that that was good screenwriting. That, you know, good writing belongs in books. That screenwriting should be absolutely as economical as possible. So that the filmmaking could take over. So that an actor could take over. So that a camera could take over, you know. That it’s best, it becomes invisible. Yeah, I mean I think I got that early on ‘coz I was friends with a lot of actors and they said, they’d read and show scripts and say, “You know we don’t read any of that shit, we just read what our lines are.” So I was like: Well, if they don’t read it, why write it, you know.
Audience Member: Hello. The San Fernando Valley, or the whole Valley, seems to play a pretty big part in a few of your movies and a bit in most. So I was wondering if there is maybe anything that still lingers, whether in may be in the Infinity or just, what kind of influences or impressions did that place, that area leave on you as a writer? And also maybe when does location come into play after as a writer into your stories?
PTA: Obviously the same way for everybody here. That’s where I was born and that’s where I was raised, that’s where I live now, so I can only assume that that’s a huge part of who you are, a huge part of what you’ve learned, where you’ve come from. As tragic as that is you know, I mean I wish it was someplace cooler and more…you know. But that’s what you’ve got so you try to you know. But the second part of your question is something about…I’m sorry but I didn’t understand exactly. Do you mean if I had, if I mighta…
Audience Member: Like where in the writing process does, I mean you have just characters…
PTA: Does location…
Audience Member: Yeah, and how much attention do you like to give to it in the actual script?
PTA: Good question, I mean…well, fuck, good question, I don’t really know. It’s like, if you’ve got a story like Boogie Nights it can’t really take place anywhere else. I mean I s’pose there’s other places where pornography might have been made…
Interviewer: Well Boogie Nights and Magnolia both are appropriate to the San Fernando Valley strike.
Interviewer: But, the California that you portray in TWBB is like a, what it has in common is with the same bare desert, and it’s there in The Master too when the motorcycles in the desert…there’s something that calls to you about those bare places, those wide open places. That seems to be in you like a watermark, wherever the characters are wound up.
PTA: I mean basically, the place that a story takes place in makes a lot of fucking difference to what’s going on, you know. It does, absolutely, you know. I think like in The Master for instance, I mean like it’s no accident that they start off in San Francisco, they make their way over to New York, and that movement doesn’t last very long in New York. It makes sense in New York City to get out of here. And they go to Philadelphia…
Interviewer: And Freddie Quell doesn’t last very long in Boston. He has to get out to the…
PTA: Exactly. Freddie Quell doesn’t last very long on land, you know. Wherever, you know, he’s much better at sea. I mean, that’s location. Having a character that’s obviously so much more comfortable when he’s at sea than when he’s on land. Or take him to the desert, you know, I mean. So take one of your characters and put them somewhere where they maybe don’t want to be, they don’t belong and see what happens, you know. Things will happen, things will inevitably happen to people when they’re out of place.
Audience Member: I’m wondering how you construct a story. I mean it sounds like you get a lot of inspiration in research and you really get wrapped up in it, you find these gems. I mean, do you take all that and sort of dump in on the table and rearrange this or I guess-
PTA: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And anything more than that, I’d be being disingenuous with you to kind of say that I kinda construct a story. I mean I never feel like I know how the fuck to construct a story, except just like…that’s a great way of what you just said. Yeah, dumping things on a table and yeah, spreading them around like that, for sure. Hopefully getting lucky enough to kind of get enough things going in a row that feels like something worth doing, something worth telling, something worth going to shoot, yeah. It’s kind of sadness too to sort of feel that you’re maybe getting to the end of something, you know.
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean it’s an extraordinary scene at the close of The Master and it snuck up on me. I didn’t expect the climax to come so soon in a funny way, even though it’s a long movie. But I’m like, the rhythm, it’s suddenly there. Having this conversation and it’s a very…the feeling under it that it communicates is something very specific, which is that you know, whatever the outcome of this conversation, whether they kill each other at the end of the conversation. Whatever happens, ‘coz you have Dodd and Quell, this is the last conversation they’re ever going to have. They both know it too, they’re looking each other in the eye and they – you see an odd smile on Freddie’s face, which is actually, helping us viewers anticipate where this is really going. And Dodd is almost fighting that cruel little smile on Freddie’s face, ‘coz they both know that this is the end of the road for their whole relationship. It’s a really interesting thing to feel. Sometimes it happens in real life that you do feel: I’m not gonna see this person again. But you don’t want that; it’s a terrible thing to feel. And you communicate that terrible feeling. I was just wondering, did you know in advance that they were going to have this or did you find out writing it that: Oh my…you know? Was that…
PTA: I don’t remember. I mean, I think it was probably that I knew sooner or later I was going to have to end this film. But more importantly, that their relationship would not work. I think you probably, intuitively knew, probably like halfway through writing it, is that like any romance, maybe you realize, unfortunately I think I’m writing a doomed romance rather than one that could survive, you know. Exactly how that would play out, maybe I wasn’t quite sure. But um…
Interviewer: I think that some of my questions are a little unfair ‘coz I’m trying to get you to quantify something that can’t be quantified except by the thing itself. But one of the things that is powerful, I’m hopeful that people can take away, is the feeling of open-endedness that’s sometimes there under each of your scenes. Because anything can happen, you feel, in these scenes. And it’s a great feeling to have and I feel like it’s something to aspire to whatever kind of movie you’re writing. ‘Coz it was said of say Some Like It Hot, right? ‘Coz that’s like, somebody said, “Why is that film erotic?” It’s because Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, you feel anything can happen while they’re talking, ‘coz you don’t know where it’s gonna go. And it’s a great zone to get in and you really got that in there.
PTA: That’s great, that’s funny you should bring that up ‘coz I was just watching that film the other day and you know, when that film starts, you could…possible that you watch the beginning of that and not even know what film you’re watching. Starts as this gangster film, you know. Uh, what’s-this-face is walking around, Spats Columbo…
Interviewer: George Raft.
PTA: George Raft, running around. And so, the navigation that that film takes does not kind of lead you to believe that you’re watching this sort of classic comedy by Billy Wilder that’s essentially going to end up on the beach and down by the Del Cornado you know. And then they’re on the train for all that long time, and it kind of has a whole pace that’s all it’s own. And, yeah! I like that in my films. I would prefer to be confused about where we’re going and hand over the know, you know.
Audience Member: To kind of piggyback of the last question, so much of the conversation’s been about, kind of, the discovery process and not really knowing where you’re going. And specifically, I think in the Sydney commentary, I think you’d spoken to the effect of um, if you don’t know where the story’s going, just set your characters down in a coffee shop and have them talk until the story starts. So to that end, now that you’re working on Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon, and there’s a book, and the characters are set up for you. Is that more difficult, are you wrestling with that, now that you know where you’re going?
PTA: Well, it’s nice just because it’s different, you know. Just because it’s different to be adapting a book. And that’s the most important thing, is to just keep excitement going about the writing and not ever be stale with it. And I mean, right now, if I thought I was having to start back to write something, I would probably just not be doing it. I’d be so tired and exhausted. But the thrill of going to work everyday is the thrill of working with someone else’s amazing words and throwing them around and trying to see how they go together. And it’s no less fun than coming up with something from the ground up. If anything, it’s right now, for me, where I am in my life and my writing, it’s more fun, it’s more rewarding. I’m getting more out of it, ‘coz it’s not something I’ve ever done before. And that’s fucking great, you know. It’s like so nice to be looking at words on a page that you didn’t write. You get so nauseated with stuff that you do and now you got somebody else’s stuff to play with, it’s a great feeling. As long as it lasts, I’m gonna keep writing it down.
Interviewer: When you adapted TWBB from Upton Sinclair, it’s often remarked that you only took the first hundred pages of the novel. Now that’s not comment against you or Upton Sinclair, but it was an interesting attack and do you feel the same freedom with Pynchon to just say…
PTA: No, not at first. I don’t, but I probably should. I mean if anything, sooner or later I’m gonna have to be harder on that book to actually make a film about it, you’re gonna have to get very hard on it, you know. And that’s okay. Anybody here, I don’t know if you’ve had…I used to like, when I was younger, you’d be so self satisfied with something that you write. Now, the self satisfaction comes from like, the joy of like a great cut, you know. Some great red circle through something and then a slash and two things get smashed together, it’s the greatest feeling. It’s just a high, you know, ‘coz discovering something that you never thought could smash together like that and it’s what keeps me coming back, you know, that kind of thrill. When that’s happened, it’s great and hopefully it’ll happen more.
Audience Member: Hi, given your love of words and characters and humanity, have you ever considered writing and directing for the theatre?
PTA: No…I mean I have, I would like to do that, but I’ve never done it. That’d be great. That seems hard, really…
[Laughs all around]
Interviewer: Yeah, different set of demands really…
PTA: I guess. Yeah, nowhere to hide. That’s real writing, that’s more real writing.
Audience Member: When you’re talking about your writing, you leave a lot of room for discovery. And then you go and you have to make a film, and you talk about having a lot of discovery with your actors. Was there a conflict between the writer that’s made a blueprint and the director who’s on the set with the actor and says, “I’m gonna go this way.” Or is it a continuous handoff that you’re completely okay with…
PTA: It’s a continuous handoff that I’m completely okay with. I mean I’ll completely fire the writer when I get to the set. I mean he has to be hired again, sometimes you get to a scene you have to come up with something on the spot. And that’s fun, that’s great, you get to go type something up. “Oh, yeah, I’m a writer,” and you type something up. But no, I’m so unprejudiced about my writing. I try to be, at the least. Every once in a while there’ll be something you get really prejudiced about, some line or something and you kind of go, “Wait, no, you missed that, you gotta say it like this.” Just weird things you get hung up on, but I’m not fussy about it at all, I don’t really care. Just wanna kind of look at something that’s in front of me that seems like it’s going well and right. Usually actors will be - if it’s written well, they’ll say something you wrote and it’ll be great. But usually they’ll say something better if it’s coming out of their mouth in a certain way. I’m just not fussy about that at all. And usually they really come…like if anything, I write too much sometimes. We had a scene in The Master with Freddie and Clark, played by the great Rami Malek who gets married to the daughter-in-law. Anyway, they’re going to kick the shit out of John Moore and there’s this walk and talk on this street that we did and Rami had this unfortunate mission of kind of spewing out all this dialog that I’d written him about how he met Master and what’s he going on with him and it’s like a page of what I thought was really good writing. The day before Joaquin’s like, “You want us to say all that stuff?” And on the street I was like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s gonna be great!” And like later that afternoon, “So you want us to say all of that stuff, like whaaaaat?” And finally I was like: He’s hinting at it. He hasn’t hinted at anything else along the way here. Like okay, yeah you’re right, this is fucking horrible, this is fucking bad. No I think I said, “Well, let’s just do this once.” And they walked and talked down the street, and he did a great job of getting it out. And then…we did it a couple more times. I said, “Hey, why don’t you guys walk down the street and don’t say anything?” And they walked down the street and didn’t say anything and I was like, “That was fucking great.”
Because that is what they’d do. They’d walk down the street and they didn’t say anything because they were going to kick the shit out of somebody; they weren’t going to stop for a conversation.
Audience Member: Hi, um, I was wondering, how many of your stories are based on actual experiences versus sort of seeking to explore something that you’ve never done before through writing?
PTA: God, that’s a great question.
Interviewer: That’s a great question.
PTA: That’s heavy stuff. Well, lots of them, so many things that have come from my life or stories that I’ve heard in my life. But, I s’pose…so wait the second part of the question is something that you wish to explore in your life?
Interviewer: Does a character fulfill something that I mean, for example, Daniel Plainview…not inhibited does he get to put on the big boots and walk for you in some way? Or…
PTA: No, no, what I was thinking about more importantly was that there was a moment where we were standing out in the middle of the desert and there’s a train coming down the tracks and there we are with this camera and you sort of look around and you think: This is fucking absurd. You are completely fulfilling some fantasy; you’re making a movie out in the desert with a train and guys and with this gear on. You think: this is like wish fulfillment, you know. I felt the same way when we were out on a boat in San Francisco Harbor; you’re tooling around , you’ve got a movie camera and just , just the thrill of doing that, of having that experience. Now, that portion of it is wish fulfillment, I mean that’s the kind of joy, that boyish thrill of doing this thing. You just feel so fucking lucky to do it. But in terms of the characters, I can only assume that, yeah, that you are funneling some part of you, wholeheartedly, I hope, into them, through them. So yeah, so I mean how many times have I wanted to say to somebody, “I’m gonna come into your room in the middle of the night and cut your fucking throat.” I mean, a lot, you know.
[Laughs all around]
But I don’t.
Interviewer: Speaking of wholehearted thrills, this has been so great Paul. And you guys have been great.
PTA: Thank you everybody.
[Applause. Interviewer and PTA shake hands. PTA hands mike over, gets up and leaves.]