Saturday, February 28, 1998

Interview: "20 Questions"

Playboy Magazine, Written By David Rensin
February ??, 1998

For 27-year-old director Paul Thomas Anderson, the thrilled critical response to his film Boogie Nights - the story of an innocent young man whose foot-long love gland transforms him into a porn star of the late Seventies and early Eighties - must make the sophomore director feel like he's similarly endowed. The film is based on a short Anderson made when he was 17, called The Dirk Diggler Story. Ten years later, its screen history. In the interim Anderson made another short, Cigarettes and Coffee that got him into the Sundance Institute's Filmmaker's Workshop and that led to his first feature, Hard Eight. Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, it was retitled Hard Eight and quickly faded away. We asked Contributing Editor David Rensin to talk with Anderson as Boogie Nights went into wide release. Rensin says, "We met at a popular Valley deli, where the waitresses knew and adored Anderson. He sat down, rummaged into his huge briefcase for his glasses, and with a smile announced, "Let me wash my hands before I begin the interview." I think that he also washed them afterward.

1. You wait until the end of Boogie Nights to show Dirk Diggler's 13-inch cock. Did you ever think of revealing the goods sooner?

In the earliest assembly of the movie, we showed it in his first sex scene. At the time, I wasn't sure if it was to get it out of the way. But when I watched the film, I realized it had to be saved for the end. Metaphorically, it's the come shot. It's everything you could hope for from a movie ending. David Mamet once said, "The last five seconds separates the men from the boys." I took that quote to heart and ran with it.

2. Do you think your initials - P.T.A. - had anything at all to do with Boogie Nights getting an R from the movie ratings board?

I'm not sure, but I loved dealing with the MPAA people. When we submitted the movie, it was NC-17. I said, "I can't argue with you." What they said next surprised me: "We just want you to know we love this movie, and we want it to be NC-17." I said, "What do you mean?" They said, "We created that rating for movies like this, movies that deal with explicit material but that are also legitimate films. Then Showgirls came along and made us look like girls, sort of wiped the rating back to an X. So we need a movie like this." That changed my mind. I understood, but I said, "I can't be the guinea pig." Ultimately, only 40 seconds had to come out, which was basically of Mark Wahlberg's ass, humping. That was fine, since it didn't interfere with the storytelling.

3. Did you ever consider ex-porn-star-gone-legit-actor Traci Lords for a role?

No. A little too wink-wink nudge-nudge. Also, Bob Shaye, the president of New Line, suggested it, so I guess I rebelled. I must have a problem with authority. [Pauses] However, I did cast Veronica Hart. She's not only a great person, she's the Meryl Streep of porn. She plays the judge in the custody hearing between Amber Waves and her ex-husband.

4. One issue Boogie Nights takes on is the debate over making porn on film or videotape. Why all the fuss about new technology?

In a business that can be demoralizing, you really need to latch on to any dignity you can get. When the porn was on film, anyone in that industry could have drawn a quick, straight line to so-called legitimate movies. It was 24 frames a second, through light, up on a screen. Video took that away. Some industry people argued that video was good because it got the product into the home for private viewing, and consumers didn't have to bear the stigma of going to an adult theater. That's true, but it's also a desperate justification by those who were shoved into a new technological arena - whether they wanted to go or not. I absolutely believe that video ruined the business. Inherent in using film is the need to figure out a plan of action beforehand. Where do we want to put the camera? We only have so much time, money and film. That translated into a more focused product. Video brought a new mentality: "We'll shoot a bunch of stuff. We don't really have to plan this because we can cut it into something later." During my research I went to a porn shoot done on videotape. There was no time between setups. At a certain point there was nothing romantic going on, nothing remotely emotional or sexual. It was just fucking. It was torture, period. No trace of human contact.

5. The adult movie theater is dead, but aren't we left with a generation of moviegoers who have a Pavlovian reaction to the smell of Lysol?

[Laughs, claps hands] Wow. That's funny. Hey, you know what? Fuck my answer - just make sure that question is in there.

6. Burt Reynolds has received raves for his role as the filmmaker Jack Horner. Critics write of his career being resurrected and a possible Oscar nomination. But he didn't promote or support the film, and there was rumors that he had some problems with it. What can you say to Burt to help him feel better about his performance?

Near the end of Burt's autobiography - which I listened to on tape - he says, and I'm paraphrasing: "I know I will never win an Oscar, because no one really respects me as an actor. But here's the speech I would give if I did win." He gives a beautiful speech, sort of thanks his son, Quinton. I just hope he gets to give it for real so maybe he'll believe that people do respect him and like him. I'm proud of Burt's performance.

That said, let me tell you a funny little story. A friend of mine named Mike Stein - he played Dirk Diggler in the original Dirk Diggler Story - was in a supermarket in Van Nuys about midnight a couple of months ago. He saw Burt's friend Dom DeLuise in the frozen-food section. Mike walked up and said, "Mr. DeLuise? My name's Mike Stein, and I want to tell you I think you're great. I've been watching you for years and you're just wonderful." Dom thanked him and they started to chat. Eventually, Mike felt it was appropriate to say, "I have a friend who just worked with Burt. They made a movie together." Dom said, "Oh, that's great. What's the movie?" Mike said, "It's called Boogie Nights. It's about porn stars, about a hot new talent and the turbulent things he goes through in becoming the world's biggest porn star." And Dom said, "Oh, that's great. Is Burt going to play that part?"

7. Was that Burt's problem? He really wanted Wahlberg's part?

No, but that's why Warren Beatty isn't in the movie. Warren called me and said, "I love this script. Let's talk." He's really seductive on the phone. It's like being flashed with that Men in Black memory device: Bap! "I don't know how you did that or what just happened, but suddenly you've got me under your spell." After two weeks of going round, I finally deciphered his meaning. I said, "You want to play Dirk Diggler, don't you?" He said, "Yeah, let's go!" I think he was joking and not joking. I said, "I know, I know! Everybody wants to play Dirk. But Warren...."

8. With all the attention that you've received on this film, it seems you're experiencing a Dirk Diggler-like success. Did writing the part teach you how to handle it?

Absolutely, I'm him. I have a very large penis and a Nissan Sentra. I just need to trade that in for a red Corvette [laughs]. As we're talking, I'm right in the middle of the heat. And I don't want to feel bad - as is my tendency - about enjoying that people are loving this movie, that a million celebrities are calling, going, "Blah blah blah, I want to meet you! Oh my God!" I just spent two years of my life - without a vacation - making this. So it's OK to feel good instead of thinking I don't deserve it. And with my next movie, I plan to take advantage of it all. I'm being promised Kodak prints instead of Fuji prints. Wonderful. A powerful, charismatic studio head sat me down yesterday and said, "Your next three movies are green-lit. Keep them all under $15 million. You've got final cut, you don't have to do a preview and you're set. Go. Shake my hand, yes or no." I said, "Well, I don't fuck on the first date. I'm sorry, I can't do that." Why? Although he has a good record and is brilliant at marketing movies, the truth is, I won't have to deal with just him. There are 40 other people at the company who will be involved in my movie. I have to meet and get to know them before I can commit to making a movie there. So I said, "That's very flattering and I don't want to be the jerk kid who says, 'Go fuck yourself and your deal,' but I have to protect myself and the actors in the movies I make. I've got to know more." So he laughed and smiled and said, "Thirty million!" Just kidding. He said, "I understand, and I'll bet you don't call me."

9. Who did you call?

Spielberg. He wanted to meet. When God calls, you show up. You take off the blinders, you tuck in your shirt and you go and see him. It was thrilling. I got to lunch with him on the day my movie opened. I said, "This feels very odd yet wonderful." My first influences were Jaws and Close Encounters. I saw them when I was seven, and I knew what I wanted to do. So sitting with him I had this weird flashback. Despite all this talk about my being a hotshot, any juice I might have had was drained right there, and I was a seven-year-old again. I asked him, "What do you think of the way we're releasing the movie?" He said he thought it was great and, "I think you're going to make a lot of money." I said, "Well, you're the only human being who knows."

10. Gwyneth Paltrow has said you're obsessed with the actors to the point of - in her case - making them feel supremely confident. What did she mean? When shooting is over and the actors move on, can you? What's your weaning process?

Sometimes I can take being a fan to excess. Maybe part of the reason this movie is so long is that I love staring at the actors with the camera. I can let things go on for a long time just because I'm getting off on it. My selfish love for them can get in the way of telling the story. It happens because I believe in working with actors who are my friends. I treat their characters with the same respect and dignity I have for real people. My relationship with the actor is right there on-screen. I think it gives me an advantage.

There is no weaning process. When the movie's over, I am a jilted lover who is jealous that the actor is making a movie with anyone but me. When Julianne Moore went off to do Spielberg's The Lost World after she did Boogie Nights, I was jealous and hurt. Of course, I love that she did his movie, but a weird thing happens. It's like they're out there cheating on me. After Hard Eight I told Gwyneth, "I can't believe you're cheating on me." She said, "Oh shut up." But I can't help it. And it's good in the way it compels me to write again, so I can win them back. That is where my writing comes from: I'm concocting ways to watch my friends act.

11. If you had to choose between writing and directing -

Oh fuck off. That's Sophie's Choice. [Smiles] I suppose I'd write and then I'd terrorize whoever was directing. I'd stare over his shoulder. I'd tear off his face, like Hannibal Lecter did, and plaster it onto mine. I'd eat him.

12. You're doing this interview at a deli whose slogan is "Every sandwich is a work of Art," Art being the owner. Let's make lunch: Describe Dirk Diggler, Amber Waves, Jack Horner and Rollergirl as if they were on the menu.

Dirk: a sandwich with lots of special sauce. But I can't tell you what the special sauce is. Amber Waves: a bowl of soup, a warm, cuddly, beautiful chicken noodle soup. The Jack Horner sandwich: a lot of ham and cheese. And you have to take away a lot of the ham. Rollergirl: a sandwich you can't get a bite out of, no matter how hard you try.

13. What's the worst part of making movies?

On Boogie Nights, all the time, effort and energy making the movie, and making sure it was technically OK, and then seeing it in theaters and realizing that projectionists have the final cut. Here's what goes on in the booth: Most movies are "plattered," which means all eight reels - one reel is about 20 minutes - are joined together on a big plate that turns and the film runs through the projector. The projectionist's job is to cut the last frame of one reel to the first frame of the next reel and splice it together. It's supposed to be this perfect straight line with nothing missing. But projectionists will drop film on the floor: They'll cut and splice in weird moments, and skip frames. I was at a theater where the movie was down for 15 minutes. It broke and fell on the floor. The projectionist picked it up, put it together. There were frames missing, there was dirt all over it. And he never made a call to New Line saying, "This has happened, send me a new print." If I hadn't snuck into the theater to see the audience reaction, that dirty print would still be playing.

14. Your film is full of maternal issues. Dirk's real mom was shrewish. He had sex with his adoptive mom, who also turned him on to cocaine. You've been silent on your relationship with your own mom. What are you trying to work out? Has she seen the movie?

I've been reluctant to talk about that because maybe I'll deal with it in another movie. It's not so much about trying to guard privacy; it's about trying to guard, in a mysterious way, the stories I might tell. I don't want to give away the ending. I also don't want to be the guy who's dealing with this mother for 30 years. However, I heard from my sister that my mother saw the movie. As far as her response, I don't really know.

15. Clearly, you're a student of dysfunctional and reinvented families. Is there an on-screen or TV family that reflects your ideal?

There's a Max Ophuls movie with Joan Bennett caled The Reckless Moment. A great little noir thriller. In it, Bennett has two or three kids. Someone gets murdered and she discovers the body and she wants to figure out how to dispose of it. Turns out the mother thinks her daughter has killed this guy, but he actually died accidentally. The great thing is that throughout the second half of the movie, the mom manages to focus on taking care of her kids. She has a teenage daughter who's nervous about a date and wants to take the car, and whose stocking is ripped. She has a son who is hungry and can't find his schoolbooks, and he rags on his sister for being nervous. The movie is all this stuff on top of all this other stuff - and here is the mother, taking care of everything. Whenever I think of that movie I go, "I want to be in that family!"

16. Defend remakes.

My feeling about remakes is: Just rip it off. Don't call it a remake. Don't bastardize it. Just give it another title. Isn't re-creating and rehashing and ripping off and riffing off patterns that have already been created part of what we do? So just make it your own and call it something else. Without trying to insult anyone, and unfortunately Gwyneth is in this movie, I'm not sure about the thinking behind remaking Dial M for Murder. Do they think they can do it better? On second thought, maybe all those Hitchcock movies can be done better. Yeah. He's overrated, that Hitch guy.

17. Now that you're a hot commodity, meeting all the industry power players, what's worse, talking to a suit old enough to be your parent or talking to one your own age?

It's weirder talking to a suit my age. Staring across the desk at someone of my generation who doesn't love movies hurts even more than when it's some old fogey. I want to shake him and say, "How come you're in this job and you don't love movies? I could kill you with my bare hands."

18. What can't film school teach?

Anything. I use my brief experience with film school to bad-mouth it with authority. The first day I walked into the classroom I was faced with seeing Battleship Potemkin and a professor who said, "If you want to write Terminator 2, get out." Well, fuck you. Maybe there's some kid who wants to write Terminator 2, and how dare you start with Potemkin? Why not start with Terminator 2 and work backward? To me, that's the way to learn. That's how I learned about movies, tracing them back from what I just saw. I'd see Raging Bull and ask myself, "What was that guy watching?" OK, I'm going to see every Elia Kazan movie; I'm going to go rent Max Ophuls' movies; I'm going to watch The Searchers.

19. Which test screening experience will you never forget?

One of the scariest was during our first test for Boogie Nights, when Bill Macy gets the gun to kill his wife. It was a crowd of 18- to 24-year-old college students and kids in Westwood. They cheered when he got the gun. I sank in my seat and thought, What have I done? How did I fuck up? Then he killed her and they cheered again. Then he shot himself. That time they shut the fuck up real quick. I felt better. I though, OK, a point came through here. But it still didn't wipe away the notion that I'd somehow blown it. Plus, we'd gotten the audience with the usual sort of bullshit carnival-barker street recruitment. They're always amped up for something that doesn't accurately reflect what the film is. On Boogie Nights it was, "Come see the raucous new comedy about the porn industry." Raucous comedy? Well, the first half is sort of wild and fun and outrageous. If that's raucous, OK. So I figured, go ahead. Have your fun, because pretty soon someone will get hurt and what you have to watch will punish you many times over. Then the movie was 20 minutes longer, and those minutes showed incredibly severe, violent stuff. At the time I felt pretty good making them suffer. [Laughs]

20. You're just beginning your relationship with the press. Is there a rumor or a factual error following you around that you'd like to nip in the bud?

Well, there is that fucking gerbil thing people are saying about me. I mean, I'm tired of it. Enough is enough already. I'm new at this and I just wish people would respect my privacy.


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