Thursday, December 23, 1999

Interview: NY Times Magazine

NY Times Magazine, Written By Lynn Hirschberg
December 1999

His Way

Thanks to the critical success of 'Boogie Nights,' Paul Thomas Anderson has total control over his new three-hour movie, 'Magnolia.' So why can't he calm down?

I don't want to be the angry guy," says Paul Thomas Anderson, crouching on the floor of his editing room in a house perched on a hill in Bronson Canyon, just north of the seedy outskirts of Hollywood. This is the "Magnolia" house: the entire place is devoted to the completion of Anderson's new film, a three-hour epic about family and responsibility and forgiveness. Anderson, 29, is tall and lanky and has the attractively tousled look of the recently awakened. He is wearing black baggy pants and an untucked white shirt, and he is dragging on a Camel and intently studying a poster for "Magnolia," which he wrote and directed.

He is not happy. Or actually, he is happy, but he's in a rage about this poster, a happy sort of rage fueled by anxiety and passion for his film and, above all, by a zeal for control. This is not an unbecoming state -- there is something beguiling about Anderson's obsessions, most of which revolve around moviemaking. His need to control all aspects of "Magnolia," from the length to the marketing to the theaters the movie will play in, is not unusual in directors, but there is something about this particular movie, which is ambitious and emotional, that has Anderson particularly obsessed. "I consider 'Magnolia' a kind of beautiful accident," he explains. "It gets me. I put my heart -- every embarrassing thing that I wanted to say -- in 'Magnolia.' "

It is late October, and a poster and a trailer for "Magnolia" should already be in theaters, awaiting the movie's opening on Dec. 17. The film is difficult to categorize, and Anderson and the executives at New Line, the studio that financed and will release the film, are not in agreement on how to market "Magnolia," which is, on a superficial level, a melodrama about a dozen characters and, on a deeper level, a meditation on accountability at the end of the century. Anderson felt New Line's marketing on his last movie, "Boogie Nights," a thrilling film set in the porno world of the 70's, was not all that it might have been, and "Magnolia" is not an easy movie to sell. Like "Boogie Nights," it is about intersecting lives, and how chance and coincidence create a fragile sort of order.

The movie is daring in form and content: there are five separate narratives, characters break into song, there are acts of divine intervention. It is long and stars a crew of wonderful actors who have become Anderson's repertory company -- John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore, among others -- joined by Jason Robards as a dying patriarch and Tom Cruise as his son, a charismatic sex guru who leads workshops in snaring women. Cruise gives a virtuoso performance, but he is not currently promoting the film, and his image is so buried on the poster that even his agent at Creative Artists Agency, Kevin Huvane, could barely find him. Cruise would have been a great marketing boost, but he felt his fame would overshadow the ensemble nature of the film and, besides, his character is so extreme, so inconsistent with the Tom Cruise trademark that, contractually, he insisted on distance.

"What do you think of this?" Anderson asks Dylan Tichenor, his editor and one of the two people (the other is his producer, JoAnne Sellar) whom Anderson really listens to. Mostly, he follows his own instincts. Anderson has developed a reputation as a brat and a genius, and it is not difficult to see why someone might come to either conclusion. "How do I respond to criticism?" he asks. "Critically," he answers. "I listen to all criticism critically." Which means, when the initial cut of "Magnolia" was 3 hours, 18 minutes, he would not trim it to a conventional running length of 2 or even 212 hours. His vision ran at 3 and that was it. "You have to sit in the movie and really absorb it," Anderson explains. "I am always looking for that nuance, that moment of truth, and you can't really do that fast." Anderson pauses. "I was trying to say something with this film without actually screaming the message," Anderson says. "Although three hours may be something of a scream, I wanted to hold the note for a while."

At the moment, Anderson's sense of mission is focused on the movie's poster, an image of a ripe magnolia flower with cast members' faces superimposed on various petals. "Can you see them?" he asks Tichenor. New Line wanted the faces more prominently displayed in a checkerboard behind the flower but Anderson fought for the subtler imagery. Now he is seeing details and omissions and tiny discrepancies that only a parent can see, and the more he looks at this poster, the more enraged he seems to get. The battle excites him -- it's Anderson's chance to convince the world that art and commerce can co-exist, that a three-hour film that is unique and independent in spirit can, if properly packaged, captivate a mainstream audience.

"I'm completely aware of the fact that I'm a control freak," Anderson says, pacing the length of the room. Even when he's still, Anderson appears to be jumping about. "It's a maniac gene." Tichenor ignores Anderson -- he has great respect for Anderson, but he has seen all this before. And anyway, Anderson's larger fight with the studio is not over the poster, but the trailer. "This is where I put my foot through the chair," he says, bounding over to a stack of machines and putting a cassette into a monitor. "This is their trailer," he spits. As Anderson jumps up and down and swears (and Tichenor smiles), the voice-over begins: "You can spend your whole life waiting for the truth. Today, for nine people, the wait is over. From Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of -" Anderson shrieks, "Don't say my name!" and throws himself onto the couch.

He has cut together his own trailer -- less Cruise, better music, no pretentious narration -- and he is sending it over to New Line today. "Directing a movie doesn't mean anything," Anderson says. "It's only 50 percent of the job. The other 50 percent is this gene of protectiveness and parenting and evil that safeguards your movie. It's not a gene I love having, but I have to use it."

His talent, as first seen in "Boogie Nights," has given him leverage. Directorially, Anderson has the rare combination of big and small. He can move the camera, setting up elaborate shots that dazzle, and he can also direct intimate moments that reveal character in subtle, startling ways. As a writer, Anderson alters conventional storytelling structure and reveals character through action rather than dialogue. "You have an internal clock when you're watching a movie," he explains. "You've been there before, you know what to expect. So I have to subvert that a little. In the first five minutes of 'Boogie Nights,' you meet all the characters and then you go back as the movie progresses and pick up the sticks. I'm the biggest subscriber to the gun that goes off in the first act, shows up again in the third. When you do that, there's a promise to the audience that weird, interesting stuff will happen. And it lets you buy the three hours."

Unlike most filmmakers of his generation, Anderson is not only technically astute ("I'm still young and I still have to show off"), but he seems to have a larger, moral imperative in his films. They are not preachy, but it's clear that Anderson was reared Catholic, that he believes in atonement and redemption. "When did you last go to confession?" I asked him. Anderson paused. "It's three hours long," he said. "Haven't you seen it?"

After "Boogie Nights" Anderson was It, the director of the moment, a sort of baby brother to Quentin Tarantino. "Pulp Fiction," with its huge critical and commercial success, had fused the worlds of mainstream studios and independent film and made Miramax, formerly known for its skill in acquisitions, a brand name for quality production. Every studio wanted its very own Quentin, and New Line, which had always been competitive with Miramax, was eager to get Anderson under its roof.

"Basically, New Line came to me and said, 'Whatever you want to do next,' "Anderson recalls. "I was in a position I will never ever be in again. For that moment, I was lucky and I could get the opportunity to make a movie like 'Magnolia.' Truly, truly. I don't want to sound egotistical, but my argument to them was, You didn't hire me to take your trailers and test them in Albuquerque. You hired me to be cool. You didn't hire me to make money -- New Line has Mike Myers and the Austin Powers movies to make them tons of money. If I make a good movie, it will help you get at that cool niche of the world." Anderson pauses. He knows the situation: Miramax has Oscars; New Line is the only major studio that has never had an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Miramax made its fortune on "Pulp Fiction"; New Line's first big hit was "The Nightmare on Elm Street." As Anderson puts it, "To pretend like I'm just this pure artist with no awareness of my position in the world would be a lie."

He understands timing. In the last year, directors like Anderson, David O. Russell ("Three Kings"), Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and Wes Anderson ("Rushmore") have created a kind of directorial renaissance reminiscent of the 70's, the last time the studios tried to break away from formulas and embrace a more auteur-oriented approach. "The first time I've felt any millennium thing is this year at the movies," says Anderson, who has trouble watching other films when he is working on his own. ("I see the crew in every shot.") "Filmmakers seem to be thinking, What do we have to say?" Recently, even when their efforts have been flawed, the big studios have focused on an independent spirit in a big-budget context. "More filmmakers are trying to do their magnum opuses," says Michael De Luca, head of production at New Line. "It's generational. People who grew up on the 70's movies now have power around town. And there are more issues to examine now than there were in the 80's."

De Luca is Anderson's greatest advocate. He fought for "Boogie Nights" and made a blind deal for Anderson's next project, granting the director creative control without even hearing an idea for the movie. After reading "Magnolia" (Anderson drove the script to De Luca's house on a Sunday and watched movies in his screening room while he read), De Luca was ecstatic. "He said, 'Any chance of 2 hours, 45 minutes?' "Anderson recalls. "I said, 'No.' He said, 'Really?' I said, 'No.' "

When Paul Thomas Anderson was 7, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he wrote in a notebook: "My name is Paul Anderson. I want to be a writer, producer, director, special effects man. I know how to do everything and I know everything. Please hire me." Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, like the other members of the Anderson repertory company, is a close friend, says: "You get the sense that Paul was always a director. He was born to the job."

"I did always kind of know," says Anderson. It is late afternoon, and he is sitting on the Warner Brothers lot, waiting to approve some special effects that have been shot for "Magnolia." His girlfriend, the singer Fiona Apple, with whom he lives a few blocks from the "Magnolia" house, is here, too, tagging along for the day. While Anderson is manic, Apple is still; she is tiny and all face, with long, tangly mermaid hair and moist blue eyes that are trained on Anderson. She watches, she listens, she seems to be absorbing through every pore. Anderson continues: "I've always been the type to have doubts only after the fact. It's usually a long time catching up with me."

Anderson, who is trying to do for the San Fernando Valley what Martin Scorsese did for the mean streets of New York, grew up in a flat suburb called Studio City in an extended family that combined nine children from two marriages and, at one point, 18 dogs. He has a troubled relationship with his mother that he won't discuss and was very close to his father, who died in 1997. Ernie Anderson did voice-overs for commercials and TV shows like "The Love Boat." "You'd recognize his voice in an instant," Anderson says. "He always encouraged me to become a writer or director."

In high school, Anderson made a short film called "Dirk Diggler," about a porn star with a 13-inch penis. It became the basis for "Boogie Nights." "As a kid," Anderson recalls, "I knew about these cinder-block warehouses where they shot porno in the valley. I lived a few blocks away from where 'Amanda by Night,' one of the classic porno films, was shot. That's the equivalent of living near the mansion they used in 'Sunset Boulevard.' "

He resisted college ("I thought, I know how to make movies and I should do this right now") but he feared that his valley background might be too limiting a canvas for a major movie director. "So I decided to go to N.Y.U. film school," Anderson says, lighting a cigarette. "And I went for two days. If you drop out fast enough you get your money back, and I realized I loved the valley. I went back to L.A. with around $7,000. I lived with my father and started making short films and working as a production assistant."

In his spare time, Anderson wrote a script about game shows (which he later integrated into "Magnolia"), and when he was 22, he wrote and directed "Cigarettes and Coffee," a 24-minute short about five people in a diner that was accepted at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. The short was a primer to the Anderson style: interlocking lives, exhilarating camera work, a melodrama that reveals itself slowly through detail, mood and conflict. Like many of the films of the 70's, Anderson's movies are primarily character studies. "That changes the narrative," Anderson explains. "I begin writing with a list of the characters' traits, everything about them. Most studio films begin with a concept and then fill in the characters, which are often generic. The great films give you a person, or people, and their world. That's my goal."

Anderson's first feature was "Sidney," the story of a gambler and his hapless protégé set in Reno, Nev. While arranging the financing for "Sidney," Anderson wrote a 300-page opus that later became "Boogie Nights." "He is always working," says the actor William H. Macy, who first met Anderson on "Boogie Nights." "He writes while he edits. He's in it at all times."

"Sidney" was terrible for Anderson -- the film was financed by Rysher Entertainment, which recut and retitled the finished movie. That experience haunts Anderson and has helped fuel his mania for control. "The fight over 'Sidney' " -- retitled "Hard Eight" -- was endless," he says, still sounding frustrated by the losing battle. "It was the most painful experience I've ever gone through."

Rebounding, Anderson began work on "Boogie Nights," a rise-and-fall story loosely based on the life of the porno star John Holmes, who died of AIDS in 1988. As in all of Anderson's films, the central relationships in "Boogie Nights" are between parents and children, natural or surrogate. "If you were a porno fan going to see 'Boogie Nights,' you'd be really disappointed," Anderson says. "And if you love 'Terms of Endearment,' you'd hate 'Boogie Nights.' That was the problem. Most people don't share my moral sense, which is, I'll masturbate, but I have to clean it up very quickly afterwards."

Although committed to "Boogie Nights" (which had a relatively small budget of $15.5 million), Robert Shaye, chairman of New Line, didn't really like the finished film, and Anderson feels that the lack of money spent on the campaign reflected Shaye's indifference. "He didn't get it," Anderson says. "Boogie Nights" was a critical success, and Anderson was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds were also nominated, for their performances), but the film was a disappointment commercially. Although Shaye reportedly loves "Magnolia," Anderson's aggressiveness with New Line seems fueled by his past experience. "Sometimes I think I probably take it too far," he admits. Yet he doesn't really question his determination to control every part of the process. "Maybe 'Magnolia' would be a bigger hit if it was shorter," he says. "But it would not be a better movie. I believe that completely."

Even before the release of "Boogie Nights," every studio was calling Anderson's agent, John Lesher, with offers, but Anderson decided to forge a partnership with New Line for his next movie, which would become "Magnolia." "I gave them a vague price tag," Anderson says, as Apple listens, "and they gave me so many contractual controls that I couldn't imagine we'd have any problems." Anderson smiles faintly. "New Line loves the movie, but I'm nervous about the fact that 'Magnolia' only cost $35 million. It didn't cost enough to scare them in a marketing way. If it cost $50 million or $60 million, it would be scaring them, but it didn't cost that, and it's got Tom Cruise in it. So, they're thinking, We're O.K., guys. We're O.K. We're gonna make X amount of dollars from Tom fans and X amount of dollars from 'Boogie Nights' fans."

Anderson reaches for Apple's hand. He has to go look at some frogs on film. The frogs are an integral part of "Magnolia," and when De Luca first saw the film, he said, "Thank God we don't have to test this -- audiences would never get the frogs." That cosseting attitude on the part of the studio seems to satisfy Anderson only some of the time. To Anderson, to push is pure instinct -- the movie is his baby, and he wants the world to admire her. "I know I'm a lucky guy," he says, "but I have to fight. I can have all this power and this great stuff given to me, but I still have to do a dance."

It's the next day, around 4 P.M., and Anderson, along with Tichenor, is fine-tuning a pivotal scene in "Magnolia." The movie should have locked today, but it isn't quite done, and it won't be for weeks. "I'm sending this baby to junior high," Anderson jokes. "But it's a long way from graduation." The editing room is cluttered with piles of magazines and plastic coffee cups and half-eaten bags of chips. There's a huge calendar on the wall with the days blocked out until the premiere of "Magnolia," on Dec. 8. Apple is downstairs, having her picture taken for a Japanese magazine. Her new record is due in stores any day, and a few weekends ago, Anderson shot her video. "Don't get me started on what her record company is not doing," he says, engaging in yet another battle for art.

On the monitor, Jason Robards is dying. Anderson is snapping his fingers to establish the rhythm of his deathbed monologue, which originally went 22 pages. "I like it," Anderson says, snapping and watching the cut, which lasts about 10 minutes. "It's long. It's indulgent. Let's leave it."

Anderson is (half) joking. In his work, he likes to stretch an emotion until he gets that pop. His directorial nerve can be both audacious and excruciating -- a riveting combination. In the most famous set piece of "Boogie Nights," a drug deal goes sour, and Anderson focuses the camera on the blank face of his hero, played by Mark Wahlberg, for an endless 45 seconds. Firecrackers are going off, "Jessie's Girl" is blasting in the background and the camera does not move. Wahlberg's expression -- sadness, confusion, distance, emptiness -- is the perfect summation of the movie: you want to look away, but you can't. "Someone actually mentioned cutting that scene," Anderson recalls, still sounding incredulous. "I mean . . . what can you say?"

The "Jessie's Girl" segment was part of what attracted Tom Cruise, who declined to be interviewed for this article, to Anderson. After the movie came out, Anderson received a call from Cruise inviting him to the set of "Eyes Wide Shut" in London. Anderson was thrilled to meet Stanley Kubrick, one of his idols (the others are Robert Altman, David Mamet, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese), and he began to think of a part that would be, as he says, "un-turn-downable."

Cruise's character, Frank T. J. Mackey, was based in part on a strange recording that a friend gave to Anderson. "It was two guys talking," Anderson recalls. "One is giving advice to the other about women and sex. We transcribed the tape and did a reading with John C. Reilly and Chris Penn doing all the dialogue. I incorporated all that into the Mackey character and his sex seminar. And I wrote with Tom in mind. There are a lot of silent parts because I've always loved Tom Cruise silent. He's a really good starer."

After reading the script, Cruise consulted with his agent who, according to several people close to the process, convinced Cruise that he could not turn this part down. Cruise was intrigued but nervous, and De Luca actually drove over to the Creative Artists Agency office to help seal the deal. "New Line was excited," Anderson recalls. "If Tom hadn't been in the movie, I would have had to fight a couple more battles."

A few days later, Mary K. Donovan, head of New Line publicity, arrives for a lunch meeting at the "Magnolia" house with her staff. They have good news. Anderson has won the war. New Line will release his trailer, his poster, his campaign. "I guess I have to go and apologize," Anderson says over a salad. "And I have to do it without gloating." Donovan says nothing, but Anderson looks contrite. "I was right, but I should not have yelled. I put people down. I just lost it and I neutered them."

"Well," says Donovan, "but you got what you wanted." Anderson pauses. While his confidence and talent are admirable, they may also be destructive. If "Magnolia" does not find an audience, it is very unlikely that Anderson will have this sort of creative control on his next film. "I guess I have to learn to fight without being a jerk. I was a bit of a baby. At the first moment of conflict, I behaved in a slightly adolescent knee-jerk way. I just screamed. But I got what I wanted in the end. So everything's fine."

The meeting continues, and the premiere in Westwood is discussed and the Golden Globes and whether or not Newsweek should run a story before Time. Suddenly, Anderson looks cloudy. "New Line should be shaking hands with a distributor in Iowa," Anderson says. "I don't feel they are out there telling people to put this movie in their theaters." Everyone is silent. Another battle is beginning. "I guess that's not your department," Anderson says to Donovan. "I have to find out who is responsible."

He's trying to be polite, but you can see the anger and frustration starting to build. He can't help himself. "This all matters so much to me," Anderson says. "It's a revolution and it's just not happening well enough or fast enough." Again, silence. "It will be O.K.," Anderson says finally, trying to convince himself. "I can see it now. I'll start the revolution, but then I'll want to go home and make movies by myself." Donovan laughs.

"I think you should remember that you won," she says.
"I know, I know," says Anderson, regaining his passionate stance, "but world domination is very complicated."


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