Sunday, January 09, 2000

Interview: Denver Rocky Mountain News

The Denver Rocky Mountain News, Written By Robert Denerstein
January 9, 2000

Magnolia Director in Full, Vivid Bloom

Paul Thomas Anderson was sniffling, not that the 29-year-old director was upset. In fact, he sounded incredibly upbeat for a man whose head had been invaded by a cold and who was about to discuss Magnolia, a sprawling tapestry of a movie that's threaded with agitation and angst.

Maybe that's a clue to why Magnolia, a movie about nine desperate Los Angeles characters, can be enjoyable even though it's stocked with desperation. Anderson loves making movies, and his enthusiasm shows on screen, even when his characters are suffering.

Anderson originally planned to recover from his widely acclaimed Boogie Nights, a large-scale ensemble piece about the porn industry, by writing something short, quick and cheap. Magnolia is three hours long and has more than 30 speaking parts.

"I started writing it right after I finished editing Boogie Nights, " he said. "I was having some success. A lot of things were being written about me and my movie, and I was starting to feel self-conscious. So I buried my head in the sand and started writing. I kept writing, and something small, quick and cheap turned out to be Magnolia."

Some critics have taken Anderson to task for showing a lack of discipline. But it should be noted that he started his career with a tightly wound movie called Hard Eight, a moody piece about the world of gambling.

"I see enough movies that I feel like I know what a good movie is, "he said. "I also know what I like and what I want to do. At a certain point, I stop thinking about a bigger perspective and start working to make myself, my actors and the crew enjoy the ride."
Whether you like Anderson's work or not, you'll have to agree that he stocks his movies with great actors. Magnolia includes bravura performances from Jason Robards, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore and William H. Macy.

"The casting process, for me, is the writing process. When I'm writing I'm casting," Anderson said. "Sometimes I know someone and want to write that person as a character. Or maybe I'll want to use the script as an opportunity for (John C.) Reilly to play a part."

Anderson doesn't literally hire actors while he's at his typewriter, but he does check in with them.

"I'll make sure to call Reilly or Macy, let them know I'm writing and give them a ballpark idea of when I want them to be available, " he said. "We're all close friends. It's great because I can share pages with them while I'm writing. They'll come over and read. It' s like having an instant rehearsal before you even start shooting."

In describing his writing process, Anderson made it sound as if he gathers ideas, eventually molding them into a script.

"I make lists of things I like. A little character trait. A character' s name. Then a little piece of dialogue emerges. You wake up out of some foggy dream and there's a script."

The great surprise in Magnolia is Tom Cruise, who plays a guru who teaches his charges how to seduce women. He's a virility doctor, a huckster whose seminars are like testosterone-fueled infomercials.

"He called me up after he'd seen Boogie Nights," Anderson said. "I was so flattered. If he hadn't called I probably wouldn't have thought of him. He's such a big star. I was starting to write and I said, 'Why don't I call you in eight or nine months when I'm done and see if you want to be in this movie?'

"I called when he was coming to the end of Eyes Wide Shut. It was perfect timing. It's a pretty delicious part for an actor. I knew I was writing it for him, and I certainly tried to pour on the delicious toppings. Someone asked him the other day, 'Why don't you do more parts like this?' He said, 'When in 15 years have I or anyone else had an opportunity to play a character like this?' I was very flattered."

Among the movie's most shattering accomplishments is a deathbed monologue delivered by Jason Robards, who plays a TV producer who' s on his last legs.

"If it comes off right, it's exciting to see good old-fashioned acting, like in a good old-fashioned deathbed monologue. ... If you' ve got Jason, you just go for it," Anderson said. "Now I can say I've done this big monologue with Jason Robards. I'm completely selfish as a director. That can turn out the best or the worst stuff. I feel I really need to have these kinds of things for me."

Anderson has been described as a control freak, but he reminds his critics that he's supposed to pay attention.

"If you knew how much money most writers and directors get paid - it's a crime because of the work they actually do. I get paid so much money that - you know what? - I've got to earn that money. That covers lots of bases."

There are touches in Anderson's movie (best-discovered in a theater) that shock your consciousness, forcing you to take note of the fact that you're watching a movie that's pushing the envelope. Such things make Magnolia a love-it or hate-it experience, depending on how it strikes you.

"As a filmmaker, you've got a big bag of tricks, opportunities to tell the story in different ways. ... It's a smorgasbord of opportunities, and I'd be a fool if I didn't try to use all of them," Anderson said.

Is Magnolia a case of overkill? Maybe, but Anderson insists he's not committed to making long, emotionally difficult movies.

"I know I can pull back and do a movie another way. But this is one where I said, `Let's see what happens when you throw in everything, including the kitchen sink.' Once you commit to that, you have to do it. There's no way in the editing room you can make it shorter. That would be like trying to do your dishes with a lawn mower. ...

"If I have any doubt, it's that the movie should have been longer. Maybe it should have been 20 hours. Either make a 20-hour movie in which you really hang out with the characters or a regular hour-and a-half movie. That's my one question mark."

You get the impression that Anderson isn't losing sleep over such matters. He committed to a full-throttle movie and stuck to his guns. The movie represents his singular vision as a writer-director, but that could change someday, too.

"It's not in my head right now, but I'd like to try to adapt a book sometime," he said. "That would be challenging. There'll be a certain point where I'll be bored with my own ideas. But right now I'm still young enough to be fascinated with me."

That may sound like something Cruise's bombastic character would say, a statement of conceit as much as self-realization. But it doesn't play that way when Anderson says it. And if you see Magnolia, you'll discover a movie in which the exuberance of a youthful imagination is tempered by some wisdom about the human condition - and how much it can hurt.

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