Friday, January 07, 2000

Interview: The Virginian Pilot

The Virginian-Pilot, Written By Mal Vincent
January 7, 2000

Magnolia Blossom

Profile: Budding Director Anderson Scores A Hit with This Flamboyant, Audacious Epic

Paul Thomas Anderson says he wanted to write "something small and intimate" to follow up his breakthrough 1997 movie Boogie Nights. What he ended up with is a flamboyant and audacious epic of modern relationships that juggles nine stories. Critics, including this one, are calling it a "masterpiece" and surely the most original movie of the year.

Whether you like or abhor Magnolia, it's going to emerge as one of the most talked-about movies in a while. What makes this 29-year-old director tick?

"Paul is extremely stubborn. His stubbornness is what gets his movies made," says John C. Reilly, who plays an incompetent but good-hearted cop. ``He is driven by demons, but his only aim is to get the actors to create what he has envisioned. If you ask him to explain, he'll say, 'Dude, just trust me. This is the way it has to be.' Ask him about a scene and he'll say, "This is too much to explain. Just trust me.'"

Reilly met Anderson at a Sundance Institute workshop in Utah years ago. "He first told me the basic idea for Magnolia on the night Boogie Nights premiered," the actor remembers. "It's about the difference in who we want to be and who we really are. That's the essence, I think. Paul and I did a little home movie years ago that was a kind of a laughable spoof of the TV show "Cops." That was the germ of my role, which he has now written. He's so young, yet he's a natural to filmmaking. He's going to be around for a long, long time."

Julianne Moore plays a young woman who marries an older rich man (Jason Robards) and has come to love him as he is dying. She sees the director as "a tremendous humanitarian. He loves all the characters, even the most despicable of them. In the face of a tough world, Paul has such compassion and a gift for illuminating the human condition."

Melora Walters, who scores a major breakthrough as a cocaine-addicted daughter of a famous TV quiz-master, says, "Years ago, Paul would have been a novelist. He knows how to create characters."

As for the meaning of the title, one of the more debated questions about the movie, Walters says, "I think it refers to the fact that magnolias are perfumed, and are prehistoric. Magnolias were here when the dinosaurs roamed. Paul says it just refers to Magnolia Drive, the street on which he lived in the San Fernando Valley."

What does Anderson say? Here are excerpts from an interview I had with him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

What is it you like about making films?

Everything. It's all I ever wanted to do. I love the shooting. The editing. The writing. Being able to give the roles to the actors. Being able to see a film in my head and then get that vision on a screen. It's all I ever wanted to do, and all I ever will want to do.

Is your own life reflected in Magnolia?

Every character in it is me, in some way, and yet none of them is very much like me. I worked on nine television quiz shows when I was beginning, so I had that exposure to television and the media. My spiritual home is the San Fernando Valley. I wouldn't want to be too specific about how close I am to any one particular character. But I love them all. There isn't one character in the film who doesn't deserve better.

I grew up not far from where they made movies, and now I'm back where I'm meant to be. I tried to live in New York and to become a worldly person until I realized that I would write about people I knew. When I came to that realization, I felt pretty cool about myself, but not before that.

You have been called both reckless and ambitious. Would you agree?

I've only made three movies. I'm just thankful to get to make anything. It's just amazing to me that now I can write good roles for actors who otherwise wouldn't get to play people like this. I grew up with idols of acting like Brando and De Niro. Now, this weird thing has happened. I can write parts for people like them - and I really think there are people in my cast who will be regarded, in time, with the Brandos and De Niros for a new generation.

What difference has Boogie Nights made to your life? As just your second film, it got three Academy Award nominations.

It has changed me both for the better and for the worse. Now I am more guarded. I'm more guarded about my script. I'm more protective of my actors. But, on the other hand, it makes it easier for them to leave me alone, which is all I want. I want them to leave me alone and let me make my films. After Boogie Nights, they at least know that I can deliver a movie that will tell a story and will be in focus. Before that, no one knew that.

What, in one sentence, would you say Magnolia is about. Would you say that it's about life, love and dying? You have Jason Robards dying of cancer.

Yes, it's about life, love and dying, but it sounds presumptuous if I say that, and people would probably stay away from the movie. Yes, Robards was dying of cancer, and here I am smoking a cigarette in front of you. But the film hasn't made me stop smoking. I don't really think that movies influence people in that way. I doubt that a movie makes a big change in a person's life - only in, maybe, a very subtle way. There are parallel stories, but I like for the audience to fill in the gaps.

How did you get Tom Cruise to sign for the movie? Did the money to make it become easier to get once you had Cruise signed? Directors like Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible) have said he's difficult.

I already had the money to make the movie when Tom Cruise agreed to play Frank T.J. Mackey. I just wanted to meet Tom Cruise. I don't think he should just have to be a movie star, just because he's Tom Cruise. I think Tom Cruise should be able to play parts like this, too. I thought it was great to have Cruise say dirty words. It's really a risky role for him, and he knows it. Tom, you might expect, was an outsider to our cast, but his presence on the set made no difference. He didn't come with an entourage. He is a director's dream. If Brian De Palma said bad things about him, then I'd have to think that De Palma is a lazy director.

Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all members of your Boogie Nights company, but what made you think of casting Jason Robards as the dying old man?

He's always been an idol of mine. But, you know, he's kind of an old dude, so I wondered if he'd take direction and if he'd stick to the script. But then, one day, he said something and I realized it was a typo in the script he'd been given. He sticks so closely to the script that he actually said the typo. He was astonishing.

What are you going to make next?

I always wonder if they'll let me make anything else. I mean, I wouldn't know what a 100-day shoot actually was. I still think of Magnolia as a small, intimate little thing. It's just that it took a 200-page script and 90 days to get the right amount of "small and intimate." Once I started writing it, it just kept going. I began to ask myself, "Are you being lazy and indifferent, or are you just following your gut." I think, maybe, I was doing both.

But next? I'd like to make an 89-minute little comedy.

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