International Cinematographers Guild Magazine, Written By Andrew O. Thompson
Taking Five with Paul Thomas Anderson
Self-schooled moviemaker Paul Thomas Anderson first came to the fore with Cigarettes and Coffee, a 24-minute short that debuted impressively at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. That recognition led to a stint at the Sundance Lab where he developed the screenplay for his first feature, Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney), a stark, neo-noir set in the seedy underbelly of Reno's gambling arena. But it was Boogie Nights - a sweeping scan of degradation and delight amid the late-70s to early-80s adult entertainment industry - that brought the 30-year-old writer/director brand name credibility and a host of rave reviews. Though echoing Robert Altman's Nashville in narrative form, its technique most mirrors that of Martin Scorsese, a likeness most apparent in the opening shot, which weaves its way through the Hot Traxx nightclub - an homage to GoodFellas' famous "Copacabana" sequence.
Magnolia is no less modest when it comes to technical flair. In one sequence, the camera navigates (under Guild member Guy Bee's expert guidance) through the busy production studio of What Do Kids Know?, steering a maze-like path from the outside entrance into hallways, the green room and other offices to end up in the domain of show host Jimmy Gator. Being that the picture's protagonists exhibit a whimsical state of being, one cannot argue why its camerawork shouldn't also suffer from wanderlust. "I love to map out these wonderfully elaborate and fun Steadicam shots," Anderson admits with glee. "Steadicam seemed to lend itself to the frenetic feeling of what a television show is like backstage and behind-the-scenes, not to mention that the floating [sensation] is wonderfully magical, almost otherworldly in a way."
All of Anderson's pictures express three primary shooting styles: laborious, dolly push-ins that probe the emotions unfolding upon an actor's face; wicked, weaving Steadicam motion through the nooks-and-crannies of any given location; and erratic, if not somewhat spastic, handheld movements. The detailed specifics as to how each shot should be set up are "a combination of what the scene calls for and an internal clock that while I'm writing tells me how I should shoot it. The shots are planned hand-in-hand with the writing of the movie. Generally, I'll only change a shot when I see an actor do something wonderful." Though Anderson doesn't draft storyboards, he does compile an elaborate shot list for director of photography Robert Elswit. This catalogue of camerawork features one page worth of shot descriptions for every scene, and lists directives such as "handheld shot that follows John Reilly down the hill as he loses his gun" The two devise a final approach after canvassing a location.
Magnolia's epic, three-act structure dictates its camerawork according to the characters' ever-changing, emotional ups-and-downs. "The prologue is cinema to the max with just every possible tool thrown in. Then it calms down and becomes very static with very minor push-ins, basic two-shot singles as we slow down and meet everyone properly. Kicking the story into gear is what starts the Steadicam shot into the game show. That constant movement runs for about an hour-and-a-half into the movie until we get to a place where it actually becomes a little more static. But hopefully the music takes over for the camera moves [at that point] because the music becomes very rhythmic.
"That all boils down to incredibly static shots during Earl's monologue [about a long lifetime full of regrets]. All the subsequent scenes - the singing of the song [Aimee Mann's "Wise Up," which all the characters perform separately in a montage sequence] and everyone going on a date was planned to be incredibly calm and simple, as if it's 'the calm before the storm' as they say. Then when the frog storm happens, we go kind of nuts."
While Hard Eight is notable for its studied sense of noir verité, and Boogie Nights - despite occasional panache with the camera - takes the low-rent look of porno films as its stylistic influence, Magnolia strives more towards sophistication. "Boogie Nights was all over the map - it had a beautifully ugly look in terms of there being so many colors, as well as the combination of Seventies lighting - harsh shadows and hard light - and frenetic camera moves," says Anderson. "Magnolia is a little more silky [in terms of look] - beautiful, elegant and, hopefully, slightly poetic but also kind of real. Robert and I watched Being There, Ordinary People, Network and The Verdict. In terms of lighting styles, my brain took me to Eastern, wintertime movies, and I think that that seeped in [to this picture's palette]. Sometimes we strayed from our plan, but my big goal was to make everything look like one story, so it didn't have the feeling of a vignette movie."