Sunday, February 02, 2003

Interview: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Times UK, Written By Ryan Gilbey
February 2nd, 2003

A simple little movie? Paul Thomas Anderson tells Ryan Gilbey how he came to beat up romance

Picture the scene. An awkward young man has finally plucked up the courage to make a move on the woman he adores. He has followed her from Los Angeles to Hawaii, where she has been gradually seduced by his goofball charm. They embrace on the bed in her hotel room, and begin exchanging sweet nothings. Him: “Your face is so beautiful, I just wanna smash it, just smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it.” Her: “I just wanna chew your face and scoop out your beautiful eyes with an ice-cream scooper and eat ’em and chew ’em and suck on ’em.”

Not words that are likely to appear on a Hallmark card. Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson, the film-maker behind Punch-Drunk Love, from which this scene is taken, would care to explain? “Haven’t you ever felt like that, man?” he giggles. “I know I have. I’ve said it, too. It’s like when you look at a kitten or a puppy and you think: I wanna kick the shit out of that little thing, it’s so damn cute!” We have quickly established that Paul Thomas Anderson should be nobody’s first choice for dog-sitter, and that Punch-Drunk Love, his fourth film as writer-director, is an unorthodox species of love story. But what else do we know about him? He started out as plain Paul Anderson, before promoting his middle name to distinguish himself from a British namesake. In so doing he joined the ranks of other notable PTs: PT Barnum, and PT Selbit, who, he proudly tells me, invented the trick of sawing a woman in half.

Anderson began making movies on his dad’s video camera when he was a 12-year-old in the San Fernando valley. He later enrolled in a film course at NYU, following in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese (who has, along with Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme and Mike Figgis, become an Anderson devotee). Three days later, he quit and used his refunded tuition fees to hang out in New York. In time, he got some short films under his belt and, in 1995, talked his way into directing Hard Eight, a Mamet-esque thriller that made the casinos of Las Vegas seem as brutal as the arenas of ancient Rome. “I must’ve been a real smooth talker to get the money for that movie,” he muses now. “I guess my phoney confidence got me through.”

He is, to put it bluntly, a pipsqueak. You look at this 31-year-old Californian, with his immaculately untidy hair, and it’s difficult to square his appearance with the movies that have earned him a reputation as the future, not to say the present, of American cinema. Boogie Nights, a dark and sprawling comedy about the porn industry, and Magnolia, a multistory epic about LA’s lost and loveless starring Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore, are mighty works by any standard: not only long in their running times, but bloated with characters, detail and ambition.

By contrast, Anderson is as thin as the cigarettes he greedily ploughs through. Today he is wearing black trousers and a black sweater, with a red T-shirt and red socks occasionally peeping out from beneath his dour uniform. A burgeoning goatee struggles to make its presence felt on a face already peppered with stubble. He seems naturally cheery and is much given to imaginative swearing. And when he signs my copy of the Punch-Drunk Love script, he fills the title page with assorted doodles and inscriptions. He is, refreshingly, a rather excitable sort.

After Boogie Nights and Magnolia, many viewers will think they know what to expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. They should think again. Anderson himself did. Going into Punch-Drunk Love, he ditched most of the actors who had comprised his unofficial repertory company since Hard Eight and set about conceiving a modest little story as an antidote to the monstrous Magnolia.

“With Magnolia, I had intended to make something small,” he says, clearly aware this is akin to walking into the showroom looking for a Cinquecento and driving out in a tank. “As you can see, it didn’t work out that way. I was a madman making that movie. I put too much pressure on myself, and I was not the person I wanted to be. So with Punch-Drunk Love I forced myself to be more compact.”

At just over 90 minutes, the new movie is half the length of Magnolia, and a good deal more charming. It concerns a love affair between the repressed boss of a toilet-plunger factory and a fragrant Englishwoman who drifts like perfume into smoggy LA and into his life. The odd couple are Adam Sandler, the offbeat comedian best known for The Wedding Singer, and Emily Watson, an actress usually associated with prestige projects like Gosford Park and Hilary and Jackie. Chalk and cheese doesn’t begin to suggest the clash of styles. But then that’s why Punch-Drunk Love is such a knockout. It’s like a movie made in a whole new language, from the bizarre opening sequence in which Sandler discovers a harmonium in the deserted dawn streets of LA, to some unsettling business in which he is terrorised by a phone-sex worker and her bullyboy stooges, through to the rhapsodic ending. It’s a romance all right — but not as we know it.

“I tried to make this simple little movie,” says Anderson, “but sometimes simplicity can be so complicated. That’s why it was good for Emily and me to work with Adam. He’s so natural, he just shows up ready for work, whereas Emily and I tend to crawl up our own asses! It’s all about learning that whatever you did the first time was probably right. You don’t have to do everything 50 times and then twist a corkscrew around it just to be sure.”

In pruning back his bombastic tendencies, Anderson seems to have made a picture that’s closer to his own feelings and experiences. As well as that splendidly unsentimental love scene, the movie’s phone-sex subplot is also drawn partly from his life: as a teenager he was a regular caller to XXX-rated chat lines. “I think those things can be a turn-on,” he admits, “if only because of how strange and distant it all is. If you can actually connect with the woman on the phone, then it becomes exciting. When that happens, it can be special. You almost feel like you’re beating the system, taking this sleazy setup and making a real human connection.”

Probably the biggest autobiographical streak in the movie comes in the form of the hero’s aggressive tendencies, which Anderson confesses once formed a large part of his own personality. “I was prone to fits of violence,” he says. “It’s scary when I look back at it. What did I think I was achieving? Most days I used to feel like I wanted to kill someone. Now I’m past that. When I hit 30, it was like a switch went in my head — everything calmed down.”

For all their vitality, Anderson’s previous films have been very much “movie movies”, driven more by technical prowess than life. Hard Eight was an exercise in calcified film noir. Boogie Nights was all but saturated in stylishness. Magnolia sometimes felt like a compilation of weighty, melodramatic Oscar scenes; if you missed one emotional catharsis, it didn’t matter, there would be another along in a few minutes. But Punch-Drunk Love is, as Anderson concedes, the first film he has made that is entirely his. “This one came from my stomach,” he says, laying a hand on his abdomen. “It’s referenceless. When you start out, you latch onto other movies, other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow — all mine — and I’m proud of that.”

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