Friday, September 28, 2012

The Auteurs #15: Paul Thomas Anderson

Among one of the new American filmmakers to emerge in the mid-1990s, Paul Thomas Anderson brought new ideas to the world of film ranging from ensemble-driven pieces to visually-sprawling epics. In the late 1990s, he was among one of those who showcased a world that was different from the more stylish violence of Quentin Tarantino as he would later re-invent himself with each feature. In 2012, Anderson returns with his sixth feature film entitled The Master that explores the world of religious cults that is inspired by works of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.

Born in Los Angeles, California on June 26, 1970, Anderson grew up the son of a voice actor named Ernie Anderson who would encourage his son to venture into the world of film. During those years as a kid where he would make all sorts of films, Anderson would discover the films of filmmakers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Stanley Kubrick as they would be influential with his career. In the late 1980s, Anderson made a short that would later become a feature film in the years to come as it was entitled The Dirk Diggler Story about a well-endowed 70s porn star.

During the late 1980s, Anderson worked as a production assistant for all sorts of projects in Los Angeles and New York City where he would eventually meet famed character actor Philip Baker Hall. It was his meeting with Hall where Anderson would create a short that starred Hall as it would later become a feature project. The short called Cigarettes and Coffee revolved around the lives of five people and a twenty dollar bill as it got the attention in short film festivals around the U.S. that led to Anderson being part of the Sundance filmmakers lab. With Michael Caton-Jones serving as his mentor during the lab sessions, Anderson would expand the ideas of his short into a full-length feature film.

Hard Eight

Following his period in making Cigarettes and Coffee and being part of the Sundance filmmakers lab, Anderson would use his limited experience to craft a story about an aging gambler teaching a man how to gamble and survive in the world of Nevada gambling. The project would be called Sydney as Anderson would have Philip Baker Hall play the titular character. During his time in Sundance, Anderson received a deal with Rysher Entertainment to create the film. It was a big moment for someone who hadn’t proven to be a capable filmmaker but Anderson had a lot of support to make the project.

With Hall slated to appear in the film, Anderson would also get a few up-and-comers for the project as it would include John C. Reilly as Sydney’s protégé John, Gwyneth Paltrow as John’s girlfriend Clementine, and Samuel L. Jackson as John’s friend Jimmy. The cast would also include small appearances from actors who would become regulars of Anderson’s future films, along with Hall and Reilly, that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, and veteran character actor Robert Ridgely. The actors Anderson worked with would help shape his project into something special as Anderson sought the influence of Robert Altman in how to work with actors.

The project would also include some other individuals who would be part of Anderson’s collaborative team as it includes cinematographer Robert Elswit and music composers Jon Brion and Michael Penn. Elswit would provide the visual style Anderson would want to shoot the nightlife of places like Las Vegas and Reno. Brion and Penn would create a low-key score that was considered unconventional in comparison to a lot of films. Notably as the music is often atmospheric with Brion’s arrangements of bells and vibraphones that is mixed in with the folk-jazz music of Penn.

In wanting to make a film that was different from films about gambling and violence, Anderson relied on a theme that he would explore throughout the entirety of his career. Leading the story is the character Sydney as he’s a man with a dark past as he helps a young man show the way and later become a father figure for this man and his hooker-girlfriend. There, they become this unconventional family as it’s led by this aging man who knows how to take care of these two young people who mean well but are also inept in handling situations. Even as Sydney is carrying a secret that very few knows about as Anderson would use dialogue and action to help tell the story where it would lead to this climatic moment of Sydney reverting back to the darkness he tried to run away from.

Following its completion in early 1996, the film was seen by the executives of Rysher Entertainment who were not happy with the film as they decided to re-cut it without Anderson’s consent. Still carrying a work print version of the film, Anderson submitted his version to the 1996 Cannes Film Festival in its Un Certain Regard section where it got a wonderful reception. Following its success at Cannes, Anderson was able to get his re-worked version of the film, now titled Hard Eight, released in early 1997 despite no promotion from Rysher. The film eventually received critical acclaim as it marked Anderson’s arrival into the world of films.

Boogie Nights

After the release of Hard Eight, Anderson decided to forge ahead with his next project that was based on his late 80s short The Dirk Diggler Story. Wanting to make a much more ambitious, ensemble-driven film, Anderson expanded his short into a story about a dysfunctional group of people who work together to make porno films in the late 1970s. Entitled Boogie Nights, Anderson would get the attention of New Line Cinema studio president Michael De Luca who read Anderson’s script and wanted to have the project in production. With the help of producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin on board, the project would definitely be made with Anderson having lots of control.

With collaborators like cinematographer Robert Elswit, music composers Michael Penn and Jon Brion, and editor Dylan Tichenor (who had served as a post-production consultant on Hard Eight) on board. Anderson would also expand his collective of actors that already consisted of people like Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Ridgely as they each got to play key parts for the film. The expanded ensemble would include Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, Nicole Ari Parker, Ricky Jay, Alfred Molina, William H. Macy, Luis Guzman, and Thomas Jane. The project would also include porno actors from the 1970s as Nina Hartley and Veronica Hart in small roles while Ron Jeremy served as a consultant for the project.

The project would be shot in Anderson’s native Los Angeles around the San Fernando Valley as Anderson would refine some of the visual traits of Hard Eight for something more stylish. Notably in the tracking shots that he would create such as the film’s opening sequence where Anderson wanted to introduce every character in a nightclub that would be important to the story. It would be this long, three-minute tracking shot that would be among the many stylistic touches that Anderson would put as he is interested in the characters that are being introduced as well as the world they live in. While it’s a world that is filled with sex, drugs, and disco music with these people who are quite dysfunctional and don’t have it together. It’s still a world that offers love and a chance for someone like Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams to become a star as he would rename himself Dirk Diggler.

Since the film is a period piece that is set in the late 70s and early 1980s, Anderson wanted to make sure that the film stayed true to those periods while emphasizing about the quality of the porno movies made in the 1970s. Driven by Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner character, Anderson wanted Horner to be more than just porno filmmaker. He wanted Horner to be a man that strives to put substance into these porn films by incorporating a story and characters for audiences to enjoy. Helping him would be these people who are good people despite their flaws as he acts like a father figure for them while Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves characters becomes a mother for Dirk and the young porn star Rollergirl (played by Heather Graham).

Taking cues from the filmmakers he was influenced by, Anderson knew that the story would have to take a shift of sorts as he created this amazing scene in a New Year’s Eve party that would introduce a few characters like Philip Baker Hall’s Floyd Gondoli and Thomas Jane’s Todd Parker as their presence would set the wave for the changes to come. Anderson’s second half that is set in the 1980s is a much darker section where the family splinters and everyone is facing their own individual issues such as drugs, money, and dealing with prejudice for their association with porno. This would lead to a very climatic moment where Dirk, Todd, and John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild would meet up with a crazed drug dealer in Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) in one of the most chilling moments of the film.

The film made its premiere at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival where it was a major hit as it was later released to theaters in the U.S. a month later. The film would become Anderson’s breakout feature as it drew rave reviews as well as a being a hit in the box office. The film would also give Burt Reynolds a major comeback as he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor while receiving an Oscar nomination for the same category. The film would also serve as major breakthroughs for Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, and Heather Graham as they would star in big time productions for the years to come. For Anderson, it would be the major start of a flourishing career.


The success of Boogie Nights allowed Anderson to have the chance to do anything he wants. For his next film, Anderson decided to take his ambitions one step forward into a much richer, more multi-layered project that revolves around a group of people on one particular day in Los Angeles. The project would be entitled Magnolia as Anderson was inspired by magnolia trees as he would aim for something that was grander and filled with multiple themes involving redemption, regret, and loneliness.

Taking place once again in the San Fernando Valley, the project would be driven more by the characters and their actions as the film would also revolve around people seeking some form of love around them. The cast would be bigger than Boogie Nights as many of them returned to appear in this project. Among them are Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, and John C. Reilly in crucial parts of the film while others like Alfred Molina, Ricky Jay, Thomas Jane, and Luis Guzman would take on small appearances. Added to the cast in key parts of the film would be Jeremy Blackman as a young game show contestant, Jason Robards as an ailing old man, and Tom Cruise as a self-help guru.

The film would feature characters who have very little connection with one another as it revolves around many stories. A game show host who learns that he’s dying as he’s trying to reconcile with his estranged, self-destructive daughter. A man who was on that game show is trying to deal with being fired as he deals with loneliness. A boy who is about to be on a game show as he succumbs to pressure on the night of his big moment. A wife of an ailing rich man dealing with the fact that she married him for money as she asks to be taken off the will only to realize where the money will go. An old, dying man who asks his nurse to find his estranged son whom he wants to make amends to. A police officer trying to find a murderer as he later goes on a date. Finally, there’s a self-help guru who is interviewed by a reporter as she tries to break into his persona to find out his past.

The complexity of the screenplay would have Anderson find ways for these characters to interact with one another as everyone seems lost on a day that would test them. Notably in the film’s second act where the emotions start to creep in as everyone starts to face their troubles. Some of which includes scenes where Hall’s Jimmy Gator character is feeling tense about Blackman’s Stanley Spector not answering a question as he wants to go the bathroom. This would get inter-cut with numerous scene such as Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey character given hard questions as he sits in silence while Hoffman’s Phil Parma is trying to contact him through Mackey’s group of assistants.

This would lead to a big third act where characters would do things in acts of desperation such as Macy’s Donnie Smith character or Reilly’s Officer Jim Kurring character as he goes on a date with Gator’s daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Julianne Moore’s Linda trying to kill herself as Frank finally meets his dying father in one of the film’s emotional moments. This would follow by one of the strangest moments in film as it relates to a prologue about coincidences. Even as it features an aftermath that has all of the characters just figuring out what is going on as they would connect with one another.

Adding to film’s emotional punch would be its music as Jon Brion provided a score that was much bigger than his previous work as it would incorporate his own sensibilities with lush yet broad orchestration. Contributing to the music would Aimee Mann as she provided many material that would play to the story as her song Wise Up would be among one of the film’s key moments as characters would sing a line to express the sense of loss they’re dealing with. Mann’s Save Me would be another moment for the film’s soundtrack as it would give Mann an Oscar nomination for Best Song.

The film was released in December of 1999 via limited release despite New Line Cinema’s issues with its length and marketing strategy. The film managed to do well in the box office while it was lauded by a lot of critics who praised Anderson’s ambition. The film got a wider release in January 2000 while a month later at the Berlin Film Festival, the film won the festival’s top prize in the Golden Bear. At the Academy Awards, the film garnered three Oscar nominations that included for Best Original Screenplay as well as a Best Supporting Actor nod for Tom Cruise. The film would elevate Anderson’s stature as one of the best filmmakers working in American cinema.

Punch-Drunk Love

After the success of Magnolia, Anderson took a break from feature filmmaking to work on smaller projects including directing music videos for then-girlfriend Fiona Apple. It was around that time that Anderson wanted to do something different as he wanted to scale back his ideas. While Anderson was an admitted film buff, he was also someone who had taste for mainstream films as he openly admitted to enjoy the films that starred comedy actor Adam Sandler. Anderson wanted to work with Sandler on a project as the two decided to collaborate on what would be Anderson’s fourth film.

While the film would feature appearances from regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman in small roles, it would be focused largely on Sandler’s Barry Egan character as Anderson wanted to tell the story of this lonely, troubled man who has anger issues as he falls for a mysterious woman. The film would explore loneliness in a more intimate setting as the film would be a love story but also a character study as it would revolve around this man. A man who feels lost in the world looking to connect and then find himself in trouble where he suddenly finds a reason to fight for the woman he loves.

The film would once again be set in Los Angeles as Anderson decided to aim for a very different look and feel to the film. With regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, the two devised a look where they went for something more grainy in underexposed light in order to create something that was almost dream-like. Notably in many of the film’s interiors and nighttime exteriors as it aimed for something that was a bit low-budget in its look.

Part of the film’s unique visual style would include interludes by artist Jeremy Blake that played to the dreamy aspects of the film. Even in scenes where Barry dwells into something that is dreamlike as he falls for Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard character. One piece of music that is played in a scene where Barry boards a plane to Hawaii is a remix of a Harry Nilsson-penned song He Needs Me sung by Shelley Duvall from the 1980 Robert Altman film Popeye. It’s a moment where Anderson becomes unafraid to create something that is romantic as well as establish something that could progress Barry’s love for Lena.

With Jon Brion providing the score for the film, Brion would also play a key role in contributing an idea to the film as one of the key elements to the film’s plot is a harmonium that Barry would find and care for. Brion would use the harmonium as a key part of his score as it plays to the sense of romance and whimsy that Anderson wanted for the film. Brion would also delve into lush orchestration for Blake’s interludes to add to the film’s romantic tone.

The film made its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival where it was well-received as Anderson won the festival’s Best Director prize. Despite the critical acclaim it received as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Adam Sandler, the film didn’t do well commercially. Yet, its reputation would grow in the coming years as many filmmakers like Judd Apatow named it as one of his favorite movies. The film would mark the last time Anderson would work with Jon Brion as well as the start of a five-year hiatus.

There Will Be Blood

After the release of Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson took a break from filmmaking as he maintained a private life with his then-girlfriend and future wife in comedy actress Maya Rudolph. In 2005, Anderson was asked by Robert Altman to be a backup director on what would be Altman’s final film in 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion. With Anderson used for insurance reasons, Anderson would help his mentor in creating a rich ensemble film that also starred a pregnant Rudolph as the film would be a critical and modestly-commercial hit for Altman. During Anderson’s hiatus from filmmaking, he had discovered the work of novelist Upton Sinclair as he approached writer Eric Schlosser about an adaptation of Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!

After a script about feuding families went nowhere, Anderson turned his attention to Oil! as he wrote a screenplay that would extremely different from the novel as he later titled it There Will Be Blood. The story would revolve around a miner who turns into an oilman as he seeks wealth in the most brutal ways as he contends with a young preacher during the Southern California oil boom of the early 20th Century. The project would be a far more ambitious film than anything Anderson would make as it would revolve on larger themes on family, greed, faith, and morality set in a crucial time during the oil industry.

Realizing that the project would be a major departure from everything he had done prior, Anderson decided to forgo many of his tricks as well as his regular actors for something far more different. While he did retain collaborators like producers JoAnne Sellar and Daniel Lupi, cinematographer Robert Elswit, editor Dylan Tichenor, sound designer Christopher Scarabosio, and casting director Cassandra Kulukundis. Anderson decided to expand his collaborators by gaining the services of famed production designer Jack Fisk. Famous for his work with Terrence Malick and David Lynch, Fisk would help create sets for Anderson to play up the period of the early 20th Century.

For the role of Daniel Plainview, British actor Daniel Day-Lewis was chosen as he would portray a man consumed by greed and the pursuit of power in the oil industry. With Day-Lewis already set for the film where it was shot largely in Marfa, Texas, there were casting issues already made for the of the young preacher Eli Sunday. Actor Paul Dano, who was originally going to play the small role of Eli’s twin brother Paul, was immediately cast to also play Eli based on Day-Lewis’ suggestion. With Ciaran Hinds and Kevin J. O’Connor cast for small parts while young actor Dillon Freasier plays Plainview’s adopted son H.W., the film was underway.

Wanting to stray from his usual visual tricks, Anderson decided to aim for much bigger compositions with wide shots and moments to create something that was powerful. It was to present something that was grand that lived up to the character of Daniel Plainview as he pursues untold riches through oil. Scenes such as the oil well explosion that is later followed by a beautiful yet unsettling scene of fire establishes the kind of greed seen in Plainview. Yet, it plays into Anderson’s themes of men who likes to sell themselves in order to gain something. Another character who is similar to Plainview is Eli Sunday in the way he uses religion as he tries to become a big preacher. The two would have confrontations that is often dominated by Plainview. Notably in the film’s final moments where Plainview would do something to Eli in the same way Eli tried to humiliate Plainview at a church some years earlier. It would be a moment that is unsettling but also show a lot of truths about the corruption of men.

Another new collaborator that would join Anderson’s team is Radiohead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood. Being a fan of Radiohead and Greenwood’s score work for the 2003 documentary Bodysong, Anderson asked Greenwood to create a score for the film. Greenwood took on the project as he would create an orchestral score that was unlike anything as it was filled with percussion breaks and menacing string arrangements. The score would play up to the world of greed as Greenwood unleashed music that lived up to what Anderson wanted.

The film was released during the Christmas holidays in 2007 as it drew outstanding reviews where it landed in many critics’ top ten list as well as winning top prizes from the Los Angeles Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. The film would win 8 Oscar nominations where it won two Oscars for Robert Elswit’s cinematography and the Best Actor prize to Daniel Day-Lewis. The film also became a hit in the box office as it would raise Anderson’s stature as one of the great filmmakers working in cinema.

The Master

After another break following the release of There Will Be Blood, Anderson kept a low profile during his sabbatical as he staged a 70-minute play that featured wife Maya Rudolph and comedian Fred Armisen that also included live music by Jon Brion. It was during this time that Anderson was writing his next project as it was inspired by the founding of Scientology and its leader L. Ron Hubbard. News of the project was finally confirmed in late 2009 as Anderson was still writing the script for what would become The Master.

The story would be set in the aftermath of World War II as it followed a sailor by the name of Freddie Quell who finds himself lost in the world as he stumbles around a boat that leaves San Francisco Bay. On that boat is the leader of a newly-founded religion known as the Cause that is led by a man named Lancaster Dodd. Dodd would take Quell as his protégé as he teaches him his unconventional ideas about life and the universe. During the course of this time, both Dodd and Quell would struggle with themselves just as the Cause is starting to catch on during the early 1950s.

The project would once again have Anderson tackle the theme of family and men who sell themselves for a greater cause. Unlike some of the characters that Anderson had explored in the past, the Lancaster Dodd character would be very unique as he is a man that is trying to sell his ideas to the public at large yet comes under a lot of scrutiny when those dare to question him. Then there’s Freddie Quell who is a man that is completely a loose cannon who is obsessed with sex and likes to drink as an act of defiance. For these two men to come together, it would give them a chance to take Dodd’s teachings to new heights while giving Quell a place that he can belong to.

With the exception of regular collaborators in cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor as both men were unable to participate due to other commitments. Anderson was still able to get production designer Jack Fisk, sound designer Christopher Scarabosio, co-sound editor Matthew Wood, costume designer Matthew Bridges, music composer Jonny Greenwood, and casting director Cassandra Kulukundis on board. Leslie Jones, who had edited Punch-Drunk Love came on board to co-edit the film with Peter McNulty while Anderson also hired Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. to shoot the film.

With Philip Seymour Hoffman reuniting with Anderson to play the role of Lancaster Dodd, there were several casting prospects slated for the film. Jeremy Renner was originally on board to play Freddie Quell while Reese Witherspoon was in the line to play Peggy Dodd. Instead, Joaquin Phoenix nabbed the part of Quell while Amy Adams got the part of Peggy. After difficulty in securing financing for the film with different studio attached to distribute, shooting finally began in the summer of 2011 around parts of California.

In the age where filmmakers were debating about the advantages of shooting on digital instead of film. Anderson decided to shoot the film in 65mm which was audacious for a filmmaker like him. With that announcement, it was clear that Anderson was siding on shooting his movie on film instead of changing with the times to go digital. The idea to shoot on a format as rare as 65mm would give Anderson the chance to widen his canvas even more as he wanted to create a film that was reminiscent of the epics made in the 1960s.

With the film slated for a fall 2012 release, Anderson held surprise screenings in late August on the 70mm format around parts of the country in order to create not just buzz for the film but to give a generation of filmgoers a chance to see a film in a rare format. The film made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival a month later where it won the Silver Lion for Anderson for Best Director and the Best Actor Volpi Cup to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Yet, the rules of the festival would not allow the film to win the festival’s top prize in the Golden Lion. Still, its special screenings and success at Venice and at the Toronto Film Festival has allowed the film to gain a lot of buzz as it would add to Anderson’s status as one of the world’s best filmmakers working today.

With another project in an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice slated to be his next project, Paul Thomas Anderson has already cultivated enough work to make a darling in the world of American cinema. Whether it’s films about a dysfunctional group of people who become a family, men who feel out of sorts with the world, or those that crave for something bigger only to lose sight of things. Only someone like P.T. Anderson could take on these stories and make it something that is very different from what a lesser filmmaker would do. That is why Paul Thomas Anderson is among the best working today and whatever project he’ll do next, there‘s always going to be a level of excitement as he‘ll create something filmgoers will be amazed by.

The Shorts & Videos of P.T. Anderson

© thevoid99 2012


Diana said...

Great article, Steven! I love Paul Thomas Anderson, he is one of my favorite directors and I can't wait to see The Master, although I doubt it will show up soon in my country. My favorite movie is There will be blood- everything is almost perfect, from the cast, to its performances, to script, score and cinematography!

Alex Withrow said...

Wow man, this is a perfect write-up. PTA is one of my favorite directors, and your thoughts about all of his films damn near mirror mine.

Really great work here, my friend!

thevoid99 said...

@Diana-I hope you enjoy The Master. It was just unfortunate that I didn't see it on 70mm because there is no more 70mm theaters in Georgia.

@Alex-Thank you. This one was easier to do because I was more familiar with his work and had seen everything up to that point. Having The Master come out around that time just made it even better.