TOTAL FILM PTA INTERVIEW
HE MADE BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA AND THERE WILL BE BLOOD, HE’S HAILED AS ONE OF AMERICA’S GREATEST WORKING DIRECTORS, AND HIS NEW FILM INHERENT VICE IS ALREADY BEING TAGGED AS A MASTERPIECE. FINDS IT ALL RATHER SURREAL. “HOW DID I GET HERE?” HE SAYS. “HOW DO I GET ON THE SIDELINES AGAIN?”
October 4, New York. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie as writer and director, Inherent Vice, is receiving its world premiere at the Starr Theater on Broadway and West 65th. Anderson and his cast – Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Katherine Waterston and his wife, Maya Rudolph – take to the stage. The buzz is palpable, as are Anderson’s nerves while delivering a brief intro. Filmmaker and players settle into their balcony seats. The lights dim. Two hours and 28 minutes later, they rise once more, and so too does the audience, its thunderous ovation eliciting flashing teeth and waving arms from on high. Later that night, or rather in the early hours of the next morning, Anderson and co are relaxed and relieved at the intimate after-party at Tavern On The Green, Central Park. All smiles and cigarettes, their mellow satisfaction matches the soft radiance emanating from bejewelled lanterns hanging in trees, candles on table tops. The air is crisp, the sky is starless. Music from the ’70s, much of it featured in Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough feature Boogie Nights, wafts through the enclosed garden space, and Rudolph shimmies towards her husband as The Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ replaces The O’Jay’s ‘Love Train’. It is, indeed, a time to dance – tonight caps three long years of Anderson wrestling Thomas Pynchon’s unfilmable novel to the screen. The next evening is cold and bright. Windows glint, the edges of skyscrapers are scalpel-sharp. Anderson is way up on the 17th floor of the Trump Hotel, ensconced in a non-smoking suite sucking on cigarettes. He’s wearing a casual shirt and jeans, his chin coated in stubble, his hair mid-length and shaggy as befits the vibe of his new movie. Set in 1970, Inherent Vice is a stoner-noir, with Phoenix’s buzzed and befuddled PI Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello put on a case by his free-spirited ex, Shasta (Waterston). What begins as a straightforward investigation into the disappearance of real-estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts) slides down a kaleidoscopic rabbit hole inhabited by Nazi bikers, Black Power militants, psychics, a presumed-dead saxophone player (Owen Wilson) and a hippie-hating flat-top cop (Brolin), while somewhere, everywhere, lurks the Golden Fang – perhaps just the name of a schooner belonging to a blacklisted movie star, perhaps an Indochinese drugs syndicate, perhaps a cabal of tax-dodging, coke-snorting dentists. Probably all of the above and a whole lot more. As indecipherable as The Big Sleep (“In the middle of shooting, I thought ‘Are the reviews going to say ‘Incoherent Vice’?” grins Anderson) and as gripped with paranoia and anxiety as ’70s noirs Chinatown, Night Moves and The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice is also furiously funny – Anderson wasn’t kidding when he name-checked Police Squad! and Top Secret! as visual inspirations. “I just found myself fucking beaming!” he, well, beams when Total Film remarks he looked genuinely overcome at the applause last night. It was a sweet reaction given you’d think he’d by now be immune to praise after the plaudits heaped upon Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master. “Every part of you goes, ‘Do not let this make you feel good’. But I hadn’t seen it with an audience before and I couldn’t fucking help it!”
Inherent Vice takes a while to settle. It needs two or three viewings to get a handle on…
I don’t aim for that, but I like hearing it, because I think the implication is that it feels good, that you want to see it again, so that’s high praise. But it’s weird… I was thinking about it last night. We were the centrepiece [of the New York Film Festival] and it was a weird feeling. Like, ‘How did I get here? How do I get on the sidelines again?’ [Laughs] It’s thrilling that people have expectations but there’s no way it can be what you thought it was. How many albums have you bought when you go, “This is fucking terrible”. Then you listen to it three or four times and it’s great.
Do those expectations ever weigh on you when you’re making a movie?
Not setting out. But the night before last, that’s when the reality sets in. I fucking couldn’t go to sleep. Finishing a film and getting it ready is propelling you forward, and when you stop and realise you’re in New York and you’re showing the movie tomorrow, it comes crashing in: “Holy fuck!”
Pynchon’s novel is so dense and rich. How did you even begin to adapt it?
I just sat down and wrote the book out in a script form. And I think the idea there was that I didn’t have any other ideas. To look at it in a way that’s familiar to me meant I could put it out on the floor and cut and paste. It was labour intensive work but good, because you get to know the thing. I just got a cookbook holder and put it up there and was like [mimes typing]. My back hurt and there was no inspiration going on, but as I was going along, I have to say there was stuff, instinctually, where I was thinking, ‘Maybe this doesn’t need to be there?’ I was making edits in my mind.
Did you stay in touch with Thomas Pynchon throughout the adaptation process?
My throat hurts [laughs].
You obviously want to honour his privacy. But presumably you were keen to keep him in the loop and do right by his words?
You don’t want to fuck with his shit if you don’t have to. But I found myself numerous times in that bad place of being reverential, thinking ‘I’ve got to protect it’. To best respect it is to sometimes dismantle it and tear it apart to make it a movie. You can write out dialogue exactly as it happens in the book, and then you hear everyone say it… You’ve got good actors and it should work, but it just doesn’t sound good. It’s a different thing. We’ve seen books turned into movies that try so hard to be literary. And they’ve failed because [the mediums] are different. Being respectful, but also having to wrestle with it and not be nice with it, was a delicate thing, for sure.
Did you go back and watch the classic film noirs before shooting?
I know that stuff so well and I watch it all the time. Truthfully, I probably was watching so much more of that stuff in a new way when I was doing The Master. Ironically, that was a film, to me, that linked so much more to that stuff – those movies were all these guys coming back from the war, and they’re not fitting in with society, and there’s always a girl that’s fucking them over. That was the stuff I was thinking about for The Master. Ridiculously enough, I thought that was more like a film noir. When it came to this one, I knew that material so well, I was trying to stay away from it.
Given your love of Robert Altman, surely The Long Goodbye was a touchstone?
I had to forget that The Long Goodbye exists. I love that movie so much and know it so well, but don’t try to do that. The truth was, there was so much to be wrestled with in the book, that was the preoccupation. Forget movies. But years ago, watching The Big Sleep again, it was, ‘OK, plot don’t really matter; it’s just how to get your guy on the road.’
Doc makes Elliott Gould’s shambolic Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye look positively switched on. What made you choose Joaquin Phoenix for the role?
There wasn’t anything I can point to. It was more like, ‘He’s a great actor, and I loved working with him [on The Master]’. I remember thinking, ‘I gotta get someone to play this great character’, and I was rummaging through, thinking about who could do this. Robert Downey and I had talked about it for a little while, but that was kind of not serious. And I remember sitting in the editing room staring at Joaquin on the monitor: ‘He’s right in front of my face! This is my man!’
He really puts himself out there in this…
There’s no director that works with Joaquin who doesn’t want to work with Joaquin again. There’s a long line of people who want to work with him, as they should. I can’t say a bad word about him. I’ve heard people say, “I didn’t think he could be funny”. But he’s so fucking funny in this. It’s a good character: he’s on the fucking case; he doesn’t know what the case is, but he’s fucking on it [laughs].
This is an ensemble film like Boogie Nights and Magnolia but the style is more in keeping with There Will Be Blood and The Master, very focused, very controlled. Would you have made it differently when you were younger?
Probably. For sure. Of course I would of.
It’s different to the trailer in that...
Is the trailer misleading, do you think?
It makes the movie look more madcap than it is…
It’s madcap [laughs].
But the trailer makes it look fast and frantic, a bit more ‘’40s screwball’.
Right. [Pause] I fucked up.
The trailer’s great, but the film’s a little different in its style and mood.
Well, it’s a little bit more formal, but so much of that came from how the scenes are written in the book. You’re in Doc’s apartment. You’re in this other location. Here’s him driving from here to there. Those are the scenarios from the book. There wasn’t a lot of room for camera pyrotechnics. There were great opportunities for long scenes with a lot of dialogue between two actors, where we can have one nice long shot, and that was nice to do. There’s a scene I really like with Reese [Witherspoon] and Joaquin on a park bench, and it’s just a nice, long, slow push. We’d done the scene earlier in the day. They were sitting at a table. And it was a fucking chore. We did a shot of him, and a shot of her, and then a close-up. I was like, “This fucking feels like shit”. At the end of the day I said, “Just sit on that park bench and let’s do it like that”. And it was so much easier.
That takes a certain confidence, doesn’t it – to resist being at all ostentatious in your direction?
But this is also a weed-smoking movie, so that inevitably gets into it, too. If you’ve got everyone coked-up, you probably get a bit more Boogie Nights energy to it. We get a little bit of that energy going with Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd [Martin Short], at the dentist; cocaine comes in and we start to be a bit frenetic. But yeah, you try to prove yourself as a director when you’re starting out; I think everyone does, or has. And then when you feel like you’ve got the job, you can settle down a little bit, hopefully just servicing the story, servicing the actors.
Beneath the gags and the Pretzel-plotting throbs a real sadness…
The obvious thing there, for that era, is that they fucked up and they lost and they let it slip away. But like any liberal-thinking hippy, they’ll probably argue about their ideas for too long or end up getting stoned and confused and not have enough manpower to really follow through on the battle [laughs]. But I think deeper than that is that thing Doc has for Shasta. That’s something that everybody can get with – the girl I shouldn’t be with but I need to know who’s she fucking, where did she go, what did I do? That was really heart-breaking in the book. How much you can miss someone.
All of your films have dealt with dysfunctional families, with fathers and sons. There’s a bit of that in Inherent Vice, too.
For sure. It’s small, but that stuff with Coy Harlingen [a missing saxophonist played by Owen Wilson] and his family. Coy says to Doc [asking after the child he left behind], “Did you see any sign of those little-kid blues? They can get that. Did you see anything?” [Groans] It makes my fucking heart melt. And Doc’s kind of pretty easy-going on everything, but his one moral stand is, whatever mistakes this guy made, nobody should go through life without seeing his daughter. So that little family connection is in there. That stuff gets me every time. I love the way Pynchon does that in the book. I think we did a pretty good job of it.
When Robert Ebert reviewed Bonnie And Clyde, he wrote “It doesn’t matter that it’s set 35 years ago… It was made now and it’s about us.” Is that true of Inherent Vice?
That’s good. That’s nice. Well yeah... the Golden Fang is still in business [laughs]. Probably more so than ever. Back then, people would call conspiracy theories. They’re not even conspiracy theories anymore. It’s just fact that we live with. It used to be, “You’re fucking high, you’re paranoid.” It almost seems like now they’re saying, “We know you know, and we don’t fucking care. We used to hide it, and now that you’ve found us out, what you gonna do about it?” Whether it’s youth or generational, everyone’s always got ideas how they’re gonna make things better, and end up fighting up against something bigger than them that just pushes them into the ground.
Do you consider Hollywood part of the Golden Fang?
Yeah. I don’t think, fortunately, this has happened to us so far – who knows if it might? – but inevitably, I’m sure, movies are being financed through some horrible human rights violation somewhere in some African country. Hey look, I’m staying at the Trump Hotel, and the building’s shaped like the Golden Fang, and they’ve sponsored the film festival. There’s a great line in the book, it didn’t make it into the movie: “Are you sure about this, man? Are you sure you can trust people this heavy duty?” And Doc says, “Good people get bought and sold every day. You might as well trust somebody evil once in a while. It makes no more or less sense.”
Tell us about Police Squad! being an inspiration.
The things that entertain me, or that I have time for, are usually, like, a half hour, or cartoons, or Police Squad! At this point in my life, I’m as guilty as anybody else of watching something on my phone, or on YouTube. I used to watch three movies a day, sitting on my couch. Now I have four kids and I’m watching things in a way different way. I’m watching a 10-minute piece of something, or I’m watching a music video, or I’m seeing a clip from some TV show, or watching a trailer for a movie rather than seeing the actual movie. With the amount of time I have to go see films, there’s now high
stakes. Like, when I went to see Interstellar, I was like, “I’m going to see fucking Interstellar, at the theatre.” That’s important to me. Sadly, I don’t [usually] have the time. Kent Jones, the guy who runs the [New York] Film Festival, he’s living a fucking dream life, in some way. He watches everything, all the time. I’m not at that spot.
Your family obviously takes precedence, but you inhaled movies when you were younger. Is there a part of you that misses that?
Yeah. I got deathly sick about six months ago, to the point I could not get out of bed. I was laying there, watching movie after movie. And I thought, ‘I might stay sick for a couple more days’ [laughs]. I mean, I was getting a lot of sympathy from the wife, I didn’t have to make lunch and get everyone ready for school. I thought, ‘I could spread this out’. And I did, just for an extra half a day. But the point is, I did need to refuel on movies. It wasn’t just me being lazy. It was proper pause to say, ‘I’m watching this movie and I’m receiving it well. I’m not distracted, I’m not falling asleep, and I’m enjoying it whether I really like it or not.’
Scorsese, it’s been said, used to have different movies playing in every room of the house. He’d absorb them by osmosis as he pottered around…
He’s a fucking junkie, in the best way. I don’t want a TV in every room; that’s too much info for me. But I have a small TV in the kitchen and I put on Turner Classic Movies. That’s a way for me to have it there as wallpaper, or a little comfort
blanket, or check in to see what’s going on while you’re making dinner. And the kids can watch it. No matter what’s on, they can watch it because there’s not going to be too much disgusting shit for them to see. Grabbing it piece by piece in a busy life is sometimes all you can take. I think it’s OK. Sneak a look. It’s preferable to see it in a movie theatre, but I don’t feel bad. If I’m going to get on a plane to go home, I’m gonna watch three movies before I get back.
Back to Inherent Vice. Katherine Waterston gives a breakout turn as Shasta. People after the premiere were saying that her nude scene is this movie’s equivalent of There Will Be Blood’s “I drink your milkshake!”
Good. I think that’s good, right? The sex scene is pretty much how it is in the book. It becomes something that is special and unique because it’s one shot, which is always ideal, particularly if someone is naked and really vulnerable, instead of saying, “You’re gonna have to do this 40 times in five different ways.” That was a good one. Concise, focused, and letting her have opportunities to do a good take. But I like that people are responding to that scene because I think it’s a special one.
So, what’s next? You sometimes have big gaps between films. You’re not going to pull another Kubrick, are you?
We’ve been working pretty consistently from The Master to this. But… I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. Everything’s always percolating, but nothing serious. I can only do one thing at a time. Right now, my instinct is I just want proper
pause. And who knows how long that will last? Hopefully just a couple of weeks, or a couple of months. Take it easy and not force it. But at the same time, you feel the clock ticking. Honestly, I’m tired right now. But in a good way, feeling we did it, like we’ve done something good