It’s not every filmmaker who gets compared to Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman on his second film, gets final cut on his third, and is able to get Tom Cruise to work for peanuts. Yet Paul Thomas Anderson’s journey to where he is now wasn’t always so smooth.
He was born in 1970 and grew up in the San Fernando Valley where Boogie Nights and Magnolia take place. His father was Ernie Anderson, a comic who played a wild horror-show host in the ’60s named Ghoulardi. Ernie would later gain fame in the ’70s as a famous voice-over announcer for ABC. His voice was instantly recognizable when introducing spots for America’s Funniest Home Videos, The Winds of War, Roots, and of course, The Love Boat. Ernie instilled a unique sense of humor, as well as a strong independent streak, which Paul carried with him into his filmmaking career. And as you’ll read here, Ernie’s antics would later inspire one of the most celebrated scenes in Boogie Nights.
In 1992, Anderson wrote and directed a short subject, Cigarettes and Coffee. After it played the Sundance Festival in 1993, he secured a deal with Rysher to make his first feature. He expanded Cigarettes and Coffee into a full-length film, which was then titled Sydney.
Anderson’s dream come true of making his first feature turned into a nightmare when Rysher took the film away from him and retitled it Hard Eight, a title he still hates. In order to try to save his version of the film, he sent a work print to Cannes; after it was accepted into their competition, Rysher relented and allowed Anderson’s cut to be released. With the help of the film’s stars Gwyneth Paltrow and John C. Reilly, Paul raised $250,000 to finish Hard Eight, but Rysher dumped the film into theaters with little support and it quickly disappeared.
Boogie Nights also had its origins in a short subject, namely The Dirk Diggler Story, which Anderson shot on video at age seventeen. During his perpetual frustration with Hard Eight, he threw himself into writing an epic 300-page screenplay. The film would pay homage to the golden age of pornography, with its centerpiece being the rise and fall of a young porno star loosely based on John Holmes.
Shortly after shooting wrapped, word got around that Boogie Nights was really the film to watch that fall. Variety wrote that Anderson’s “striking command of technique, bravura filmmaking, and passionate exploration of the possibilities of a new kind of storytelling recall the young Scorsese of Mean Streets.” Anderson was also drawing comparisons to Robert Altman during his Nashville period, and Steven Spielberg as he was coming into his own with Sugarland Express.
Boogie Nights not only showcased Anderson’s assured directing, but his strength in writing strong, three-dimensional characters. The film featured breakthrough roles for Mark Wahlberg, Heather Graham, and Don Cheadle, and not since John Travolta in Pulp Fiction had anyone made as fine a comeback as Burt Reynolds (many felt it was his best performance since Deliverance).
The expectations were high for Boogie Nights to be the next Pulp Fiction, and while wasn’t as big a box-office success as hoped for, the film’s popularity and its influence on a number of films that followed can’t be denied. Anderson also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
What’s the most common mistake in written dialogue?
Complete sentences. Bad movie dialogue speaks in complete sentences without any overlapping or interruption, and avoids elliptical speech, which is truer to how people actually talk.
Did you consciously train your ear to be sensitive to how people talk?
I probably did when I was eighteen and was just starting as a writer. Actually my mission then was to rip off David Mamet, because I foolishly believed Mamet’s dialogue was how people really talked. It took me a while to realize that Mamet had developed a wonderfully stylized way of highlighting the way humans speak. People immediately think of dialogue when they hear Mamet’s name, but I think the strength of his writing is his storytelling—he uses very solid, old fashioned techniques in setting up his stories. House of Games, for instance, is one of the best scripts ever written, and it’s the story structure that makes it so brilliant.
When you’re writing dialogue, does it take on a life of its own and move in directions that surprise you?
Absolutely. I’m showing some of my cards here, but I often write scenes without knowing where they’re gonna go, and as I write I start acting and sort of improvising. It’s great when the scene takes on a life of its own and frustrating when it doesn’t, because the passages you have to labor over are invariably worse than the ones that seem to write themselves. This notion that writing happens in the rewriting is something I’ve never agreed with. I’ve always hated rewriting. Rewriting is for pussies! Send it out, zits and all, is my feeling.
What passage of dialogue in Boogie Nights are you most proud of?
The three scenes where Amber and Rollergirl are on a coke binge. This movie has many Achilles heels, but when I watch those scenes I put my ego hat on and say, “Okay, we nailed those scenes.”
How do you know how people on a coke binge talk?
I’ve done a lot of coke and had those insane conversations.
I was struck by the dialogue in the scene where Mark Wahlberg’s character, Dirk, meets his sidekick, Reed Rothchild, played by John C. Reilly. I get the impression you’re not a guy who hangs out at gyms, yet you had those ridiculous, “how much can you bench press?” gym conversations down pat; how did you learn gym dialect?
Just by knowing those kinds of guys when I was growing up, and loving the absurdity of those conversations. John and I have a similar sense of humor and we’ve spent hours riffing with dialogue and laughing. I wrote that scene to give John something he could have fun with.
How quickly does slang evolve? Was there language commonly used in the Boogie Nights era that would sound completely foreign to people now?
Probably not because pop culture is currently obsessed with the ’70s. So, although a word like “foxy” may be given an ironic spin now, it certainly isn’t foreign to us.
Is it always a failure when dialogue is used to explain the plot, or can that be a stylistic device?
In theory it’s a failure, however, there are actors—such as Philip Baker Hall— who are so good at helping the story along that you can get away with it. Perhaps it’s because he’s the antithesis of a classical Shakespearean actor, but Philip can deliver massive amounts of exposition without diminishing the character he’s playing.
What elements must a story have in order to interest you?
I like stories with good old-fashioned roots that obey the rules—you know, “the gun on the wall in the first act goes off in the third,” and so forth. My favorite directors are the ones who know and embrace those rules, then pile something completely punk rock on top of them—François Truffaut, for instance.
Do you have any interest in adapting material, or do you intend to be the sole author of all your scripts?
I’m open to adapting material, although the one time I tried it I wasn’t too successful—I adapted the Russell Banks novel Rule of the Bone for Carl Franklin. Having been through an experience with Hard Eight where I felt my work had been violated, I sort of became this master protector of other peoples’ work, and I couldn’t make myself tread on the bible, which was Banks’s book. I couldn’t get a grip on the fact that I was writing a movie, not a love letter to the book.
Do you have structured writing habits?
Absolutely, and they revolve around finding a pattern of behavior I can depend on. Waking up at the same time every day, having certain rituals to go through that free me up so I don’t even have to worry about putting my pants on—it’s all about routine. I write in the morning and can put in three or four focused hours a day. It’s limited to that because I smoke myself to death when I write, and smoking makes me tired. At the same time, there’s almost something superstitious about smoking, as if the cigarettes are a good luck charm. It’s probably very silly.
In the firecracker scene in Boogie Nights, I noticed some of the lyrics of “Jessie’s Girl” seemed to show how afraid Mark Wahlberg was, like “I play along with the charade” and “He’s watching them with those eyes….” Was that intentional?
It was but actually not exactly in that way. What I liked about “Jessie’s Girl” playing there was just a weird sense of romantic melancholy that the song gives me. It reminded me personally of a far more innocent and goofy time in my life. I liked hearing this goofy love song over watching Mark Wahlberg just squirm. The relation I have to that song is being fourteen and having a crush on a girl at the mall. It was wonderful to plug it in there because that’s where that character should be at that time in his life. Instead, he’s stuck in a house with firecrackers going off in some stupid, pseudo drug deal. That song should mean something else to that character. Instead, he’s suffering through that song.
Your father, Ernie Anderson, was a horror-movie host in the ’60s named Ghoulardi, and I read that on his show he used to perform skits with firecrackers. Is that where the idea for the firecracker scene in Boogie Nights came from?
Yeah, absolutely. It comes from two places. It comes from the inspiration from my dad lighting off a bunch of firecrackers on his show as well as… if you watch Putney Swope, which is a movie Robert Downey Sr. made, there’s a wonderful piece of background action where a character throws a firecracker off in a scene and everyone turns around and looks. Now that’s practically the end of it. I called up Robert Downey Sr. and I said, “You have a great piece of background action that I want to take and make a piece of foreground action.” He said, “Great, be my guest.”
So did that scene in Putney Swope give you ideas about how to build tension in your own scene?
No, I just thought it was wonderfully goofy and thought that would be enough. I remember rehearsing that whole Rahad Jackson sequence in Boogie Nights, and it was very nerveracking. We did the full rehearsal, my friend Joe Chan played the kid with the firecrackers, and I told him, “Just for the rehearsals, we’ll mime that you’re throwing the firecrackers. You’ll throw one here, throw one here…” We would do these full rehearsals and here we were for the final set-piece of the movie and I was not exactly happy.
I was wondering what was wrong with this scene and really nervous. This two and a half hour movie was coming to an end and my punchline isn’t working. So I said, you know what? I guess the only thing to do here is start shooting it. Well the second one of those firecrackers went off for real, I knew I was okay! Everybody jumped! Everybody jumped except Alfred Molina, and he didn’t jump because he had an ear-wig playing the Night Ranger song in his ear, so he couldn’t hear the firecrackers going off. His character is completely unresponsive to it, but everybody else on the set and in the room is jumping out of their seats because these firecrackers were so fucking loud!
What a lot of people liked about Boogie Nights was the film told a story in a nonjudgmental way. It didn’t paint the world of pornography as an evil empire, but it didn’t exactly say it was the greatest thing in the world. It just said, “Here’s the story, draw your own conclusions.” How were you able to do that?
Well ultimately I think the funniest thing is, and I think this might attribute to the lack of box-office success for Boogie Nights, is that it is, to a certain extent, judgmental. I love those characters. And I love pornography just as much as it completely disgusts me and completely depresses me.
So the first half of the movie is all fun and games, but the back-half of the movie is a sort of punishment for those fun and games. It’s my own guilty feelings about pornography. So to a certain extent, the characters and pornography are judged. It’s just done in such a gentle and honest way because I didn’t know I was doing it.
I also write for my friends that are actors. And no matter what I do, I’m never fully writing the character. I’m writing eighty percent that character and twenty percent that person I know will be playing that part. And I’ll never truly never let them get hurt.
I actually tried with Magnolia to make one judgment that was important to me, and I hope this is very clear. I wanted to judge Jimmy Gator. I wanted to make it very clear that I wouldn’t let him kill himself. I would let a frog fall from the sky, land on a gun, make that gun blow up a television, cause a fire, and make him burn. Because it was my judgment that what he did was so wrong and so unforgivable that it would not be good enough for the writer to allow him to kill himself. I wanted to put a writerly judgment on that character and relate to an audience what my moral standards are.
Frank T.J. Mackey is on that line where you’ve made enough mistakes in your life and you better start making up for them. Because if you don’t really, really soon, you’re pushing to that place of unforgivable. But I can still forgive Frank. If he smartens up by the end of this movie, I’ll be happy. If he doesn’t, fuck him, [laughs] because he’s hurting too many people.
The transformation that Mark Wahlberg made in Boogie Nights was really well done. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when he starts to change and it’s so gradual, it’s totally believable.
I just like movies, and I guess what I like in my movies is where you see a character change by maybe two degrees as opposed to the traditional movie change of maybe ninety degrees. I guess that always feels false to me in movies because that doesn’t truly happen.
Around me, at least in the life I live, I guess I don’t see people change ninety or a hundred degrees. I see them change in very small increments. I think it’s just a monitor I might have on myself as a writer not to make any false scenes. I would have had to sit down as a writer and think, “I’m gonna write the scene where Dirk changes.” But instead I’m keeping a tab on the reality factor while hopefully making it entertaining. Therefore it’s going to creep up on me, just as it maybe crept up on you.
I’m just going along, and as I’m hitting a certain point in the movie, Dirk’s just kind of changing. It’s a hard thing to describe but I can probably only successfully pull that off if I’m not being self-conscious.
One scene in Boogie Nights that was very effective was when Dirk’s mother screams at him and kicks him out of the house. A lot of people who come from dysfunctional families told me that scene was like something out of their lives. Were you surprised a lot of people could not only relate to the scene but also thought it was one of the strongest in the film?
Yeah, but I was also surprised by how many people thought it was one of the weakest scenes in the movie. When his mother comes at him like that, she’s really crazy and out of control. She’s kind of without motivation to a certain extent.
I think one of the greatest mistakes that I’ve made in the past and that a writer can make is, “What’s the character’s motivation?” Well, a lot of times it’s so fucking confused and so polluted that you really have no idea. That woman is pretty nuts, and I think it’s sometimes hard for an audience to grab a hold of a character whose intentions aren’t clear. You don’t really know what the fuck she’s yelling about.
You know she has an odd jealousy towards him or towards the neighborhood girl that he’s banging, so she’s upset about that, but her actions are so manic, you can’t get a hold of them. I was just really glad that the actress in the scene didn’t require a lot of clarity on her behavior, because I couldn’t have given it. I really wrote what made sense, and what made sense was sometimes so illogical. There are some people that saw it and said, “That scene doesn’t make sense! Why is she going crazy?” And I would just say, “You know what? I’ve never been able to figure it out.” But it sure makes sense, and I’ve sure been there.
One of my favorite lines in Boogie Nights was during the documentary that Amber Waves made. Reed Rothchild says, “If movies caused violence, we’d be able to wipe out violence tomorrow. Boom! No more films!” Of course there’s a lot of debate about how movies supposedly cause violence and the way I interpreted that line, it almost showed how silly that argument was. Was that your intention?
I think John C. Reilly and I have both had a good laugh many times about this argument that movies don’t cause violence. But movies do cause violence. Movies absolutely promote violence. I know that as a kid when I saw movies, I would want to be like the characters in the movies. I would want to dress like them, and I would want to talk like them. Now luckily I’ve channeled that into a pretty good job making movies.
However, if I’d maybe gone a slightly different course, I could see how wanting to kill my classmates might have been appealing to me. It might have been promoted by what I saw in movies. Listen, I think [the scene] is a very sarcastic approach to that argument, because I just don’t buy that filmmakers don’t have a responsibility. They absolutely do.
I feel like I have a responsibility. I don’t particularly want to see a whole lot of guns in the rest of my movies. I’m not really interested in it anymore. I’m sick of it. I think a movie like Fight Club is an incredibly irresponsible film.
I wasn’t expecting you to say that. Most of the time when a filmmaker is asked what their responsibility is towards an audience, they’ll say something like, “If someone blows up a building, that’s not my fault.”
Bullshit. I think that’s a bunch of bullshit. Listen, I don’t want to make beautiful, candy-coated movies, but there’s a lot more dramatic things and more tension-filled moments in my life than guns coming out, you know what I mean? I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the violence, I’m sick of the easy way out which is, “Well I’m just showing how it is.” It’s time to do better than that. We have an obligation.
Were you ever afraid that anything in your movies might have been interpreted the wrong way?
Absolutely. I think I came to this kind of theory and fervor because the very first time we screened Boogie Nights for a test audience, when Little Bill discovers his wife on New Years Eve and goes to get his gun, the audience cheered. And when he shot her, the audience cheered. Now I sank in my seat, and I have never felt worse in my life.
I thought that I’d really done wrong in terms of those characters, and in the movie and everything else. But I felt a little bit better when he shot himself because they weren’t laughing and applauding anymore. There was dead silence and they really felt it. So when I saw that and I felt that, I really kind of changed my tune and felt a real responsibility to not want an audience to cheer, laugh or have a good time when violence happens. I’m all for having fun, but gunshots hurt. You know, I always thought the subtitle for Boogie Nights should be, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”
If you make a film that’s really outstanding, will the studio trust you? The word of mouth on Boogie Nights was strong before it came out, and it seemed like the studio was happy with it. If you make a movie like a Boogie Nights or a Pulp Fiction, does that put you in a position to call the shots?
Not during that movie, but after that movie, yes. The truth of the matter is, I thought Boogie Nights was a great movie, but there were a few people within New Line who didn’t think Boogie Nights was a great movie. I still had to fight for my cut of that movie. Eventually I got it, but there were a lot of people within New Line who thought it should be shorter, who ultimately don’t even like it that much now.
The truth of the matter is, it’s only now since the success of Boogie Nights that I haven’t had to do a true song and dance to defend my vision of the movie. When I showed Boogie Nights to the studio the very first time, they came out and hugged me and shook my hand and said, “This is the greatest movie we’ve ever made at New Line. We’re so thrilled, it’s wonderful.”
Then we went and tested the movie, and when the movie did not test well (because there’s no way in hell a movie like that is going to test well), they got cold feet and were real confused about their own opinions. I have to thank Lynn Hirschberg, who’s a wonderful writer and a journalist. When she saw the movie, she wrote something about it to send to the heads of New Line, basically saying this movie’s one of a kind, it’s fantastic, etc.
That helped them get their confidence back that was lost from the test screenings. So then all the early press reactions started to happen and the truth of the matter is, I don’t think a few of the New Line executives got their full confidence back because it resulted in a very weak release strategy.
The bottom line is, I started to realize why movies cost so much money. And sometimes it’s quite a good thing if they cost a lot of money because it means the studio is then shackled with that cost, which means they’ve got to pour even more money into marketing it.
If a movie is as cheap as Boogie Nights was, they essentially knew that with the reviews that they had they could underadvertise it and walk away with a break-even. It’s a very scary notion, but there are actually computers that run studios where they plug in how much the movie costs, they plug in how many theaters are going to get it, they plug in the reviews, they plug in the subject matter, and they can know exactly how much it’s going to make. And they will get it to that number so they can walk away without having risked anything.
I knew exactly how much money Boogie Nights was going to make before it came out because a marketing executive at another studio told me so. He said “$29 million and da-da-da-da-duh cents.” And if you look it up, that’s exactly what the movie made.
Leonard Cohen once commented, “every artist—be it a painter, composer, or filmmaker— has one song he writes over and over again. And the beautiful thing about this endeavor is that you don’t realize you’re writing the same song repeatedly, but in fact, it keeps returning to you wearing the original blue gown.” Do you agree?
Probably, although it’s too early for me to tell what mine is. I think there are similar themes and motifs in the two movies I’ve made, but I didn’t see that until after the fact. Both stories have father figures, a young protégé, a makeshift family, and the paying of some kind of karmic debt.
With Hard Eight, the lead character, Sidney, is dealing with guilt he feels over something he did before the story in the film begins. Boogie Nights could almost be seen as a prequel to Hard Eight in that it follows this kid as he does things that leave him with a huge karmic debt.
When the story ends, you sense that Dirk will now attempt to atone for the things he’s done; in other words, Dirk becomes Sidney.
This article was first published in Creative Screenwriting Volume 5, #1, 1998.
Featured image by Wilson Web.
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