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Knows It When He Sees It

Paul Thomas Anderson got Hollywood's attention with a look at the '70s porno-film world.

October 12, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

"I suppose you could say he encouraged me to become a filmmaker. His attitude was 'Do whatever the hell you want, just leave me alone and get off my phone, because you're running up the bill,' " Anderson says, laughing. "My older sister was at the cusp of new wave, and I had older brothers from my father's first marriage who were rock 'n' roll guys, so I was exposed to a lot of popular culture."

Anderson's exposure to porn began when he was 10 and stumbled across his father's videotape of "Misty Beethoven."

"In the '50s, kids discovered their father's Playboy magazines; my generation found porn videos," he says with a shrug. "Seeing it didn't twist me into an obsessed maniac, though, and I'd hardly describe my adolescence as wild. I had the standard movie geek childhood, because for as long as I can remember, all I wanted to do was make movies. The first movies I responded to were 'Jaws,' 'Rocky' and 'Close Encounters,' then moving into adolescence I discovered films like 'Melvin and Howard,' 'Putney Swope' and 'Shoot the Piano Player.'

"My filmmaking education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and magazines, and with the new technology you can watch entire movies accompanied by audio commentary from the director. You can learn more from John Sturges' audio track on the 'Bad Day at Black Rock' laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it."

Ever the self-starter, Anderson began writing as a teenager, and he mentions David Mamet, J.D. Salinger, David Rabe and lyricists Michael Penn (whose music can be heard in "Boogie Nights"), Aimee Mann, Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson as writers he admires. Among his earliest efforts was the script for "The Dirk Diggler Story," a half-hour short he shot on video in 1987, which contained all the elements that were later expanded into "Boogie Nights."

In 1992, he completed "Cigarettes and Coffee," a 26-minute short made for $20,000 that tells the stories of five different people in a diner. The film was accepted in the 1993 Sundance Festival Shorts Program, and after its screening there Anderson was invited to develop a feature at Sundance's 1994 Filmmakers Workshop.

"When I got into the Sundance program, I wondered if I'd be forced to buy turquoise jewelry at the Sundance store, but it turned out to be a cool thing," Anderson says. "How it works is you spend two weeks there working with your actors, then you shoot some scenes on video."

The film Anderson worked on was "Hard Eight," a story of four lost souls adrift in the Reno gambling scene. While waiting for the film to begin shooting, Anderson wrote 300 pages of text that he subsequently refined into the script for "Boogie Nights." It turned out to be a good thing he had that project to fall back on, because his experience with "Hard Eight" wiped away any fairy dust he may have had in his eyes about the film business.

"I had a terrible time with my first film," he recalls. "I was 24 at the time and Rysher Entertainment, which paid for 'Hard Eight,' really took advantage of me and tried to re-cut the movie. I got the feeling they hadn't even read the script they'd green-lighted, because they seemed to have no understanding of the film I was trying to make. I had the actual work print of my cut of the film, though, so I was able to submit it to Cannes, where it was accepted.

"After the film got into Cannes, Rysher let me finish the film the way I wanted with $250,000 contributed by myself, Gwyneth [Paltrow] and [co-star] John C. Reilly. The film that wound up being released was my cut, but Rysher did nothing to promote it and hardly anyone saw it."

"Paul is an extremely talented young man with a great career ahead of him," responds Tim Helfet, chief executive officer and president of Rysher Entertainment. "We allowed him to make his first film, which we were proud to be associated with, and we wish him well."

After the experience of "Hard Eight," Anderson says, "I just thought, 'To hell with it--I'm going punk rock. My next film is gonna be an epic.' " He polished the script for "Boogie Nights" during the summer of 1995.

Anderson says he chose the world of porn as the subject for his epic because "I was 7 when this story begins and 14 when it ends, so maybe it's a twisted remembrance of my childhood. I did grow up in the Valley, and I remember what it was like."

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