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Just call them prospectors

Daniel Day-Lewis, with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, explored and experimented in a quest that yielded their oil drama, 'There Will Be Blood.'

December 23, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

MISANTHROPIC turn-of-the-century oilman Daniel Plainview is the unstoppable, dark-smoke-emitting engine that powers "There Will Be Blood." Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's grim, extremely loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!" struck black gold when Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to embody its unlikely hero. Perhaps even more unlikely, when Day-Lewis, one of the most intense -- and intensely sought-after -- of actors, discusses the dark, idiosyncratic character study, the word that comes to him is "joy."

"In as far as it was the unfettered expression of something that needed to be expressed, because there's joy in creativity," he says of the film, opening in Los Angeles on Wednesday. "It doesn't matter if you're creating a dark story, which this might be, or a light comedy; there has to be joy there. . . . The inner joy that comes from saying something you need to say."

Warm and vital, eyes full of mischief and nose just crooked enough to be interesting, the renowned yet press-shy actor is hardly Garbo-esque as he sits down in a suite on a recent day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He's engaging, funny and possessed of a driving intelligence apparent whether he's talking about acting, woodworking or impending catastrophe.

"This film had all the makings of a complete disaster, really," says Day-Lewis, wearing a loose flannel shirt and jeans, his longish hair sometimes covering the golden hoop in each ear. "Just to find someone to finance the thing was a problem," he says of "Blood," which was eventually co-financed by Miramax and Paramount Vantage. "It's all guys, there's no one pretty to look at, there's no love story. It could be read, I suppose -- not by me -- as a fairly bleak parable about the wages of sin and so on. But to me, it appeared to be so joyful."

The actor seems to have found an artistic symbiosis with Valley auteur Anderson: "Well, we're perverse, maybe, the two of us. We discovered each other's like-minded perversity. . . . I felt tremendously close to Paul before, during and after the work.

"Many of the best writers inhabit the world that they are creating, very much in the way that performers try to inhabit that world in the work that they do. My thing with Paul's films, most especially, I suppose, 'Punch-Drunk Love' -- and I feel very much the same about this one as well -- is that he was inside the story that he was telling. He's not reaching for effect; he's expressing something that he has a pressing need to express."

While the 500-plus page "Oil!" starts as a detailed look at the burgeoning crude industry in turn-of-the-century California and becomes a socialist-leaning cautionary tale of the struggle between labor and capital, Anderson's "Blood," which is already pulling in critics groups awards and is gaining momentum as a best picture Oscar nominee, liberally changes plot elements, relationships and even names. He mined the setting and the father-son bond of the book's first 150 pages to prime the pump for his own writing. "There Will Be Blood" follows Plainview as he navigates obstacles physical, familial and spiritual (in butting heads with a willful young preacher, played by Paul Dano) in his drive to master the "ocean of oil" beneath his feet.

"I didn't feel enough confidence to start writing words to come out of these people's mouths," said the writer-director as he joined Day-Lewis in conversation. "But to use Upton Sinclair as a 'piggyback in' seemed like the thing to do."

Anderson also wasn't locked into a single vision, creating instead what Day-Lewis calls a sense of freedom on the set to explore different interpretations.

"We were pretty loose about where scenes would take place," Anderson says. "We were changing things constantly just to find the right way to do it. A couple of times we ran ourselves around chasing our tails feeling like we'd gotten a great version of that scene the first time, but there are just as many times where the fourth or fifth time we tried it and did a different location or whatever it was, it was really worth the effort we put into it."

It's a creative process that meshed perfectly with Day-Lewis' approach.

"You know, many directors control because they have too fully formed a vision, so they're in terror" that everyone around them will mess up their story, says the actor. "So the answer to that is control. Paul is absolutely not like that. He positively thrives on the creative work of anyone that is there on the set with him, be they actors or technical people."

That openness is evident as Anderson describes how Day-Lewis' input completely reshaped a problematic scene in which another character gives Plainview news of the oilman's son.

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