By Amy Nicholson
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It could almost be a scene from a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, a dropped subplot from Magnolia perhaps, in which a 37-year-old, press-shy movie director responsible for some of the most excitingly original films of his generation waits in the lobby of that storied Burbank watering hole, the Smoke House, for the critic who has coerced him into giving a rare interview. Picture a fast dolly-in on the critic as he walks through the front door, soaked from a heavy December downpour. Cut to a booth in the dim recesses of the bar, where our two characters sip coffee and the wait staff cool their heels in the desolate hours between lunch and the dinner rush. We are not far from the Tarzana home the director shares with actress Maya Rudolph and their 2-year-old daughter, Pearl, and even closer to the home in North Hollywood — on Colfax near Riverside — where he came of age in the 1970s.
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"I haven't gone very fucking far," Paul Thomas Anderson says with a boyish, self-deprecating grin. Neither, geographically speaking, have his movies. Though his debut feature, the crackerjack neo-noir Hard Eight (1997), ventured across the state line into Nevada, and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) made side trips to Utah and Hawaii, the heart of Anderson's work has always belonged to Southern California; which could be why Punch-Drunk Love's Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) found it so hard — even with his million frequent-flier miles — to extract himself from his warehouse office in a bleak industrial stretch of the San Fernando Valley. As a certain Kansas farm girl once noted, there's no place like home.
Indeed, Anderson's fifth and latest feature was inspired by a bout of homesickness that hit the director while he stood in a London bookstore thumbing through a copy of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! Anderson was attracted by the book's cover, then drawn in by its vivid portrait of turn-of-the-century life in such Golden State oil-boom towns as Bakersfield and Signal Hill. "I wonder what people's perception of California is sometimes," he says. "Do people perceive it as this land of recreation? That's such a misconception, I think. That area, that San Joaquin Valley — on one side of the freeway are all those crops and on the other side are these oil fields. It's amazing — just the leap of a freeway and it's two completely different things. And to think, there's oil on one side of it and there isn't on the other."
Now, Anderson's movie There Will Be Blood has emerged as the most discussed, exuberantly praised American movie in recent memory, earning comparisons to the great, vanguard Hollywood cinema of the 1970s and winning four awards each from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. Where Anderson's first four features (including the Oscar-nominated Boogie Nights and Magnolia) hardly lacked for ambition, There Will Be Blood eclipses them all with its go-for-broke, far-reaching allegory of greed, family, faith and competition in the land of the free — The Birth of an Oil Nation, if you will. It is the sort of movie for which directors become immortalized. But ask Anderson just how he managed to put it all together and he'll tell you he's not entirely sure.
"I can remember moments sitting at my desk with bits and pieces everywhere — [Sinclair's] book, photographs, other books from the period," he says, using his fingers to pry bits of meat loose from his chicken caesar salad while jazz-pop elevator music streams over the PA system. "But it's still sort of a mystery to me — more so than with anything else I've ever written — how I finally ended up with the thing and it was done. Now I look back and it feels like the blink of an eye, but I remember kind of struggling, whether I just didn't know how to write it or I was writing and I didn't like what I was coming up with."
Or it could be, Anderson concedes, that he was simply watching too much baseball. "There was a while there where I was sort of pacing my days out just to get to the East Coast game, getting to 4 o'clock," he says, noting his enthusiasm for the Dodgers as well as the Boston Red Sox — the hometown team of his late father, television personality Ernie Anderson. "It's very easy to do."
Anderson isn't being falsely modest. Though his films are clearly the work of a perfectionist with a scrupulous eye for detail, his creative process is largely intuitive, and when he tries to tell you why or how he did something a particular way, he'll often start down one road, then back up and go down another, and finally admit that maybe the real answer is something else entirely. And he does it all with the feverish intensity of the college roommate who could keep you up all night talking about life, politics and art, as if he were figuring everything out for himself right in that moment. That could be one of the reasons Anderson doesn't give a lot of interviews — that and the fact that he has little patience for journalists who come to the table with intractable preconceived notions about what a movie should (and shouldn't) be.
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