By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
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"I did a couple of early interviews, before anybody had seen the film," he says. "It was for a couple of those fall-preview things, which I never sign up for, but the studio said 'please.' So I put on my best face and I did two of them. And the first one went great. The second guy, though, clearly couldn't give a fuck, and his impression of the film already was, 'So, this is another one of those big, bad oilman kind of stories.' I couldn't help but say, for whatever it's worth, that I find these guys incredibly heroic. If you learn enough about them and you see the dangers of that work, it's hard not to be impressed by the kind of animal attack that they had. I get that."
Rather than embark on a conventional adaptation of Sinclair's 500-page tome, Anderson decided to use the novel's first act, about the oil-lease-gathering exploits of a pioneer tycoon named J. Arnold Ross (whom Sinclair based in part on Edward Doheny), as the template for a tale of two mass opiates — capitalism and organized religion — competing for the hearts and minds of an oil-rich California desert town. In Anderson's version, J. Arnold Ross becomes silver-prospector-cum-oilman Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), and unlike Sinclair's sprawling narrative (with its digressions into Hollywood and the nascent labor-rights movement), There Will Be Blood narrows its focus to Plainview's battle of wills with the young evangelist Eli Sunday (Eli Watkins in the novel, a character inspired by famed scam artist Aimee Semple McPherson).
The point of departure from his source material, Anderson says, came in the form of a short yet revealing scene relatively early in the two-and-a-half-hour film, when an uncharacteristically tender Plainview assures Sunday's young sister Mary that her father, the devoutly religious Abel Sunday, will no longer beat her. "I remember writing that scene — which is pure creation — and while I don't remember where I might have been within the whole scheme of things, I remember feeling confident about that scene in a way that was like, I'm on to something else. That felt good. Perhaps I was deciding that this is a story about this one guy, when it could have gone a few different ways. But the more it became about Daniel and that drive and who he was, it felt like the right thing to do to keep the engine going that way."
Once on the film's Marfa, Texas, set, Anderson continued to whittle at and refine the screenplay with a dedication befitting his own monomaniacal protagonist, taking particular care to remove anything that risked overstating the movie's themes. He describes one offending scene, between Plainview and the mysterious drifter (played by Kevin J. O'Connor) who claims to be his half brother, in which one of Plainview's lines echoed Eli Sunday in an earlier scene. "That's not something I wrote with any kind of writerly intention — to parallel these two guys," Anderson says. "I didn't even notice it was there until somebody on the set said, 'That's an interesting moment.' And my alarm bell went off: Don't do that! No writer's intentions allowed! When you're working on something, there's always a danger of screwing the screws in so fucking tight that it's not breathing any longer."
Anderson brings a similar less-is-more mentality to the film's entire aesthetic, trading the opulent, kinetic camera movements of his earlier features for imposing, static compositions that help There Will Be Blood to feel not merely like it's taking place in the early part of the 20th century, but like it might have been made then and buried in some time capsule for 90-odd years. That's particularly true of the film's wordless opening passages, as Daniel Plainview chisels for silver down a dark mineshaft and later sets about drilling for his first oil strike.
"For me, it's enough to start by looking at a guy picking away as hard as he can at that fucking wall, just hitting it over and over again," Anderson says. "When you're out there and you see these guys working, you just realize no one's going to be talking to anybody else. What can they say? In the middle of that hard labor, they're not going to be like, 'Hey, we've got a lot of good oil here!'"
There Will Be Blood becomes more loquacious as it progresses, however, culminating in a histrionic monologue in which Plainview explains the concept of "drainage"— the way oil under a given piece of land can be drawn out by the wells on surrounding lots — by likening it to two milk shakes connected by a single long straw. There are lines in that sequence so instantly quotable that I suggest to Anderson it's not long before they start appearing on T-shirts for sale in those Hollywood Boulevard novelty shops.
"I must admit to you where that came from," Anderson says giddily, noting that the eccentric metaphor comes straight from the congressional transcripts of the 1920s "Teapot Dome" scandal, in which New Mexico Republican Senator Albert Fall was convicted of accepting bribes for the oil-drilling rights to public lands in California and Wyoming from several oil-industry fat cats (including Edward Doheny).
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