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.
"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).
"I think it was Albert Fall, who was asked to describe drainage before Congress," Anderson continues. "And his way of describing it was, 'If you have a milk shake and I have a milk shake, and my straw reaches across the room...' I'm sure I embellished it and changed it around and made it more Plainview. But Fall used the word 'milk shake,' and I thought it was so great. It was mad to see that word among all this official testimony and terminology — a fucking milk shake. I get so happy every time I hear that word."
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Though we're past our scheduled time together, Anderson seems eager to keep going. We discuss a few shared obsessions — the Red Sox, and also Adam Sandler, to whom Anderson gave his greatest and most self-revealing role in Punch-Drunk Love, but who we agree was also excellent as the widower dentist in last year's Reign Over Me. We talk about movie critics, a few of whose opinions Anderson says matter to him a lot, though he prefers to read only the good reviews ("because no one's going to top the damage that I've done to myself in my head, and a little encouragement is good and can go a long way"). I ask if he could see himself directing another writer's screenplay, to which he says never say never, but adds that "it would take one of the best parts of the process away from me. Why would I let someone else do that?"
Finally, Anderson confesses that, with the grueling labor of making an epic-scale period movie on a less-than-epic budget now behind him, he's actually a little bummed. "I've had such a hard time letting go of it. I don't think I have. I really wish that we were still doing it. It's horribly depressing, really, to get to the end of something. Nothing you do prepares you for that. No matter how many times you do it, you don't get used to the sadness — for me at least — of coming to the end of a film."
At least, I remind Anderson, spring training is just around the corner.
"I can't wait for it to start again," he says, and for a moment I'm not sure if he's talking about making movies, watching baseball, or both.