Knows It When He Sees It
Before you rush out to see “Boogie Nights,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about the pornography industry, there’s something you should know: This is not a pornographic film, nor is it a film about pornography. It’s a film about the people in the pornography industry, and, as such, it’s more apt to move you than to turn you on.
It’s also apt to make you laugh.
Conceived by Anderson when he was 17 and under the sway of “This Is Spinal Tap,” the scathing parody of the rock ‘n’ roll world released in 1984, “Boogie Nights” is set in the San Fernando Valley in the late ‘70s when, unbeknown to most of us, the porn industry experienced something akin to a golden period. Director-writer Anderson has a keen eye for both the surreality of making a living by having sex on film and the bad taste that pervaded the disco scene, and his film is as hilarious as it is distressing.
“Boogie Nights,” made for $15 million and due out Friday from New Line, features an ensemble cast that includes Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle and John C. Reilly. Also starring are Burt Reynolds, whose performance is being touted as his most accomplished in years; Alfred Molina, who does a memorable turn as a crazed drug dealer; and Mark Wahlberg, whose work should bring an end to any snickering about Marky Mark, the rapper and underwear model.
Something of a boy wonder, the 27-year-old Anderson is a self-taught filmmaker who flunked a year of high school before graduating in 1989, then hit the ground running. His debut feature, “Hard Eight,” starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson and was released early this year; this, his second film, has a running time of 2 1/2 hours, which makes it an act of bravado worthy of Orson Welles (who was 25 when he completed his magnum opus, “Citizen Kane”). An unabashed fan with an impressive knowledge of film, Anderson exudes an unbridled enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see why gifted people want to work with him.
“One of the most widely held misconceptions about the porn industry is that it’s pure evil and the people who work in it aren’t human beings,” Anderson says over dinner at a hotel in West Hollywood, in reflecting on the characters he created for “Boogie Nights.” “It’s said that nobody in show business had a happy childhood, and absolutely nobody in the porn business had a happy childhood.
“The cliche of the wide-eyed kid who arrives in Hollywood by bus looking for stardom only to have their dream destroyed is something you see repeatedly in the porn business. The breakdown of the family is one of the themes of ‘Boogie Nights,’ and on one level it’s a story about a group of damaged people who come together to form a kind of surrogate family.”
“Boogie Nights” also functions as a historical film in that it documents a period following the sexual revolution of the ‘60s when porn almost went legit. The early ‘70s saw America’s middle class dabbling in recreational drugs, wife swapping, key parties (see “The Ice Storm” for more on that) and the mainstreaming of films like “I Am Curious, Yellow,” “Deep Throat,” “Behind the Green Door” and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” By the late ‘70s, however, the liberal wave of the ‘60s had crested and the culture began swinging to the right. Something that had a greater effect on the porn industry, though, was the arrival of video.
“Sex films that also had plot and character could’ve been developed into a great film genre, but we only saw the beginnings of that and the glory days never happened,” Anderson explains. “When video arrived in the late ‘70s, amateurs flooded the field, and because video is so cheap, you didn’t have to think things through. With film, you had to pay attention because it was so expensive; with video, the attitude became ‘Let’s just shoot a bunch of footage and we’ll cut it into something later.’ ”
Contrary to what one might assume, the AIDS epidemic had little to do with bringing the glory days of porn to an end.
“Condoms are used in gay porn, but you rarely see them in straight porn--the performers assume they’re safe because they have sex mostly with each other,” Anderson says. “It is a cloistered community, but it isn’t so incestuous that they’re not moving outside the pack and having sex with other people--I know for a fact that they are. Their sense that they’re not in danger is misguided.”
Anderson was born and raised in Studio City, where he currently lives with his girlfriend.
“My dad was this sort of avant-garde guy who did all kinds of weird things. He was a true original and anybody who met him never forgot him,” Anderson says of his father, Ernie, a well-known voice-over announcer who died in February.
“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.”
Of the genesis of the film’s central character--Eddie Adams, a naive teenager whose formidable physical endowment leads him to change his name to Dirk Diggler and take the porn industry by storm--Anderson says: “Dirk is in love with the camera that’s shooting him, and in creating that character I drew as much from legitimate celebrities as I took from porn stars. Dirk is loosely based on porn star John C. Holmes, who died of AIDS in 1988, and one thing I took quite specifically from Holmes is the way he changed over the course of his career. In his early films, he was obviously a much nicer person than he was at the end of his career, when the effects of his drug use were very apparent.”
Wahlberg has more screen time than anyone in the cast, and his part requires him to sing, dance, cry, play several straight sex scenes and two vaguely gay sex scenes, get beaten to a pulp by a gang of gay-bashers and suffer a cocaine-induced crackup. Wahlberg’s finely nuanced reading of this complex character has already whipped up a flurry of glowing press, and it’s a testament to Anderson’s vision that he cast him.
“I knew Mark could act from seeing him in ‘The Basketball Diaries’ and ‘Fear,’ ” Anderson says, “and when I talked to him it was clear he understood the character.”
“I’d promised myself I’d never sing, dance or appear in my underwear in a movie, and I do all those things in the first 30 minutes of ‘Boogie Nights,’ ” Wahlberg says, laughing. “But if that’s what people notice, then I haven’t done my job as an actor, because there’s a lot more than that going on in this film.
“When Paul and I finally watched the movie together, we were both struck by the fact that there were parallels between my own life and Dirk’s, but we weren’t conscious of that when we were filming,” adds the actor, who recently wrapped “The Big Hit” with Elliott Gould and is currently in training to star with Robert De Niro in “Out on My Feet,” a film about the relationship between a boxer and his trainer.
Before beginning “Boogie Nights’ ” three-month shoot in July of last year, Anderson provided the cast with video compilations he had prepared of “porn’s greatest hits” and took them on field trips to porn shoots.
“Some of the shoots didn’t want us there, because our presence made the men uncomfortable. We distracted them and they were losing their . . . focus,” jokes Heather Graham, who plays Rollergirl, a teenage porn star who goes through her paces on skates.
Given its subject matter, “Boogie Nights” is surprisingly chaste.
“It’s not as graphic as an actual porno film,” Anderson agrees, “but we certainly pushed the envelope as far as we could, and only 40 seconds came out of the movie because of the MPAA.
“There’s nothing in the film I’d change, either, because everything we cut was stuff I wanted out of the film. Why else would I cut it? Nobody pressures me, baby,” he says, laughing.
“Our producer, Joanne Sellar, is brilliant at budgeting movies, and I worked closely with her before we started shooting because my biggest fear was going over budget. When that happens you become a target. If you’re on budget you can say, ‘Leave me alone, I’m doing my job.’ ”
One of the fun parts of the project, he says, was picking out costumes.
“It was terrifying putting actors in those sexy outfits, because once they felt that polyester rubbing against their skin, the tendency was to get carried away,” Anderson says. “These actors are all great, but they have their quirks and the story obviously has great camp potential, so my job as director was to keep it simple and stop them from camping it up.”
Among the most intriguing things about “Boogie Nights” is the evenhandedness with which Anderson presents this volatile material. As with last year’s “Trainspotting,” which took a highly ambiguous look at heroin addiction, “Boogie Nights” neither endorses nor condemns pornography, and you come away from the film not quite sure how Anderson feels about it.
“When I first met with Paul, I asked him if he was saying it was good or bad to do these things, and he replied, ‘I’m just telling the story,’ ” recalls Don Cheadle. “I don’t think the film draws conclusions about the porn industry, but it certainly suggests these characters are lost souls with a lot of pain in their past, and that they suffer the consequences of their actions.”
Says Graham: “It’s an incredibly emotionally brave film that tries to look in a nonjudgmental way at what’s motivating these people. It was obvious to all of us who worked with him that Paul loves each of the characters, and hopefully people will see this is a movie about people, rather than some kind of moral diatribe.”
Anderson believes that he did reveal to a degree how he feels about the subject at hand in a soliloquy offered by Wahlberg in the film’s final scene: “ ‘We all wish we could take our brains out of our heads and wash them clean; we’ve all done bad things and have guilty feelings in our hearts,’ ” Anderson recites. “In my own way I deal with guilt constantly, and I do believe there are consequences for our actions.”
Lurking guilt aside, Anderson feels good at this stage of the game.
“I feel like maybe I hit a version of a stride with ‘Boogie Nights'--it feels like I’m starting,” he says. “I have some vague ideas about what I’m gonna do next, and at the top of that list is creating a vehicle that will show the world how brilliant Michael Penn is. Beyond that, I’m mostly thinking in terms of writing great roles for actors I love.”