Paul Thomas Anderson on What Makes a Movie Great

Slowly, cautiously, with our vaccinations up to nine, we return to some of the basic pleasures of ordinary life. A few nights ago, my wife and I went to our local cinema, a multiplex complex with huge screens and loud sound systems. Love it all: upcoming attractions of horror flicks I’ll never watch and spy movies I’ll never miss; the chatty crowd; Brobdingnagian snacks; adhesive floors. Our pick for tonight was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” a movie set in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s. It’s about the weirdness of being young, the experience of becoming human and shaping oneself. The shattered narrative is wise and malicious, but also honest about winning. It’s been a long epidemic, and this has been a cheerful reminder of what joy it feels like.

Anderson is fifty-one years old, and has been making films since he was a teenager. He is a kid in the valley, he never left the suburban streets. His first features – “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights” – came out when he was in his mid-twenties, and since then, he’s been the kind of artist whose new work is always an event. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, Melora Walters, Julianne Moore and Joaquin Phoenix are among the veteran actors who have appeared in his best movies, which include “Punch-Drunk Love”, “Magnolia” and “There Will” Be Blood, and “Mr.”, and “Phantom Thread”.

Anderson rarely speaks to reporters. This was reminded when I got a Zoom call with him the next day to see his movie. His square was not indicated by his name, but rather, “Mason & Dixon,” a sign of his admiration for the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon. (Anderson made a film for Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.”) I spoke with Anderson on The New Yorker Radio Hour; Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. He was speaking from his home in the valley. And since he had put “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” and now, “Licorice Pizza” in that area, the conversation began, modified and intensified, by asking him why the place was so deeply popular with him.

I love him. It’s that simple: it kind of starts and ends there. I can remember as a kid and think at a certain point, maybe in my teenage years, I should get out of here. “Get out of here” is up the hill, not in the San Fernando Valley. Maybe this is Los Angeles, maybe New York, maybe London, maybe Shanghai – whatever it is, I have to get out of here.

But I’m one of those people who likes to get away for twenty-four hours and then I start to itch and think at home. I just want to go home. I’m one of those home-like people. I’m comfortable here. My family is here, my friends are here. It’s a place I keep coming back to. Whatever your ambition to spread your wings, I always find myself coming back here. After London, when we were making ‘Phantom Thread’ – it was my dream to be able to work there – but when I got home, I was thrilled. The valley is not the most beautiful place in the world, it is not the most cultured place in the world, I understand that, but it is its home.

As a kid, I would listen to the radio late at night and watch TV late at night, and everyone from California was cracking jokes about the valley. I didn’t know what that was. What is the joke? What is the valley in the spiritual sense and in terms of the landscape of your youth?

It’s funny – I wonder if Johnny Carson contributed to that because he always said, “Beautiful downtown Burbank!” It may not be pretty. There is no real downtown. . . .

I mean, San Fernando Valley – what is it? It is a flat area between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Santa Monica Mountains. The main reason for its existence, at one time, was agricultural land. It is known that there is a story from “Chinatown” about how the water diverted from the valley.

It is a suburb. And the suburbs always seemed to come for the beating. I’m not entirely sure why. When I was writing “Boogie Nights” for the first time as a teenager, there was a great story in my backyard. I didn’t have to go far. I didn’t have to make things up. I could do the research, learn more about these people in the industry, but it was very familiar to me. At some point, I may have read that I should “write what you know”. This is a good place to start. This job is hard enough. So why do I find it so hard trying to learn something that is out of my control or doesn’t speak to me?

“Licorice pizza” is in the middle of two letters. One of them is Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman, a young teenage boy who is incredibly charismatic for his age. He is a small actor. He started a water-family business and then a pin palace. His crackle, his bragging, is astonishing for a fifteen-year-old. He falls in love with a girl, Alana Kane, performed by Alana Haim. She is much bigger than him. She’s in her mid-twenties, leading a frustrated life but has a magnetic inner intelligence as well. How is that rooted in your experience? If you write what you know, what is the gist of the “licorice pizza” story for you?

I was the second out of four [children], so I had an older sister who had older friends. She is two, three, four years older than me. And my friend has an older sister. So, it so happened that we kind of fell through the cracks so that, when we were fourteen or fifteen, those girls around us – our sisters’ girlfriends – were eighteen and nineteen. And they had cars! So, every waking hour was devoted to trying to get them to get us somewhere! And behind him he was trying to flirt with them, hang out with them, or get their attention in some way that was more than just being an annoying little brother.

I can remember having a couple of friendships with some of the girls I met along the way. They were just friendships, but they were great. They were just great because they were just friendships, you know? To have a friendship with a slightly older woman, it wasn’t your sister – I had a toe in a version of the adult world or what I started to feel like an adult just because of the mode of transportation they had.

Perhaps the biggest emphasis on strength and the age difference in the movie is not the thrill but the drive. At one point, Alana was not driving a car but a truck, and at one point she was driving it backwards at full speed down a hill, into the city center. [Gary is her terrified and thrilled passenger.] This is high drama. It’s better than driving Grace Kelly at full speed along a mountain road in southern France with Cary Grant.

This sequence you are referring to is inclusive of any number of episodes that were either severe or somewhat less dangerous. And they happen especially in Southern California because it’s a driving community. We are slaves to our cars. We love them. Especially at that age – your whole life was devoted to getting a car in some way. The type of problem you found yourself in as a result was usually broad; You look back and think, I can’t believe I made this happen. So, this sequence goes into those episodes. At the time, you thought it was just plain hilarious fun, but with a little distance you realize it was really life or death.

We see on the screen a title card. It announces that this production is produced by the Golardi Films Company [Anderson’s production company]. This name has a very deep meaning for you and your family, and it is rooted at home, in the San Fernando Valley.

My father – his name is Ernie Anderson, he was originally from Boston. After the war, he returned and was working as a radio DJ in Vermont, ending up in Cleveland, Ohio. It was on the ground floor of some of the TV shows that were happening there. Create and host one of the classic late night horror shows. And his character name is Goldardi. [The show ran on WJW on Friday nights, from 1963 to 1966, and was an influence on everyone from Drew Carey to the Cramps.] He wore a fake Van Dyck beard and sunglasses with one prominent lens. His job was to make these horror movies and look at the kids to have a good time. Ghoulardi was a locally popular figure in Cleveland. [My father] He eventually came to Southern California, to the San Fernando Valley, worked as a podcast with ABC, and did many different commercials. He became an announcer in the booth of “The Carol Burnett Show”. But Gulardi always followed suit for anyone who was in Cleveland at the time. The list is surprisingly long – there were wonderful people who were kids in Ohio at the time, from Chrissy Hynd to Jim Jarmusch.


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