37 Things We Learned From the ‘Boogie Nights’ Commentary

“I’m pretty egotistical and proud of this movie.” We look at what we can learn from Paul Thomas Anderson and his commentary track for Boogie Nights.

Boogie Nights Meeting

All right, all you great big, bright, shining stars out there. It’s time to hear what Paul Thomas Anderson has to say. With recent movies like There Will Be Blood and his latest, The Master, the director is smack in the middle of a stretch in his career in which he’s defining a new genre called Discomfort. Boogie Nights looks downright cheerful by comparison, so it’s nice to go back and listen to the writer/director discuss his great, early achievement.

And here we have it, all 37 things we learned listening to PT Anderson talk about Boogie Nights.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Commentators: Paul Thomas Anderson (writer/director)

  • Anderson, discussing the film’s opening music cue, wanted something to book-end the film that had a “broken circus” tone. He liked the idea of a type of funeral dirge kicking into a disco track. “Maybe it’s a disclaimer or warning or a kind of mood-setter to smash them both together,” he explains. PT Anderson would make us very accustom to funeral dirge’s later in his career.
  • He also wanted to go a completely different direction from how his previous film, Sydney, opened. That film had a slow opening, whereas Boogie Nights kicks in hard, introducing us to a dozen characters who we’ll eventually “get to know.”
  • Among the directors Anderson cites as being influences, he names Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs, as his chief influence. “I remember talking to him on the phone, he’s my idol, and asking, ‘Did you see all those shots I ripped off from you?’ and he said, ‘No.’” Anderson admits he may be the only one who can see the influences, since they’re used in such broad strokes.
  • The first meeting between Jack Horner and Eddie Adams – Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg – was shot twice, once very early in the film’s production. Everyone, Anderson included, knew the take they had done wasn’t good enough, and it was quickly decided they would reshoot the scene later on. Anderson still isn’t satisfied with the way it looks. Ugh. Perfectionists.
  • The “seed” that began Boogie Nights began when the writer/director was 17. He admits to watching a lot of porn at the time, and he wrote a 30-minute short film called The Dirk Diggler Story, a kind of “E! True Hollywood Story” of a porn star. He made several other shorts, but everyone remembered the name Dirk Diggler. He later wrote a feature version of the film, more of a mockumentary film a la This Is Spinal Tap. It was while he was making Sydney or Hard Eight that he molded the Boogie Nights as we see it now. We can only assume much more porn was watched within all that time.
  • Anderson wanted either Wahlberg or Leonardo DiCaprio as Dirk Diggler after seeing them both in The Basketball Diaries. DiCaprio chose to do Titanic instead, a choice the director doesn’t think he regrets. Anderson made sure Wahlberg knew when they met that he wanted him for his acting talent, not his underwear ad look.
  • A number of actresses were considered for Rollergirl, but Heather Graham wasn’t one of them. Anderson mentions he didn’t consider her for the part, because he had never seen her do nudity in a film. He didn’t think she’d be up for it. Her agents had to call him and ask why they weren’t thinking of her for the part. “Casting her was kind of pretty simple,” he says.
  • Anderson notes that a film doesn’t have to be set in a specific time to be personal, and that personal touches are found in the details of any story. The director grew up in the Valley and incorporates details from his childhood into certain scenes, the plastic horses in Eddie’s room being one of these.
  • Burt Reynolds! That’s for you Archer fans out there. Anderson only asked the director to be in the film once, and Reynolds accepted. Anderson didn’t want to use the ’70s star as a novelty, he was genuinely concerned with using his acting talents. Nothing about air boats is mentioned, a real missed opportunity.
  • Anderson feels that a lot of current film makers – current probably being somewhere in the early 2000s – are lazy and don’t allow for dialogue or even silence in their movies. He mentions L.A. Confidential as a movie that uses both to great results.
  • “I wish I put more in,” Anderson says regarding the mother scene. He mentions he thinks there could be at least another 10 minutes of the subplot involving Eddie and his mother. Anderson thinks its too easy to pass her off as being nuts and that developing her and where her frame of mind comes from would benefit the overall movie.
  • Anderson had such problems getting Sydney made and released that he laid down a hard law when he went in for meetings on Boogie Nights. The producers, particularly Michael De Luca, told him to calm down and that what he went through on Sydney. He wanted them to be clear that the film wouldn’t be mainstream in any regard. He wanted it to be three hours long and he wanted an NC-17 rating. De Luca came back at him saying he could choose one. Anderson took the R rating as a challenge, and the film still ended up being 20 minutes shorter than promised.
  • The shot around the pool showing all the party-goers was influenced by a similar one in I Am Cuba, which features a shot that begins on a rooftop and goes down into a swimming pool. “I feel proud that we came back up out of the pool for dialogue,” Anderson adds.
  • Anderson remembers having to only give Julianne Moore one piece of direction during the whole shoot. It’s during the scene where she’s doing coke with Heather Graham, and she’s repeating the line, “Too many things.” He asked her to deliver it one additional time. He allowed her to act, and she respected the character he had written. Happy family people.
  • The Colonel James character was written with Robert Ridgely in mind. The actor knew Anderson’s father when the director was a child, and he wrote many of the man’s actual manners of speech and story-telling abilities into the character.
  • Anderson notes the strength of the script as to how well the performances and shooting went. “I take pride in my writing,” he says, mentioning how lucky he was to get that cast to deliver that script. “The script is the director,” he adds, as when it came time to actually shoot the film, it was just a matter of showing up and doing the script just as it’s written.
  • The first porno Anderson ever saw was The Opening of Misty Beethoven, which we can only assume isn’t a corner bar. He also cites a lot of John Holmes/Johnny Wad films that involve action and mystery storylines and elaborate stunts. Also a lot of sex.
  • When he had culled all of the main cast together, he told them they were all good, but it took real talent to be good at acting bad, a staple of pornographic films. Anderson feels that Julianne Moore won that particular contest.
  • Anderson pulled a lot for Boogie Nights from porn outtakes and bloopers, and he had a series of VHS tapes that only feature the funnier side of the porn industry. These tapes helped show him a side of the business he didn’t often see. Not many of those left.
  • The studio initially wanted to release the film the first weekend in May of 1997 against The Lost World: Jurassic Park, as they felt Boogie Nights would serve as counter-programming to the blockbuster. As Anderson notes, there is no counter-programming to Jurassic Park, and the idea was quickly scrapped.
  • He remembers bootlegged VHS copies of Boogie Nights finding their way around the summer before the film’s October release. “It’s just a needle in your eye,” he explains. He found a few people who had bootlegged tapes of the film and would relay his agitation to them, also questioning them where they got it. The bootleg was traced back to a commercial house who had been given the film to cut a trailer. “It was really hard for me to deal with, but next time I’ll do things differently. I won’t put things on videotape,” he adds. Evidently he didn’t learn anything from watching Boogie Nights.
  • The direction Anderson gave choreographer Adam Shankman for the dance number was that he wanted it to include every cliche, 70’s move he could imagine, but he wanted a Busby Berkeley feel to it. “We just tried to obey the law of good old fashioned filming a dance number musical, which is see them from head to foot most of the time,” he explains.
  • Anderson approached writing Boogie Nights from a standpoint that he wanted to include everything he wanted to see in a film about the porn industry. He notes having been burned so badly on Sydney as being a catalyst for wanting to be more indulgent on his next film. He recognizes the tonal shifts in Boogie Nights but contends that this was the movie he set out to make, as it was the movie he most wanted to see. “People say it’s hard to do, but if you’re on par and you’re just telling that story then it’s gonna feel okay. You can switch gears,” he says.
  • Samuel L. Jackson was given the script, but he responded with a puzzled “What the hell is this?” The role of Buck Swope promptly went to Don Cheadle, who agreed to do the film after Julianne Moore vouched for the writer/director.
  • Anderson holds that the introduction of video took away a prestige to even the porn industry, which included stars who felt more honored since they were being shot on film. He also recognizes that video and the advent of fast-forwarding stripped away a quality to the films. While they used to deal in plot, they now only get to the sex scenes so their audience doesn’t get bored. “It stripped away any version of dignity that might have been in the business at that time,” he says.
  • The first time he screened Boogie Nights for an audience, Anderson remembers cheers coming from the scene where William H. Macy’s Little Bill finds his wife having sex with another man on New Year’s Eve and proceeds to shoot them both dead. He immediately felt like he’d done something wrong with the film, as this wasn’t the response he wanted to illicit. His friend, singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, was sitting next to him at the time, and she took his hand and told him it wasn’t his fault. Once Little Bill shoots himself in the film, the audience went quiet. “And they weren’t laughing, and they weren’t cheering, and it was dead silence, and I thought, ‘Okay. Good. I’ve done my job okay. It’s them that’s fucked up’,” he says.
  • Much of the documentary footage about Dirk Diggler was pulled from and inspired by Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story, a 1981 documentary which basically serves as a love letter to the legendary porn star. Anderson showed the documentary to Wahlberg, who culled a lot from the way Holmes interacted and responded during interviews. This segment of Boogie Nights is really the only time the director has taken on the frame of mind of shooting everything you can and figuring out what to use later.
  • “I just want to talk about this scene where Thomas Jane is doing speed with Dirk,” says Anderson, not realizing how epic that statement is. The director starts talking about how he found the set where they shoot this scene, completely burying the lead about the Punisher and speed and Dirk Diggler.
  • Anderson points out that he wrote “Feel My Heat,” but only Mark Wahlberg can sing it. He also points out that it’s the first track on the film’s soundtrack and that “The Touch” is included as a hidden track. So that’s one thing we learned about the film’s soundtrack.
  • Anderson admits to ripping off the character who walks around the background setting off firecrackers from a film directed by Robert Downey Sr., Putney Swope. Downey Sr. also appears as the record exec Dirk and Reed are trying to get their recording from. Anderson says Downey Sr. is an amazing actor, but he doesn’t do it very often since he can’t remember his lines. Well, at least someone in that family isn’t perfect.
  • “I gotta take a piss so bad I can’t even fucking think,” says the director out of the blue. He’s only gone for about 20 seconds, so it must have been a quick drip.
  • Anderson notes the one scene that was most difficult to cut out of a longer cut involved the Becky Barnett and her husband, who turns abusive in the deleted scene. The director decided to cut the subplot while watching the cut at his home and getting excited for the scene with Julianne Moore in the courtroom. The abusive husband scene came up instead, and Anderson’s surprise that it was one scene and not the other was seen as a sign to cut it. He adds that a filmmaker should know every scene, every cut of their film.
  • According to Anderson, AIDS is something that is hardly discussed on porn sets. “The proof is in their numbers,” he notes, adding that even though John Holmes’ AIDS-related death brought attention to the disease in the industry, there haven’t been many cases of porn stars acquiring the disease. Knock on wood, so to speak.
  • The famous, penultimate scene where Alfred Molina shows off how well he can wear a bathrobe was heavily influenced by a similar scene that happened to John Holmes. Anderson admits to sketchiness when it comes to what actually happens, but he feels enough cocaine, and spending enough time in the porn industry would naturally lead to a night as depicted in this scene. Anderson thinks the scene plays so well to most people because most people have been in a situation kind of like this. Not exactly like this, we hope. “Sister Christian” was a nice touch.
  • Anderson notes an early read-through didn’t quite work for this famous scene, even with Alfred Molina and everyone else in the cast giving it their all. There was something missing. Anderson realized as soon as they got on set and the firecrackers started going off what that missing element was. He also points out that Molina never flinches from the firecrackers, since he had an ear-piece in that played “Sister Christian” on a loop.
  • “From the front door of Jack’s house to the back door,” says Anderson explaining exactly the scope he was going for with Boogie Nights. He wasn’t concerned with making the definitive movie about pornography, nor was he interested in making grand statements about the industry. He was just interested in characters like Jack Horner and Dirk Diggler and wanted to see and show the family dynamic that went into certain sides of the industry.
  • “Yeah, that’s a big ol’ fake dick on Mark Wahlberg, but we like it.” Good night, everybody.

Best in Commentary

“Hey, roll it, cause I’ll tell you, you know, you’re listening to a guy who learned a lot about ripping off movies from watching laserdiscs with director commentary.” – Anderson beginning this particular commentary

“I think a lot of people are ashamed to feel freer to do stuff with the camera, because they don’t want to feel self-conscious or they don’t want to feel good about making a movie or they don’t want to celebrate making a movie, and I think that’s kind of bullshit.”

“I’m pretty egotistical and proud of this movie.”

Final Thoughts

Once again, we have to present to you a commentary that you simply must listen to for yourself in order to get everything it has to offer. Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, and it shows in more than just the amazing films he makes. It also shows in the way he talks about his films and how he goes over every actor that appears in his films. Yes, the egotism comes through, but Anderson is a filmmaker who backs every word up with knowledge and skill. This commentary track for Boogie Nights is a must-listen-to for more than just fans of the director’s work. He provides plenty of everything and even lends time for some breathing silence and repetition. You know, in case you missed it the first time.

This New Line Platinum Series also features a cast commentary track that includes Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, and Melora Walters. We will definitely be covering this track on a future edition of Commentary Commentary.