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6 Filmmaking Tips From Paul Thomas Anderson

We have explored the archives of Paul Thomas Anderson’s interviews and assembled them into a bit of free film school.
Paul Thomas Anderson (Shutterstock)
By  · Published on September 19th, 2012

By now, a large amount of people have been able to see The Master and to build a few sandcastles with Paul Thomas Anderson. The director has grown from a young man fascinated by the nondescript buildings with porn being shot inside to a formidable creator, exploring twists on religion and family. He’s got film fans in his palm, which makes every new project he releases an event movie.

But he still remembers to wait until the coffee is poured.

So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a 70mm heavyweight.

Treat the Book Your Adapting as a Collaborator

“…With There Will Be Blood, I didn’t even really feel like I was adapting a book. I was just desperate to find stuff to write. I can remember the way that my desk looked, with so many different scraps of paper and books about the oil industry in the early 20th century, mixed in with pieces of other scripts that I’d written. Everything was coming from so many different sources. But the book was a great stepping-stone. It was so cohesive, the way Upton Sinclair wrote about that period, and his experiences around the oil fields and these independent oilmen.

That said, the book is so long that it’s only the first couple hundred pages that we ended up using, because there is a certain point where he strays really far from what the original story is. We were really unfaithful to the book. [Laughs.] That’s not to say I didn’t really like the book; I loved it. But there were so many other things floating around. And at a certain point, I became aware of the stuff he was basing it on. What he was writing about was the life of [oil barons] Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair. So it was like having a really good collaborator, the book.”

Granted, Anderson admits to not faithfully adapting the work, so there’s a big grain of salt that comes with this advice depending on what your goal (or assignment) is with a particular adaptation. In the same vein, that interview offers an intimate insight into how he treats collaborators. Specifically, the period of time he and Daniel Day-Lewis spent getting to know each other, considering how close they’d be working for an extended amount of time. That kind of connection ‐ one built from not talking about the movie ‐ must have been an asset when they spent the first two weeks of the project filming terrible takes that Anderson never wants to show anyone.

Be Highly Selective with Actors Because a Bad One Will Mean More Work

“When I wrote Magnolia, I was writing for the actors, so I could hear it my head how they might do it, and I was writing it with that advantage. But actors don’t scare me ‐ you know what scares me? Bad actors scare me. A good actor is like watching a great musician, but having a bad actor terrifies me, because it means I’ve got to find something to say or something to do. And that’s really frustrating, because you want to be concentrating on everything, and instead you find yourself bogged down with helping someone know their lines or not bump into the furniture, and that’s when you want to strangle them.

I got really lucky that the first real actor that I worked with was Philip Baker Hall. Coming out of the gate, that was like somebody who, instantly, is right there for you, who wants to work with you and certainly not against you. And so I think I got a bit spoiled sense that this is the way that it should go, and then I’m shocked when Burt Reynolds shows up, or someone like that… I think you secretly love actors.”

This may seem like both a no-brainer and an impossibility on the micro level. If your only resource is the local acting pool, finding impressive talent might be something a bit beyond your reach ‐ especially since a low budget means not having the green resources to draw in the best. Bad actors are usually free (or cheap). That’s why this is an especially important tip. It’s more of a reminder to hold out for the best possible people (no matter what that means in your situation). It may be hard, it may even delay your film, but it’ll be worth it when you’re not strangling people on set.

By the way, the “you” of that quotation is Lars von Trier. The two are interviewing each other, and the entire thing is unsurprisingly worth the read.

Short Films Can Be a Good Way to Get Started

Put On a Good Show First

So you’ve got all these complex ideas about life and love and the universe and the meaningofitall and everything? Great. But don’t forget to entertain.

“Of course, I’m no dummy. But there’s a trap you can fall into. If you set out to make a movie about oil and religion I’m not sure you wouldn’t crash the car. Fuck! It’s a movie first. You have to put on a good show first, I think.”

Growing a Mustache and Riffing on Cops Could Lead You to Brilliance

“That stuff [that led to John C. Reilly’s character in Magnolia] happened about three or four years ago, during one summer when we were really bored, and [Reilly] had grown a mustache and it just made me laugh. He would do this character, this guy who was on Cops, and I had a video camera and we’d drive around and improvise, and call up actors who weren’t working at the time, so we’d call up Phil Hoffman and say, go to Moore Park and fuck with the trash cans and we’ll drive by in ten minutes and catch you doing it. Then we got a cop uniform and improvised all these altercations. And eventually I started writing all that stuff down. A lot of Jim’s dialogue is based on that improvisation, like the Mike Leigh style. It really is a pretty fucking cool way to work. We’ve gotta try that again.”

It’s great that there’s a sense of adventure here, a little danger (like, say, if they’d been caught impersonating a police officer) and an awareness of what potential a character like that could have. It’s playing a prank on real life in service of finding a fictional story. Of course, being film-minded enough to know who Mike Leigh is a good start.

What You Can Learn From Pornography

What Have We Learned

For those who maybe haven’t heard him speak, it might have been surprising to hear so many fundamental, practical pieces of advice, but Anderson is as far away from an airy, artsy type as one can be. He’s also incredibly literate. That’s important to keep in mind, because a No Bull Shit attitude is a great tool to have, but it hits the nail harder if you know how to wield it.

Anderson’s talent is stellar, and it’s difficult to get into the details on his day-to-day writing process, but that idea of entertaining first and delivering ideas second is paramount. An attention to detail, as shown in the opening moments of Cigarettes & Coffee, is also key.

So get the best actors you can, make connections with collaborators (even if it’s with a book) and go be idiotic with your friends. You never know what it might lead to.

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