Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonny Greenwood and the Creative Partnership of the Decade

How two of today’s most important artists found each other and created three defining works of the 2010s.
Pta And Jonny
By  · Published on November 29th, 2019

This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.

Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a director interested in what it means to truly collaborate with someone. There’s Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, who loves his cast and crew so much that he lives with them and shoots in his home (“It is my dream to make a film that is true, and right, and dramatic”). There is The Master‘s Lancaster Dodd, who, in his own warped way, depends on and thrives off of the unwavering loyalty of those around him, which he finds for a time in World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Freddie: “How’d you find me?” Lancaster: “We’re tied together”).

Then there are also the more difficult men, those who refuse help and care or are reluctant to accept it. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview shuns partnership at every turn (“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people”) and of course, Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock, who violently struggles with letting the woman he loves become a part of his life and work (“She’s turning the whole bloody place upside down and she’s turning me inside out!”)

But what about Anderson himself? Is he more Woodcock or Horner? While it is fun to imagine a scenario similar to that Christopher Nolan anecdote (apparently, his children call him Woodcock when he’s being “dictatorial”), all signs point to Anderson’s complete adoration for the people he brings together to work on his films.

For one thing, like John Waters and his Dreamlanders, Anderson has slowly, over the years, built up a small cult of actors who appear in most of his films. In 2000, he, with much admiration, referred to cast members such as Philip Seymour Hoffman (who appeared in every Anderson film save one before his untimely death), John C. Reilly, and Melora Walters as his “little rep company.” A little company that has gone on, over time, to add names such as Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis.

But in so far as the last decade goes, Anderson has had one key, steady collaborator who has left an indelible mark on all of his films: Jonny Greenwood. While best known as the lead guitarist of the British band Radiohead, Greenwood is also an incredibly accomplished composer, having written music for the BBC Concert Orchestra and the London Contemporary Orchestra (and, of course, his arrangements are featured on many Radiohead tracks).

Greenwood has scored every PTA flick since There Will Be Blood in 2007, marking three feature film collaborations this decade with 2012’s The Master, 2014’s Inherent Vice, and 2017’s Phantom Thread, all films that have been widely lauded and critically acclaimed both upon and since release.

This is not to mention the many other projects the two have worked on together in some capacity throughout this time, such as the several Anderson-directed Radiohead music videos (Daydreaming, Present Tense, and The Numbers), and even a 2015 documentary titled Junun, about the making of the album of the same name, itself a collaboration between Greenwood and musicians Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express.

According to Anderson, the origins of this partnership can actually be traced back to October 2002 when he’d started screening his new film Punch-Drunk Love in LA. Radiohead was in town recording their album “Hail To the Thief,” when, Anderson says, “They called up, and they wanted to come and watch the movie, and I was like ‘Oooh… sure!’”

They went, they liked what they saw, and Anderson and Greenwood met for the first time. As Anderson told the New York Times in 2012, once they’d become acquainted, he’d already starting dreaming of future collaboration, “I knew there were arrangements that [Greenwood] had done within those Radiohead songs that obviously said he could do more than just play guitar in a band. And I thought, if the opportunity arises, I bet he could do something interesting on a film score. I was just sort of waiting for the opportunity.”

That opportunity came about around five years later when Anderson went to work on There Will Be Blood. He shot the film and brought Greenwood in during the editing stages. He had already used a track that Greenwood had previously written called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” as inspiration during filming. And that track actually ended up opening the film, as well.

As Anderson described it in a 2007 conversation at the 92nd Street Y, the process went like this: after sending Greenwood several short scenes in exchange for short clips of music (all grounded in the overwhelming dread of “Popcorn”), they eventually showed Greenwood a very rough cut of almost the entire film, and then he went away for a few weeks. “He said, ‘Okay, I’ll be back,’ and I didn’t really know what he was up to,” Anderson divulged.

When Greenwood returned, it was with more than two full hours of music in tow, and Anderson, who had been hoping for around 40 minutes, was ecstatic. “All I knew was the titles,” the filmmaker shared in 2007. “I just saw this list of titles of things that he’d come up with, and I was just dying to get my hands on all those cues. Things like ‘Prospectors Arrive.’ I was like… I wanna hear ‘Prospectors Arrive!’ There was one called ‘Open Spaces.’ I said, ‘Open Spaces’? I wanna hear ‘Open Spaces.’ What does ‘Open Spaces’ sound like?” And they went from there, trimming it down and perfecting it based on Anderson’s needs.

The pair have been working together increasingly closely ever since. What is the key to this kind of intense, long-term artistic collaboration? If you ask Anderson, he speaks of Greenwood lovingly, telling Stereogum in 2018 that “like any good long-term relationship, I’d say mutual respect and date nights.” Greenwood is somewhat on the same page: “He has faith in me, and he likes making fun of me. I think they’re the two prongs of the perfect relationship, really.”

Five years later, the duo went to work on The Master, their first foray of the 2010s.

Unlike with There Will Be Blood, which had only made use of some classical music outside of Greenwood’s compositions, Anderson wanted a mix of score and popular music of the early ’50s, such as Jo Stafford’s “No Other Love” and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan.” Here, Greenwood’s compositions are more muted than the shrieking strings of There Will Be Blood, exemplifying the ebb and flow of this partnership; his scores can overpower and almost act as sound-effects when necessary, but they can also take a backseat (albeit, a haunting one) when appropriate.

Anderson told the New York Times in 2012 that when he first showed Greenwood the dialogue-free opening 12 minutes of There Will Be Blood, “He was jumping up and down, saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do it that way,’” as in leave it completely silent. For Greenwood, it’s not about showing off or getting his work into popular films but about what works best for the project. This couples well with Anderson, who loves to sing his praises (“That’s kind of him in a nutshell: ‘No, no. I really can’t. I don’t know how to do this.’ And then you get this huge platter of stuff.”) and who ultimately overruled Greenwood here. There is indeed music in those first 12-minutes.

Next, straying furthest from the music of There Will Be Blood is Inherent Vice. By the time they’d hit their third project together, as Anderson told The Guardian in 2014, working with Greenwood had actually become essential to his process, “It’s now getting to the spot in my relationship with Jonny when I can maybe mention a thing or two but really just leave him to his own devices,” the filmmaker said. “He’s always the first viewer, too.”

Inherent Vice‘s ’70s era songs are integral to the film, and according to Anderson, he and Greenwood had much debate before deciding what to include: “We didn’t want to be obvious with the ’70s music. We chose what we thought would work, but there’s always all kinds of internal gymnastics over whether we’ve earned the right to use stuff.” They ended up going with a few Neil Young songs, some Sam Cooke, and, of course, Can.

The music of Inherent Vice is probably best exemplified by this scene, which seamlessly transitions from the ominous romanticism of Greenwood’s “Shasta” into Can’s “Vitamin C”:

Greenwood’s three Shasta tracks (they escalate to “Shasta Fay” then “Shasta Fay Hepworth”) are a perfect example of the composer’s investment in the storytelling at hand; listening to them in sequence makes you feel like you’re investigating the broken pieces of Doc and Shasta’s romance all over again. The other highlight from Greenwood’s score here is definitely “Adrian Prussia” in all its ’70s paranoia perfection; it plays during an excellent moment when Martin Short delivers a perfect line (“It is not groovy to be insane.”).

Next came 2017, when Anderson and Greenwood gifted us with the magnum opus of their working relationship: Phantom Thread and its music. Clearly the result of a decades-long collaboration, in which shades of all their previous work can be felt, the Phantom Thread score achieves something that feels once in a lifetime. For this film, Anderson was in touch with Greenwood as soon as he had a script, and,  according to a 2018 NPR interview with Greenwood, the filmmaker had two specific requests: “He kept asking for more and more romance, and ‘give me more strings.’ He even used the phrase ‘big-ass strings.’”

In order not to forget this very technical request, Greenwood says he “put that in Italian and wrote it at the start of every score.” In a 2018 New York Times interview with Greenwood, he recalls there being a lot of back and forth at first, because everything he was bringing his director was too dark. It was romantic, but with hints of something sinister — this is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, after all. “The first two pieces I sent him, on the piano, he said that it sounds like you are telling the story already, that you’re giving away what’s going to happen.”

Of course, Greenwood eventually delivered, especially on the intoxicating “House of Woodcock,” which is used as a motif throughout the film, perhaps most notably when it introduces us to Reynolds and his home, which doubles as his place of business. “The principal thing was to make sure the emotion was sincere.” Greenwood explained, “I was so scared of it being a pastiche.”

One of the most stunning Greenwood compositions here, though, is “Never Cursed,” which plays over the scene in which Reynolds is ill in bed and has a hallucination that his mother is in the room with him. It’s when he delivers some of the film’s most affecting lines (“Are you here? Are you always here? […] I hear your voice say my name when I dream and when I wake up there are tears streaming down my face.”).

Of “Never Cursed,” Greenwood reflected on his decision to commit to such incredibly high notes. “That was written around the sound of the viola playing in its highest register,” he said, “and there’s just something about the sound of the viola hitting those high notes. You can hear the player, who’s amazing, struggling slightly, and that’s a really nice human emotion to hear in music.” It makes for one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in Anderson’s entire filmography and is a perfect example of his and Greenwood’s skills coming together in perfect harmony,

Reflecting on Phantom Thread, Anderson has made it clear how integral Greenwood was to the process across production, saying during a Q&A, “You get good days and you get bad days on a film set. Everybody that works on the movie, they come to the editing room and they hear Jonny’s music and they’re like, ‘Oh, fuck, thank God for Jonny Greenwood.” Phantom Thread‘s score, fortunately, was also the first of Greenwood’s to get a much deserved Oscar nomination (There Will Be Blood and The Master were disqualified due to a technicality: they both made use of work Greenwood had created prior to each project).

When looking back on this decade in cinema, these three films and their scores standout like glorious landmarks, and it seems more than fair to label the Anderson-Greenwood team among the most important creative partnerships of the 2010s. Based solely on how much they seem to love working together — Anderson has said, “It’s one of the great joys of my life, collaborating with him” — hopefully, we will see Greenwood score Anderson’s just-announced next project. Though, I propose we all set our sights higher than that and pray we get another whole decade of work from the two of them.

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Enjoys watching sunrises and sunsets, but prefers watching the Richard Linklater trilogy.