When he was only a wee genius of only 17, Paul Thomas Anderson was thinking about pretty much the same thing as every other 17 year-old guy in the world: porno. But while the rest of us were trying to figure out how to score some, PTA was trying to figure out how to make some.
That didn’t come out right; I should clarify.
It was ’88 when Anderson conceived of his first real film project: a mockumentary in the style of THIS IS SPINAL TAP about an up-and-coming (pun intended) male porn star whose success is inevitably undone by his excesses. Using John Holmes as a model and the documentary about him, EXHAUSTED, as the template, Anderson created the character of Dirk Diggler and set about shooting his story, entitled, aptly, THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY.
Using a camcorder and a Steadicam borrowed from his father Ernie – a TV and radio actor most famous for playing horror host “Ghoulardi” on Cleveland television in the 60’s – PTA cast his high school buddy Michael Stein as the titular titilator, and Stein in turn introduced Anderson to his friend Eddie Dalcour, a real honest-to-goodness bodybuilder who Anderson immediately cast as Diggler’s competitor-turned-confidant Reed Rothchild. Veteran TV actor and friend of the family Robert Ridgley played impresario Jack Horner, actress Rusty Williams played actress Candy Kane, and the cast was round out by Ernie Anderson, who narrated the film.
If I had told my father I was making a movie about people who make porn when I was 17 years old, the last thing he would have done was narrated the film. Cool people raise cooler people, remember that, folks.
Demonstrating what would come to be known as his trademark thorough professionalism, Anderson worked from a shot list and demanded that his actors treat the absurd story seriously, as that was how the characters would react to their lives. Though mostly shot at his or friends’ houses, there were some scenes in a hotel, for which Anderson raised the money to book by cleaning out cages in a local pet store. And, being back in the pre-digital era, PTA had to edit the film using two VCRs. To our millennial readers, yep, that’s how an amateur filmmaker used to have to edit a film, playing the master in one machine and editing by recording on the other machine. It’s like working with a typewriter: sure, there’s an erase button, but traces of every single mistake remain in the finished product. Cherish Final Cut, kids.
The half-hour short played at the University of Southern California Film Festival to an amused response, and the bug that had bitten Paul Thomas Anderson infected him with a love of film that has translated into hours upon hours of thought-provoking enjoyment for millions upon millions of filmgoers over the last two decades. Anderson would, of course, adapt THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY into his second feature and breakout film, BOOGIE NIGHTS, replacing Stein with Mark Wahlberg, Dalcour with John C. Reilly, evolving Williams’ character into Amber Waves as portrayed by Julianne Moore, and relocating Ridgley from the character of Jack Horner – taken over by Burt Reynolds – into that of The Colonel James. Stein was given a cameo in BOOGIE NIGHTS as a stereo store customer, Williams has gone on to have a very prolific and steady career with roles in such films as THE INFORMANT, THE PERFECT STORM, and TWISTER, though she hasn’t worked with Anderson since, and Dalcour the
bodybuilder never acted again.
The biggest difference between THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY and BOOGIE NIGHTS is how they are told, the former as a mockumentary and the latter as a more conventional narrative. There are also some variations on Dirk’s homosexual encounters, and the endings are drastically opposed, but there’s far more that the films have in common, from characterization and theme down to some dialogue. But the best reason for watching THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY, all entertainment aside, is that it is fascinating to see where this epic story – which some compare to GOODFELLAS – began and how the bud of an idea by a teenager turned into the calling card of a major new cinematic talent.
There are filmmakers, and then there are born filmmakers; I don’t have to tell you which one Paul Thomas Anderson is. That’s what his work is for. And this is where it started.