Paul Thomas Anderson: an introduction

By Jason Henderson
May 27, 2004

The work of director Paul Thomas Anderson is truly distinct. It captures human nature in its purist form and shows the audience what drives people to do what they do. Using reoccurring themes of redemption and forgiveness, the stories he tells can be identified with on the most basic level. At times the situations become disturbing and difficult to follow, but using human characteristics as the root of his storytelling has led Anderson to become one of the most sought-after directors in the film industry today. While keeping the consideration of his audience and his actors on the top of his list, this brilliant young director has the proven talent that has surpassed what many established in the industry could only hope for.

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Paul Thomas Anderson was born Jan. 1, 1970, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. His father, Ernie Anderson, was a well-known voiceover actor and had a television show in the Cleveland, Ohio, area during the early 1960s. Playing the character of Ghoulardi, he hosted B-movies and horror flicks on public television, and eventually became a local star. After the show was cancelled, he moved his family to the West Coast, where Paul was born into a family of two brothers and four sisters.

School had always been an area in which Anderson lacked ambition, and by the sixth grade, he was expelled from school due to bad grades and constant troublemaking. When he was a teenager, he attended a college prep school and afterward was enrolled in Emerson College and majored in English. Again, his schooling didn’t last long, and he quit after his freshman year. Deciding that he would pursue film school, he was accepted into the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. However, student life lasted two days. “I never liked the idea of film school. It’s a waste of time and money,” Anderson said. “I felt elitist in college because people were just learning about movies that I had seen when I was 12 years old.” Feeling that he was out of place, he decided that working in the business was the next logical step.

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Anderson became a production assistant on various television movies, videos and game shows. During his stint as a PA, Anderson was beginning to develop a short script, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” with all the necessary film equipment borrowed from friends. “I’d worked as a PA for a long time, so I had a lot of access to people and camera packages, and I had some money and my girlfriend’s credit cards. When I came up with the short, ‘Cigarettes and Coffee,’ essentially it was kind of an all or nothing situation.” His confidence in the short proved to be correct, and it was submitted and screened at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. Praised by audiences, Anderson was invited into the Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab as a result. In addition to his short, he had written a feature-length version of the same story, which would become the starting point of his career as a director. When he was just 24, he had a deal to direct his first feature-length picture.

“Hard Eight,” as it would come to be titled, was released almost two years later after distribution problems and disagreements with the studio. The film showed a maturity that took critics by surprise, considering Anderson’s youth and lack of experience. The story revolves around Sydney, a man who takes a young apprentice under his wing. Even though we are not sure why he has done so, by the end there is such a buildup that the payoff seems to make complete sense.

The film received mixed reviews, with many critics saying there is an anticlimax and that the film falls short. Those who praised the picture included Roger Ebert, who explained why many considered it a slow movie: “By this point in the film, its writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has us so hooked that we’re watching for the sheer pleasure of the dialogue and the acting. Anderson has a good ear. Movies like ‘Hard Eight’ remind me of what original, compelling characters the movies can sometimes give us. Like David Mamet’s ‘House of Games’ or Mike Figgis’ ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ or the documentary ‘Crumb,’ they pay attention to the people who inhabit city nights according to their own rules, who have learned from experience and don’t like to make the same mistake twice. At one point, when Clementine (the female lead) asks him a question, Sydney says, ‘You shouldn’t ask a question like that unless you know the answer.’ It's not so much what he says as how he says it.”

Anderson had already begun to establish his signature style. Concentrating on dialogue over action, the scenes were able to capture how real people speak to each other without losing the original intention of the scene. The cast included Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, both of whom were also working on other roles at the time. After a bitter two-year struggle over the release of the film, it finally hit theatres at the beginning of 1997. That same year would see another release from Anderson.

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Complimenting his feature debut was the highly controversial and critically acclaimed epic “Boogie Nights.” The film follows an extended family of filmmakers who struggle to redefine and revolutionize the adult entertainment industry. Led by an idealistic producer (Burt Reynolds) who dreams of elevating his craft to an art form, this film takes a behind-the-scenes journey into the turbulent lives of those who rise and fall in such a misunderstood world. Anderson had written and shot a half-hour version of the film on home video when he was 17 and was privileged enough to return to it 10 years later to complete a feature-length version. The story, which spans from 1977 until 1983, was originally three hours but was trimmed down to 2:40 for its release near the end of 1997.

Instead of using sex to exploit the film, “Boogie Nights” turns that microcosm of American life into a fascinating story that reflects the highs and lows of the swinging ’70s and burnt-out ’80s. When approached in this manner, the participants become more humanized in an industry that rarely sees any respect or dignity. “There are a lot of similarities between gangster movies and this movie,” Anderson said. “In pictures like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Goodfellas,’ the protagonists are murderers, but we love them and somehow associate with them because they are presented as human beings. It’s the same scenario here. These people make pornography, which is a very weird and nasty business, but there’s still something very human and likeable about them.”

The response to Anderson’s sophomore effort was sensational. Critics called him the next Martin Scorsese, using camera moves and dramatic effects with characters that were able to bring the entire story together in one piece. Anderson’s intention for the movie was to focus on the moral and social structure of a group of pornographers. In keeping with the structure of “Hard Eight,” Anderson makes the primary focus the actors themselves, driving the story through dialogue rather than plot. A movie about pornography that only has two sex scenes translates into what Anderson was aiming for during production: “I can see something in pornography that can be incredibly funny, either in a campy way or an honest and dark way. But then it can become sad and depressing. I love it and support it as much as it saddens and disgusts me. Despite its licentious topic, the film concentrates its nudity into only a few sequences.”

Since Anderson was only 10 by the time the ’80s had rolled around, many critics were quick to judge him on a topic that he would have been too young to remember. “I grew up in the ’80s. I lived 10 years of my life being told that if you have sex, you’re going to die, you know what I mean? And I’m sick of that and I don’t wanna live that way, so I’m looking back on the ’70s and saying, what was happening there and what can I learn from that?” Anderson said.

“Boogie Nights” was released in October 1997 and had made over $20 million by the end of its theatrical run. Even though $20 million seemed a bit short by conventional Hollywood standards, it had given Anderson the recognition he had long deserved. Not long after his run with “Boogie Nights,” he set his sights on creating his third, and possibly most popular, film to date. In the first week of 2000, “Magnolia” was released nationwide. Within no time, Anderson again proved that he had the talent to surpass his previous work.

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“Magnolia” presents a microcosm of American society through nine intertwined stories that take place on one rainy day in Southern California, during which all kinds of dramatic situations are unleashed. Parents and children, anger and forgiveness, television and real life, longing and loss, chance and volition, even sunshine and storm find themselves in collision on this one day that builds through a series of accidents to an unexpected phenomenon. Anderson was again applying his signature style to his work by concentrating on the dialogue over the plot and giving his characters a realistic aspect that audiences could identify with.

At the center of the “Magnolia” maze of interconnections is Earl Partridge, a dying man who is coming to terms with the regrets of his life in his final moments. Partridge is played by the late Jason Robards, who had never worked with Anderson before. Robards was struck by the material’s reality: “I was taken aback by the script because it is so honest about the human condition, about estrangement and relationships with parents and even death,” he says. “It had a novelistic approach that I found fascinating. There were no star parts. Every character was equal. It was just a slice of the life we live nowadays.”

The film is a creative frenzy of a movie, highlighting the intensely spiritual struggles of its characters caught in contemporary emotional conflicts. It hops from character to character, tying them together in a web of loneliness, rage and guilt that builds to a climax, and reality ultimately yields confession, grace and forgiveness. It’s a movie that holds the depths and heights of humanity in perfect balance with each other.

The film sees relatedness in people, not so much in blood relationships, but by their spiritual and emotional struggles. All of the characters begin the movie in crisis, and the drama rises and falls in a pattern, emphasizing their common humanity. And most of the characters’ lives revolve around the television, which both empowers and oppresses them. Anderson’s flashy visual style is at times fast and furious (such as in the brilliant opening sequence depicting some urban legends) and at other times is fluid and graceful (towards the third act). Grounded in a world of cluttered apartments, professional offices, darkened bedrooms, TV back stages and dilapidated streets, the sets provide a sense of realism that reinforce the raw emotions exhibited by their inhabitants.

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After a brief period of inactivity, both critics and fans alike were anxious to know how and when Anderson would return. Giving only hints and tidbits of information to various media sources beforehand, Anderson’s fourth feature, “Punch Drunk Love,” premiered in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 11, 2002. After Anderson’s previous two films, both of which exceeded two and a half hours, “PDL” was trimmed down to a slim one and a half. But rather than concentrating on more dramatic writing and performance, Anderson shifted genres to the romantic comedy.

Unlike his other films, “PDL” was not an ensemble piece but a starring vehicle for Adam Sandler. Many people were turned off by the idea of the man at the helm of “Magnolia” directing a film with the star of “Little Nicky,” even if Sandler was teamed up with a few Anderson regulars in supporting roles. Yet “PDL” blew away critics and audiences alike by showcasing a much more serious and respected actor in Sandler. The film received enough praise that Anderson went on to receive the award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Compared to the likes of Robert Altman and having been called the next Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson has taken the world of cinema by storm. In less than a decade, Anderson has proved to critics and fans alike that he has the ability to create stories that ring true of their subject matter, despite their subject matter. From 1994 through 2002, Anderson climbed the ranks from an unknown production assistant to a powerhouse director and has been labeled “wunderkind” and “genius.” With a relatively short career thus far, Anderson’s work has earned him a respect that is rarely seen in contemporary Hollywood.

Jason lives and works in Los Angeles.

Work cited:
Ebert, Roger. “Current Reviews – Hard Eight.” Chicago (1997)

Time Magazine, 1997. As posted on

Braun, Liz. “Boogie Nights: Sex, Drugs, and Disco.” Jam Movie (1997)

Stevens, Chuck. “Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson” Magnolia: The Shooting Script. (2000)

Geracimos, Ann. “Jason Robards brings patience, dedication to his craft, and the awards cometh.” Washington Times. (1999)

Related link: Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography @ IMDb