“Remember the power is yours. The power is in the writer.” Paul Thomas Anderson
In the second of a two part series, Paul discusses the problem with writer's block in reverse, writing for Tom Cruise, and his Oscar-nominated film Magnolia.
By Kristine McKenna and David Konow.
By late 1998, Anderson had finished his screenplay for Magnolia. Throughout the making of the film, Magnolia’s plot and characters had been kept a closely guarded secret. And Anderson was granted final cut of Magnolia, which guaranteed his innovative screenplay would make a smooth transition to the screen.
Like Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, Magnolia follows a group of haunted lives intersecting with one another, this time during a twenty-four-hour period in the Valley. And like those films, again Anderson’s and unique characters fuelled great performances, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Tom Cruise.
Magnolia takes plenty of risks, including a spectacular freak-of-nature climax that proves once and for all, it’s not easy being green. Magnolia is a complicated, unique, and often painful movie that’s both uplifting and haunting. Creative Screenwriting spoke to Paul Thomas Anderson, and found him as unique and thoughtful as his films.
When working on Magnolia, how were you able to avoid the hoopla of Boogie Nights and concentrate on writing another movie?
You know, it’s actually pretty easy for about three hours of the day and those are the three hours of the day that I’m writing. You’re really only self-conscious or thinking about it when you’re not writing. My general work pattern is that I wake up very early in the morning and I write.
I can really only write for three or four hours before I’m either tired or I’ve smoked too much. And that’s when you start getting self-conscious and you start thinking, “Jeez, there’s all these people paying attention to me and what I’m going to do next.” I’m just thankful that it’s not when I’m writing, because it’s not affecting it. You know how it is: when you’re alone in your room and it’s you and your computer, you’re truly not thinking of anything else. In the off-hours, I was probably self-conscious, but in the on-hours I wasn’t.
Did you ever feel any pressure to follow up Boogie Nights?
Well, I might have. The truth of the matter is when I sat down to write Magnolia, I truly sat down to write something very small, very quick, very intimate, and something I could make very cheaply. Boogie Nights was this massive, two-and-a half-hour epic. And I thought, “You know what? I wanna bury my head in the sand and just make a little small movie.”
So, in other words, I might have been reacting to the size of Boogie Nights. But obviously, no hoopla informed it, otherwise I wouldn’t have made a three-hour movie that’s as big and long as it is. I truly just ended up writing from my gut and my gut took me to writing Magnolia as it is, as opposed to a smaller version of it.
How long did it take to put Magnolia together? When did you first start writing?
On Boogie Nights we had an incredibly long editing period because I was going through a lot of MPAA negotiations regarding the rating, trying to get an R rating. I had a lot of free time to think and tinker with the editing on Boogie Nights, and I started formulating some of the thoughts that were Magnolia.
Now what happened was, as I came closer to the finishing of Boogie Nights, that’s when I started to write stuff down. While I was mixing Boogie Nights, I started jotting ideas down. Once the movie was off and out into the theaters, I was able to jump right into writing. That was November 1997.
Why do you feel you write with such a big scope?
I think if I have a problem as a writer it’s writer’s block in reverse, which can be just as detrimental as not knowing what to write. I think I have so much shit in my brain that sometimes I just kind of vomit a lot of it out.
Boogie Nights is a three-hour movie, but believe me, I had enough pages to make an eight-hour movie. It’s just about paring it down to where I think it’s right. It’s funny because the movie that helped me make a mark, Boogie Nights, was long, and then this movie’s long. But my first movie was an hour and forty minutes, a regular movie length. So it’s not as if I’m completely interested in being the “epic guy” each time.
I might sit down with a master plan and want to write a ninety-minute movie. But if it ends up being 200 pages, at a certain point, I’ve just got to decipher whether I’m being lazy or whether my gut’s truly taking me to a proper place.
How did you avoid repeating yourself?
I’m not exactly sure that I haven’t. Maybe I’ve just dressed the same thing up in different clothes, you know what I mean? I was not really able to notice a pattern in my work until I made three movies. Now I’m starting to decipher that they all have something to do with surrogate families and family connections. I’m only noticing this probably because people say it about my stuff. I think a lot of things interest me, so I’m prone to repeat myself because there’s a million different styles of clothes that I like.
In Magnolia you did a really good job of going back and forth between stories without confusing the viewer or losing momentum. Are you able to write a story all the way through like that?
What I did on this was, at certain points, if I felt lost or confused with any of these characters’ stories, I would break it out and string it end to end chronologically instead of its being interrupted by another person’s story, just to see how that was working as a movie of its own. Like the Jason Robards/Phil Hoffman story, I plucked that out on its own just to make sure that it was going well.
I think the writer in me loves to branch off to other characters, but it’s the director in me that gets excited in terms of working on transitions and how to successfully pull it off. So I think I end up writing for myself as a director when I go to places like that.
How did you come up with Tom Cruise’s character Frank T.J. Mackey?
About three years ago, a friend of mine was teaching a class on audio-recording engineering. He had two students in the class that he thought were particularly interesting. One afternoon he was going to lunch and he noticed these two guys talking in the recording studio. There was an open mike out there, and he recorded a DAT of these two guys talking.
So a couple of years after that, he found this unlabeled DAT and what he heard blew his mind. He played it for me and essentially what happened was you heard these two guys talking about women and about how you’ve got to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” They started talking all this trash and ultimately what we decided was they were quoting this guy named Ross.
Well if these guys were talking this ridiculously, who was Ross? What we deciphered was, there’s this guy Ross Jeffries who was teaching this new version of the Eric Weber course, “How to Pick Up Women,” but this guy had a whole new slant on it which had to do with hypnotism and all these subliminal language techniques. Then after researching him, it led me to four or five other guys like him, and so I just went hogwild in the arena of this guy, trying to decipher, “Why is anyone like this?”
How did Tom Cruise become aware of the role and did you write it for any actor in particular?
I wrote it for him. He had called me up when Boogie Nights came up. He was making Eyes Wide Shut, and his agents called me to ask if I was interested in meeting him. He was a big fan of Boogie Nights, and I said absolutely.
Coincidentally, I happened to be going to London to promote Boogie Nights. So I went and met Tom and told him I was about to sit down and write my next movie. I was just sort of formulating the character and Tom said, “Listen, anything you do I would love to take a look and be involved.” I said, “Okay, let me call you in about eight months when I’m done writing.”
I talked to him once or twice over the course of eight months and I said, “When you’re done shooting that movie, I’m going to be done. I’m going to give this to you and I think you’re gonna have a lot of fun.” So I finished writing it, handed it to him, and it was literally like one of those Hollywood stories. We got together the next day, talked about it, and we were off.
How happy were you with his performance?
I am completely enamored with his performance. I must admit to writing a very show-offy role, and Tom kinda knew that. I told him, “You get to do everything in this. You do the banquet hall seminar where you get to be onstage and you get to do the ‘going to see Dad’ bedside scene. You really get to run the gamut here.”
I think he was really excited by that, and I think he just went with it. There was not a moment where he was scared, there wasn’t a moment where he questioned what I asked of him. If anything, he brought too much to the table and I would say, “No, you can’t use a whip in this scene!” I would just have to calm him down and remind him to keep it simple sometimes. That was really the only direction I gave him. He really was spot-on with how to do it.
In the scene where Mackey sees his father before he passes away, in the screenplay it seems like they came to some sort of reconciliation. But in the film, we don’t know if they reconciled or not.
There are very, very, very few times as a writer where I will write a scene and leave it to what happens. That was one scene where I just kind of underwrote it intentionally. I just said, “Listen. The most important thing is that this character goes to see his father.”
I felt when he decided to see his father, he should walk in very quickly, very aggressively, with a real hard on to get back at his dad. And whatever happened after that was really, truly up to Tom. It’s one of those moments that you do leave for an actor. It’s a very scary, dangerous thing to do, and generally I don’t do it because you should have a plan. But it was one of those things where I decided the best way to do this is probably leave room for whatever happens and whatever Tom can emotionally bring to the table. I said, “Listen, you can be as angry as you wanna be, you can be as sad as you can get. Let’s start doing it and let’s see what happens.”
The rain of frogs at the end of the film was great. Several scenes in Magnolia refer to the book of Exodus in which there was a plague of frogs after Moses’s people weren’t allowed into the promised land. Was the rain of frogs a natural reaction to the turmoil that built up in the film?
Well, that’s certainly an element. There’s certainly a Biblical reference there, but I’d be a liar if I said to you it was written initially as a Biblical reference. I truthfully didn’t even know it was in the Bible when I first wrote the sequence.
I had read about a rain of frogs through the works of Charles Fort, who’s a wonderful writer. He was the person who coined the term UFO, who wrote about odd phenomena. So when I read about the rain of frogs, I was going through a weird, personal time.
I don’t want to get too personal, but maybe there are certain moments in your life when things are so fucked up and so confused that someone can say to you, “It’s raining frogs,” and that makes sense. That somehow makes sense as a warning; that somehow makes sense as a sign. I started to understand why people turn to religion in times of trouble, and maybe my form of finding religion was reading about rains of frogs and realizing that makes sense to me somehow.
And then of course to discover it in the Bible and the reference that it makes there just sort of verifies it, like, “Hey, I guess I’m on the right track.”
Do you want everyone who sees Magnolia to have to interpret the scene in their own way and think what it could mean to them?
Absolutely. I’m normally not a big fan of that; I generally like to make my points. But there are some times where if you pull it off properly, you can put something on the plate of the viewer and go, “You know what? However you want to decipher this, you can.” And there absolutely is no wrong way.
If you want to reference the Bible, that’s good; if you want to link it to something else you can. There’s a notion that you can judge a society’s existence by the health of its frogs. There’s something about a frog’s health; the color of its skin, the texture, the wetness on its back, that’s an indication of how we’re treating ourselves as a society. So when you look around and see that all the frogs are dying or deformed, it’s sort of a warning sign about how we’re treating ourselves.
The ironic thing is as I was thinking this up, I met with Phillip Baker Hall, who’s an actor I work with over and over again, and he asked, “What’s the next one about?” And I said, “Well, I can’t really describe much to you Phillip, but there’s this one sequence in the film where it starts to rain frogs.” He was looking at me and just nodding his head.
Then I explained the history of frog rain, because it really does happen, it’s something that has happened many times. Then he said, “I have an interesting story. Just after the war, I was in Switzerland and I was in a rain of frogs.” I said, “What?”
Phillip had been driving on a mountain pass in Switzerland and he said for about fifteen minutes it rained frogs. It was really foggy and the mountain road was covered in ice. The frogs falling was not the thing that freaked him out. What freaked him out was that his car could not get any traction and he was afraid he was gonna fall off the mountain! I just thought right then and there I gotta go through with this sequence.
Magnolia and Boogie Nights have a lot of great songs in their soundtracks. Do you write to music?
Absolutely. Even more with this one than ever before. This one was very specifically written to Aimee Mann’s songs. She’s a good friend of mine, she’s a wonderful singer and songwriter. In addition to a lot of great songs that have been released, I was privy to a lot of demo stuff she was working on at the time. So I had those to work off of. In a way, I sat down to adapt one of her songs.
There’s a song called “Deathly” that she wrote and the very first line of the song is “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again?” Melora Walters says that in the movie. That sort of notion of being unlovable or being so fucked up you can’t understand how anyone could love you back was really important and really beautiful to me. It kind of made sense to me at that time in my life. I probably owe Aimee a ton of money for the inspiration she was to this movie.
You have final cut on Magnolia, and you’re certainly in an enviable position as a writer and director. A lot of people reading this could be on the verge of a break as a writer and are about to face the den of wolves that’s known as development hell. Do you have any suggestions or advice on how writers can empower themselves more?
Right off the bat, I want to say that my motto is: remember the power is yours. The power is in the writer.
It seems that the writer has been so neutered lately that he’s forgotten that the buck starts and stops with him. I think that’s how I got to direct my first movie. Basically it was a bribery situation; it was, “I know that you like this script, but there’s no one else who’s going to direct it, and I own it.”
I think to get paid for a script before you write it is just certain death, because you’re basically giving ownership to someone else. I think what most writers have to remember is they can not only have power of authorship, but if they really want to, they can have power of ownership. There’s a very big difference.
Ultimately, it is my choice about who I give my script to. Anyone who is writing alone in their room, that is their material, that is their product, their copyright; they own that. Don’t give up easy: never fuck on the first date.
However, I think I’ve only come to learn a lot of lessons because I got incredibly fucked. I’d made my first movie with a company I’d never met. I never shook hands with anyone at Rysher Entertainment, and it was the biggest regret of my life, because there was that small period of time where I had my first movie taken away from me.
Ultimately I got it back, and what’s out in the world is my version, but I went through a movie being taken away from me, a movie being recut behind my back. I went through all of that, and it created a sort of paranoia and guardedness in me that I’m glad I have, because that will never, ever happen to me again. But I was so fuckin’ anxious to get my movie made, I would have gone anywhere. So it’s hard to say.
Is it good advice to tell someone to hold out? Well, I sure wouldn’t have taken that advice when I was twenty-three years old and I could get my movie made. You’re gonna go where you can go, but if you can just remember that your brain is yours and they can’t own it, then it’s a really healthy thing.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about this movie business in the last two years?
I unfortunately learned that writing and directing a good movie is only fifty percent of my job, and that the other fifty percent is dealing with the people who finance it and get the movie seen. Because however good your movie is, it doesn’t mean shit if nobody sees it. It’s very odd, but the movie business is full of people who don’t love movies, and the more people I meet in this industry the more I want to run away.
How is having a hit movie different than you’d anticipated it would be?
I still feel like I don’t know the secret frat boy handshake. I was recently at Carrie Fisher’s birthday party, and they were all there—Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Warren Beatty, you name it. And sure, some people knew who I was and complimented me on the film, but I still felt like I wasn’t a member of the club.
Do movies shape the culture or merely reflect it as it already exists?
I think they shape the culture—and that, of course, means they have a responsibility to the culture. As a filmmaker, how much I feel the weight of that responsibility changes from one day to the next. If you feel it too heavily you’re probably becoming pretentious; if you don’t feel it at all you’re probably a jerk.
This article was first published in Creative Screenwriting Volume 7, #1, 2000.
Featured image by Wilson Web.
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