Paul Thomas Anderson on what makes a movie great
Slowly, carefully, vaccinated on all fours, we return to some of the basic pleasures of ordinary life. A few nights ago my wife and I went to our local movie theater, a multiplex with giant screens and blaring sound systems. I love it all: the next attractions for the horror movies I will never see and for the spy movies I will not miss; the chattering crowd; Brobdingnagian snacks; adhesive floors. Our choice for the evening fell on “Licorice Pizza” by Paul Thomas Anderson, a film set in the San Fernando Valley in the seventies. It is about the strangeness of being young, the experience of becoming a human being and of forming oneself. The fractured narrative is wise and devious, but also winning sincerity. It’s been a long pandemic, and it was an exhilarating reminder of what joy is.
Anderson is fifty-one and has been making films since he was a teenager. He is a child of the Valley, and he never really left these suburban streets. His first feature films – “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights” – came out in his mid-twenties and since then he’s been the kind of artist whose new work is always an event. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, Melora Walters, Julianne Moore and Joaquin Phoenix are some of the seasoned actors who have appeared in his best films, including “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be blood ”,“ The master ”and“ Phantom thread ”.
Anderson rarely speaks to reporters. I was reminded of this when I had a Zoom call with him the day after watching his movie. His place was not indicated by his name but rather by “Mason & Dixon”, a sign of his admiration for the solitary novelist Thomas Pynchon. (Anderson made a film of Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.”) I spoke with Anderson for The New Yorker Radio Hour; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. He was talking about his home in the Valley. And, since he placed “Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia” and, now, “Licorice Pizza” in this territory, I started the conversation, which has been edited and condensed, asking him why the place resonates so deeply for him. .
I love it. It’s that simple: it kind of starts and ends there. I remember being a kid and thinking at one point, probably during my teenage years, that I had to get out of here. “Get out of here” being on top of the hill, not in the San Fernando Valley. Maybe it’s LA, maybe New York, maybe London, maybe Shanghai – whatever it is, I have to get out of here.
But I’m one of those people who like to get away from it all for twenty-four hours and then I start to itch and think about home. I just wanna go home. I am one of those homebody. I am comfortable here. My family is here, my friends are here. It’s a place I keep coming back to. Whatever ambition you have to spread your wings, I always find myself coming back here. After London when we were doing “Phantom Thread” – it was a dream for me to be able to work there – but when I got home I was so thrilled. The Valley is not the most beautiful place in the world, it is not the most cultivated place in the world, I understand that, but it is my home.
When I was a kid, I listened to the radio and watched television late at night, and everyone in California was making jokes about the Valley. I didn’t know what it was. What was the joke? What is the Valley in the spiritual sense and in terms of the landscape of your youth?
Funny, I wonder if Johnny Carson could have contributed to it because he always said, “Beautiful downtown Burbank!” It may not be beautiful. And there is no real downtown. . . .
I mean, what is the San Fernando Valley? It is a flat space between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Santa Monica Mountains. Its main reason for existing, at one point, was farmland. And, famous, there is the story of “Chinatown” of how water was diverted from the valley.
It is a suburb. And the suburbs always seemed to be beaten. I do not really know why. When I was first writing “Boogie Nights” as a teenager, there was a great story in my own backyard. I didn’t have to go far. I didn’t have to make things up. I could research, learn more about these people in this industry, but it was familiar to me. At one point I probably read that I should “Write down what you know”. This is a good place to start. This work is quite hard. So why do I have a hard time trying to learn something that is beyond my reach or that does not speak to me?
“Licorice Pizza” revolves around two characters. One is Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman, an incredibly charismatic teenager for his age. He’s a little actor. He started a waterbeds business and then a pinball palace. His patter, his bravado, is incredible for someone of fifteen. He falls in love with a girl, Alana Kane, played by Alana Haim. She is much older than him. She is in her mid-twenties, with a troubled life but an inner intelligence that is also magnetic. How does this take root in your experience? If you write down what you know, what is the seed of the “Licorice Pizza” story for you?
I was the second of four [children], so I had an older sister and she had older friends. She’s two, three, four years older than me. And a friend of mine had an older sister. So we just happened to fall through the cracks so that when we were fourteen, fifteen, there were girls around us – our sisters’ friends – were eighteen, ten. nine years. And they had cars! So every waking hour was spent trying to get them to lead us somewhere! And behind him, he was trying to flirt with them or hang out with them or get noticed by them in a way that was more than just an irritating little brother.
I remember having a few friendships with some of these girls that I met along the way. They were just friendships, but they were fantastic. They were fantastic just because they were just friendships, you know? Having a friendship with a slightly older woman, who wasn’t your sister, I had one foot in some version of the adult world or what started to feel adult just because of the transport they had.
Perhaps the biggest assertion of potency and age difference in the movie isn’t the erotica but the driving. At one point, Alana is not driving a car but a truck, and at one point she drives him back at full speed down a hill, into the center of town. [Gary is her terrified and thrilled passenger.] It is a great drama. Better than Grace Kelly speeding down a mountain road in the south of France with Cary Grant.
This sequence you are referring to is a catch-all for a number of episodes that were either as dangerous or slightly less dangerous. And they happened especially in Southern California because it’s such a vibrant community. We are slaves to our cars. We love them. Especially at this age your whole life has been spent buying a car in one way or another. And the kind of problem you found yourself in as a result was generally large; you look back and think, i can’t believe i made it out alive. So this sequence taps into those episodes. Back then you just think it was just fun, but with a little distance you realize it was really life or death.
We see a title card on the screen. And he announces that this production is from Ghoulardi Film Company [Anderson’s production company]. This name has an incredibly deep meaning to you and your family, and it’s rooted in your home in the San Fernando Valley.
My dad, his name is Ernie Anderson, and he was from Boston. After the war he returned and was a radio DJ in Vermont, and ended up in Cleveland, Ohio. He was on the first floor of a TV show going on there. He created and hosted one of those classic late night horror shows. And his character’s name was Ghoulardi. [The show ran on WJW on Friday nights, from 1963 to 1966, and was an influence on everyone from Drew Carey to the Cramps.] He wore a fake Van Dyke beard and sunglasses with a lens out. His job was to showcase these horror movies and give the kids a good time. Ghoulardi was an incredibly popular figure locally in Cleveland. [My father] eventually came to Southern California, to the San Fernando Valley, and worked as a voice over announcer with ABC, he did a lot of different commercials. He became the booth announcer for “The Carol Burnett Show”. But Ghoulardi still sort of followed him for anyone in Cleveland at the time. The list is surprisingly long – there were some amazing people who were kids in Ohio at the time, from Chrissie Hynde to Jim Jarmusch.