Paul Thomas Anderson isn't only one of the most talented film directors alive but also apparently one of the most chilled out. He's the mastermind behind Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master—all heavy, complex films in their own right—but his sets have been described as relaxed to the point of chaotic. In person—unshaven, grinning, and smoking out of the hotel window—he puts me totally and utterly at ease.
His new film, Inherent Vice, hits cinemas later this month, telling the story of Doc Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a stoner private investigator on a mysterious kidnapping case in 1970s California. From the very first scene, when a slow stream of weed smoke drifts out of Phoenix's mouth, you're bundled along on a heady and convoluted adventure, encountering neo-Nazi bikers, Black Panthers, and murderous loan sharks, all in a climate of post-Manson-murder paranoia.
I talked to Paul Thomas Anderson about the movie, its music, and some of the films that inspire him as a director.
VICE: So, first, what does Inherent Vice mean?
Paul Thomas Anderson: It's everything you can't avoid. You know: Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters. There are these built-in defects in everything—particularly in human beings, I suppose.
You've told us about why you decided to adapt Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name. It's a pretty thick plot. Was it ever a concern that Inherent Vice might completely confuse your audience, as opposed to confusing them a little bit, which seems to be Pynchon's intention?
There are some people who are much smarter than I am, and they can watch it and feel like they just get it. That's shocking to me because I'm still trying to catch up with all the information. I think it can be frustrating. We've got to try to find a way to try to get people to come and see the movie and just go with the flow and the rhythm and not try to think that, if they miss some crucial piece, that they're not going to get it.
It's about the ride.
Right. I think it's good to think of the film as, like, that moment when you wake up in the morning and you've been drinking the night before, but for a fraction of a second you're completely fine, and then you suddenly remember and think, Wait a minute, what did I do last night? And then you're hungover. Have you ever had that?
Yeah, although sometimes it lasts a few hours. The film itself was intoxicating in that way, though. I felt drunk from the second that Can song came on at the beginning. Did you choose that?
I did choose that song. Who's not obsessed with Can? I don't know anybody who isn't. That was a good way of starting the movie with a little bit of excitement and energy, and there's a really groovy paranoia to it and an engine to it. It was good to get the movie started that way. Jonny [Greenwood, of Radiohead, who soundtracked the film] is obsessed with them, too, and has been for a while.
And Neil Young. What do you think his music brings to the film?
I listen to Neil Young all the time anyway, but I really put it on double play when I was writing and making the movie. It does a few things—it adds a sweet melancholy to it. It helps people feel a little safe when they hear Neil Young; it kind of brings you back to shore. It's familiar. We tried to make Doc look like Neil Young even; he's got that kind of 1970s look with the chops and the fucking hair and the hat and the army jacket. I mean, it's all Neil Young wardrobe—like, straight up lifted from Neil Young.
A bit grizzly. Joaquin Phoenix really suits that look, but I heard you were going to cast Robert Downey Jr. first?
That was something that was reported… We were talking about doing a movie together, or just working together, and it was one possibility that kind of got picked up by the press. It's that weird thing—like, it was never super serious at all. But he wouldn't have been right. He can do anything, but I think it was better to have Joaquin.
What about Katherine Waterson, who plays one of the female leads? What else had you seen her in?
I saw her in this movie The Babysitter. It's a movie about these girls who are babysitters but who are also running a call-girl agency. Maybe that premise sounds a bit horse shit, but it really is not—it's a really interesting film. You should check it out. She's great in it.
You tend to work with an ensemble cast, like in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and nowInherent Vice. There are a lot of big names. How does that affect the way you work?
Yeah, Magnolia was like that, but at the time—well, Tom Cruise was a big star obviously, but we'd just come from making Boogie Nights, so it was a lot of the same people from that, and there were a lot of people who became quite famous from making Boogie Nights.
Inherent Vice was great because people would just come in for, like, two or three days. Nobody had that much to do except Joaquin. Joaquin was there for everything. Katherine had a lot to do, too. It's great to work with stars. You'll know the people who have bad reputations are—who to stay away from. You just try not to work with those people.
And then, clearly, you work with those same people again if it works well? Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Joaquin Phoenix?
What kind of movies inspired you as a filmmaker?
Repo Man, Something Wild, Dr. Strangelove, This IsSpinal Tap… too many. There's probably nothing that hasn't been said about Spinal Tap already, and perhaps it's one of those things—it's so quoted, people know it so well, but you can still go back to it and you won't be tired of it. It's so fucking funny.
I remember I was in Westwood, California with my brother when the posters for that came out. They were just these black posters that said "This is Spinal Tap" in this heavy metal font. No one knew what it was, but I'd figured it out because the night before I was watching The David Letterman Show and I saw a clip from it and I figured, "This is not a film about a heavy metal band—this is a gag." And so I took my brother.
There were these other guys in the audience who were complete heavy metal heads who I think had come to see a movie about a heavy metal band that they'd never heard of. They weren't really laughing, but my brother and I were in hysterics. We knew we'd seen the movie that we were going to see over and over and over again.
There seems to be that gag element to Inherent Vice as well, like, how seriously should you take it? Are you always meant to know what's going on?
2001: A Space Odyssey makes my head spin in the same way. Every time I see it I don't understand what's going on or what the movie's about, and then there's this kind of flash; for like three or four frames I'll get this kind of epiphany about what it's all about, and it's fleeting—it'll just sort of whisk away. I couldn't tell you what that movie's about even if I tried right now. But when watching it, when I'm immersed in it, it's an enjoyable experience and that's a good feeling.
So you're a Kubrick fan. Dr. Strangelove—I haven't seen it, but it's about the Cold War, right? There are lots of side notes about communism in Inherent Vice. Is that something you played upon deliberately?
Yeah, having fun with the absurdity of male macho behavior, you know, guys in war rooms arguing with each other, Russians acting like children, Americans acting like adults who think they know better than the children. It's great. Everything in that film. You've got to see that movie. You've got to fucking see that movie. Seeing characters get really obsessed about their politics is usually pretty funny with a little bit of distance. That's what's great about that movie.
Do you think that manifests in your film?
Yeah, I think so, a little bit, sure. All that stuff that you were talking about. There's a haze of the Golden Fang [a mysterious ship/gang/something that keeps getting mentioned in Inherent Vice]. The Golden Fang is basically a sort of deposit for anything that pisses you off. The Golden Fang is, you know, when your computer's not working. The Golden Fang would be entirely responsible for that. No new climate change laws? That's because the Golden Fang is stopping them. It's everything and anything that's pissing you off, I suppose.
A bit like inherent vice itself?
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