The next one, Paul Thomas Anderson insists, won’t be about families.
Maybe he’ll make a war flick. Perhaps he’ll make a silly little comedy. Maybe it will be set in space.
Just not another movie about families please.
“Enough with the family topic,” the 29-year-old filmmaker bellows even as “Magnolia,” his third consecutive examination of dysfunctional families, earns rave reviews.
“I think it might be tapped out at this point,” he says mournfully. “I think my gut wants to take a right-hand turn. Let’s go make a funny movie. With explosions.”
Trouble is, Mr. Anderson doesn’t believe it.
“I am sure I will set out to write something, you know, like about a war or something, and it will end up being about a family,” he says. “Every time, it always goes back to stories about, ‘OK, this is a son and his father…’ ”
Even his friends doubt Mr. Anderson’s next film will escape the pattern.
“I am sure it will be another ode on the same,” JoAnne Sellar, who helped produce “Magnolia,” says with a laugh. “If he was doing a space odyssey, it would still come back to the family.”
Mr. Anderson agrees, reluctantly.
“Yeah, I thought about space. But it would be a family in space ‘Lost in Space.’ I think the reason maybe why I’m following families so many times on purpose or by accident is that … it’s an endless source of dramatic and comedic juicy stuff. It’s a big bucket of ammunition for telling stories.”
With each movie, Mr. Anderson has pulled more from the bucket. His first, “Hard Eight,” was a noirish look at a father figure and a son. His second, “Boogie Nights,” followed a surrogate family of pornographers buffeted by greed, ego and morality.
Now comes “Magnolia,” a swirling three-hour epic that features 12 characters in overlapping plot lines, an amphibian downpour and a scene in which the actors suddenly ease into song.
Make no mistake, it’s still about families: There are an estranged son and his dying father, a morose trophy wife, a dad leeching off his son’s IQ and a TV quiz-show host who is a private monster and that covers only a few of the stories.
“This movie is trying harder to face up to family a little bit more,” says Mr. Anderson, whose rumpled appearance lends him the air of a junior mad scientist. “It’s trying to be a little bit harder on it, in a good way.
” ‘Boogie Nights’ is saying, ‘Just hang out with your friends; it’s a lot easier to hang out there than it is to go back home.’ This movie is saying, ‘Smarten up and go home. Or at least try.’ ”
Helping this time are the usual suspects: Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly and Melora Walters all actors who have appeared in Mr. Anderson’s other films. Julianne Moore also co-starred in “Boogie Nights.”
“It’s an opportunity for me to create a family of people to work with that makes me comfortable and happy and will watch out for me,” he explains. “You can choose your friends. You can’t choose your family that’s really what it is.”
Miss Sellar, who joined Mr. Anderson’s odd little troupe with “Boogie Nights,” has her own opinion: “He’s created his own dysfunctional family making films about dysfunctional families.”
Mr. Anderson grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, where he was raised on a steady diet of movies, both trashy and sublime. His father did voice-overs and introduced late-night horror films on TV as Ghoulardi. Mr. Anderson refuses to talk about his mother.
His dad gave him a Betamax video camera in the early 1980s, and Mr. Anderson began looking at life through the viewfinder. He walked out of film school after two days, got into a filmmaker’s workshop at the Sundance Institute and was barely able to drink legally when his first movie was released.
Since then, stars such as Tom Cruise (part of the ensemble cast in “Magnolia”) have come a-knocking, the budgets have grown bigger “I can film all the way around the room, as opposed to three-quarters of the way around a room” and so have the accolades.
Some have compared the rail-thin screenwriter with wide, unblinking eyes to a scruffier Robert Altman. Inevitably, he also has been lumped into the Spike Jonze category of up-and-comers.
“If you see these movies, you’re getting to watch me learn. Hopefully, if I get to continue to do this, I’d like to be able to be an old man and go, ‘There’s my diary for anyone to look at.’ ”
Mr. Anderson’s diary, as he approached “Magnolia,” was stuffed. There were random story arcs and loose threads all lubricated by music from alt-rocker Aimee Mann, formerly of the ‘80s band ‘Til Tuesday.
“At the time I started to write, I had just 400,000 ideas floating around and nowhere to put it. Aimee had a place to put it. I said, ‘You’re talking about what I’m trying to get in touch with here, everything that’s spinning around in my head. You’ve got it down.’ ”
“The movie’s like a musical it’s pretty much wall-to-wall music. In a good way, I hope. It was designed that way. I don’t like that theory of ‘Well, you should be able to take the music out.’ Why? Why would I take out all the music? That’s absurd.”
After the hoopla following “Boogie Nights,” Mr. Anderson had intended his next film to be a more intimate affair. So had his collaborators.
“When we were talking during editing ‘Boogie Nights,’ Paul was kind of, ‘Oh, no, I just want to do something really quick and short next time,’ ” Miss Sellar says. “And then he preceded to go off and write and came back to me with ‘Magnolia,’ which is neither quick nor short.”
Ask Mr. Anderson how that happened, and he shrugs. “It’s so hand-in-hand and confused, so chicken-egg. I think what I had was separate lists about stories I could have made and then at one point just thought that it should all just be.”
And so he let it be.
“Warren Beatty was really funny. He called me up after seeing ‘Magnolia’ and said, ‘So, I saw your movies. I thought they were too short.’ I was, like, ‘Good one, Warren.’ “