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Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2000

The risky business of meeting the press

You'd think that after immersing himself in the world of cheesy-sleazy '70s porn while making his last film, "Boogie Nights," director Paul Thomas Anderson would have become accustomed, perhaps even immune, to crassness. Then again, he had yet to encounter the Tokyo press corps . . .

In Tokyo to promote his ambitious new film, "Magnolia," which just scored Tom Cruise his first Golden Globe award, Anderson was no doubt expecting a few questions about the film's outrageous denouement. What he probably wasn't expecting, however, was a query about Tom Cruise's bulging briefs.

Even by the usual standards of Tokyo media questioning, this one was a howler: One female journalist, apparently impressed by a scene in which Cruise strips down to his undies, asked whether the star had stuffed his briefs with anything? A cucumber, perhaps?

The 30-year-old Anderson raised an eyebrow, fidgeted and looked as if he wasn't quite sure he'd heard the translation properly. Rising to the occasion, however, he mused, "That is a really classy question," before answering simply: "No, but I'm a very big d**k director. I try to always have a big d**k in my movies as they'll be more successful that way. Any more questions about Tom's private parts?"

For a film as accomplished as "Magnolia," this was truly a petty, albeit amusing query. Cruise may well be -- pardon me -- the biggest star in the film, but his is only one of many astounding performances in "Magnolia."

In a style similar to Robert Altman's work, the film follows about a dozen characters in L.A., all loosely connected to a TV quiz show, over the course of 24 hours as their lives fall apart in the worst possible ways. Anderson himself admits, "I consider this a sister film to 'Short Cuts' -- but I think I may be a little more hopeful; [Altman] is so cynical. I love him because he's cynical, but . . . "

Indeed, much as he did in "Boogie Nights," Anderson takes his characters to the very brink of despair, failure, humiliation and death, only to grant them one last chance through a laughably capricious act of God. This cathartic approach to filmmaking seems to be Anderson's trademark: "I would like to always try and make the happiest, saddest ending I can," noted the director. "That always seems to be the good way to go."

For his cast, Anderson had nothing but praise, but it was Julianne Moore -- who plays the morphine-addicted wife of dying TV producer Jason Robards -- who seemed to be the director's fave. "Of all the people I've worked with and I love them all," Anderson said, "for some reason Julianne has the ability to say [a line] exactly as I hear it in my head. It's amazing."

As with his first two films, strained and unresolved parent-child relationships are at the center of "Magnolia." Since Anderson's own father was a TV host, and died from cancer -- much like Jason Robards' character in the film -- there was some speculation as to whether any of the plot line was autobiographical.

"So much of what I write is based on my real life, but so much of it is made up, that it can become confusing," said Anderson. "I wouldn't want anyone to interpret my work as the exact way my life has gone."

Music is absolutely central to "Magnolia," and Anderson revealed that "music is generally where I start from when I write a movie." But where "Boogie Nights" used music as ironic commentary, in "Magnolia," it's straight from the heart. The ebbs and flows of John Brion's instrumental score drive the film along its almost operatic arc of tragedy, while the pop songs of Aimee Mann perfectly crystalize the characters' unspoken feelings.

"Aimee's music really inspired the movie," admits Anderson. "I had a bunch of ideas in my head as I started to write, and I couldn't make a lot of sense of them, but she had some demo tapes lying around of all these songs, so I thought that what I would do is adapt her music -- like you would adapt a book or a play -- into a movie. I started out to do that. It became something else, but there are very specific lines from her songs that I've taken. I kind of consider this movie a musical, actually." The obvious question was why didn't Anderson employ his current sweetheart, chart-topping singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, in this role? "I started to write the movie just before I met Fiona, so I had Aimee in mind," says Anderson. "But Fiona contributed a lot musically, behind the scenes. You could consider her the cocreator; she was the one who read it first, and I talked to her all about it, so there's no shortage of Fiona's influence upon this movie, believe me."

Finally, the director was asked about the rather oblique title: Why "Magnolia?"

"I liked the word," replied Anderson, and after a long deadpan pause, he added, "I want to keep that mystery there. . . I don't want to be too clever, but I think it's the sort of thing where you'd hate me in the morning if I answered it tonight."

"Magnolia" opens Feb. 26 at Shibuya Pantheon and other theaters.

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