P.T. Anderson is a major American director, with 2007's There Will Be Blood consistently named one of the best films of the last decade. His new film, an adaptation of reclusive author Thomas Pynchon's shaggy-dog, hazy California detective novel Inherent Vice, is his seventh feature, and Anderson, still a young man (he was 27 when Boogie Nights was made, and two years younger when he helmed his first feature, Hard Eight) is in the enviable position, like his peer and fellow Anderson, Wes, of being a 'Hollywood' director who can pretty much do what he wants.
This is, to be sure, in large part due to the massive success of Boogie Nights, 1997's kinetic, epic and oddly heart-warming melodrama about the pornography business in the late 70s and early 80s. Grantland has done the world a public service and pieced together an amazing oral history of the film (yes, haha) in which nearly every principal player recounts their memories of the movie, in a long piece full of fascinating information for any indie filmmaker, or just film fan.
P.T. Anderson: The Artist as a Young Man
Despite Anderson's showbiz lineage (his father, Ernie, was a prominent voice-over actor, frequent late-night talk show guest, and the voice of ABC's T.G.I.F. lineup, so if you watched Full House or Perfect Strangers in the late 80s/early 90s, his voice is no doubt imprinted on your childhood memories), he was not ushered into the director's chair. He once told Roger Ebert:
There is nothing else I can do, and nothing else I will do.'No' is not an option. I have to do this or I will die. I only get to direct because I can write -- that's the key. The scary thing is, if you can write, you hold a lot of cards. They're starving for material. Starving.
Anderson is a bonafide No Film School filmmaker, famously attending and then dropping out of NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts before he'd even really unpacked. According to Anderson, in that same interview with Roger Ebert:
I did enroll for a couple of days at NYU, but I went into it with a bad attitude. I was enrolling just so I could garner enough ammunition to bad-mouth what I knew was not a good situation. I made a short film -- I had some money that I'd won gambling, funnily enough, and I had my girlfriend's credit card, and my dad set aside $10,000 for college for me and I said, "Listen, I'm not going. This 20-minute short will be my college.
Anderson got Philip Baker Hall to appear in the short by walking up to the actor on a set where he was a P.A. and telling the actor that he was going to be in his film, whether he knew it or not. (At the time, Baker Hall, a seriously gifted actor, I think we all are in agreeance--cf. Fred Durst--was criminally underused, known to most as the Library Cop from Seinfeld.)
A Porn Star is Born
Like many "debut" projects, the saga of Dirk Diggler had been living with Anderson for years, an idea that had its roots in the director's adolescence, when, "I was so influenced by Spinal Tap that it was in my brain, so it was like, 'Let’s play it as a documentary.' I’d seen this piece on A Current Affair on [adult film star] Shauna Grant, which was the clichéd-but-true story of a girl from Iowa who comes to Hollywood on the bus, looking for her dreams.'" This inspired the first iteration of Boogie Nights, a short VHS film entitled The Dirk Diggler Story, starring friend Michael Stein, who recounts of Anderson's room, "There was a lot of film stuff everywhere and two VCRs hooked up to one TV. Paul had this Academy Award poster right in front of his bed. I was like, wow, every night before you go to sleep, you memorize all the Academy Award–winning films."
Boogie Nights in Retrospect
It's amazing that the film was made in the first place, given the subject matter and frankness with which it's handled. (Though for a film about adult entertainment, it's surprisingly tame; the drugs and sudden and shocking violence are far more explicit than the sex, which is kind of nuts for a movie about pornography and only tangentially about freebasing and gunplay.) But, it's easy to see why the film was a mainstream success. Even though it was released a few months before the weirdly prudish/libertine USA lost its collective mind about Bill Clinton's Oval Office dalliances, the film's ultimate appeal doesn't lie in prurience, but in a heartwarming, "God Only Knows" scored depiction of a rag-tag group of misfits with a dream. This film was the world's introduction to P.T. Anderson's genius with pop music, on a par with Wes, though that's a real fight. But I mean this movie made E.L.O. my favorite band for a little while (kind of, but they rule).
Boogie Nights is also a love letter to filmmaking, in the same vein as Truffaut's Day For Night, another film about the crazy kids who, despite the schlock they are churning out, are in love with film itself (cf. the scene in BN where magician, writer, and frequent Anderson collaborator Ricky Jay tries to convince Burt Reynolds to spring for a bunch of expensive lighting equipment and is denied because Reynolds's Jack Horner, a man who fancies himself an artist, wants to save money; rather than admit this, though, he begs off by making an appeal to cinéma vérité with the famous line, "There's shadows in life, baby." Which is just pitch perfect economic realpolitik masquerading as aesthetic choice. Movies!
In the same way that many real Mafioso were said to love The Godfather films, Boogie Nights was a hit within the pornography industry itself, as the late David Foster Wallace wrote in his great essay about attending the A.V.N. Awards -- the porno Oscars, if you will (the essay is available free online). Wallace reported that some of the most genuine excitement he witnessed was caused by a rumor that P.T.A. himself might be in the house.
It could be argued that both films, while not shrinking away from the ugliness of their subjects, also do romanticize it somewhat, because at the end of the day, Dirk Diggler gets a second chance in Anderson's carnival world, a film positively drunk with a joyous motion, at least during the good times. I know it sounds weird to say that a film where Don Cheedle's character opens his stereo store by stealing the take from a botched armed robbery and Dirk Diggler goes from wearing "genuine, imported Italian nylon," to situations that are about as far from romantic as can be (um, NSFW, I think it goes without saying, though I guess it depends how cool your boss is), but the film ends with reconciliation and is large hearted, to say nothing of Anderson's preternatural sense of cinema -- the way the sound works in this scene alone is enough to give me an anxiety attack:
This Grantland history article is amazing and exhaustive, and a real treat for fans of the film, Anderson, the cast, or anyone simply interested in good filmmaking, which I hope you are, because movies are cool. And keep in mind, he was 27 when he made this film, and did not have anything approaching final cut, and its success is the reason that 2 years later, he was able to have Biblical plagues befall the Valley in Magnolia. Finally, check out this interview with Anderson from the Electronic Press Kit. (It seems quaint now that they called it "electronic," considering that in 1997, skip protection on a CD Walkman was a pretty big deal.) Then again, I have a phone that does my taxes, so I'm probably pretty jaded.