Expand Your Mind with Paul Thomas Anderson's Filmmaking Tips
Widely considered one of modern film's most talented storytellers, Paul Thomas Anderson has made his mark on cinema with some extremely unique and powerful movies.
Paul Thomas Anderson is not a director constrained by genre or subject matter, telling finely tuned stories about 1970s hippies, burgeoning cults, quirky romance, or the world of London fashion. The sharp viewer might be able to catch some of his trademark stylistic choices and favorite character tropes, but he's also very open about his approaches to filmmaking, and numerous nuggets of wisdom can be found in his interviews and conversations throughout the years.
So let's pull up a chair next to Daniel Plainview and learn from The Master...no, not that one.
1. During the creative process, don't start with a blank page.
In this commentary segment, Anderson talks about riding the creative high of one project into the next. He doesn't allow himself to rest or get comfortable. When he feels the spark of an idea, he immediately starts to develop it, no matter how vague it may seem at first. Consider this as a method for keeping your creative tools sharp and engaged. That way, when you finish one project, you don't sit down to a void when you decide to start something else.
2. Ignore what everyone else thinks.
In this 2006 clip from the Henry Rollins Show on the IFC Channel, PTA talks about how fear almost held him back at the start of his career. He worried he wasn't doing the right things, or that he would be judged.
"There just shouldn't be fear," he says.
It's an easy thing to say, of course, because most of us will have the human tendency to feel scared about sharing creative work. It's a leap every time. But just remember that if Anderson hadn't gotten over his own nerves, we wouldn't have several masterpieces today. What masterpieces are waiting in you?
3. Stick to your guns...to a point.
During this audio commentary, Anderson discusses the poor experiences he had making Hard Eight. Going into his next project, he was stubbornly ready to fight for everything he felt he needed on the film.
That second film happened to be Boogie Nights, which first arrived at the studio as a notoriously long draft (almost 200 pages) with an NC-17 rating. Producer Michael de Luca eventually convinced Anderson to concede the NC-17 rating for financial reasons, which Anderson was able to understand and accept.
So if you plan on being just as hardheaded about your material, know that it's okay to fight, but you might have to make some concessions, too.
4. Talk through the script before reaching set.
Anderson has directed some pretty incredible talent through the years, and obviously he's learned what works best on his sets. He finds that discussions about the story or script should happen long before he starts shooting, which creates a quiet, calm, creative atmosphere.
Following this advice will also help you avoid giving your actors line readings. Have your discussions beforehand, don't talk the script to death, and trust your actors to give you the best performances they can.
5. Let the actor lead.
This is an excellent discussion between PTA and fellow director Richard Linklater at the 2018 Texas Film Awards. Linklater asks PTA if he works with actors differently from film to film. Anderson says that he gives his actors some freedom to interpret the film and how they approach their performances.
Should you rehearse? Should you improvise? Maybe allow your project to become more of a collaboration, and give your performers some leeway to explore the story in a way that feels most comfortable to them.
6. Remember to develop energy in your scenes.
While speaking to VICE about Inherent Vice, Anderson acknowledges that the film could have been very boring and stagnant, since it generally follows characters merely talking in different scenes. How was he going to create energy in a movie of this liking?
In this case, he kept the camera moving. If two characters were sitting, he moved the shot around, making sure the audience ended up in a different place from where they started. If a scene was feeling stale, he improvised with a dolly track. You don't have to do a traditional, boring two shot. If something's not working, play around.
7. Create for actors.
Anderson had a great WTF interview with Marc Maron. In this clip, he's talking about why and how he created the characters for Hard Eight.
PTA talks about drawing inspiration from actor Philip Baker Hall and creating a character entirely around his vibe as a grizzled 1940s type, eventually writing the lead for him, as well as another role for John C. Reilly. Working with a face, vibe, or performance in mind might help you solidify the idea of a character in your head, which then could help you during the writing and directing processes.
8. Challenge yourself and follow what excites you.
At "Writers on Writing" in 2012, Anderson is asked about why all his films are vastly different, and what inspires him.
"I'm into different films and different stuff that's getting me off and making me feel excited about making films," he says. He talks about how those interests should make you feel excited about starting the next project.
If your interests change, follow them. Don't try to pigeonhole yourself or make yourself develop an idea that doesn't inspire you anymore.
9. Consider getting into character.
We all know that Daniel Day-Lewis is serious when it comes to staying in character for months while working on a project. But what about the rest of the team working on a movie? Should you try to experience the lives of your characters, as well? For Anderson, the answer is yes.
In this KCRW interview with Elvis Mitchell, Anderson says he and his editors would eat steak and vodka once a week as part of their "Plainview diet" while working on There Will Be Blood. It helped Anderson get into Plainview's head and tell his story. Anderson also often uses music as cinematic inspiration to get into the proper mindset for filmmaking. How far would you go to get into your characters' heads?
10. You don't have to have a film degree.
Anderson famously dropped out of film school after just two days at NYU. In an even earlier interview with Elvis Mitchell, Anderson explains what turned him off to film school and sent him down his path to success.
It is not a degree that determines your worth as a filmmaker, nor is it a professor's job to tell you what is a valid dream to pursue. Know what you love, know what inspires you and resounds with you, and get creating!
What's your favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film? Which have inspired you? How would you emulate PTA?