The place we grew up is a home we didn’t choose, but often we find a way to love it. As someone who moved far away from my hometown the second I got a chance to, I look back at the people I once knew and try to imagine how they came to be satisfied with their lives in that Midwestern highway town. 

It’s common to look back at your hometown or current hometown when finding the right setting for your story. Many directors become synonymous with specific cities because of the love they have for the place. 

Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, loves his home in the San Fernando Valley. Licorice Pizza is PTA’s fourth original screenplay to take place in the director’s childhood setting. His love for the Valley is evident in how he gives care and dignity to his characters, no matter how silly or ignorant they can be. 

What do PTA’s films have to say about the Valley and the people in it? Let’s break down how he draws from real-world influences to inform the choice of his characters and the aspects of the Valley that they bring to life. 

Boogie Nights 

The dizzying opening is one of many long takes that paints the Valley with frenetic energy. The film, based in part on adult film actor John Holmes and Anderson’s student mockumentary The Dirk Diggler Story, follows 17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) from Torrance, California, who rides the bus every day to his dishwasher job in Reseda, a Valley neighborhood, in hopes of breaking into show business. 

Part of Eddie’s desire to be a star is motivated by wanting to move out of his mother’s home. Their relationship is contentious and echoes PTA’s relationship with his mother, which the director referred to as troubled in an interview with The New York Times

At Boogie Nights’ core is a story about finding parent figures. In Jack (Bert Reynolds), Eddie sees a kindred spirit who shares similar creative ambitions and acts as a mentor guiding Eddie through the porn scene. Eddie’s co-star, Amber (Julianne Moore), is a maternal figure who cares about his wellbeing despite their on-screen sexual relationship. 

Boogie_nights_0'Boogie Nights'Credit: New Line Cinema

Besides Eddie and Jack, every other character has dreams that lie just outside of the Valley. No matter how much these characters want, they find themselves torn between dreams and disappointments. Cinematographer Robert Elswit, a fellow San Fernando Valley native, helps PTA paint the Valley as a halfway point, a place of people wrestling between light and dark while keeping possibilities and excitement lurking just outside the frame. 

The film’s dark interiors are contrasted with lens flares peeking through the corners of the screen and bright lights that draw the audience’s eyes towards the outside world. The characters' hopes and wants are waiting for them somewhere off in the distance. 


People living just outside the promise of Hollywood and experiencing its darker side is key in Magnolia, a film in which multiple stories unfold over a single day in the Valley. Each character is connected by coincidence, but their stories are all focused on fractured parent-child relationships. 

Former quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is a mirror to the young prodigy Stanley (Jeremy Blackman). Donnie finds it hard to express himself and is unable to connect with others. A man seemingly trapped by the lost glory days of his childhood stardom, Donnie is often belittled and emasculated, acting as a warning of what might one day become of Stanley. 

Stanley is not the only character who represents the possible fallout of growing up in or adjacent to show business. Claudia (Malora Walters) has a similar issue connecting with people and expressing her feelings, a problem that takes an unhealthy form in Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a pickup artist who turns his misogynistic rants into a problematic seminar that teaches men to dominate and control everything around them. 

Magnolia_film_tom_cruise'Magnolia'Credit: New Line Cinema

What makes Magnolia deeply personal for PTA is that he began to write the screenplay around the time his father, Ernie Anderson, died from cancer in 1997. The draw of PTA’s relationship to his father is one of melancholy as the constricted environments become mazes closing in on the characters as if they are being suffocated by their showbiz surroundings. 

With a runtime of almost three hours, Magnolia has the time to slow down to let characters’ disappointments sit and sink in. Earl’s death-bed monologue lasts for 10 unbroken minutes, playing over shots of characters and bounding them to the speech through themes of regret. 

The softer and warmer lighting gives the film a quieter and more reflective fabric to rest on, letting the characters deal with feelings they may never be able to reconcile with. Like the ending of the film, there are no answers and no true conclusion to the feelings or ideas—just a moment of awe and momentary content at the complex beauties of life. 

Magonlia_bizzare_ending'Magnolia'Credit: New Line Cinema

Punch-Drunk Love 

For this film, PTA and Elswit returned to some of the visual techniques used in Boogie Nights, but for vastly different reasons. Punch-Drunk Loveis about Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a socially anxious plunger salesman. 

Light in the film is harsh, overwhelming Barry, and the wide-open loneliness of the Valley seems to consume him. The lens flares are overexposed in the frame to make it uncomfortable to look at, creating a discomforting texture that mimics Barry’s anxieties.

One of the defining characteristics of Barry is his complicated relationship with women and his discomfort around sexuality. This complicated relationship between women and sex is something that reoccurs throughout  PTA’s Valley trilogy. Throughout PTA’s upbringing in the Valley through the 70s and 80s, ads for sex work and images of the porn industry would have been inescapable, creating a standard of what sex should look like and establishing negative ideas of gendered expectations that can create internalized unhealthy attitudes toward women. 

Punch-drunk-main_0'Punch-Drunk Love'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Between Jack in Magnolia, whose irrational fears became the basis of his philosophy, and Little Bill in Boogie Nights, who responds to his wife’s infidelity with violence, Barry’s outburst also takes on a violent tone even though his sisters don’t take it seriously. 

Thankfully, Barry doesn’t physically harm any of the women in his life. Instead, he finds someone he can express some of his impulses within a safe and fun environment. His physical violence is turned toward those who try to hurt the women he cares about. Unlike the two Valley films that came before, Punch-Drunk Love lands on hope rather than regrets, telling us that there is light waiting for us somewhere in all this darkness. 

Although PTA’s films don’t all take place in the Valley, his most personal stories find themselves in his native land. What better place to place the stories that have shaped you than the place you call home.

Source: CineFix