In the last conversation Paul Thomas Anderson had with Robert Altman, his friend and mentor told him: “I think this film is something different for you.”
“It was so sweet,” Anderson recently recalled. “He had no reason to base it on anything except just a feeling.”
Altman died in November 2006, a month before Anderson planned to show him a rough cut of “There Will Be Blood.”
But Altman’s hunch turned out to be accurate.
Anderson’s new movie stands apart from his first four films — “Sydney” (aka “Hard Eight”), “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” And it’s been hailed as one of the year’s best films and a remarkable advancement for a maturing auteur.
“Your paranoia becomes ‘What ... does that mean? Does that mean at the expense of the other films this is something else?’ ... But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that every time you go to make a film, you’re desperate to either do it better than you did it last time or to not repeat yourself,” the 37-year-old writer-director said.
The scruffy Anderson speaks passionately about film and can discuss movie history with authority. When he began directing in his early 20s, he was seen as an L.A.-bred cinematic phenom who quickly became a star in the ’90s independent film scene, specializing in movies set in his native San Fernando Valley.
With large ensemble casts, ever-moving cameras, memorable music and lengthy running times, Anderson established a bold style. This, combined with realistically flawed, often desperate characters, made Anderson not just a film-geek hero, but a sought-after talent.
Anderson let Upton Sinclair guide himAnderson’s previous films all had notable autobiographical elements, but for “There Will Be Blood,” he sought to expand outside of himself and began the script as a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!”
The director used roughly the first 100 pages of Sinclair’s book and drew on other sources, particularly Margaret Leslie Davis’ 1998 biography of oil tycoon Edward Doheny, “The Dark Side of Fortune.”
“The benefits of the adaptation was that it helped me do things that my natural instincts wouldn’t lead me to do,” said Anderson, who acknowledged that, if left to his own devices, he’s more liable to “spin off the rails a bit more.”
“It was like collaborating with somebody,” he said.
The result is a film about the fictional Daniel Plainview, an obsessed turn-of-the-century oil man, brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis.
“It was a fully imagined, fully understood world that Paul had already created on the page for me, therefore it was that world, in its entirety, that unleashed a curiosity that can take you, you don’t know where,” said Day-Lewis.
A long road to the screen
For a film that’s winning raves, it had inauspicious beginnings. Production was postponed for two years to raise financing, and only after shooting began, Paul Dano was cast in the supporting role.
“Quite honestly, after all that time, Daniel and I were like caged animals in the starting gate,” said Anderson. “And the gate opened and we just fell flat on our faces.”
Shooting in the desert of Marfa, Texas, they had to recover quickly.
“We built these sets and we were out there in costumes with cameras and everybody was standing around,” Anderson said. “It’s a little like, ‘What else are you going to do?”’
The themes in “There Will Be Blood” aren’t what fans of Anderson are accustomed to. It largely deals with the heartless, indomitable will of big business in America.
Anderson, who watched John Huston’s “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” (1948) repeatedly while writing “There Will Be Blood,” acknowledged those ideas came out of negative thoughts about what he called the “boys network” of business today.
“It’s fun thinking about that stuff: shadowy organizations, underhanded deals, investment banking — I don’t know,” laughed Anderson. “I like Daniel Plainview — a lot, and that makes it personal. He’s mad and I know it and I don’t want to really be hanging out with him a lot. He’s great. I understand what he’s going through; I understand where he’s coming from.”
What Anderson recognizes in Plainview is his single-mindedness in pursuit. Anderson has a reputation for fighting passionately for his films and has previously battled with studios.
His first film “Sydney” (1996) was taken away from him by the production company, Rysher Entertainment. The company changed the title to “Hard Eight” and cut it considerably. It was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival, but Anderson also sent his own cut, titled “Sydney,” which the festival selected.
Learning to embrace the editorThere were also disputes over the length of 1997’s “Boogie Nights” (156 minutes) and 1999’s “Magnolia” (188 minutes). But Anderson, who received a screenwriting Oscar nomination for both movies, says he now can see the point about their length.
“‘Magnolia’ needed it, and I certainly wish I could take 15 or 20 minutes out of that film,” he said. “I don’t miss scenes at all the way that I used to miss them when I was younger making a film. It’s actually quite fun to get rid of them now.”
“There Will Be Blood” still clocks in at 158 minutes, but Anderson said there was no friction with the studios (Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films) except for what he called “the YouTube Incident of 2007.”
While editing the movie last summer, Anderson decided to enliven things by cutting a trailer, which he posted on YouTube. The simplicity of the process — not dealing with the studio or the Motion Picture Association of America — was “like a filmmaker’s fantasy.”
“And the studio went nuts,” he said, smiling about his mischief. “We put it up on Friday and I remember they called on Saturday morning at 6 a.m.: ‘Do you know there’s this thing on YouTube?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we put it there.’ They were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Are you mad?”’
The trailer’s warm reception pacified the executives, Anderson said, and ever since “There Will Be Blood” has rode a wave of good publicity and honors, including a Golden Globe nomination for best drama.
The whole experience reminds Anderson — who has a child with his partner, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Maya Rudolph — of the crazed mining of Daniel Plainview.
“You feel like a bottom feeder at the bottom of this dark tunnel, chipping away at something that you’re not quite sure is there and even if it is there, you’re not quite sure what it’s worth,” he said. “I can completely relate to that fever and insanity that happens and takes over.”