NEW YORK – Film festival post-screening Q&As are a routinely jumbled affair, coy directors and actors fielding gut-reaction inquiries from the crowd. But as a come-down to the first screening of “Inherent Vice” – Paul Thomas Anderson's syncopated noir-medy that is as hazy and psychedelic as the pot smoke drifting out of its characters' mouths – the 12-person banter was fitting, sublime chaos.
Anderson led the parade, with Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone, Michael Kenneth Williams, Saha Pieterse, Hong Chau and Martin Short all in tow. There was sense that no one knew where to begin a discussion on Anderson's comically impenetrable Thomas Pynchon adaptation, the moderator immediately handing responsibility over to the audience. A reasonable reaction. Following stoner private eye Doc (Phoenix), “Inherent Vice” twists and turns through drug culture, crime syndicates, corporate deception and Nixonian counterculture wars as its half-baked hero encounters colorful characters and propulsive clues throughout.
Whatever direction the conversation took, it always wound up back at Pynchon and Anderson's relationship as novelist and writer-director. The filmmaker admitted to barely understanding the mystery at the heart of the novel, but each scene had its own seduction tactics – charm, intrigue or pure weirdness – that kept him hooked. He has similar feelings about “The Big Sleep” and other classic film noir. “I couldn't follow any of it and it didn't matter because I wanted to see what happened next,” he said. “That was a good model to go on.”
Evident from the film's heightened style (“literary is a bad word,” decried Anderson), the filmmakers and his actors felt deeply indebted to Pynchon's original text. Anderson didn't worry about liberally mixing pathos and slapstick to capture Doc's weird position in the world because the book, which he describes as both being “profound” and having “the best fart jokes,” already did it so well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, very few of the cast members decided to read the book, leaving it to their director to grab and interpret Pynchon. Short, however, insisted he conquered the source material: “I had my assistant read it to me. That counts where I'm from.”
The revered nature of Pynchon's work followed Anderson to production. Malone said that, on set, preparation and post-take notes were always about the words – a rarity for the actress. Anderson encouraged whatever it took to approach and re-approach the scripted lines. Malone said during her big scene with Phoenix, the two just started “clicking at each other for a few minutes.” It felt right.
Even with a sturdy support system, the cast found it difficult to relay just how spontaneous and invigorating their time on “Inherent Vice” felt. Describing a scene where his character, Dr. Blatnoyd, turns handfuls of cocaine into lusty vitality, Short said he, Phoenix and Pieterse went take after take, rewiring beats and sprinkling in comedy so as to delver “the colors and hues that could help Paul put it together in the end.” Anderson would take part in the improvisation, too, tinkering with the script to perfection. “In the original sides, it was written extremely different,” Pieterse said of her drug-fueled moment with Short. “We worked on it. [Anderson] wasn't afraid for it to take the whole day.”
The way the cast described it, no source inspiration is too off-the-wall for Anderson: whatever made sense, made sense. Wilson said that, after debating with the director over the costumes for his musician-turned-narc character Coy Harlingen, the two settled on a look modeled off Dennis Wilson and Electric Mayhem saxophonist Zoot from The Muppets (which may have been a joke but… there's a resemblance). Though Joanna Newsom (playing Sortilège, Doc's gal pal and “Inherent Vice” narrator) didn't come to “Inherent Vice” with any acting experience – she's a professional harpist by trade – Anderson still took her by surprise when he transformed a bit of voiceover into a full-fledged scene on the fly. At the end of a shooting day, the director asked his actress to sit on a lawn in front of some jugglers and recite lines from the narration. “I messed up a couple times,” she said. “I didn't think anything else of it. I was 99% sure that it wouldn't be in the movie… and then it was.” It's the second shot of the movie, an elegant close-up.
Like “The Master,” “Inherent Vice” is as infatuated with its performers as it is with its plot. For the film's many actor-on-actor dialogue scenes, Anderson strings together a visual motif, slowly pushing in from a establishing wide shot to a close-up. When asked why, Anderson could only gush. He had great actors who could go for minutes at a time. So he went for it.
Phoenix said little at the Q&A, waving off a chance to respond when handed the mic. Understandable – as Anderson acknowledged, the actors' performances speaks for themselves.
“Inherent Vice” hits theaters in limited release on Dec. 12, 2014 before opening wide on Jan. 9, 2015