Paul Thomas Anderson on finding the music in Thomas Pynchon for ‘Inherent Vice’

When “Inherent Vice” made its premiere at the New York Film Festival, I was there, having flown out specifically so I could see the film and then attend the after-party at Tavern On The Green.

At the party, I spoke to many of the cast members and finally got to meet Joanne Sellers, Paul Thomas Anderson's longtime producer, and at the end of the evening, I spent a few quick minutes talking to Anderson about his film. It was a lovely evening, and they all seemed to be enjoying the high of that first public reaction.

Since then, my enthusiasm for the movie has only grown, and I was eager to attend this year's Los Angeles Film Critics Association meeting to vote for the film in several key categories. So of course, that's the exact time they also scheduled my time to speak to Paul Thomas Anderson, and there was no other window for the interview.

So I made the only possible choice to make in that situation: I gave my proxy to a friend, and I took off and made my way to downtown LA, where Warner Bros. had set up shop at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, a building that feels like it is trapped in some moment in our past, decorated with eccentric photos from a different age.

When I made my way into the room where Anderson was waiting, he was standing and stretching and asking about some coffee. It was late in his afternoon, and he said he was starting to fade a bit. I told Anderson that I've seen his film five times now, and he seemed startled by that. I explained that once the awards-season screener showed up at my house, I started just watching bits and pieces of it repeatedly, pulling apart his magic trick to study things that I love about it.

I mentioned that I'd had an exchange earlier in the day on Twitter about the film, irritated by someone who called it “impossible to follow.” That's not true at all. The film's storyline is something you can absolutely chart if you want to, but I would argue that plot is not what the film is “about,” and focusing exclusively on that misses the larger point.

To some degree, the movie is structured as a story being told by a deeply unreliable narrator, based on the faulty memory of somebody who has perhaps indulged too much and burned certain synapses flat. The movie tries to connect the dots in the way that he does. My first question to Anderson was about how much of that structure was on the page in terms of what he originally wrote and how much was discovered once they got into the editing room.

Anderson took a moment to consider the question. “How do I describe this? I”d be very curious to go look at the draft that we started production with and the draft that we ended up with because my memory of going into the editing room was actually that it was all relatively straightforward in terms of editing the movie together. That said, there was more rewriting and shifting as we were going along, putting puzzle pieces together and going back to old drafts and shooting something and realizing this is not working or shooting something and seeing how well something would come to life and working with multiple sources… not only an old draft of the script but the book, constantly coming to the book.”

“The truth was, it was lending itself to be able to do that mostly because there”s so much that”s in Doc”s apartment. There were a couple of things that we did go back to, so that there was a lot of editing going on in the writing as we were shooting, much more than normal. By the time we got into the editing room, so much of that labor had already been done that it was actually about picking takes and just sort of getting it to fall and hang together in a kind of – I don”t want to say cohesive way, but more just getting the rhythm of it down. No chunks were really taken out or anything like that. Those decisions were made as we were going.”

The thing is, I've talked to smart people who said they didn't follow anything in the film, and that genuinely confuses me. I'm not sure what makes them feel like they can't keep up with it, or like there's not enough information. Anderson laughed about how frustrated some people get. “It”s funny… I had somebody say after I showed them the movie, 'I didn”t follow that. Let me just get this clear.' And then they proceeded to tell me exactly what the movie was, point by point, which was nuts to me because I thought 'I couldn”t do that and I just made the movie.' It was this amazing thing. 'You just described it all verbatim. What don”t you get?' I think it just has to do with the mood you”re in, or what you expect from a movie. That”s the funny thing about Pynchon… after working with this material for so long, things that seemed whimsical, things that seemed just like some jazzy riff that he”s fucking around with, are carefully placed. Everything has a reason. There is cause and effect to everything and that I can assure anybody that the dots do connect.”

One of the publicists told me earlier that Edgar Wright had nicknamed the film “Inherent Twice.” I certainly had a very different experience with the film the second time, and each time since, it lands on me in a different way. “Somebody should start using the title 'Incoherent Vice,'” Anderson joked.  “That's got to catch on at some point.”

Ultimately, this is about Doc Sportello, the Joaquin Phoenix character, realizing that he is never going to have exactly what he wants. Shasta (Katherine Waterston) is forever just out of reach, a tantalizing idea. And that realization pushes Doc to put himself on the line for someone else, to try to restore a broken family. It's a beautiful arc for the character.

“It”s true. That was a little additional scene, too, and I had a version of it I”d written, and we didn”t shoot it. Clarifying that moment after Shasta comes back and lays all that shit on him, and he”s sitting there with that postcard and she says, 'What”s on your mind besides the usual?' Meaning Shasta. And that thing that”s nagging at him, you know? What”s gonna keep you up in the middle of the night? And you”re exactly right. “Little kid blues,” you know, which is such a beautiful line from the book. The thing about Pynchon is that he”s a humorist first, but he”s so sneaky in his sentimentality, and his heart is so gigantic that it just seeps through everything, you know? He”s really an old softy, an old romantic, but what”s great about it is he”s still bitter and pissed off about the way things went. And that”s a great combination, somebody who”s bitter and pissed off but still has their heart intact after all these years. Because normally you sort of get it one way or the other.”

When Anderson starts talking about Pynchon, it's clear just how much reverence he has for the author. I told him how much I loved the way he managed to preserve the music of Pynchon's writing in the film, while still making the film very cinematic in its own way. That's a tricky balance to try to strike, and I asked him how aware he was of trying to get as many of Pynchon's words into the film as possible.

“Super self-conscious, and since we”re using a narrator, don”t do it too much, you know? Like really kind of a constant monitoring and system of checks and balances about when it”s too much. Literary”s a bad word. Literary can be a bad word and shrugging it all off and making it just flow was something that… I mean, I would go through passages that I loved with Leslie, my editor, and I would just throw it to her, and they could be too wordy. And then she would always have the vote toward the simpler ones. It was just this long system of checks and balances and honestly there”s so much material to work with that there was never a moment that I felt like I had to invent dialogue to put in somebody”s mouth. I could steal dialogue from a scene that”s on page 300 that happened to apply on page 40, so I never felt like I had to be, 'How do I write like Thomas Pynchon?' Do you know what I mean?”

One of the things that happens when you get to work with someone whose work influenced you is that the influence is going to become even more pronounced. It's inevitable, and Anderson's adoration of Pynchon is crystal clear. “Inevitably, it would come out like some faker just got in here and tried to write some snappy Pynchon dialogue, which… believe me, I had to do it a few times and you”re just like 'That is fucking embarrassing.' But I didn”t have to most of the time. You could say, 'He says this thing over here and you can steal it.' You can be a student of movies, and you watch movies and you”re always learning whether it”s good ones or bad ones and all that stuff, but this was like being a student again for writing. A real nuts and bolts thing. I was like, 'How does he do this? Look at how he turns phrases and puts these things here or plants something over here that pays dividends over here.' That was like a lesson, like I got a freshen up course in being a writer, and it was just at the right time when it came along that I was doing this.  Because you get sick of seeing your own words on the page sometimes, and you can get sick of the sound of your own voice. To be working with somebody else”s kit, it”s like, wow, you know? For lack of a better word, a master class. I hate that word, but it was. It was like, 'How does he do it?' And the funny thing is, I still don”t know how he does it. But I do feel like I”ve learned a lot.”

It's been said that an author like Pynchon is “unadaptable,” and there are several films this year that were based on other works that were also considered unadaptable. In this case, though, I think there was some alchemy that occurred between Pynchon and Anderson, like their sensibilities were compatible on some molecular level.

“That”s high praise,” Anderson said. “There”s lots of film references through the book and that, to me, it was like, 'Well, how do you do this?' Because it can always be tricky in a movie if you”ve got film references left and right. So that was a decision. That works in the book, but it won't work in the movie. I don”t think we should have characters running around referencing other movies. It”s just gonna end up feeling ropey. Making decisions like that which ultimately kind of start to clear away room for what does rise to the top and make a little bit more room for filmmaking, that's adaptation. The funny thing is there”s nothing – it”s not a real cinematic movie, at least not in this obvious way. The pyrotechnics of his language and this sort of curly cue smoke of the entire story and the entire journey is so cinematic already that… I don”t know, I just remember keeping the camera sober most of the time because that seemed to be the best way to adapt.”

Robert Elswit, who shot the film for Anderson, was also the cinematographer on “Nightcrawler,” and between those two films, I think he staked a pretty strong claim on Los Angeles in general. I talked to him about how lovely the recreation of LA's beach culture in 1970 was, and how stripped down his LA seemed to be.

“It”s so funny,” he started, “like I don”t know whether it”s age or the story that we were telling, but it becomes so much more challenging to be simple sometimes.  My first instinct sometimes is to move the camera around or whip it around, but it kind of comes more naturally these days. Learning a discipline is learning how to be simple and to have the guts to stage or shoot something so that it”s not just sexy looking, but so that it feels a little rough around the edges. It”s hard work, you know? It”s constant debates and battles about how to make things less beautiful or just trying to get out of the way. I”m really proud of that part of the movie that”s very classical and very straightforward, you know?”

I asked him how much digital trickery was involved to roll the clock back on LA and how much of it was simply finding the right places to shoot. We paint over our history in LA as quickly as we can, so it can be difficult to shoot something for period since it simply not not exist anymore.

“The majority of it is finding the pieces of LA that still feel like that,” he explained. “The last thing I want to do is deal with painting stuff out or adding buildings or all that kind of shit. It”s a chore. I”d rather actually film the shot and change the shot and sort of box something in. If Doc”s apartment is this and right next to it are two gigantic chrome modern buildings, let”s just frame them out. I mean, what is it anyway? It”s a shot of some guy”s bungalow at the beach. How fucking complicated do you want to get? I grew up in an era, and you did, too, where it felt like if you”re making a period film you have an obligation to do these gigantic wide sweeping shots, preferably on a crane. There”s this overabundance of salesmanship, just in case you need to remember it”s 1912. There”s so much shoe leather doing that work. I get it, you know? But where”s the meat? I think I have a kind of instinctual response to that stuff. Don”t tell a period movie, just tell the movie and enjoy your happy accidents and let shit fall into place as much as you can. That becomes limiting if you have an instinct or an idea, acting on it during the day and running around through the streets, you can”t really do that. If you want to drive around in a car at night and you don”t really light it, it can look like 1970 justlikethat. As long as you”re not turning lights on and exposing things. There is some digital trickery in the film. Outside Parker Center, when Joaquin gets knocked down… it”s hard to admit because I don”t like doing it. It feels like cheating, but the crosswalks are wildly different now. Street signs and stop signs and crosswalks, all that kind of gear is completely different now.”

I started laughing when he mentioned that shot because I had just had a conversation that morning with Todd Gilchrist about that specific shot. Todd was convinced there was a digital something involved in the shot, but he couldn't figure out what had been done or why.  

Anderson grinned, shaking his head. “The crosswalk is brick now. There's a totally different color to the brick, so they just took the pavement and made it straight. And there”s another one, the Golden Fang building is obviously a digital effect. That and the Parker Center, and that”s it. And that”s IT. Everything else is just framing and shooting in a way that keeps that shit out.”

There are two great discoveries, in terms of cast, in the film, and I asked him if there's something special about finding someone who hasn't done much but who is perfect for a part because you get to be part of exposing them to an audience for the first time. I love that feeling of discovery, and I always wonder about filmmakers and if they feel that same rush. I told Anderson how much I like the work by both Katherine Waterston and Hong Chau in the movie, and I asked if he ever has to fight to get a casting decision like that approved.

“We”ve got a little bit of currency and I”ve got enough trust that if you find somebody like that… look the sad thing about that is there”s not a slew of Asian American actresses standing in line, you know, because there just aren't enough roles for them. It”s [Hong Chau's] first movie. That”s a crying shame. She should have been in movies already. I”m so happy to hear you say that and the funny thing is we don”t really do test screenings or anything like that, but we have screenings amongst our friends, and the consistent thing was this Jade fan club. They”re like, 'I love Jade.'”

I told Anderson that I'd been having plenty of #TeamJade conversations on Twitter as people have been seeing the film, and he laughed. “Oh, I didn”t see that. That”s great. Being able to do a movie when you get to cast people that haven”t been in a movie before feels like… yeah, there”s an excitement, because we have such a great mix in this. Our biggest fear was like, at its worst, the cast from this movie becomes 'The Towering Inferno,' you know, where every single last part is a gigantic movie star. We don”t want to do that, all Harvey Weinstein-style, or like 'Towering Inferno'. No. Sure, you do it for some of the fun key roles and hope an audience follows them through, like, 'Yes, here”s Benicio. Thank God he”s gonna pull me in and give me this information.' But then having Hong Chau come in or Michelle Sinclair…”

I mentioned Joanna Newsom, who is magical in the film, and he nodded, smiling again. “Scott Foundas said a great thing about her. He called her character 'Surfer Girl Jiminy Cricket.' Isn”t that nice? That was a good description. Thumbs up on that one. I”ve never thought of it that way but it”s so perfect.”

As I stood to leave, I thanked him for making the film as dense and as personal as he did. “The only thing better than reading Pynchon is re-reading Pynchon,” he told me. “Now I can breathe with it and I”m not flipping out and I”m not overwhelmed. It”s such a joy to go back. I mean, I had free time to read something, and fucking addict that I am, I read 'Vineland' again. I”ve got a stack of new books that I haven”t read that”s this big and I gravitated toward that one. I couldn”t get enough and I was so happy that I did. It was so rewarding.”

I was on my way out the door when he stopped me. “Oh, I know what I wanted to say. I know you”ve seen it a million times already, but we”ve got a 70 millimeter print that”s gonna play at the Dome and at the ArcLight. It”s so beautiful. If you get a chance to sneak over there, even just to check it out for a second, you should.”

I will, and I hope plenty of you check it out as well when “Inherent Vice” opens in limited release this weekend, then everywhere just after the start of the new year.