Adam Nayman, discussing his long and detailed book on Paul Thomas Anderson, will be the first person to tell you there is no small resource of writing on Paul Thomas Anderson. Being one of his generation’s 3-4 most popular American filmmakers (which is to say one of the 3-4 most popular filmmakers) has made him an endless, more-than-occasionally exhausted source of discourse—but if Nayman is, to my mind, one of his generations great film critics (Canadian or otherwise), the prospect of this compendium looms larger than Daniel Plainview’s oil rig.
I spoke to Nayman about said book, Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, which Abrams publishes this Tuesday. Graced by a foreword from the Safdie brothers (a collaboration that proved more meaningful than anyone could’ve guessed), filled with original designs from Little White Lies‘ Fabrizio Festa, Tertia Nash, and Sophie Mo, and boasting interviews with numerous of Anderson’s collaborators, it offered room for a long conversation on the films, the philosophy, the process, and all manner of critical standing.
The Film Stage: The size and ornateness of Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks leads me to ask how, on a purely practical level, it was decided to follow your Coen brothers book with this.
Adam Nayman: Well, I’m of two minds as to the answer, and they’re both sincere. There’s the idea that I’m obviously interested in directorial intention and in directors who realize those intentions very successfully. I don’t think it’s a question, the books being about control—definitely there’s a facet of film direction that’s the realization, through technical means, of these very abstract, interior ideas. The flipside of that answer is that Anderson is sellable in the same way, to the same readership, that the Coens are. It’s not to be too cynical about it, and there’s a lot of things I try to talk about in the intro: the status of the heroic auteur in the 21st century, and how do you participate in writing about filmmakers without purely celebrating them.
No matter who I’m talking to about this book—whether they like Anderson or not; whether they like the book or not—no one is going to argue that this filmmaker is under-discussed. You know? The same goes for the Coens. So there’s obviously a commercial calculation in there for Abrams, which is: who are filmmakers with a fanbase and constituency who would be interested in this kind of visual catalog of their films? But I have to also find the movies interesting and think I can say something semi-original about them.
As one who likes your writing a lot and generally likes Anderson’s films, sometimes a great deal, I have to confess concern upon first hearing the title, Masterworks.
Because I started to expect a direct exaltation. I’ve heard you speak rather well of The Master and Phantom Thread, thus the thought that I don’t need to read a book celebrating this entire corpus. Then you offer a fair level of criticism—sometimes creative failings on, say, Boogie Nights, and at other times these rather pointed notes about representation issues. Is there a direct line from your honest feelings to what goes on the page to how it forms a thesis? I don’t expect you to pull punches, but I have to wonder about incorporating these comments into a book that also interviews many collaborators.
It’s funny. With the Coens, at the very least with that book, it’s very clear that—whether I’m right about this or not—I feel pretty comfortable with the wavelength they’re working on. And I think, in that book, someone could read it and say we really tried to make the best case possible for all of them. It’s not that it’s a fan-ish book; it’s just that there’s something in the way they make movies that I think I’m sympathetic to. I think, at the time, I was pretty ambivalent about Anderson’s early movies, even though I was kind of right in the sweet spot for that stuff, and I think the idea that, in the ’90s, American cinema—which is itself such an abstraction, to call anything “American cinema”—had this attempt to both reclaim the glory days of the ’70s and forge this new, millennial path.
So you get these sequels, in a way, to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Whether it’s a literal book like Rebels on the Backlot, I think it was an idea in film culture and the film industry that the ’80s were over—that franchises and sequels and the empire striking back are old-fashioned, and we need our Tarantinos, we need one more Coen brothers. Even in the ’90s, there was a way Boogie Nights and Magnolia were marketed, about how self-consciously virtuosic they were, that I was pretty put-off by. I write about that in the book. Even though I don’t think he became a more austere and subtle filmmaker—in ways he became more grandiose with stuff like There Will Be Blood—I started connecting to them in real time. He went from a filmmaker who, maybe in my early 20s, I would’ve said was part of the problem to a filmmaker who I’m obviously interested in enough to do this huge book about.
I like what you say about an evolving perspective, because I imagine writing a book about a working, active filmmaker has a moving-target quality. At the end you discuss work on a new feature, and little did you know that said feature would star one of the people who wrote the forward to your own book.
That was a nice surprise.
Talk a bit about writing on someone who’s in that place.
The book I wrote on Ben Wheatley is a good example of this: you have this idea that you’re writing about someone who’s really new and you’re trying to get in on the ground floor. Not only do I still think he’s a really interesting filmmaker—I like that book. But when his next couple movies haven’t done very well, you find yourself sort of looking back at that book. Did I guess wrong? Did the target move in a different direction? Even with the Coen brothers, the book managed to come out at the same time as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs but without including it. With Anderson, one of the things a lot of collaborators alluded to when I was interviewing them, and as we were in touch with his teams as we’re writing this summative book about him, was that he’s just about to begin a new film. The target moved, and unless someone’s dead that’s always what’s going to happen—and even then there’s stuff unearthed or recontextualized.
I will say: there’s something, and I don’t know how you feel about this, about Phantom Thread, in that it’s not a culmination or summation of what he does. It’s not like everything’s been leading to it. But it’s a pretty interesting point with which to start looking at him in total, I think. I think that when you look at Jason Sperb’s book Blossoms and Blood, which I quote from in my book and I think is very strong and I have a lot of respect for—it’s a more academic book; it’s sort of a postmodern media analysis and definitely not an auteurist book, and it definitely deals with auteurism but is not written through that lens—he ends with There Will Be Blood and has a rushed postscript on The Master, and now in 2020 you’re like, “Boy, you missed a lot there.” It’s not his fault. Right? It’s when the book came out. But Phantom Thread is an interesting out with which to look back at Anderson; it’s not a bad moment to go back over the career.
Because Phantom Thread is maybe my favorite of his films it’s, in turn, subject of my favorite essay herein. It’s a summarative piece, and the book has an accumulative quality in how it seems to incorporate his other work more the further we go. Is that me imagining things, or an actual strategy?
Yes, because you have more things that are, at that point, in place for the reader. With the Coen book the joke kind of told itself, where you call it This Book Really Ties the Films Together. I still maintain that that book got approved in the first place because it was a really good title. I’m being semi-joking when I say that, but not really. You want something that has a conceptual throughline, so with this book we decided to take the films out of chronological order and deal with them in a, kind of, more historical sense—the fact that the vast majority of his work is set in California, and certainly in recent years he’s connected to California history, and use that to discombobulate the narrative. But in doing that you also have these outliers, like Phantom Thread—which I’m sure you noticed is a loop around the whole book. It begins and ends with it. It’s a movie set long before Punch-Drunk Love or Inherent Vice but comes after those.
So you try to make these little structural games you’re playing work for you. I found that placing Phantom Thread at the end not only makes a case for it as a kind of outlier, but also as a movie about time and repetition and circularity. It’s also, literally, his most recent movie, so all the other movies can be brought to bear on it in a way that feels natural. On the other hand, I don’t know how a reader experiences it, but it’s an interesting thing to start with There Will Be Blood, because it’s not like anybody who saw There Will Be Blood in 2007 didn’t have baggage from his other movies already. We just put it right off the top because we’re dealing with it as a kind of origin myth for dealing with his view of… not just California or capitalism, but entrepreneurship and the individual obsession with these idiosyncratic, male psychopath characters. It’s interesting to put it first and see what that does to the book.
It’s nice that you follow criticisms of his breakthrough Boogie Nights with a real appreciation of the lesser-seen debut Hard Eight.
A thing about Hard Eight is that, in a way, it’s such an assured movie that not treating it as a debut, as a movie to get out of the way first, was also kind of liberating. You could treat it on certain other of its terms instead of talking about it as “the start.”
What’s your research-compiling process? How many viewings of each film did you have?
For the book specifically I probably watched each film at least twice. Certain films had a kind of home field advantage because I had just seen them a lot already, right? The funniest viewing for the book—and it’s not like it’s a great anecdote, but I also don’t want people to think it’s really lazy viewing—the Magnolia chapter I decided to write after I had been flying home from England and literally watched it as seatback entertainment on the plane. I’m not saying that inspired me to write it—I was already deep into the PTA book and happened to decide to write about Magnolia—but it wasn’t a research viewing; I was flipping through whatever Air Canada was offering. It’s a pretty funny thing to watch a movie as grand and distended and pop-operatic as Magnolia with little tinny earphones on a plane. Because it’s also in their classics section—Magnolia is about as old a movie as an airline’s ever going to show.
It wasn’t a totally frivolous viewing because I kind of knew I’d write about it in the book and I’d had multiple viewings where I took notes, but it is funny: the big memories I had of seeing Magnolia as a late teenager during Christmastime when school was out and going to the theater and all of that were offset by this really small, contingent, 30,000-foot viewing of the movie, and for whatever reason on that view of it—without the overpowering cinema stuff while watching it in a distracted state—certain things about it worked better for me than they’d ever worked before. I really do not know why, but that little airline viewing of Magnolia was really quite pleasurable and I took that with me into the chapter.
Your essay mentions an element of Magnolia’s screenplay. Are you reading scripts for each feature?
The scripts are more for their introductions and extracurriculars. They’re good for research. Scripts can sometimes be deceiving as a reference point because obviously the way things are written—and even published, in spite of the finished movie—versus how something’s actually staged or spoken in the film, there are lots of disparities with that. If you read the book, I’m going to refer to the film, not the script. I like to read clips pretty close.
The Coens’ filmography is far larger than Anderson’s, and it seems your book on the former spent less time with each individual title. Wheatley only had a handful when you wrote your book, the Coens are at another end, and I think Anderson sort of sits in the middle. So how does the size of the body of work affect the range of study?
Not only is a good observation; it’s something you have anxiety about. With the Coens, the number of films dictated the shape of the book, but we also didn’t have anything we all worked together on to measure against; now we have the Coen book and the PTA book was, on a visual-design level and conceptual-design level, obviously there was this desire to do things different. So longer chapters vs. shorter chapters and out-of-chronological order vs. in chronological order. The Coen book is multi-directional from the very beginning, whereas you observe, rightly, that the PTA book kind of takes on references as it goes along so the reader isn’t lost, does not presume to know the later films already. I think I could easily write longer chapters on the Coens, but if I wrote 6,000 words per film, the book would be the size of a filing cabinet. I hope, as someone reads, they don’t think it’s too padded.
I don’t think all the films are created equal, and that’s why what you said about the title at the beginning… it unnerved me, but I like thinking about this idea of calling it Masterworks. I liked it almost just for the idea of “works,” because we try to talk about process with a lot of his collaborators. But if you do subscribe to the idea that he’s a kind of master filmmaker, if there is any such thing, I don’t think Anderson is a contentious candidate for that designation. Even the people who don’t like him—and in certain cases the criticism is very fair—I don’t think there’s any debate that there’s a style he has a mastery of. This is not a filmmaker you could criticize for being inept; the criticisms are on other things. I don’t think the films are all masterworks; I think they all have their masterful elements about them. But I just like what the word “work” does in the context of movies. I’m interested in moviemaking as a kind of work, in working style, in workflow, in collaboration. I hope the people who read the book will share what you said: that it’s not just cheerleading equally for all eight of these movies.
On that note, I enjoyed your interviews—almost as cool-down processes. I read the book in concentrated sets to get back to you, and these had a nice way of carrying us out. They’re also very informative, sometimes marked by an honesty I wouldn’t expect from collaborators—Robert Elswit speaks not-so-nicely about Phantom Thread, and Vicky Krieps says she’s maybe not so keen on There Will Be Blood or Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. How much did these conversations inform your essays, or vice-versa? Did you mostly write, then interview?
Most of the essays informed the interviews. But I have to say: the most validating moment for this book—and it’s on the shortlist for me as a writer for nicest feelings I’ve had—was the way that, in talking to Vicky, so much of what not just I, but what other critics, like Maneula Lazic, had written about Phantom Thread felt very vindicated through how she talked about Alma. It wasn’t one of those times of stating, “Well, don’t you think this is what the movie is?” or about being a wacky, off-kilter interview. I have very strong feelings about that character and the way she’s played; to me it’s what makes the movie so interesting. I think Day-Lewis is very good, but it’s a kind of misdirection. I don’t think the movie’s really about him, or if it’s about him it’s through the eyes of the character who it’s really about. The way Vicky Krieps kind of spoke to those things and illuminated those things, and was very honest about where some aspects of her performance came from… even though the piece was already written, I was like, “Well, I guess I’m happy with what I wrote because the movie I saw is definitely the movie she thinks she made.”
Elsewhere I was kind of struck by the, as you say, candor, the protectiveness, the possessiveness, the friendships so many long-time collaborators have with him. I had that in the Coen book, too, where these people have a really tight-knit group around them, and that’s where some continuity in the work comes from, except I think they’ve been mythologized almost into the Hitchcockian assembly-line guys who write, draw their storyboards, and somehow, eleven months later, the film is just made in those images. Whereas, with Anderson, the mythology is very different. Obviously there’s a lot of intent with his camera and he has big ideas, but all the stories you read about him are, “This was found in the moment” or “this was pushed out of the actors,” a sense of spontaneity and invention. The interviews reflected that. I really hope people like Dylan Tichenor, because he talks about editing in a way that’s just about as concise as anyone I’ve ever read. He’s really good on his own craft.
It’s great. These aren’t general-interest questions; it’s more granular.
The Tichenor interview is obviously about multiple movies, but I was really so interested in hearing him talk about Magnolia. Whether you like the movie or not, so much tends to be written about that as on-the-page. “He put it all on the page, he didn’t cut anything from the page.” But the way that movie is put together, whatever it may be driving towards, is absolutely astonishing as a work of cross-cutting. As parallel montage, it’s really a banger.
You don’t get too much into other writing on Anderson, but in the Phantom Thread piece you take some issue with Stephanie Zacharek’s comments on the movie. It’s maybe the only point where you’re willing to go a bit toe-to-toe with another critic.
There’s nothing wrong with anyone disliking any movie. There’s nothing wrong with anyone disliking Anderson’s movies. I thought that particular observation was a good kind of jumping-off point to talk about the literal and figurative in that movie. Stephanie Zacharek’s a good film critic, but there’s the suggestion that the movie’s about this obsessive genius and it, in some ways, seems to vindicate him. Or vindicates his fashion, or worldview. With respect to the fact that if people read the movie that way there’s something to it, I just don’t think it’s what the movie is at all. I don’t think the movie is advocating for the creative process we see in the House of Woodcock; I think it’s hilariously ambivalent about it. It’s a mode of business that, if not on its last legs, might be buckling a bit. There is the aristocratic pseudo-royalty that keeps them in business that might be on the way out. Also what the woman says at the beginning, “I want to be buried in one of your dresses”—that’s not a good thing.
What Reynolds does is just very death-tinged to me, and I don’t think that’s something the movie is unaware of. Zacharek’s quote is something about treating the creative process in a way that’s morbid, finicky, with no life, and yes: that is true. It’s not a mistake. I hope framing that opening intro with stuff by Armond White will strike some people as interesting because I really like the way he wrote about There Will Be Blood when it came out. Which was very polemical and not written with no respect for how the movie was made, but where I think he was bang-on was saying you have this director people seem to need to be this great white hope, and he’s made a movie that’s really going to give them that feeling. He doesn’t think the movie’s worth it and I definitely like the movie more than he does, but he definitely sees stuff about wanting a Ford or a von Stroheim or a Welles to call their own, and I think he’s right. He seems to be a lot of people’s candidate for that.
And much credit for not writing the book positing that. I was impressed by the lack of overzealous… not that I expect it from you.
Yeah. But at the same time, you said you’re a fan of his movies—obviously I am, too. There are those films of his with moments, or sometimes full films… like, I look at The Master. I don’t know if Ford is the one, but you think of Welles—not just in Hoffman’s performance, but some of what the movie’s getting at about performance, cult of personality, leadership, and charisma. I think the hype is not wrong. I think there are certain things he can do, particularly in these kind of actor duels he has, and also, in recent films, an overall audio-visual design, and how he can be precise and discombobulating at the same time. This is unbelievable talent, and I think less predictable and less repetitive than skeptics might say.
I wonder what you think about—and I kick myself for not saying more about it—I just think it’s amazing what a memed movie Phantom Thread turned out to be, and kind of what that says about it. In terms of finally tapping something pretty universal by making a marriage movie. He’s made romantic comedies before, and dealt with relationships, but Phantom Thread is a movie with lines or images that pop up in contexts well outside the boundaries of something nebulously defined like Film Twitter. In some ways I think it’s the most truly popular movie that he’s made. Boogie Nights is one with a different kind of popularity and recognition, but Phantom Thread got six or seven Oscar nominations and a wider demographic liked it, which, given what a perverse and funny movie it is, I think is kind of wonderful.
You talk to Krieps about the gifability and memeability. For a movie to be that good and strike that balance is fascinating. At the end you talk briefly about Tarantino and their weird relationship—not antagonistic, but Tarantino has been open about criticizing some of Anderson’s work. Anderson’s not quite the household name but does exist in that periphery.
You’re right. And now we’re getting into thought-experiment territory, but I think if he made Boogie Nights again or made something again like Boogie Nights pretty soon after Boogie Nights, I think the, not exactly memeability, but incredibly popular reach would have been there for him. Magnolia is what it is, and something like Punch-Drunk Love, even with Sandler, is such a weird flex of “here’s a movie-star movie,” but that is such a self-selecting-audience kind of movie. By the time you come back around to There Will Be Blood, which really did have some kind of cultural currency and was a bit of a hit, by 2007 nobody was calling him the next Tarantino anymore. That was the whole rhetoric around Boogie Nights and, a decade later, that’s just gone. I think that’s really interesting.
He really did till his own path—and I don’t state this in the book because I think other people have said it—it’s a kind of anti-commercial one. He still works with stars and has distributors and isn’t making stuff no one will go see, but you compare him to a peer—like David Fincher, a great filmmaker just happy to be given scripts or pursue scripts with commercial prospects, and that’s never what Anderson did. I’m not saying it heroically. It’s just interesting. That never came together for him, nor does he seem to chase it.
I remember people called him the next Kubrick, which is maybe more of a mountain to climb.
Although, again, when There Will Be Blood came out, that was the name that got mentioned. Which both is and isn’t interesting.
The acknowledgements mention being in coordination with a lot of the Anderson ensemble. But what, if anything, is his awareness? Especially if an actor in his new movie co-wrote the forward.
[Laughs] With the Coens, they are so above needing to account for their movies that the lack of an interview in that book, to me, is kind of correct. I’d interviewed the Coens before and they couldn’t care less. That doesn’t have to do with me; I just think that has to do with their relationship to criticism. It’s not a bad thing. I just don’t know what anyone would tell them that they don’t already know about their films. Their collaborators spoke of them so casually as such nice, funny dudes, which is quite opposite to their mythology as filmmakers. I like that the book has that tension, where we could never confirm or deny what all those people said about them. Their collaborators were like, “They’re chill, you should just call them,” or “they’re really relaxed guys.” I don’t doubt it, but the way I wrote about those movies, I’m like, “This is made by positively intelligent beings. These are incredible geniuses to me, personally.” With Anderson there was a lot of affection in terms of how people talked about him, and the same rhetoric: “You should talk to him, he’d be happy to talk to you.” We were certainly in touch with him being aware of the book, but I think with our schedule and pre-production on his new film, that didn’t happen.
I know he’s aware of it. I’m curious to know what he thinks of it. The fact that it, as you say, has a critical edge to it, I would hope is seen in the spirit in which it’s intended, which is as a serious reckoning with the work. I should also say, which I’ve learned writing a few books—including the Showgirls book I wrote and another I’m working on now—it’s rare for a lot of these really A-list directors to sit for books about them, and I understand why: they’re on the record so many times about all these things. I make the Chris Farley Show joke. With the Coens, what are you supposed to say? “Hey, remember when you guys made Fargo? That was really great.” Of course I would do better than that, but you have these long, long, long careers, there’s not always a lot of desire to look back at them film-by-film in the rigorous way the book itself works. If anything, with Anderson, the thing I’d most want to talk to him about is the thing he’s working on now—which is also the thing that’s going to put this book instantly out-of-date.
Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks will be released on October 20.