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Your guide to Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film

Casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obnoxious asshole, worrying it sounded like a porno and establishing his famous technique – everything you need to know about PTA’s ‘Hard Eight’

Before Paul Thomas Anderson was propelled to the top of the auteur league with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the director made a moody Las Vegas-set neo-noir called Hard Eight (aka Sydney). He was 26-years-old when it premiered at Sundance, and it was his first stab at a feature film. Marked by impeccable performances, kinetic camerawork and a fleeting performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, PTA’s unmistakable fingerprints are all over it. But as assured as it is, the film was no walk in the park for the young director. Here are some things you might not know about his first film, which premiered at Cannes 20 years ago.

THE FILM GREW OUT OF A SHORT FILM HE MADE WHEN HE WAS 23

Though Hard Eight is PTA’s first feature film, it didn’t just appear out of thin air; he didn’t get a fat wad of cash from his parents and throw it at some talented actors and technicians. PTA developed his debut from his own 1993 short called Cigarettes & Coffee, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Shorts Program and naturally had everyone asking, Who’s this Paul Thomas Anderson kid? Impressed with his short, the Sundance Institute invited him to the June Directors Lab that year to develop the feature film script he’d been working on. He leapt at the chance. The film was Hard Eight and he cast Philip Baker Hall as the lead once again.

 

HE THOUGHT THE TITLE ‘HARD EIGHT’ SOUNDED LIKE A PORNO

PTA never wanted to call his movie Hard Eight. He wanted to call it Sydney. Which is way more apt when you realize it’s less a film about casinos and high-stakes gambling than it is a complex character study of a man called Sydney. To the director, the title Hard Eight “sounds like a porno movie”. But the studio insisted on it. Those two syllables – Syd-ney – were somehow too vague or confusing to them, as if punters might turn up expecting a film about Sydney, Australia. In a long list of nightmare battles with the bigwigs, this was one PTA continued to fight for and never won.

HE SHOT THE FILM IN 28 DAYS BUT SPENT A YEAR ARGUING WITH THE STUDIO OVER CUTS

Today PTA describes the experience of making Hard Eight as “a long and painful story”. The reason, in short, was because the production company didn’t have a clue about making films. “It was financed by people whose roots were in television – bad television like Baywatch.” When stories emerge of filmmakers battling with studios it’s normally about being over budget, over schedule, crazy artistic demands, etc. But PTA’s shoot was nothing short of economical. He shot it in 28 days and edited his cut in three weeks. Sydney was in the can. Or so he thought. Turns out the studio weren’t happy with his version or the name of the movie, so they made their own cut and slapped the title Hard Eight on it. After a year of arguing, they eventually let him have his cut. But the title had to stay.

 

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN IMPROVISED MOST OF THE CRAPS SCENE

According to the actor, it was two o’clock in the morning at a casino in Reno and it was the first time Hoffman stepped on set. In the scene, Hoffman’s cocky dice-roller taunts his opponent in his southern drawl, “Come on old-timer…I don’t wait for old people”. He’s hilarious and totally nails the scene. But the most astonishing thing? It was mostly improvised. As Philip Baker Hall recalls: “When we filmed Hard Eight I was shocked at his ability to improvise his way through. He improvised most of that craps scene and just had such a sense for timing. At that point, I was older and he was very young. I was like, "Who is this kid?" He was so aware of everything and had the instinct of an older trooper. As I began to know him better and work with him more, I realized he was a genius and operating at a different level than the rest of us.”

PHILIP BAKER HALL’S ROLE IS LOOSELY CONNECTED TO MIDNIGHT RUN

Good bit of trivia here. Before the character of Sydney appeared in Hard Eight he popped up alongside Robert De Niro in the late 80s crime caper Midnight Run. Though the films are very different, the character is practically the same. In Midnight Run, Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney is a po-faced underworld character from Las Vegas with a penchant for nice suits. In Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney is a po-faced underworld character from Las Vegas with a penchant for nice suits. Coincidence? Perhaps PTA was tipping his hat to the underrated 80s comedy. Perhaps it’s an inside joke. Whatever it is, this should be at the top of every journalist’s list of questions for PTA. We need answers.

PTA CAST PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN AS AN ‘OBNOXIOUS ASSHOLE’ AFTER SEEING SCENT OF A WOMAN

Hoffman appears all too briefly in Hard Eight, but PTA wanted him specifically for the role nevertheless. In an interview with Vanity Fair he explains that he wrote the part for Hoffman based on his turn in 1992’s Scent of a Woman. “I must admit that [the role] was kind of in the tradition of characters that he’d done [at that point]—a loudmouth obnoxious asshole. But I didn’t feel bad about it. . . because I thought, ‘We’ll make it the best version [of that kind of character].” Hoffman would go on to star in a further four PTA films, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master.

 

IT ESTABLISHED THE DIRECTOR’S FAMOUS WHIP-PAN TECHNIQUE

The whip-pan is PTA’s signature camera dance – a ‘whip’ turn from one thing to another, replacing the traditional cut. It is to PTA what symmetrical framing is to Wes Anderson. With PTA, the technique was there from the get-go, appearing in a casino scene in Hard Eight. The camera swiftly turns from one character to the next, adding pace and a kinetic energy otherwise lost with too many cuts. Speaking of which: when the studio made their own cuts, they spliced directly into certain dolly shots, making it ten-times harder for PTA to piece it back together when he re-cut their chopped version.

THE FILM GOT ACCEPTED INTO CANNES BUT THE STUDIO DIDN’T WANT TO LET PTA GO

After the studio butchered the film in the editing room, PTA surreptitiously took matters into his own hands. “I essentially stole back my work print elements on Sydney,” he explains. With that print he made his own cut of the film and submitted it to Cannes without telling the studio.

“When Cannes saw my cut of the film they invited it to Un Certain Regard. It was a big deal. I called Rysher [the production company] up and I said, ‘listen, I know it’s your property, but I took my dup work print, I submitted it to Cannes, it’s in, this is a big mistake if you don’t give me some money and let me finish the movie.” They refused, of course. “First of all, they weren’t gonna let me go, they weren’t gonna let me take it. I didn’t want to go into the fucking Grand Palais with my dup work print, so I said let me have the original negative.” And from that, following more arguments with Rysher, he did eventually take his version to Cannes. The nightmare experience taught him a lot: “I thought my first movie had been taken away from me completely, and the only way that I could deal with that was to go make another movie, so I started prepping Boogie Nights.”