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Inherent Vice
The cast of Inherent ViceCourtesy of Warner Bros UK

Paul Thomas Anderson: ghosts and the sea

Counterculture’s biggest auteur has made a career of filming the unfilmable. Now he’s taking on Pynchon and babysitting Joaquin Phoenix

Paul Thomas Anderson stands on the sidelines of The Prince Charles Cinema on a cold evening in November 2014. He's nervous. His new film, Inherent Vice, is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's tale of a beach-bum private investigator and the complex conspiracy he gets caught up in. It has already premiered at the New York Film Festival to critical acclaim and audience applause, but this is different. This is a last minute pop-up screening – Anderson’s idea – and he's about to introduce his film to its first paying crowd in London. He cares, so much so he created a special trailer just for the event. He's wondering what people will think. He's hoping they like the film. Still, this is the place to do it. Anderson likes the Prince Charles. Some grindhouse theatres are fun, but unreliable. The projection isn’t right, or the sound isn’t great. But it looks good and it sounds good at the Prince Charles. That’s important.

Cut to 1975, it’s a rainy day in California, and maverick TV announcer Ernie Anderson has just decided to take his kids to the movies. “I think Jaws had made such a splash and had been out for such a long time, my dad was like, ‘I guess I gotta go see this movie, and I’ve got these two kids who I don’t know what to do with, so I’ll bring them to the movie.’ I remember being in the car, I was with my sister – who’s a couple of years older than me. I was in the back seat, rain was pouring on the window. I remember seeing the marquee; we were late.” Ernie and his family make it inside in time for the film, but quickly wish they hadn’t. “Jaws was already very scary, then the head pops out – when they’re out searching and the fucking head rolls over – both me and my sister started screaming. Then my dad took us out of the theatre; I think he realised this isn’t for kids. I was four. I was fucking four years old. And I have kids, so I know what four’s like,” he laughs.

Fast forward to 2013. Anderson is still cutting Inherent Vice, but it’s at a stage where it's ready to be seen by its first ever audience, made up of family and friends. And, as with Jaws, a film set in a 70s seaside town is making Anderson uncomfortable in a cinema. “I try to get good and fucked up and drunk before the first screening, so I’m not paying attention just because I’m so nervous. You feel it. You can just see the back of people’s heads, the energy. Then when the smoke clears, you sober up and keep doing it again and again for friends and family, try to feel the pace as much as you can. Every once in a while we’ll get crazy and do experimental things to see if they work. Sometimes they do… mostly they don’t.”

Thirty-two years after Spielberg's shark sent him screaming from his seat, Anderson decides on putting his own iconic movie monster into the ocean. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is taking a swim for one of There Will Be Blood's most memorable moments. “That scene’s so good because you’ve been in the desert for so long, then you’re finally in the water and it’s so refreshing. It’s so calming. Then it’s funny, at that moment everything starts to get really fucking tense and really dark. You get this big relax, this big release, then it gets really peculiar.”

It's the first time the ocean would appear in Anderson's American history trilogy (which includes There Will Be Blood, The Master, and now Inherent Vice), but it wouldn't be the last. The Master opens with a shot of the sea, as does Inherent Vice. What does the sea symbolise to him? “I love the sea, I love the ocean. I love to swim in the ocean. My wife Maya’s (Rudolph) convinced I was a fish in another life, it could be just that simple. But in movie terms, it looks good. You can’t blow it. You don’t have to light it, you just wait until a certain time of day and it looks good. There’s something about going to the beach with a film camera that feels good.”

Consumed by fathers and sons for so long, Inherent Vice features Anderson's first real exploration of the theme of fathers and daughters, with key threads involving that relationship. “That was nice to have in there, because that’s not normally something I’ve done. In the book, Pynchon narrows it all down to this handoff with this lawyer who can’t face his daughter. He doesn’t want to deal with it, this generational gap. It’s really beautiful how he does that.”

Cut to 1995, Anderson is 25 years old. He's just picked up his first Pynchon novel. “I got Gravity’s Rainbow and I thought, ‘This is too fucking hard, I can’t do this.’ Then I got Crying Of Lot 49 because that was the thin one, and I liked that. Eventually I got to V, which really started to speak to me. But when I got to Vineland – that was the book that really fucking opened my head up. I was able to really get into how he writes. I think it’s a chore for some people, a lot of people don’t really go with it. But I think the people that work at it can get a lot out of it.”

Four years later, Anderson is 29 years old, and he's just made Magnolia, a tribute to his father with as many key characters and difficult plot lines as a Pynchon novel. “It absolutely poured out of me, fuck if I could do that again. It’s something you probably only try to do when you’re that age, you have just enough confidence, maybe a little talent, but mostly just drive and energy.” In the Magnolia video diaries, you can see how much energy Anderson had on that set. But making Inherent Vice he was older, and wiser. “The energy’s different now. There’s been so many times where I’ve started a day firing on all cylinders, and by lunchtime everyone is just completely spent and you’re fucked. I think I’ve learned how to pace myself a bit better in terms of expending energy.”

Which isn’t to say there isn’t still time for some luxuries, albeit sensible ones. “On Inherent Vice, we had a masseuse that came to the set. We act like we’re children still, but we’re all getting old. You’re always so afraid of it becoming like a Bruckheimer set where there’re masseuses in trailers. We always try to keep it humble, but finally we were like, ‘I fucking need a massage.’ So those were the kinds of things in terms of keeping your energy up, or trying to treat yourself well to get through how difficult it is to shoot a movie.”

“Does anybody believe that? That’s such horseshit. I’d like to see Quentin in early retirement, tending his garden or something. If that happens it’s ridiculous. I’ll be knocking on his door telling him to get back to work”

Cut to 2013, and Anderson is talking to Martin Scorsese about how difficult it is to shoot a movie. They’re discussing The Wolf Of Wall Street, and Scorsese is making Anderson think of Quentin Tarantino. “It’s amazing to have a conversation with him. It’s like a big wave of information that comes at you. Quentin’s the same way, they have these minds that are just so full of information and film stuff. I’m not like that, they are masters of information. And they’re much more than that, too.”

Scorsese might still be churning out movies, but Tarantino is set to retire – announcing he'll make ten films total before folding up his director's chair forever. “Does anybody believe that? That’s such horseshit. I’d like to see Quentin in early retirement, tending his garden or something. If that happens it’s ridiculous. I’ll be knocking on his door telling him to get back to work.”

Both Tarantino and Anderson like working with big stars. When Tom Cruise did Magnolia, he was the biggest star in the world. The rumour mill gabbed that Anderson and Cruise fell out because of the director’s representation of Scientology in The Master. But it’s clear Anderson is still a fan. “Did you see Edge Of Tomorrow? It’s fucking great. And no one went to see that movie. That was Cruise at his best. You watch Tom Cruise, and you say ‘There’s no one else that can do that.’ There’s not a moment when you say, ‘I could see someone else playing that part.’ It never occurs to you. There’s only one man that can do this, and it’s Tom Cruise.”

Cut to 1997, and Tom Cruise is taking Paul Thomas Anderson onto the set of Stanley Kubrick’s last ever film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick doesn't have much time for Anderson at first. That is, until he discovers the director writes his own movies. Only then does Kubrick show interest, his respect for writing so essential to his own work. And surely Kubrick would be impressed that Anderson has not only adapted Pynchon, but rewritten key elements. “I think I read somewhere that Stanley Kubrick liked Pynchon. I don’t know what he may have read, maybe Gravity’s Rainbow. It felt really shady at first to rewrite Pynchon; you feel like an impostor, like you’ve got dad’s car and you don’t want to fucking crash it. You tread lightly at first, feeling really out of your depth, which I did many times. Ultimately, I tried to put myself in his head, and thought that I’m probably more uptight about his words than he might be. We only had to do minor things, always in service of making it flow a little better as a three-dimensional thing and not a book.”

“It felt really shady at first to rewrite Pynchon; you feel like an impostor, like you’ve got dad’s car and you don’t want to fucking crash it”

Pynchon's Inherent Vice has a sense of aching nostalgia – all the characters are missing something. We ask what makes Anderson nostalgic, and it's the first moment which gives him pause. He looks out of the window, and seems sad. “It’s a big question. All of it, you know. The list is long. I do spend a lot of time looking back and being nostalgic about things that have happened to me that I miss, or things that I wasn’t even there for that I miss. I thought that The Grand Budapest Hotel was about nostalgia in such a beautiful way. No matter what anyone has to say about Wes Anderson, you can’t fault that movie. Looking back at another time when manners and good hotel service was standard, fucking standard. The fact they take him out and kill him at the end… That movie is so fucking good.”

Cut to 2014, Los Angeles, California. Anderson has walked in the room to find his son, Jack, watching an age-inappropriate Spielberg production. Jack's roughly the same age Paul was when he first saw Jaws. “Poltergeist was on the other day. I was in the other room, and I came into the kitchen and my three-year-old son was staring at Poltergeist, watching it. I thought, ‘He’s going to remember this like I remember that head.’ So I got him out of the room. We watched a few minutes together, but then I turned it off.” Poltergeist and Jaws. Ghosts and the sea. Ghosts and the sea seems a good way to sum up Anderson's American history trilogy. Is he ready to make a film in the modern world again? “It would be nice only because it would be a tiny bit easier. Not to get too philosophical about it all, but I like living right now. I like where I am. I don’t have a need to dress up like it’s the 60s or anything like that.”

November, 2014, London. It's the day after the Prince Charles screening, and the sun is shining brightly. Anderson is smoking a cigarette and smiling. He chats openly and looks content. As we walk into a central London hotel, I ask about last night's audience's reaction to Inherent Vice. “It was fucking great last night,” he beams. “It was really fun.”

Inherent Vice is in theatres January 30