Pin It
paul thomas anderson

A definitive guide to Paul Thomas Anderson’s work

As details are slowly released about his new film, we take a look at the work of one of cinema’s boldest auteurs

Paul Thomas Anderson occupies a strange, liminal space in American cinema. As a key figure of Indiewood filmmaking, he operates both inside and outside the mainstream, with his work attracting Oscar nominations and yet retaining aesthetic, formal, and thematic elements keeping him firmly in line with his peers in independent American cinema. Some reel at a perceived prolixity in his writing and directing that tips over into self-indulgence. Whichever camp you’re in, what can’t be denied is that, for better or worse, no one does it quite like him.

At first glance his films appear wildly different: from the neo-noir Hard-Eight (1996) to Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – the rom-com sporting arguably Adam Sandler’s best performance to date – and the melodrama of The Master (2012), he is a director often fuelled by conflicting tonal impulses. And yet when you look closely, his films are often linked in various ways through recurring themes, actors and collaborations.

As details of Anderson’s latest picture – working title Phantom Thread – slowly begin to trickle out, here is an alphabetical dissection of the director and his films to whet your appetite for the film’s release later this year.


Anderson once said that “if people want to call me Little Bobbie Altman, then I have no problem with that at all”. Robert Altman’s influence can be seen throughout Anderson’s work. A great director of the New Hollywood movement, Altman was the mastermind behind such classics as McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville and The Long Goodbye. From the use of a huge ensemble cast in Boogie Nights to the impromptu musical number in Magnolia, Anderson has constantly proved himself to be a filmmaker who wears his influences on his sleeve. Anderson also acted as the back-up director for Altman in 2005 in case he died before completing his final film A Prairie Home Companion.


Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) begins his journey in There Will Be Blood digging in the cold hard earth, and it is underground in his personal bowling alley that the film leaves him, sitting triumphant next to the corpse of his nemesis Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Arguably one of the most iconic moments from any film of the 21st century, the bowling alley scene from the end of There Will Be Blood is both beautiful and horrific in equal parts, showcasing the superb method acting of Day Lewis and Dano.


Weed and other drugs have constantly found their way into PTA’s films, and, indeed, his life. When asked about why he chose to intersperse a series of colourful transitions throughout Punch Drunk Love, he cited their raison d’etre as, simply, ‘pot’. And in Inherent Vice, a film brimming with madcap goofballs, weed gets more screen time and plays a more important role in the narrative than almost any other character.


Will the tentatively titled Phantom Thread provide Daniel Day Lewis with his fourth Oscar? Most probably. Will it be deserved? Without a doubt, if his intense performance in There Will Be Blood is anything to go by. Originally, Kel O’Neill was drafted to play Eli Sunday, but he found Day Lewis’s method acting too intense and quit, meaning Paul Dano took the role. Since its release in 2007, the film has achieved cult status and spawned innumerable gifs, largely due to Day Lewis’s transformative performance as the greedy oil man Daniel Plainview and his timeless ‘milkshake’ monologue.


One of Anderson’s key traits, especially in his early films, is the inclusion of ensemble casts. This feature of his work that puts him in a similar vein, once again, to a filmmaker such as Robert Altman, who filled his films with multiple characters in films such as Nashville and A Prairie Home Companion. The film in which Anderson puts an ensemble cast to greatest effect is of course Magnolia, which centres on the interconnected lives of a group of miserable citizens of the San Fernando Valley. In what is both one of the most beautiful moments of Magnolia, and one of the most controversial of Anderson’s career, he has the whole of his main cast suddenly burst into song, coming together to form a simultaneous lamentation on their sorry lives to Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’.


The theme of fathers and sons – and specifically surrogate fathers and sons – links all of Anderson’s films together. From Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) picking up the young-buck John (John C. Reilly) outside a cafe in Hard Eight, to Coy Harlingen’s (Owen Wilson) subsumption into the paternal, and yet incredibly dangerous, Golden Fang in Inherent Vice, the issue of surrogate fathers and sons is a thematic concern Anderson cannot help reiterating in various ways. While some choose to read this as evidence of Anderson’s own daddy problems, it may also have something to do with the fact that Anderson has surrounded himself with surrogate fathers throughout his career, from Philip Baker Hall, to the late Jason Robards and Altman.


Who could forget that scene from Boogie Nights? We’ve waited nearly the whole film to see it, and when Eddie AKA Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) whips it out, boy oh boy, it really is something to behold. Discussing Eddie’s enormous appendage, Anderson said it’s like seeing the shark in Jaws, it gets better the longer you have to wait.


After the excesses of Magnolia, Anderson settled down to make a much more pared back project. When he addressed a news conference after the release of Magnolia and told the audience that planned to make “an 80-minute film with Adam Sandler”, the room erupted into laughter. Few were prepared for the restrained beauty of Punch Drunk Love when it finally arrived. Punch Drunk Love is a film held together by the harmonium, the instrument Barry picks up off the street after it is mysteriously and hastily dumped on the pavement at the beginning of the film. From the moment Barry picks up the instrument, it acts as a dramatic device that puts in motion the film’s drama; as Barry learns to play the harmonium, his life – aided by his blossoming relationship with Lena (Emily Watson) – becomes more coherent and peaceful.


The opposing tonal impulses of irony and sincerity constantly come into conflict in Anderson’s films. Take, for example, the moment in Punch Drunk Love, when Barry tells his brother-in-law that he needs help because he often “cries a lot for no reason” after he has just inexplicably smashed his sister’s patio doors in a violent outburst. The film presents a tonal tension here asking us to both laugh at Barry, and emotionally engage with him, pushing and pulling the audience in two opposing directions simultaneously. It is this tonal balance which has led Anderson to be defined in relation to a strain of American Indiewood films defined as ‘the Quirky’, which often balance ironic detachment and sincere engagement on a knife-edge.


Jonny Greenwood has collaborated with Anderson since There Will Be Blood, and is set to return for his fourth collaboration with the director on his new film. Greenwood’s scores always manage to complement Anderson’s films in achingly beautiful ways. Take the swelling strings at the beginning of Inherent Vice, for example, which establish the melodramatic tone which forms the basis of the film despite its repeated forays into a goofball comedy sensibility.

What’s more, in his first documentary, 2015’s Junun, Anderson creates a love-letter to his friend and collaborator, following Greenwood on the making of his album of the same name, which he made in collaboration with Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express.


Although she had an impressive CV before working with Anderson, Inherent Vice brought Katherine Waterston to the attention of many. In a sterling performance as Shasta Fay Hepworth – protagonist Doc’s (Joaquin Phoenix) elusive ex-old lady – Waterston’s Shasta sets the drama in motion and maintains an emotional hold over Doc throughout the film. Since her turn in Inherent Vice, Waterston has been propelled to fame in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Alien: Covenant, due out later this year.


The long take is undoubtedly the cinematic technique Anderson is best known for wielding. To choose one example from his use of the technique across his entire oeuvre is a tough task, but the opening to Boogie Nights offers one of the finest examples. Anderson had famously had a nightmare with the producers of his first film, Hard-Eight, and so with his next feature – over which he had greater creative control – Anderson wanted to reintroduce himself, to make a statement of intent. Thus, we have the magnificent opening sequence to Boogie Nights, which displays an overtly pleasurable style of filmmaking.


Actress and wife to Anderson, Maya Rudolph makes a fleeting but memorable appearance in Inherent Vice as Doc’s secretary Petunia Leeway.


Back in his younger days, Anderson was a bit of a brat, and made no secret of the fact that he’d dropped out of film school knowing he could go it alone. When he was once in a particularly petulant mood, Anderson declared that “you can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school.” In the interview below, you can get a sense of how cocky and self-assured PTA was in his younger days.


To pin down the many influences on a cinephile such as Anderson is an almost pointless task, so rich and numerous are those films and directors he has been vocal about in his adoration. There are some directors that make the cut more than others, though. One such figure is Max Ophüls, another master of the long take whose film The Earrings of Madame de... Anderson introduced on its Criterion collection release in 2013. Check out this audio commentary from Anderson on one of Ophuls’ long-take tracking shots to get a good idea of how he has been influenced by the German filmmaker.


It was love at first sight for Paul Thomas Anderson when it came to his friend, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. They collaborated together five times – more than any other of Anderson’s recurring players – and when he died, Anderson read the eulogy at his funeral. His death was nothing less than a tragedy. Hoffman was, by all accounts, one of the most humble and obviously talented actors to have worked in recent years. He frequently worked in mainstream Hollywood – appearing in such films as Mission Impossible III and The Hunger Games franchise – but also regularly found himself in arthouse pictures such as Synecdoche, New York. Anderson discusses his love for the Hoff in this touching fan-made film.


When Anderson first broke onto the scene he was hailed as the new Quentin Tarantino. Since then, the pair have had an ongoing friendly rivalry, and have both declared their admiration for each other’s works. Tarantino was particularly moved by There Will Be Blood, as is evidenced in his analysis of the film.


Through his collaboration with Jonny Greenwood, Anderson has recently lent his filmmaking talents to Radiohead. This is a natural continuation for Anderson, who has a history of making hit music videos, having made them for his close friends Aimee Mann and Joanna Newsom, and his ex-girlfriend, Fiona Apple.


Scientology provides the thinly veiled basis for The Master in the form of ‘The Cause’, the mysterious cult into which the film’s protagonist Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) unwittingly falls into. In one of the most iconic scenes from the film, Anderson lets us see behind the curtain of the pseudo-scientific processes of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the figurehead of The Cause who, over the course of the film, finds a surprisingly deep affiliation with Freddie.


When Magnolia was released in 1999, Tom Cruise was one of the biggest names on the planet. His role in Magnolia as the deeply sexist and broken Frank TJ Mackie was a big draw for the film when it was released. The memorable performance sees Cruise as a long-haired life-guru dishing out advice to sad and lonely men on how to tame women and make them do their bidding.


The first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! provide the basis for There Will Be Blood. Anderson has said that the book “was a great stepping-stone. It was so cohesive, the way Upton Sinclair wrote about that period, and his experiences around the oil fields and these independent oilmen. That said, the book is so long that it’s only the first couple hundred pages that we ended up using, because there is a certain point where he strays really far from what the original story is. We were really unfaithful to the book.”  


The San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles maintains a special place in Anderson’s heart and, consequently, in his films. Three of his first four movies are set in the Valley, where he trains his eye on the types of people and places that influenced his upbringing. In an interview about Boogie Nights, for example, Anderson describes the strange experience of growing up in a place where the production of pornography was beginning to boom: “It was always there… bunker-type warehouses with no sign on them near my high school. You'd see people coming in and out and you knew there was something going on.”


Much to the surprise of Anderson-obsessives – and, I should think, the locals – Anderson quietly began filming in Whitby, Yorkshire last month. According to the Whitby Gazette, the area has been attracting celebrities such as Billy Nighy and Gwyneth Paltrow in recent years, and takes great pride in adding Daniel Day Lewis to this growing list. While information is still scant, a few surreptitiously taken photographs included in the publication hint at how much of a beautiful backdrop Whitby will make for Anderson’s new period film.


Anderson has never made any secret of the fact that he absolutely loves a porno. In a typically candid interview, Anderson describes how he has “seen a million porno movies” after discovering his father’s collection when he was just nine years old. However, his interest in porn is not purely carnal, and, instead, his early aesthetic concerns were actually influenced by the filmic medium most often passed off as unartistic. In another interview, Anderson says that it is the blue movies from the 70s Golden Age of pornographic filmmaking such as ‘‘Three AM at the Jade Pussycat, Amanda by Night and The Opening of Misty Beethoven… get A for effort and have their heart in the right place. With genuinely wonderful moments of intent, of storytelling approach or shot choice... or cinematic approach to shooting a sex scene that can turn me on.”


Another recurring theme in Anderson’s work is childhood innocence and its corruption. Take Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) for example, the child star of What Do Kids Know?, the quiz in Magnolia that pits adults against children in a test of intelligence. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, he is forbidden from using the toilet. Consequently, he has an accident which leads him to declare that he won’t be taking part in the quiz any more. Realising how he has been manipulated and pushed into the spotlight, Stanley informs his sleeping father that “you have to be nicer to me” in one of the film’s most affecting scenes.


The trio of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker – as well as helpfully providing the ‘Z’ on which to conclude this guide – are a fitting reference point for considering the influences which came together in such a strange alchemy to create Inherent Vice. The masterminds behind the 1980 classic Airplane! and The Naked Gun films, their goofball sensibility is reflected in Inherent Vice’s zanier moments.