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An early draft of Punch-Drunk Love was a Tarantino-style gangster comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson’s lost 1993 script, which planted the seed for the 2003 movie, is a fascinating curio that shows his evolution

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love boasts a very sly cinephile in-joke. It occurs 61 minutes into the 2002 anti-romcom, moments after Adam Sandler pummels a wall with his naked fist. Wincing and whimpering in agony, Sandler strokes a harmonium with an outstretched arm. The bruises on his hand, if you look closely, spell “L-O-V-E”. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter and Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. Yet it also, intentionally or not, alludes to an earlier, wildly unrecognisable incarnation of Punch-Drunk Love that dates back to 1993.

In 2000, Anderson announced that his follow-up to Magnolia would be titled Punch-Drunk Knuckle Love. Back then, the only information was that his fourth feature would star Sandler, Emily Watson, and Sean Penn (later replaced, thankfully, by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The plot was unknown, and the overriding question was: “Wait, the guy from Happy Gilmore?”

However, internet sleuths and dial-up detectives assumed Anderson was resuscitating Knuckle Sandwich, an unproduced screenplay which he had bashed out on a typewriter at the age of 23. The leaked version – marked as a “first draft”, dated September 1993 – is a gangster comedy with Tarantino-style dialogue, ultra-violent set-pieces, and a car chase to boot. At 140 pages, it would have been 140 minutes, with every second required for its lengthy monologues and shaggy-dog story: Barry, a professional thief, has to navigate the criminal underworld in order to hunt down his ex-wife, Lena. Why? Because he wants “one last kiss”. It’s action-packed, ridiculous, and more suited to, say, Tom Cruise than the Sandman.

Of course, Punch-Drunk Love, in its released version, is a small-scale drama about amassing frequent flyer miles and the shame of phone sex. Barry, a socially anxious office worker, crushes hard on his sister’s friend Lena, and so he splashes out on an impromptu trip to Hawaii. So far, so different. Moreover, the pudding-token subplot was inspired by a real-life news story from 1999, six years after Knuckle Sandwich. Yet, at the heart of it, both films are borne from the same themes, the same characters, and the same notion that love conquers all – especially if the letters are inked out on your right hand.

Even without its Punch-Drunk Love connections, though, Knuckle Sandwich is still worth investigating for what it is: a lost screenplay by an immensely talented filmmaker. (It’s also pretty easy to find. You just have to wait until Anderson leaves his laptop unattended in Starbucks.) Penned in 1993, the script preceded Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight, and hinted at a writer-director who was brimming with confidence and determined to prove his worth. On its opening page is a single instruction: “This movie is to be shot in CINEMASCOPE.” At 23 years old, he was already dreaming in widescreen.

In the first scene, we’re introduced to Barry Wurlitzer and Lena Leonard (they evolve into Barry Egan and Lena Leonard in Punch-Drunk Love) in Los Angeles, 1967. The meet-cute is at a hotdog stand. There’s no record scratch, but there’s a freeze frame and a “this is it” moment. Next thing you know, they’re getting hitched in Las Vegas, exchanging sweet nothings like: “If I love you, why would I get this urge to smash your face? To smash your beautiful, beautiful face with a sledge hammer?”

When that line of dialogue reoccurs in Punch-Drunk Love – “I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it, I just want to fucking smash it with a sledgehammer” – it’s a moment of tenderness between Sandler’s Barry and Watson’s Lena. We’ve seen Barry destroy a window and punch a wall, but Lena is none the wiser. So it’s a guarded loner opening up about his anger issues, and a sympathetic companion revealing that she speaks the same twisted language.

“The draft offers a glimpse into Anderson’s creative headspace. The missing money plot is Hard Eight. The LA goose chase is Inherent Vice”

But in Knuckle Sandwich, Barry’s strange declaration of love is just a writer showing off his oddball wit. Which is to say that Anderson, as ambitious as he was, hadn’t quite found his voice yet. The script, really, is driven by twists and set-pieces, and not the type of character-driven arcs present in his produced work. For instance, Barry and Lena spend most of the film apart. Six months into their marriage, Lena vanishes and leaves a note: “I don’t love you anymore. You’ll never see me again.” Here, Lena’s more of a McGuffin than a co-star.

Barry, we soon learn, is an armed robber who works for an all-round bad guy, Babaloo – think Trumbell, Hoffman’s blackmailer in Punch-Drunk Love. So Barry and a few buddies rob an underground casino and receive bullet wounds for their efforts. As a wise bird once said in The Flintstones, it’s a living. Yet when Barry is on the ground, “lying in a pool of blood”, all he can think about is Lena. The poor guy is obsessed.

So with Barry dashing around LA in search of clues, the plot of Knuckle Sandwich becomes redolent of a sun-noir like Inherent Vice. It includes a lengthy car chase, numerous blood-soaked shoot-outs, and a finale that feels like three Die Hard movies condensed into half an hour. The camera directions are frequent and outrageous. My favourite is on page 25: “CAMERA, STILL RISING, DOES A 360, THEN CUT TO BLACK” – that’s right, the title sequence only appears after 25 minutes.

There are, admittedly, a few signs of an amateur. For instance, Babaloo delivers a minute-long speech about the time a kid at school tried to blackmail him for a sandwich – so he beat up the second-grader with his lunchbox, killed him, and got a boner in the process. “No one steals my sandwich,” Babaloo says not once, but several times, as a sort of catchphrase.

That said, it’s a first draft, possibly written on a lark, which offers a glimpse into Anderson’s creative headspace. The missing money plot is Hard Eight. The LA goose chase is Inherent Vice. The feeling anyone could spontaneously burst into a monologue is Magnolia

Above all, Knuckle Sandwich instilled the idea that someone like Sandler could defeat hired goons with the most powerful, sappy weapon of them all: love. Note that the most quoted line in Punch-Drunk Love appears practically word-for-word in Knuckle Sandwich: “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than you could possibly imagine.” In in the 1993 script, it’s a sloppy two-page monologue, not a punchy kiss-off to Hoffman, but you get the gist.

Still, it’s for the best that Knuckle Sandwich remains unproduced. It’s like searching for your favourite band on YouTube, and finding a demo dating back to their high-school days. It’s a fascinating curio, but you can tell why it’s gathering dust in a drawer: it’s simply not good enough. On a scale of one to ten, it’s certainly not a Hard Eight.

But for Anderson fans, it’s essential reading, and for wannabe screenwriters, it offers some valuable advice: your script might not be up to standard now, but just keep at it, refine the narrative, rewrite 95% of the dialogue, flip the genre, make three critically acclaimed movies and learn from the mistakes, and maybe – just maybe – in ten years’ time, you might be able to get Adam Sandler to sign up as the lead.