“There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, marks a shift of ambitions for the 37-year-old helmer.
As inspiration for his loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 tome “Oil!,” Anderson looked to the “classic storytelling” of John Huston’s 1948 dramatic parable “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
“It was the economy with which that story is told, but at the same time, it’s very meaty,” he explains. “There’s no sides, there’s no mashed potatoes, there’s no greens, they just give you the steak, and that was what it was. Maybe my natural instincts don’t lead me there, so it was trying to practice that thing, direct and simple.”
Indeed, ever since his first film, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” a stylish half-hour short that interwove three different storylines set in a Las Vegas diner, the L.A.-born director has opted for anything but simplicity — complex films rich in animated language, emotional characters and expressive cinematography.
As critic Dennis Lim recently wrote in Slate.com, “This is one director you could safely call a size freak — or, to put it more politely, a maximalist. The gushers of oil in his new film, ‘There Will Be Blood,’ are an apt visualization of how all his films function: They’re designed to erupt and spill over.”
With previous Oscar noms for penning 1997’s “Boogie Nights” and 1999’s “Magnolia,” Anderson the director had been overlooked — until now. He calls “Blood’s” eight noms “a testament to the cast and crew, who I am deeply grateful to, for their talent and collaboration.”
Such humility seems contrary to the headstrong young auteur who left N.Y.U. film school after two days and fought vigorously with backers over the final cut of “Hard Eight,” his critically acclaimed, but commercially weak, debut.
But this modesty befits a sense of maturity in his latest film’s meticulous execution, less the wild and woolly Altman-inspired melodramatics of “Boogie Nights” or “Magnolia.”
“I certainly remember after ‘Magnolia’ thinking, ‘I don’t want to do that again,'” Anderson says. “You don’t want to tell the same story twice. I certainly try not to, at least.”
And yet, from Las Vegas burnouts to L.A. porn stars, San Fernando Valley moguls and self-help gurus, to Daniel Day-Lewis’ greedy oil baron Daniel Plainview in “Blood” to a relationship-challenged Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love,” Anderson continues to tell a recurring story, of fractured families, and the conflicts between fathers (or father figures) and their sons.
With “Blood,” Anderson also remains an intuitive director, open to the vicissitudes of the set and the improvisations of his actors (most notably, Day-Lewis, whose “Plainview bullshit was just dripping off his tongue,” Anderson recently said at a post-screening discussion).
Anderson didn’t storyboard “Blood,” either. And the desert location constantly kept him on his toes. “You’re just struggling for survival, because it’s hot, it’s fucking dusty, and you don’t have time to think,” he explains.
Still, there was no particular challenge he can recall about the shoot. “I’m Pollyannaish about that,” he says. “I always look back and think, ‘That was fun,’ and everyone else is like, ‘That was a fucking nightmare.’ “