‘Inherent Vice’: Paul Thomas Anderson on His Trip Through Thomas Pynchon’s L.A.

“What are we talking about? I’m lost,” says Paul Thomas Anderson midway through a lunch interview, as he runs a hand quizzically through his unkempt brown hair. It’s a reminder that a conversation with Anderson can be akin to one of his own movies: a jam-packed jostle of characters, ideas, exuberant digressions and narrative curlicues that somehow align to form an inimitable whole. Still picking through his appetizer course, Anderson has already held forth on his love for Lena Dunham, “The Hunger Games,” his inability to read books that friends give him as gifts, and his habit of walking on the outer edges of his feet. But mostly, we are talking about “Inherent Vice,” Anderson’s seventh feature film — the first-ever authorized screen adaptation of a novel by National Book Award-winning author Thomas Pynchon.

The movie, bowing Dec. 12 in limited release, and opening wide Jan. 9, returns Anderson to a familiar milieu — 1970s Los Angeles — but beyond that, any similarities to the director’s breakthrough 1997 sophomore feature, “Boogie Nights” are negligible. Where “Boogie Nights” (and the subsequent “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk Love”) were deeply rooted in the San Fernando Valley, where Anderson grew up and still resides, “Inherent Vice” is a South Bay tale, set in a hippified Manhattan Beach where anyone from East of the 405 freeway — “flatlanders,” in Pynchon-speak — is viewed with innate suspicion.

Into those flatlands goes stoner private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in search of his missing, on-again/off-again girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Along the way, there are meetings with various desperate, delusional and/or homicidal men (and women), as well as a few straight-laced law-abiding types, all of whom seem to materialize like spirits out of the smog and marijuana haze. The sprawling, episodic structure allowed Anderson to assemble what his longtime producer JoAnne Sellar calls “the ensemble cast to end ensemble casts”: Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short and Jena Malone among them. But despite the marquee names, “Inherent Vice” is, like most of Anderson’s films, far from a sure commercial bet, and as transgressive as anything out there bearing the imprimatur of a major Hollywood studio. (Warner Bros. co-financed the $20 million production with Barry Diller’s IAC and Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment).

Peter Hapak for Variety

To date, Anderson’s biggest hit remains his 2007 multiple Oscar winner, “There Will Be Blood,” which grossed $76 million worldwide on a reported $25 million budget and a pricey awards campaign. Universal subsequently put Anderson’s next project, “The Master,” into turnaround hell. But then, Anderson, like Stanley Kubrick before him, makes the sort of movies that often perplex audiences at the moment of their initial release, only to grow larger in the collective consciousness over time. Even “Blood” was received divisively by critics and audiences in 2007 (when it lost the best picture Oscar to “No Country for Old Men”), but went on to top many best-of-the-decade lists three years later.

“I’ve loved all of his movies, and sometimes not right away, sometimes on the third or fourth viewing,” says Brolin, who stars in “Vice” as the faintly sadistic police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Sportello’s principal antagonist. “It’s like a Tom Waits album: the more I listen to it, the more I go, ‘God, this is so much deeper than I initially got.’ Which is obviously my problem and not the films’. ”

Director James Gray, who became fast friends with Anderson after meeting him at a 1994 screening of “Pulp Fiction,” sees a kind of high-wire artistic risk in every frame of Anderson’s work. “You get the sense that he is fearless,” says Gray. “It’s a tremendously exciting thing to watch a movie where you know the filmmaker will do something that you do not expect, something that’s not easily digestible, something that is out there on the edge and is an experiment of some kind.”

Anderson, a longtime Pynchon devotee, had years ago flirted with the idea of adapting the author’s critically drubbed 1990 novel “Vineland,” but couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. “That was the book that really made me fall deeply, deeply in love with him, the one that I related to the most,” he says. In 2009, when galleys of “Inherent Vice” began circulating around Hollywood, along with the rumor that Pynchon was open to the idea of a film version, Anderson asked Sellar to investigate, and in short order a deal was struck.

“It turns out that Pynchon had admired Paul’s previous work,” says the producer, who, like everyone else interviewed for this story, professed ignorance about any further contact the famously press-shy author may have had with the filmmakers, including his widely rumored cameo in one scene of the film. (Phoenix, too, recalls having had no Pynchon sightings, but adds a caveat: “I don’t know what he looks like. If he was there, I’m sure I was probably rude to him.”)

If landing the rights was a relative breeze, securing the movie’s financing was anything but. While doing publicity for “The Master” in 2012, Anderson announced that “Inherent Vice” would be produced by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, which had rescued the earlier film from Universal, and footed its entire $30 million budget. But sometime before “Inherent Vice” began shooting, Ellison pulled out of the project amid rumors she’d been burned by “The Master’s” meager $28 million worldwide gross (though Anderson maintains the two remain on good terms).

Translating Pynchon’s nearly 400-page text into a single feature film also presented a new set of challenges to Anderson, whose lone prior literary adaptation, “There Will Be Blood,” was only loosely based on its nominal source: Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” The director began by converting “Inherent Vice,” line by line, into screenplay form — a massive document that he showed to a few trusted intimates before undertaking the task of whittling it down to size.

When he’d reduced the script to around 200 pages, Anderson shared it with Robert Downey Jr., whom he envisioned as a possible Sportello. In a GQ interview published earlier this year, Downey groused that Anderson later gave him the boot after deciding he was too old for the role — something Anderson confirms. “Well, it’s true! No one wants to see a 50-year-old beach bum,” he says, adding that he and Downey “had a desire to work with each other, and were trying to strum up business where there wasn’t the right business to be done.”

Peter Hapak for Variety

It was then that Anderson’s thoughts drifted to Phoenix, who had just starred as “The Master’s” psychologically scarred WWII vet, Freddie Quell (a role that earned the actor his third Oscar nomination). Phoenix was eager to re-enlist. “There’s the feeling that there are no rules and you don’t feel limited in any way, and yet at the same time you feel confident that there’s somebody behind it all who’s guiding it in the most delicate manner toward where it needs to go,” he says of Anderson’s directorial style. “I think he brings out the best in people.”

Anderson wasn’t always quite so easygoing. When he first started out, and for a good while after, the director (who was 26 when he made “Boogie Nights”) developed a reputation as something of an enfant terrible. He had fought for final cut — and won — with the producers of his 1996 debut feature, “Hard Eight,” and had publicly criticized New Line Cinema (distributor of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”) for failing to properly promote his films. Looking back at his younger self now, Anderson sees someone with a surfeit of false confidence and bravado. “I was also the youngest person on the set, and it felt like if you didn’t map out every shot, someone was going to come and eat you alive,” he says. But by all accounts, including his own, the 44-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson of today is a changed artist and man.

“I’d say he’s become more collaborative over the years, in terms of hearing other people’s ideas and sometimes taking them on board,” Sellar says. “Also, he’s got four kids now (with longtime partner Maya Rudolph), so I would say that adds to it as well.”

The shift began around the time of “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), the manic-depressive romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler and arthouse doyenne Emily Watson. The back-to-back making of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” had left Anderson feeling exhausted and eager to find a new way of working, in a looser, freer style, with a smaller crew and more room for spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

The director now likes to take his time, with a leisurely shooting schedule (in the 50- to 60-day range, far longer than most movies with comparable budgets) that gives him the freedom to try many variations of scenes, including occasional mid-production reshoots. He regards the first two weeks on a movie as “a mess of finding things, of sorting out what seems right and what doesn’t. Simple things, like maybe Joaquin’s hair is parted down the middle, and then finally you get to some little moment and realize, ‘Oh, that’s how it should be instead.’ ”

Anderson also spends upwards of an entire year in the editing room, and marvels at the Directors Guild of America standard contract that requires directors to screen a first assembly for their producers within 10 weeks of wrapping the shoot. “If at 10 weeks I was required to show something, I would be in an absolute panic,” he says with a shudder.

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, are the butterflies. Anderson still feels them in his stomach as opening day nears. “You know Tetris?” he asks of the beloved Soviet videogame that lives on his smartphone. “You play, and the first five levels are so fun, you’re just knocking those blocks down, and then suddenly they start coming so much faster. That’s what it sort of feels like working up to the release of a film. Those levels back there were so much calmer. Why are these huge blocks coming at me so fast?”

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