Paul Thomas Anderson on ‘Licorice Pizza’ and Moviemaking: ‘Anyone Who’s Done This Knows That Confidence Is an Illusion’

Paul Thomas Anderson, chronicler of the dark heart of America in films like “There Will Be Blood” and parties that stretch to near dawn in “Boogie Nights,” is a morning person. He’s up by 5, in bed by 9 or 9:30, and rises before the sun, when he tinkers with scripts, watches movies, or just enjoys a few hours alone with his thoughts before he wakes up the four kids he has with Maya Rudolph.

“It’s my quiet time,” says Anderson, who is interrupting that sojourn to speak with a Variety reporter about his new film, “Licorice Pizza,” a warmhearted story about growing up in the San Fernando Valley. “I have a lot of siblings, and the only time to have any alone time was to wake up before anybody else. The only problem is by 1 o’clock you’re wasted.”

He’s excited but nervous to discuss his new film, the ninth feature in his canon and possibly the most tender and optimistic movie of his career. “I still haven’t quite figured out how to talk about it yet,” he confesses.

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Tim O’Brien for Variety

Shot in the sprawling exurb of Los Angeles where Anderson was raised and lives with his family, “Licorice Pizza” centers on Gary Valentine, a teenage actor and entrepreneur, and Alana Kane, a 20-something woman he meets while waiting to have his school picture taken (she’s working as an assistant to the handsy photographer). Gary enlists Alana in his scheme: They start a waterbed company, audition for movies and get involved in a mayoral campaign. Set during 1973, amid great political change, shifts in popular culture and a gas crisis, their adventures cause them to brush up against old and new Hollywood. Sean Penn plays a William Holden doppelgänger, while Bradley Cooper portrays producer Jon Peters, the former hairstylist and boyfriend of Barbra Streisand, depicted as a libidinous id in polyester.

The result is a dramatic change of pace from much of Anderson’s other work, with the loose, funny, gloriously buoyant story of “Licorice Pizza” standing in contrast to the avarice and paranoia that he depicted in “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” or the Gothic romance at the center of “Phantom Thread.”

“This story just emerged,” says Anderson. “I love the way it unfolds. You meet these two people. You have them fall in love and get to see their relationship blossom, and there are various episodes that challenge them in different ways. I didn’t overdesign it. I just got lucky.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer will debut “Licorice Pizza” in limited release on Nov. 26, when it could find itself in the thick of the awards race, at least if voters embrace soulfulness over cinematic suffering. In advance of the film’s debut, Anderson speaks about his approach to directing, his abiding love of stories set in the Valley and the reason he’s unlikely to join Daniel Day-Lewis in retirement.

Sam Mendes called you “a true auteur.” Would you describe yourself that way?

I’m very nervous about describing myself with a French word that essentially means psychotic control freak. But in English, I take that compliment, and it’s true that I have a single-minded dedication to what’s in front of me and each film that I make. I find that consumes an enormous volume of my life, so there’s no time for anything else. Sam Mendes can do things in multiple different formats. I look at that career and think, God, how fun would it be to direct a play? But at this point I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Even if something like that was presented to me, I would fear it would take away from what I do, which is write movies and then go and direct them.

What inspired “Licorice Pizza”?

A very long time ago I was walking around my neighborhood, and I passed Portola Middle School. It was picture day, and I saw this very energetic teenager flirting with the girl who was taking pictures. It was an instantly good premise. What happens if you have a kid invite an older woman to dinner, and what if that girl against her better judgment says yes? That seemed ripe for humor. That didn’t go anywhere, but then I had a friend who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He was a child actor who got involved in the waterbed business. And he told me all these stories, and each one was more wonderful than the last. Like there was this time he’d appeared in the movie “Yours, Mine and Ours” with Lucille Ball, and he was on his way to New York for a publicity tour and needed a chaperone. He ended up hiring a burlesque dancer who lived in his neighborhood to take him. And Lucille Ball was on her second marriage to Gary Morton, and she used to scream “Gary!” all the time. That was my friend’s name, so he’d think, ‘Holy shit, she’s yelling at me.” But she was screaming at her husband.

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Paul Thomas Anderson directs stars Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman on the set of “Licorice Pizza.” Mike Bauman

Is that friend Gary Goetzman, the producer and business partner of Tom Hanks?

He appeared in “Yours, Mine and Ours” as a child actor. I can’t remember at this point if I’m trying to pretend that it’s not Gary’s story, but fuck it, it’s him.

“Licorice Pizza” takes place in the San Fernando Valley. Why do you set so many films there?

Comfort. Joy. I like the way it looks. I like the way it tastes and smells. I don’t know beyond I love it. Do I wish I had more range? Yes, I do. I was writing another story. I was deep into it and I was distracted by the pull of this one, and of course there’s a moment where you go, “Are you really going to make another film in Los Angeles in the ’70s again? Don’t you think you’ve done that?” Then you ignore that voice, and you swat it away like a fly.

What does the title “Licorice Pizza” mean?

After many months of banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to name this film, I concluded that these two words shoved together reminded me the most of my childhood. Growing up, there was a record-store chain in Southern California called Licorice Pizza. It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film. I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood. Maybe it just looks good on a poster? The production company that we shot the film under was called Soggy Bottom, which is the name of Gary Valentine’s waterbed company, and that got miscommunicated in the press as the title. In the long run, I couldn’t live with naming a film “Soggy Bottom.”

Given that Gary is 16 in the movie and Alana is in her mid-20s, what restrictions did you put on their romance?

It’s only romantic in their flirtations; it’s not romantic in any consummation of things. That would be inappropriate. You can tell there’s an incredible attraction between them, but there’s a line that can’t be crossed.

Were there films that shaped “Licorice Pizza”?

The two films that were in the back of my mind as touchstones were “American Graffiti” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

You shot during COVID. Did the protocols detract from the experience?

Those protocols did not get in the way. This experience is the most joyful I’ve had on a film. It was great to be surrounded by all our friends and family, to be in my home neighborhood, playing a home game, creating this thing.

Alfred Hitchcock meticulously storyboarded his films, so he said his job was largely done before actors ever arrived on set. Are you like that?

I have a plan, but it’s not overly planned. The benefit of shooting in my neighborhood on a movie like this is I have a rough sketch of what it might be like. But then, of course, you arrive, and there’s 200 kids standing in line waiting to get their picture taken, and it becomes a real live breathing thing. It’s like a dinosaur tail getting away from you. You just try to wrestle it into your frame or go whichever direction it’s going. It never had appeal to me — the idea of knowing every bit before you start. There always must be some room for discovery.

Do you write your movies with actors in mind?

Mostly. I like to work with people I’ve worked with before. At this point it’s becoming harder to do this work with someone that you don’t know intimately, deeply, on a personal level. It’s too hard to do this work without having more than just a passing relationship.

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Patrick Hoelck

In the case of Alana Haim, who plays Alana, you’ve made music videos for Haim, the rock band she’s in with her sisters, but she’s never acted. What made you think of her?

This was a story that was very specific to the San Fernando Valley. That was important in terms of casting. It’s like if you’re going to tell a story in New York, you hire Marisa Tomei. Alana looks like a girl from the Valley; she talks like a girl from the Valley; she is a girl from the Valley. She has a ferociousness. She’s very eager and she’s a quick learner. I don’t know how many more boxes you can tick. In the movie, she starts off as the stable one, who has more years under her belt, but it slowly emerges that she’s wobbly and unstable and impulsive and angry and trapped and incredibly immature.

You cast Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Gary. Has he made movies before?

Cooper had years and years and years of experience under his belt of making home movies with me and my family. Generally, they are action-oriented films where he’d get beaten up as the bad guy by my son who heroically throws him off a cliff or shoots him in the face. Besides that, he’d not acted in a professional way. I didn’t write it for him. I wrote it for a blurry 15- or 16-year-old boy. I never imagined when I was writing it that it would be Cooper. I thought that I would take the more traditional route and pursue a young actor. There were a few I met that were talented, but most of them already seemed at a young age to be overly trained, overly mannered and overly ambitious, which was not interesting to me.

Gary seems less tortured than your other protagonists.

The fun thing about Gary is he takes everything seriously for 15 minutes like any 15- or 16-year-old would.

Sean Penn plays an alcoholic actor named Jack Holden. He’s supposed to be William Holden?

Sean Penn is playing Jack Holden, who is a stand-in for William Holden. I have a kind of moving target for when I feel it’s appropriate to call characters their actual names or when you create a stand-in. Christine Ebersole, for example, is playing Lucille Ball, but we call her Lucille Doolittle.

What’s the line for you when it comes to naming people?

It’s fuzzy, but you get to a point where you think, “I don’t want to hire somebody to do a William Holden impersonation.” I wanted to find someone who felt iconic, and there’s no one more iconic than Sean Penn. I’ve been asking Sean Penn to be in movies for as long as I’ve been doing this. I wanted him for “Boogie Nights” in the part that Alfred Molina ended up playing in the firecracker scene. I talked to him around the time of “Punch Drunk Love”: I had another kind of concoction of how that might go, and he was going to be the foil against Adam Sandler, but that didn’t work. What’s nice about his performance is there’s nothing funny about it. Sean does not play one thing for the gag. He plays the utmost seriousness and delusions of an actor. That’s hilarious.

But Jon Peters, who is a real person, appears as Jon Peters in this movie. Did you tell him he was a character in the film?

I called him and let him know that we would be telling this story and he would be a character in it, and he seemed perfectly excited and happy about it. He was very sweet and said, “You can do whatever you’d like to do, but please just get my pickup line in there.” And I said, “What was your pickup line?” And he said, “I’d go to a girl and ask her if she’d like a peanut butter sandwich.” And I said, “Did it work?” And he said, “Yes, it worked.” So we put that in.

In the film, Jon Peters is hyper-aggressive when Gary and Alana deliver a waterbed to his house. Did that happen?

Gary would tell me stories about delivering waterbeds, and he told me a story about delivering waterbeds to Jon Peters’ house, and he said, “He was the greatest guy in the world. He brought us in. He said take your time boys. I’m off to the movies. Enjoy yourselves.” I thought, well that’s not very dramatic. We need the exact opposite to happen. So I created a monster version of Jon Peters from things that I had heard over the years. I took everything I’d heard about any Hollywood producer of that time that had a reputation for a lot of bravado and aggro energy, and placed it there.

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Actor Cooper Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’ Melinda Sue Gordon/MGM

You have made some heavy movies like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood.” “Licorice Pizza” feels so ebullient. Were you looking to make something lighter?

Maybe I was. I can’t remember actively looking. It emerged at a time when I had been writing a few other things that were on the heavier side and that had lost their luster to me. This one didn’t lose its luster. It made me eager to get out onto the streets and make it.

This film will be in theaters, but lots of adult-oriented films like it are going to Netflix. Would you work for a streamer?

I worked with Netflix on a short film, “Anima,” with Thom Yorke. We had a wonderful time taking an abstract dance piece and having it reach a wide audience. So I had an incredible experience with them. But I also have a relationship with Universal, Focus and MGM [the distributors of “Licorice Pizza”] and they’re in a different business — a business I really love and support. There’s room to do everything, I suppose.

Do you worry about the health of the theatrical landscape?

Who doesn’t? But you know what? I worry a lot less than I did five weeks ago. With each passing week it seems like films are doing better. “Venom 2” did well. James Bond did well. It seems to be clawing back. The bad part would be if we clawed back to right where it was and we’re making the same old shit and shoving it down people’s throats and they’re buying it again.

But the films that you mentioned are franchise films. Couldn’t Hollywood use this as a justification to make the “same old shit” and nothing else?

We’ve heard that scare before, and then it goes away when a few great films come out that are of a smaller scale and a little bit more creatively minded. I’m not going to lie — there’s been a couple of moments where I thought the sky was falling. The theatrical exhibition industry had a much-needed and long-coming kick in the pants, didn’t it? They built 25-plexes and 30-plexes and all that kind of stuff, and it got bigger and bigger and shittier, and you know what, you’re shocked that they’re empty? Well, what did you think was going to happen? They built these pyramids for their demise.

Do you mind if people stream your films?

Not at all. I don’t mind if people discover my work that way. I’m counting on it long after I’m gone.

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Alana Haim, a member of the rock band Haim, plays a Valley local. Melinda Sue Gordon/MGM

What movies have you seen that you’ve liked recently?

“Shang-Chi” was good fun. There’s a terrific energy about it, but I also live in a Marvel-obsessed household, so continuing the journey of these Marvel stories is exciting to us. I liked “Venom 2.” “Titane” is worth seeing. Proceed with caution: I have no idea how to recommend it, because it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t know entirely how I feel about it, but, my God, you are in the hands of a real filmmaker. I was holding on tight for dear life, and that is a terrific feeling. I watched the trailer for “King Richard,” and when it comes out, I will be first in line. When Will Smith decides to turn it on, it’s so magical. I loved his performance in “Pursuit of Happyness.” It’s an undertalked-about film.

Do you root for other filmmakers to succeed?

All the time. I love the feeling of being a passenger to a director. I would be foolish not to root for other filmmakers at this point. As you get older there’s no competitive spirit because everyone else’s success in making a film helps everyone. Good films feed good films.

You pursued Sean Penn for decades. Are there other actors you are dying to work with?

Denzel. There’s a white whale right there. That power, the scale of his movie-star power and range, that’s very exciting to think about working with. Olivia Colman, she’s an absolute powerhouse. Once I’ve worked with somebody, I really want to work with them again and again. I really want to work with every single person that’s in this film. I’m very anxious to work with Joaquin again. There’s a disproportionate amount of talent in the acting department and a lack of material that rises to their ability.

Quentin Tarantino is retiring after 10 films. Actors you’ve worked with like Daniel Day-Lewis claim they’re retired. Would you ever hang it up?

I’m far too instinctual to plan like that, to seal my fate or to draw a line out in front of myself. That would take away or disallow some impulsiveness. If I understand Quentin, his feeling as a student of film history is that directors’ work declines as they get older. I don’t know. I want to do this as long as I can. If I was ever going to retire, I certainly wouldn’t tell anybody about it. You just wouldn’t hear from me again. It’s like saying, “I’m not going over to your house tonight.” And you go, “Well, you weren’t invited.” And I say, “I know, but I’m not coming over.”

Is Daniel Day-Lewis serious about retirement?

We can all get together and hope he’ll come back. Wouldn’t it be great? When “Phantom Thread” came out, I was asked about it a lot, and I feel the same way now that I did then. Yes, I’m greedy like everybody else. I want more Daniel Day-Lewis performances. But I also think he’s given us more than enough, and we should stop being so greedy. He’s the king.

As you’ve gotten older, how have you changed as a filmmaker?

My instinct is to say that I’ve gotten more confident, but anyone who’s done this knows that confidence is an illusion. One day’s good work doesn’t mean anything. You’re still at the whim of the gods about how the next day is going to go. But as you get older, you get better at predicting a few steps ahead or sensing how a performance is evolving. Having a wider vision comes with experience, but everything has an asterisk with it. You may have 25 years of practice, but when you walk on that film set, you’re right back to being a fucking novice again. That’s the pull or the addiction for many of us who do this thing.