Paramount Vantage is on the There will Be Blood promo trail, screening the pic and building support. I watched the two hour and forty minute film, happily, for the second time at the WGA screening Monday night; the crowd gave Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis a standing ovation afterward.
Here’s what I learned:
As far as the Oscars go–Daniel Day Lewis is a cinch for a nom. And the directors could come through for Anderson’s extraordinary mise-en-scene. The writers may see some weakness in the script. The production values are stunning–production design, costumes, etc. There Will Be Blood won’t play for the mainstream Academy. But it’s a movie, like Citizen Kane or Greed or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that will endure. It has that kind of power.
Paramount Vantage should encourage folks to see this movie twice, because it really is better after it has been pre-digested. That said, gorgeous as it is, the movie is hard for people to take. It’s not easy to watch. It’s rough and violent and provides few good characters to hang onto. And Lewis’s towering performance is more humorously operatic than I realized the first time.
Newsweek critic David Ansen, who was the only journalist on the set of the movie, moderated the Q & A and revealed that Paul Dano was originally cast as Paul Sunday, the guy who tips off Daniel Day Lewis’s oilcatter to a possible oil strike in California. At the last minute, just as Dano was supposed to start filming, Anderson told him that he wanted him to play a second role, as Paul’s twin brother Eli. Dano was surprised, but jumped right in. The problem is, the film is confusing. I was not sure that they were two separate people the first time. This time, I watched carefully; Anderson doesn’t spell it out enough; it flies over people’s heads. Several people at the screening were also confused.
Comparing the film to Upton Sinclair’s novel, Ansen said, “This is original, the resemblance to the book is miniscule, based on the first 150 pages.” Anderson agreed that the book was “mammoth” and thus impossible to shoot at its length. He transcribed a lot of the book, but just kept cutting and cutting. Something that was ten pages “became five, became four, became one,” he said. Inspired by a plot of land on Signal Hill where oil was discovered, Sinclair “was a great journalist,” said Anderson. “He wrote in amazing detail.” The movie was contained in good part from being a “typical epic” by its limited scope and budget, Anderson said.
One of my favorite shots in the film, when Day Lewis on horseback rides around the outside of the Bandy house and peers in through the window, was Lewis’s suggestion; Anderson just shot it. Lewis, in pork pie hat, said he did a lot of research, like digging into the ground. “It was irresistible,” he said. And while he took a long time “to splash around” on finding his voice, listening to turn-of-the-century recordings, John Huston did come to mind at a certain point. Lewis sent Anderson tapes of what he was trying. “The great advantage of a period like that is noone knows, so you can do whatever you like,” he said.
Anderson also watched Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre repeatedly, and gave it to Lewis and composer Jonny Greenwood. “For a few nights in a row I fell asleep to it to get into the saltwater of it all,” he said.
The score by Jonny Greenwood, which seems strange and intrusive the first time, grows on you the second. One big chunk of the soundtrack is Brahms.
Anderson loved working with all the non-pros around Marfa, Texas, including first-time actor Dylan Freasier, who plays his son H.W.. “He’s terrific in the film,” said Anderson, “and he’s ten times as terrific as a young man.” First, though, Freasier’s state trooper mom had to give permission for him to star in the film opposite Lewis. Unfortunately, she was horrified by Gangs of New York before someone quickly sent her The Age of Innocence. Then she relented.
I was struck by the notation “a carbon neutral production” on the closing credits. This for a movie that involves a lot of gushing and dramatically burning oil. Anderson admitted afterwards that he had nothing to do with this and found it amusing, as the burning oil is real in the film and would be pretty hard to neutralize. “Did they plant a lot trees?” he asked. The ILM digital effects in the movie are mostly enhancements, along the lines of a wonderful shot of an oil lake with the sky reflecting in it. Anderson had seen a picture of a lake like that and wanted it in the film.
Ansen has a trove of info on this film. I hope he goes ahead and writes up what he knows online, even if Newsweek’s print edition isn’t interested. (Newsweek’s new editor isn’t entertainment friendly; no wonder Sean Smith left to go to become EW’s LA Bureau chief.)
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]