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What We Learned About Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’ at the New York Film Festival

What We Learned About Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Inherent Vice' at the New York Film Festival

Thomas Pynchon, the most heralded and iconic of the American post-modernists, has long been considered an unfilmmable novelist. His books are long, circuitous, densely-plotted and replete with allusions to physics, history, philosophy, culture, math, and classic literature, all penned in labyrinthine prose as playful as it is ponderous. But Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) attempts to grapple with the rarefied writer in his cinematic adaptation of Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” which screens as the Centerpiece of the New York Film Festival’s main slate tonight.

A pot-steeped mystery with noirish leanings and (neon) shades of the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski,” the film depicts a paranoid stoner private eye named Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), who may or may not be entwined in a murder mystery.

READ MORE: Paul Thomas Anderson is Back With First ‘Inherent Vice’ Trailer

Besides Phoenix (who was nominated for an Oscar for his searing work in Anderson’s “The Master”), the vast cast includes Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterson, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short.
After the Press and Industry screening in the Walter Reade theater this morning, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Kent Jones moderated a panel discussion with the film’s intimidatingly deep cast, and, of course, Anderson himself. Here’s what we learned.
People love Martin Short

Martin Short, who plays a coked-out dentist-cum-syndicate-member clad in a deep, nearly ultra-violet suit, received the biggest applause of the 10-person cast. Sitting in the seat furthest from moderator Kent Jones, Short was the only cast member who wore a suit (Phoenix wore black jeans and a hoodie — never change, Joaquin). One member of the press stood up and professed his love for Short, which spurred more applause from the audience, as well as a call of “about time!” When asked if anyone had actually read Pynchon’s novel, some cast members peevishly held up hands; Short tersely stated, “I had my assistant read it to me. Same thing.”
The shoot was loose and chaotic…maybe

Anderson faithfully adapted the spirit and tone of Pynchon’s novel, but his brilliance, according to Joanna Newsom (who voices the film’s narrator, whom Anderson described as Doc’s always-right Gal Pal), comes from his “receptiveness to change.” Newsom’s first scene in the film, she said, was actually changed on the spot. Anderson decided to sit Newsom down in front of some jugglers at the end of a day’s shoot. He asked the jugglers to stay put and they apparently complied.
Del Toro likened Anderson’s directorial style to dancing, and Pieterse, who plays the drug-using daughter of a powerful syndicate representative, said that her scenes with Short could go on all day. She would banter with Short, trying out different ways of slamming car doors or saying lines while Anderson kept filming. (Impressive, given that “Inherent Vice” was shot on 35mm, not digital.)
Wilson described the shoot as “loose and chaotic,” a sentiment echoed by several cast members, including Short and Pieterse. “Chaos comes down to something so simple, it’s beautiful,” Pieterse said.
However, Malone dissented with Short and Wilson, claiming that, with regards to her part, the focus on story and narrative and words was a “very structured process…chaos comes from a grounded logical base. You have to know where you’re spinning from.” Rudolph, Anderson’s wife, has a minute role as Doc’s assistant and she says that she was allowed to “improv a line about an afro, or something.”
Actors love Paul Thomas Anderson

When asked about the film, almost every actor responded with fawning praise for Anderson. Michael Kenneth Williams mentioned that he’s best known for his television work (ever heard of “The Wire?”), so he was concerned going into his audition and going on 48 hours without sleep. He “thought Paul hated [him.]” (“I did hate you,” Anderson retorted.) Williams was shocked to learn that Anderson wanted to sit down with the performers and “talk,” given how fast-paced things are on a TV set.
Anderson had faith in his actors, allowing Phoenix and Wilson to recite their sharp, rhythmic dialog in single takes; using two-shots and slow, subtle pushes, Anderson felt that the less editing he had to do, the better.
Since the cast was so large (a return to Anderson’s earlier ensemble style), most performers were only around for a day or two, so “I had to spend all day with this guy,” Anderson snarkily said, pointing to a stoic Phoenix.
Anderson doesn’t care if the film is confusing

Howard Hawkes’ classic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” is notorious for its utter lack of resolution. Legend goes that Hawkes and William Faulkner (who contributed some whip-smart dialog) phoned Chandler one night to ask who the murderer in the story was. “I don’t know,” was Chandler’s response.
“‘The Big Sleep’ is impossible to follow, but it doesn’t matter,” Anderson said. “You just want to keep watching it, seeing where it goes.” That’s what he wanted from “Inherent Vice.”
Anderson loves “fart and poop jokes”

“Literary is a bad word,” Anderson quipped while talking about Pynchon’s ability to mingle profundity with immature humor. (The film is replete with dick and vagina jokes — and features “graphic nudity,” according to the prudish MPAA.)
Hong Chau read the book

Chau, who watched myriad films from the ’50s to the Summer of Love in preparation for her role as Jade, read “Inherent Vice” before auditioning for her role (hers was one of the few classic auditions, as she didn’t know Anderson previously). When asked about the book, she began to recite her favorite passages. Hopefully we’ll see a lot more of Chau in Andersons future endeavors — she has a sharp sense of comedic timing.
Joaquin Phoenix hates press conferences

By far the most notable occurrence, or rather nonoccurence of the 30-minute conference was Phoenix’s silence. The actor is known for his reluctance to do interviews and press conferences — last year, during the conference for “The Immigrant,” Phoenix slumped into his seat, pushed a pair of sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and stared vacantly. Later, he was seen kicking a lamp post across the street (seriously, that happened — I saw it).
This year, Phoenix gave the press the silent treatment. He literally said nothing the whole time. It’s fine if you don’t wanna talk about your art in depth — last year John Goodman responded to every question during the “Inside Llewyn Davis” conference with a self-deprecating joke and it was glorious. But Phoenix’s refusal to say anything was a little disappointing, especially since Anderson had to restrain himself from “geeking out” over tech questions.If Phoenix was restraining himself, he did it with exceeding persistence. Maybe some blame should fall on the press for asking pretty lame questions, or with the other actors for sharing anecdotes about how much they love Anderson. Maybe having eleven people on stage was a bit unwise, more of a publicity stunt since it clearly wasn’t conducive to conversation, who knows. Phoenix, one of the most gifted and fervid actors of this or any generation, is a critical favorite, and everyone would love to pick his brain. Maybe next New York Film Festival he’ll let us.

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