Hopefully over this past weekend, if you lived in New York and Los Angeles or trekked to one of the fourteen advance screenings across the U.S., Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” finally unfurled its hypnotic charms after a run-up of various festival dates. A wide release in the New Year awaits those who didn’t see it, so some behind-the-scenes accounts will have to do. Last week, we spoke to Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin about their experiences on Anderson’s latest film, and this week the ladies of “Inherent Vice” take the floor.
Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau and Sasha Pieterse each approached the project from diverse showbiz routes —theatre, network TV, music— and memorably make their marks early on in ‘Vice.’
As Shasha, Doc Sportello’s quixotic ex-gal who reappears with a case on her mind, Waterson commands a unforgettable breakout role; Newsom —the immensely talented harpist, pianist and vocalist responsible for the albums Ys and Have One on Me— tackles her first onscreen role as narrator Sortilege. Meanwhile, Chau and Pieterse split time with TV roles on “A to Z” and “Pretty Little Liars” respectively to play Jade and Japonica Fenway. During the Los Angeles press day for the film, we had an all-too-brief chance with each of them to get the lowdown on their anxieties going into the project, thoughts on PTA’s directing style and much more.
After expressing interest in late 2010 about adapting “Inherent Vice” and writing the screenplay over the next several years, Paul Thomas Anderson started casting the film in the opening months of 2013. Joaquin Phoenix joined the ensemble first, and the question of who to play Shasta remained.
Katherine Waterston: I was a struggling actress working in theatre, and Paul’s long-time casting director [Cassandra Kulukundis] had seen me in plays. Her side of the story was that she was telling Paul about me and probably a number of other actors that she found talented. He wasn’t really paying any attention to what she said, but one day called her and said, “I saw this movie last night, and there’s this actress I really like.” She said “I’ve been telling you about her for years!”
Sasha Pieterse: I auditioned similarly to [Hong Chau], but not quite the same in the way, in that I wasn’t given anything to read. It was just “show up and talk with the casting director,” which was kind of great. I booked the part two days later, which was a very unusual experience for me. The first time I read the script was at the table read, and I remember that as we were talking, Paul was rewriting it on his computer.
Joanna Newsom: PTA is a friend of mine, and we’d discussed our mutual love of the book in the past. I think he was toying with the idea of having a narrator, so he texted me at one point and asked me if I would help him test this idea out. He sent me little fragments of the narration that were mostly descriptive passages from the book, and asked me to record them into my phone and send them back. I think once we did a few of those back-and-forths, he decided it was an idea he wanted to pursue.
Waterson: I think that’s sort of the way Paul works —he finds actors he likes and then starts thinking, “where can I put them?” It’s like falling in love. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I didn’t get the job, but actors learn to appreciate the good news while it’s happening, because everything’s so uncertain.
Newsom: At a certain point Warner Bros. called me for my wardrobe measurements, and after that I was like, “okay, I guess the part’s on the table in some form.”
As the enormous ensemble cast filled up, along with cinematographer Robert Elswit and composer Jonny Greenwood behind the scenes, the collaborators began to discover their characters.
Waterson: Paul gave me “Mondo Hollywood” to watch. I dug around for footage and films shot in and around Los Angeles, because my ideas about the period were a little bit more East Coast. My parent’s stories were all about Fillmore East, you know. I wanted to brush up on that and also what this beach community Gordita Beach would look like [in the ‘70s]. So I went to Cinefile, a wonderful resource on the west side of Manhattan that has old VHS copies. I just talked to the the guys there, and didn’t mention the project, but they had an encyclopedic knowledge of what was in the store. “Hey man, was that the ‘Witch Who Came From The Sea’?” “Yeah, early ‘70s!”
Newsom: I don’t think [“Inherent Vice”] is a story that you necessarily get. There are many components that make more of an intuitive sense when you revisit them again and again. But even though it’s framed as this detective noir mystery, I think that can be a little misleading in that you’re not supposed to solve it —it’s more a story of these tangential developments and shifts of mood that happen around the framework of the mystery.
As a character, Sortilege’s omniscience made it easier for me, because the entire book and script is under the umbrella of that all-seeing nature. Trying to understand her as a person is very difficult, because people don’t tend to have all-seeing vision. But I know a lot of hippies who may think they have all-seeing vision, so I just used them as references.
Waterson: I generally don’t like to talk too much about the character unless I feel stuck or in some trouble. I like to keep as much of it to myself, and especially with Shasta I didn’t want to feel separate from her the days of the shoot. So I kept “Katherine’s” secrets to myself as much as possible.
Filming on “Inherent Vice” begun in May 2013 around various Los Angeles locations —Manhattan Beach as Pynchon’s “Gordita Beach,” the Parker Center as Bigfoot’s LAPD stomping grounds, and Beverly Hills was used to capture the excessive possibilities of the ‘70s. Finally, the newcomers to Anderson’s ensemble discovered the approach for his unique adaptation.
Hong Chau: My very first day was my most fun and fancy-free day, and then I got more and more nervous. Which is odd: you’d think it’d be the other way around.
Pieterse: I was super, super intimidated, especially on my first day. I think what was cool about Paul is that he pulled me aside one time and said, “I love what you’re doing —relax. Just ease into your character. You’re doing great.” I think that was important, because I was working with so many legends.
Newsom: I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first film and I didn’t know what I was doing. Since Paul is such an important director and the cast were full of such well-known actors, I guess I expected a sense of gravity of a big Hollywood production, but there was such intimacy. It felt very protected and had an energy from everyone operating equipment as well.
Chau: I started on the very first day of production, and we shot a scene that didn’t make it into the film but is in the book where Jade leaves with Doc and Denis after the party where he went looking for Coy. There’s a whole scene in a car that we shot in Malibu. I got to start from day one, and the days that I wasn’t shooting I just went to set and observed because it’s such an amazing cast.
Word from the “Inherent Vice” set suggested Anderson was delving into increasingly experimental methods in bringing Pynchon’s story to life. While those larger-than-life slapstick elements seep most powerfully into scenes between Phoenix and Brolin as Doc and Bigfoot, the rest of the cast described the nuance and surprises that Anderson and the cast brought to their individual scenes.
Chau: Joaquin and Josh are very giving people. I was watching one day, and there was a dayplayer that came on. He was so nervous, and I’m pretty sure Josh purposefully flubbed his lines to get the other actor to relax. Josh is word perfect, and he was just cursing and asking the script supervisor “what’s the line?” It was the worst acting that I’ve seen Josh Brolin do, but it was so sweet to see him humble himself in the service of another actor.
Pieterse: My scene [in the office of Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, played by Martin Short] turned out to be completely different from the way it was written. Martin, Joaquin, and I all decided to do something different and didn’t tell one other, and the way it collided was so organic and worked so well.
Waterson: I don’t think Paul and I ever talked about [Waterson’s mid-film centerpiece, a hypnotic, one-take monologue]. It’s just a testament to how much faith he puts in his actors. The general feeling on set was “do it, and if it doesn’t feel like it’s going in the right direction, then we’ll do something about it.” It’s a really satisfying way to work, and I think it just gives you more courage to know that someone trusts you that much and trusts himself. He takes that part very seriously.
Pieterse: Paul sees and has affection for people’s differences.
Chau: I often hear the word “unapologetic” used to describe Paul as a filmmaker and I kind of don’t like that description. That to me insinuates that Paul doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether you like his movie or not or whether people go and see it. I think he does care and wants people to like what he does. I just don’t think that he works backwards. I don’t think that he says “what do people like, and let me try to work back from that?” He works from what he thinks is interesting and hopes that you like it too.
“Inherent Vice” is now playing in select cities, and opens wide on January 9th.