There aren’t many filmmakers who would be up for the challenge of adapting Thomas Pynchon for the big screen, but Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t like most filmmakers.
Anderson, who wrote and directed “Inherent Vice” based off Pynchon’s 2009 novel, has successfully brought cinematic life to the work of a novelist for the first time in his 50 years of output. The story — a discursive tale of stoner detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) unraveling a dense plot involving love triangles, real estate conspiracies, fake deaths and the FBI — goes by so quickly it’s virtually impossible to follow every last detail. Of course, that’s precisely the appeal of Pynchon’s freewheeling narrative style, which Anderson captures so precisely that the movie has understandably baffled as many viewers as it has thrilled since its premiere at the New York Film Festival in September.
With “Inherent Vice” opening nationwide this Friday, Anderson took a break from honoring underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. during a weekend tribute at L.A.’s Cinefamily to speak with Indiewire about “Inherent Vice.” He discussed his passionate relationship to the material, his fascination with shooting on film, and how he he was able to get away with making “Inherent Vice” on studio dime.
You don’t do a ton of interviews these days. How are you holding up?
I’m warning you. I’m punch drunk, I’m tired, I’m cranky. [laughs] I’m looking for a fight. How are you? I’m slightly exhausted by the sound of my own voice, but I’m gonna dig deep.
How’s the Robert Downey Sr. tribute coming along?
Oh my god, I have to tell you, it’s been the greatest weekend. It’s been so much funny and so moving. On Friday night, they showed “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight,” and “Chafed Elbows,” and tons of guys from all the movies were there. Downey Sr. just attracts the weirdoes. Every fuckin’ weirdo in L.A. was there.
When you put it in that context, it’s not really surprising that you’re such an advocate for his work.
There was an interview they showed, which I’ve gotta get on YouTube, where he showed “Chafed Elbows” at the Toronto film festival. And he had this young, beautiful face. I won’t butcher the things he said but it really got me going. He was so eloquent about what a movie should be, that it’s gotta be about the last first. It’s been an amazing weekend.
Speaking of what a movie should be: At the New York Film Festival, the press saw the movie in DCP, but at Alice Tully Hall you showed it in your preferred format, 35mm. Why is that format so important to you for this particular movie?
Oh, man, nerd talk. I love nerd talk. Shit, I feel like I’m going to end up just stating technical stuff that’s kind of obvious. I could go down that list. But, god, not to sound like a hippy, but it’s just the vibe, the feeling. It’s lived-in: flickering frames versus 1’s and 2’s. I don’t know. I’m sure there are technical things you see on the DCP that probably come off a little better than on 35. It’s more that the 35mm print is a living, breathing thing that is changing all the time, from one performance to the next. As small as the change is, it’s changing — it gathers dust every time it runs through the projector. So using that hippie language, it feels more alive to me. You could nitpick all night long with the details of the tech talk — oh, there’s latitude here, and whites and blacks, all that kind of horse shit. But that ultimately gets a little old and inconsequential.
You’re also talking about creating a world for the audience, which is a unique situation when you’re adapting a style never seen before in the movies. This is a startlingly faithful adaptation. For instance, there’s a scene where Doc walks into a building in the desert and we watch a bunch of kids dive down in the background. The movie doesn’t explain why they’re doing that. But if you read the book, you know what’s going on there. What were the specific challenges of bringing Pynchon to the screen?
You’re touching on something important. Hopefully, if you’ve read the book, you can feel a certain type of meaning to those guys running around in the background there, right? But you can’t make a movie like this and assume everyone’s read the book. You have to sort of operate thinking no one has read the book and forget about that. Throw it out the window. So does this piece of background action function in a way that can support itself? I think that it can. It functions as a weird, bizarre throwaway in the background that danger is coming, that there is danger all around this character. Whether it’s explained or not, it kind of has a great, absurdist background feeling to it. Early enough in the movie, that hopefully contributes to paranoia — that nothing is what it seems. Anything can crawl out of the bushes at any moment. We had endless discussions about that on set and in the editing room about how to navigate that stuff, for sure.
What sort of relationship have you had with Pynchon over the years? There are so many books out there that could have been made into movies but haven’t.
I don’t know if it’s a case of nobody asking, or what, but my relationship to him and his work has been intimate. I love him and I love his work. It’s constantly nearby. There’s a stack of books I haven’t read yet, and yet I find myself constantly re-reading “Vineland.” It’s borderline pathological. But I think that I had a kind of possessive feeling that if anybody was going to do this — if anyone was going to fuck it up, I would prefer that I would be the one to fuck it up. When you find writers you like, you get possessive. You get that kind of one-on-one relationship sometimes, this imaginary relationship you have with some writers you really enjoy. You feel that you’re connected somehow to these words. It’s this intimate exchange of sitting down to read somebody’s book. If you do it enough, you feel connected to that writer, to that voice.
You clearly feel very strongly about doing justice to this book. And yet much of your cast describes the set as “organized chaos,” and it sounds like it was a pretty casual vibe. How did you maintain that easygoing feel while staying on track with the specific movie you want to make?
I just remember having that book around all the time and feeling like, “The answers have gotta be in here somewhere, we’re just not looking in the right place.” [laughs] The idea is, if you’re working in a forest and brush your arm up against poison ivy, the rules of nature say that somewhere within five to 10 feet is the antidote for that. You pick up a poison plant, you rub it on the poison ivy scratch, and it goes away. In other words, the answers are right in front of your fucking face. So the book there was always on the set, and we were digging around, looking for what he meant, what he was after. At the same time, the moment that you put any kind of reverence down for the material and treat it with a little bit more disregard from time to time, it could become really liberating. That’s the book and this is the movie — we’ve got another job to do. So it was this combination of deep respect and wanting to get it right mixed with, “Well, we’re on the road and we’ve got a job to do. How do we do it right?”
I wanted to ask you about the tone of the film. In the weeks leading up to the release, you mentioned that you were inspired by Zucker brothers movies, which set the stage for a much broader comedy than you actually made. There’s some silly stuff in there, but plenty of much more subdued, dramatic moments as well. How do you modulate between those two modes?
You just do. It’s about looking for those opportunities for Zucker brothers gags. You’ve gotta always be on the lookout for where you can get away with one of those. It’s funny. That Zucker brothers thing came to me only because Pynchon describes the LAPD at a crime scene so accurately to how the LAPD behaved through the history of the LAPD at crime scenes. It was really so outlandish, and yet so accurate, that it was like something out of “Police Squad!” I remember thinking, “My god, the LAPD is truly run by Detective Frank Drebin.” It’s been that incompetent. It just reminded me of something I know really well, which is “Police Squad!” and the Zucker brothers. So I got on that kick and looked for any opportunity to do that kind of stuff. But if you say something in the press and it ends up being misleading, you have to just forget about that shit.
Tell me about working with Joaquin Phoenix. It’s such a particular performance. In the book, we get a real clear sense of his thoughts, but in the movie, much of that has been relegated to his expressions. How much of that did you coach out of him?
I’m not shoving off credit, I love to get credit, and I know he’ll say something opposite. But you have to listen to me: It’s him. It’s really all him. Sure, he read the book and he would do things, and I would say, “That’s good.” But it’s him presenting it. It’s all him. Don’t listen to anything he says. He’ll just shove stuff off, like, “Oh, I just did what Paul told me,” but that’s his horseshit way of not accepting a compliment. All those little things he does, there’s nothing I ask for, I swear to you.
Here’s one thing you have to take credit for: Making a completely bizarre movie with studio money. Warner Bros. is releasing your version of “Inherent Vice” on thousands of screens. How do you get away with that?
Look, I love seeing that Warner Bros. logo at the beginning of this movie. It’s so perfect. You’re used to seeing that logo in front of all those old detective movies and stuff. I love that this has got that. It’s just a good-looking logo. They’ve been wonderful to work with and we stayed within a budget that I think they were really happy with: This movie cost 20 million bucks. I think their pockets are really deep, so they seem OK with that. It’s a great relationship.
Speaking of great relationships, you’ve been a real advocate for sharing your connection to film history. You recently joined the board of the American Genre Film Archive, have participated in Criterion Collection commentary tracks, and more recently helped put together this Robert Downey Sr. tribute. What’s your take on the way younger audiences relate to movies. There are college students today who may not know about Robert Altman, but it’s not because they aren’t serious viewers. Their reference points are different. They watch TV. What needs to happen so that more people from that generation can develop a more advanced awareness of film history?
That’s not groovy news that college students don’t know Altman. [laughs] But I like that it’s not that they’re opposed to it. It’s just a generational shift. I can only hope that’s OK for now as long as it doesn’t go unchecked. You know? I mean, look — there are still a billion movies I haven’t seen. By the time I was 18, there were tons I hadn’t seen. So this is a long haul. It’s a marathon to live a life of movies, to support them, to be a part of it. But let’s just make sure they’re ticking off certain boxes.
Here’s the way I would do it: I would see a movie that I liked. And then if the filmmaker mentioned another filmmaker, I would find those films and try to see all of those films. It was just my standard operating procedure of research. Scorsese was always so great about that because he would talk so well about films. Robert Downey Sr. gave interviews talking about Preston Sturges. I kind of knew “The Lady Eve,” but that got me on Sturges. Hopefully, you’re just following the vibe of things you like and it’s leading you to good stuff. I used to struggle to find things I wanted to see. Now, there’s no excuse. So much of it is out there. Maybe that’s part of the problem, too — sometimes, the struggle to go dig out some bootleg copy of “Putney Swope” or “Chafed Elbows” really kind of made it worthwhile, as opposed to just way too much information. It’s hard to know where to look.