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‘Licorice Pizza’: Cutting Paul Thomas Anderson’s ’70s Nostalgia Trip in the Valley with Joyous Unpredictability

First-time feature editor Andy Jurgensen discusses "going in crazy, wild directions" with Anderson, anchored by a running motif.

Licorice Pizza: Paul Thomas Anderson Sound and Vision Toolkit Podcast

“Licorice Pizza”

United Artists Releasing

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

The first discussion editor Andy Jurgensen remembers having with Paul Thomas Anderson about “Licorice Pizza” was the running motif between odd couple Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim). That was the anchor point for holding together their tenuous bond, which keeps breaking with each unpredictable obstacle in the coming-of-age comedy. It was also a way of sustaining momentum in Anderson’s joyous, offbeat nostalgia trip through L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in 1973. This was a time when optimism still reigned over disillusionment amid the growing popularity of rock music, the demise of Old Hollywood, rising inflation, the energy crisis, and long gas lines.

“What I liked about the script was the unpredictability and not knowing what was going to happen next,” said Jurgensen, who worked as an assistant editor on “Inherent Vice” and “Phantom Thread” before getting promoted to sole editor on “Licorice Pizza” (code for vinyl LPs and a prominent L.A. record store chain of the period).

“It was going in crazy, wild directions,” he continued, “and we wanted to preserve that spirit of the movie. When we were initially talking about the style of the movie and the editing, he mentioned all the running. He wanted to have the momentum pull us through the movie, which were full of all these episodes. He wanted to use that as energy and as a bridge between episodes. It’s not like there’s a period. It keeps going and you go, ‘Oh, I’m already in the next thing?'”

"Licorice Pizza"

“Licorice Pizza”

MGM

Jurgensen was ready for the challenge, though, having recently cut music videos for Anderson, particularly featuring Alana’s Grammy-nominated sibling rock band, HAIM. He even worked on the camera tests for Haim and screen tests with Haim and Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent Anderson cast member), neither of whom had ever acted before. But Anderson’s very personal script (partly inspired by the life of his friend, Gary Goetzman, co-founder of Playtone with Tom Hanks) was written for Haim, who plays a frustrated 25-year-old photographer’s assistant, who gets hit on in the opening scene by Gary, an exuberant 15-year-old child actor/hustler. From there, the awkward friendship careens back and forth from Encino to Sherman Oaks, with Alana assisting Gary in selling waterbeds while trying to break free of her arrested adolescence.

“Alana was already cast, and Paul was still looking for Gary, when he casually invited me to edit ‘Licorice Pizza,'” Jurgensen added. With editor Dylan Tichenor (“Phantom Thread”) committed to “Eternals,” it didn’t come as a surprise. Jurgensen was firmly entrenched in the director’s inner circle, and well acquainted with the ritual of taking editorial notes while screening 35mm dailies on the big screen. (“Licorice Pizza” was shot in 35mm and blown up to 70mm for special engagements in L.A. and New York City.). “They were rough around the edges in the screen test but they fit,” he added. “The age difference didn’t feel inappropriate and the magnetism worked between them.”

We sense the magnetism at the outset when they meet at Gary’s high school. It’s a wisecracking walk and talk with the camera tracking them (and Nina Simone serenely singing “July Tree” in the background ). Gary agrees to be photographed and asks her out while following her into the gym. “We tried a lot of different angles and liked the first shot of Alana because her [reactions] were great,” Jurgensen said. “She’s like a firecracker. It cuts to Gary and they do a little dance [before continuing into the gym in one continuous shot]. The hard part was finding the cutting point, which we decided was when he asks her if she goes to the movies [a lead in to bragging about his acting career].”

"Licorice Pizza"

“Licorice Pizza”

MGM

The first memorable run for joy between Gary and Alana occurs after a totally incongruous display of police brutality, in which Gary is mistakenly arrested for murder. After being set free, they experience a liberating chase through town that brings them closer together, followed by subsequent running montages. Then they’re briefly separated after a fight, with Alana auditioning for a part in a movie opposite Jack Holden (a fictionalized William Holden played by Sean Penn). The movie was inspired by the Clint Eastwood–directed “Breezy” (1973) about a May-December romance starring Holden. They wind up being reunited at Gary’s favorite hangout, the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant.

“That was the hardest sequence to juggle because of all the pieces,” the editor said. “We realized that that sequence had to be a drunken, crazy obstacle between the two leads. There’s this seduction with Alana and Jack on one side; Gary comes in with friends and observes on the other side; Rex Blau [Tom Waits], this movie director, comes over to Jack. But we had to trim Rex, who has a monologue about Old Hollywood, and then goes outside to the golf course to prep a motorcycle stunt with Jack. We wanted everything to be from their perspective, so we cut the monologue and the [lead up] to the motorcycle stunt.” Thus, it’s a smoother transition to Jack and Alana riding on the motorcycle, with her immediately falling off, and Gary rushing to rescue her in a clever reversal of the panic-stricken arrest sequence.

But then comes the next crazy obstacle with “A Star Is Born” producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), who buys a waterbed from them and later catches a ride in their truck after running out of gas in his Ferrari (oblivious to Gary flooding his bedroom after pissing him off). “When they’re inside the truck and Bradley gets in, that’s all her driving. She learned how to drive that truck,” Jurgensen said. “And when Bradley leans over [to take take the wheel], his seductive banter was all improvised. But we found a great ending where he says, ‘You’re a great driver and Gary can’t drive.’ We didn’t want to overstay our welcome with Peters.”

LICORICE PIZZA, from left: Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, 2021. ph: Melinda Sue Gordon /© MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in “Licorice Pizza” © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection

©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

But then the truck runs out of gas, and Alana’s forced to drive home with Gary in neutral, going down hill, which was shot in different locations. “The truck was rigged to drive forwards and backwards, and Alana drove it forward,” added Jurgensen. “But for the stunt scenes, there was a truck pulling their truck with a camera attached. That tense reaction of the character was her performance as she struggles to get the truck into gear.”

In a stroke of symmetry, Anderson structured the script so that Gary and Alana, after being separated one last time when she works on the Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) mayoral campaign, run toward each other from opposite directions, and reunite in front of a movie theater (playing “Live and Let Die” and “The Mechanic”). Only they weren’t supposed to crash into each other and fall down. That was a happy accident.

“We had multiple endings,” said Jurgensen. “There was actually a scene when they embraced and talked. In one of the takes, they accidentally ran into each other and fell. They ran off and then embraced at the Pinball Palace. We thought: Why are we doing this multiple times? So we were going through the footage, figuring out what to do, reviewing all the takes. Paul said, ‘What about when they fall? It could be really funny and break the tension because they’ve been running for so long. And we threw it in and it worked. And then they have that last embrace at the Pinball Palace.”

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