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Paul Thomas Anderson on ‘Licorice Pizza’ Release, Backlash, and His Secret Internet Accounts

"Licorice Pizza" is in the Oscar race and could even win a statuette, but the pleasure of talking to this director has nothing to do with awards.

Paul Thomas Anderson arrives at the 90th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton hotel on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Paul Thomas Anderson

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Paul Thomas Anderson moves at his own pace, and so do his movies. “Licorice Pizza” came four years after “Phantom Thread,” which came three years after “Inherent Vice.” His style is at once playful and mysterious and above all unpredictable: He followed up a moody romance about a British tailor with a ’70s coming-of-age ensemble piece about a teenager obsessed with a woman in her twenties, but there you have it: The PTA brand is a constant process of exploration.

So are interviews with Anderson himself. In conversation, the filmmaker veers from self-effacing humor to genuine appreciation for the medium he holds dear. “Licorice Pizza” inhabits both of those qualities. Partly inspired by Anderson’s long-time friend and producer Gary Goetzman, it follows a troublemaking teenager (Cooper Hoffman) and his unconventional friendship with a similarly wayward young woman (Alana Haim). As the pair careen through a series of ill-conceived odd jobs against the backdrop of the San Fernando Valley, the movie becomes an immersive, soul-searching portrait of reckless youth as only Anderson could conceive it.

Much of the industry admires the way Anderson has worked on his own terms for over 25 years, and the Academy tends to reward him with nominations. “Licorice Pizza” landed three Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (a category where many pundits expect him to win for the first time). Anderson puts more energy into promoting his theatrical release campaigns than winning awards, but this time those goals align. He spoke by phone ahead of a busy weekend of Q&As.

INDIEWIRE: Oscar campaigning isn’t your favorite activity, but congratulations on those nominations. What’s it like to strap back into awards mode?

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: It’s always been terrific. I’ve spent many a long four-and-a-half hour ceremony sitting with a fake smile. It can be quite fashionable to complain about it, but come on. Who’s kidding who? It’s always fun. This time, it’s going to be a fucking whirlwind of craziness. All this stuff used to be spread out, but now it’s just one big party. 

How up to speed are you on the nominees this year?

Spencer

“Spencer”

I’ve seen most of them. I’ve seen one of the documentaries, and the stuff that becomes my favorite is documentary short subject. They’re always the most inventive and interesting. Also, I really want to see “Drive My Car.” The only reason I haven’t seen that is because I will not start that movie after six or seven in the evening, which is when I’m free. I understand it’s quite long and I do not want to mess around with breaking that up into two parts. I’ve made no secret of the fact that “Worst Person in the World” is an absolute joy of a movie, so brilliant. It’s kind of like the current-day “Licorice Pizza.” They share many things, particularly astonishing lead performances from actresses you’d never really heard of before. At least, I’d never heard of that actress and she’s totally incredible. That film really got me. One other film: Obviously not enough people saw “Spencer,” because there’s no way you could pay attention to what we do and not give that film more recognition. Not just for Kristen Stewart’s performance, which is astonishing, but just across the board it’s an incredibly well-done film. But it’s not unlike all the other categories. Good shit never wins. 

Is it frustrating for you to have to spend so long promoting your work?

It’s like the Daniel Plainview line, “I don’t like to explain myself.” When you make something, there’s so much stuff in the world and you have to work really fucking hard to get it out there and keep it alive. It’s amazing and really important. I don’t make enough films to be in some position where we can just put it out there and not support it or try to remind people of its existence for them to come out and see it. It’s not as much fun as making it, but it’s critical to the life of a film. 

“Licorice Pizza” is one of the few films to enjoy a long-term theatrical release during the pandemic, with a lot of 70mm screenings, no less. How do you keep getting away with this?

We’re in the middle of a very good run that started back in terms of keeping projectors alive, keeping 70mm alive, between what we did with “The Master” and what Quentin [Tarantino] continued on with “Hateful Eight” and Chris Nolan has pushed ahead on his shoulders. We were in a really good position at least getting releases semi-annually. Listen, there were a lot of bigger issues, but it was a little bit hard to restart the car in a couple of places. But you can go into a specialized place like the DGA theater, where those projectors have always been cared for. Getting a wider run was a little bit challenging, just the availability of people to run them. But that’s OK. You just have to jumpstart it again and get back out there. 

To that end, how are you feeling about the future of exhibition?

Chris has another movie around the corner and that will be helpful. “Death of the Nile” even has some 70mm prints coming up. So it’s insane to think that somehow there’s a finish line with this work, this insane kind of fever we have to pushing this stuff out there, whether it’s a pandemic or something else. There’s always going to be an issue, so you have to have the stamina to put up with the never-ending chore that is theatrical exhibition.

Here in Los Angeles, the dream came through of getting the Village Theatre back to its glory and having an exclusive run there. Getting those 70mm projectors back up and running was just sort of magical. We could play in this very isolated way, controlling the presentation as much as we could. I’ll look back at that time as one of my favorites of presenting anything we’ve done. 

Speaking of the pandemic, how would you say that the shutdown impacted your relationship to this project?

I got lucky because I had a fully informed idea that were in the middle of attempting to execute when we had to put our pencils down. The mission was seeing if it was possible to restart that idea, the vision, in terms of scale, scope, and the story that it was in terms of just getting back on the road with testing and masks. What did we have to leave behind to make that happen?

We didn’t have to leave anything behind, but it wasn’t due to ingenuity or anything like that, although I will pat ourselves on the back and say we did an incredible job mounting it and no one got sick. We had so many things that were rolling in our way because it was the very nature of how many people involved in this film were so intimately linked that every single person on the crew was somebody that you know. You know where they live, who their families are, what their behaviors going to be. That was what we were all so scared about — somebody lingering outside of this bubble we all created only a few short years ago, though it feels like a million years ago. 

This movie may have more characters than anything you’ve done since “Magnolia.” And it’s such a specific world with a lot of period details strewn throughout. How did that impact your writing process? 

Licorice Pizza: Paul Thomas Anderson Sound and Vision Toolkit Podcast

“Licorice Pizza”

United Artists Releasing

This is definitely not a case of writing and seeing where it takes you. This is a case of having tons and tons of ammunition and individual pieces that I thought about for a long, long time and I tried to think about it long before I started writing anything about it, which can be quite a healthy way to start if you can enjoy the patience. Usually, you just want to rip your presents open on Christmas Eve. I was disciplined and waited to put this down until I’d more or less thought it through. The trick there is that you still have to have some room for discovery, because otherwise, what’s the point? I’d get bored. I don’t really outline it and sit and write. I’m working from memory and thought. I remember what has to happen: I’ve got to get from here to here, there’s this episode that I think is interesting. Where am I heading toward? 

Cooper’s character is based on Gary Goetzman, who’s almost 20 years older than you. How much of a relationship do you have to this era? 

Think about it. Is there really that big a difference between 2015 and 2011? I mean, not really. We’re talking about a few short years. All this shit sort of looked the same when I grew up. If I was eight years old, I remember that really well, that’s my childhood. It kind of becomes this mistake to look back and think that four years would make a huge difference in something. Especially here in the Valley, it’s stuck in its same old shit. It’s not like some massive gentrification happened. Certainly the details changed. Like anything 50 years later. But there aren’t any huge brushstrokes where it’s been some massive social upheaval. It’s more or less what it was. 

“American Graffiti” was obviously a big influence on you. What has your relationship to that movie been over the years? 

I remember seeing “American Graffiti” and thinking it took place in the Valley because Modesto and the Valley look pretty much exactly the same. I had no idea when I was younger that they were two different places. Anybody from any other part of the world would not be able to tell the difference between them. They’re California towns with one-story buildings. “American Graffiti,” I’m still moved by it every time I go back to it. I guess there are obvious reasons why. Is it totally inventive? I don’t know. It’s like a lot of other ensemble films. It’s something Altman was doing quite well and I’ve talked about my love of that. But “American Graffiti” is 97 minutes or so. It’s so compact. Normally when you have multi-stranded stories they tend to blossom and grow. “Fast Times” is the same thing. It’s like 93 minutes. There’s an economy there that’s so incredible. 

Since you operated as one of two cinematographers on “Licorice Pizza,” how did you look to import the visual style of those earlier movies?

AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Ron Howard, 1973

“American Graffiti”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Photographically, I love, love, love “American Graffiti.” I love what happened in that time when filmmakers were doing things in [Cinemascope] but they clearly had no money for lighting. You hear these famous stories of Haskell Wexler coming in to help with the photography of the film. If you see any behind-the-scenes photographs, the absolute minimum they were working with to make these beautiful images still kind of amazes me. Believe me, I’ve tried to say, ‘What if we worked with two lights to get ‘American Graffiti’ light?’ And I can’t do it. It’s one of those magical things that Haskell Wexler figured out. I just love it photographically. Sound design, too. It’s never not worth repeating how beautiful the sound design is. Very unique. 

Cooper Hoffman is a newcomer, but you obviously had a longstanding relationship with his father. How did that initial bond influence your decision to ask Cooper about this part?

This is a common theme, isn’t it, in this wonderful business that we’re in? Ron Howard’s father was a stuntman, a cowboy. There you have that second generation coming in. With George Lucas, I think of Jason Robards, who I worked with, whose father was also a Jason Robards. All the wonderful performers from the Douglas family. It’s kind of a common thing and it’s nice when another generation comes in to continue the work of the previous ones. It’s exciting to me, especially when their work stands individually on its own. 

Was it a challenge to get him up to speed on what you were looking for?

After I had him read it and audition and do it multiple times, his leg up was that he would get more audition time than somebody else because I was coming to him. The first time he’s reading it is the first time he’s reading it out loud. That’s going to be messy, incomplete, very hard work which is perfectly healthy and wonderful. Now let’s do it again the next day, and the next day, and just improvise with whatever you can remember. I was looking for the potential to grow, a naturalness, a comfort and excitement with continuing to do this work. Cooper had genuine affection for this and we were having a good time exploring and just doing little acting exercises. We were getting to a place that was comfortable and exciting, but nerve-racking in a good way.

Alana Haim is obviously no stranger to performance, but as a musician that’s all self-guided. How did you get her up to speed on what you were looking for?

LICORICE PIZZA, back, from left: Alana Haim, Sean Penn, 2021. © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Licorice Pizza”

©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

My instinct was quite strong that there was no question she’d be able to do it. We did a test of the first time they meet each other at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant. We shot that as a test. They were just engaging with each other, talking, and it was very natural. I realized that she does not understand this one basic principle that her character would have, which is that he’s suspicious. And you are not that comfortable with that. But I felt like she didn’t have to correct that right away. The important thing was that they were talking, looking at each other, and they’re listening. That’s already the biggest challenge in film acting. I can adjust that later, what this character of Alana is thinking versus what Alana Haim is doing. Once she understood those kind of things, then you saw this incredible growth. 

Their chemistry is so striking, even if it’s not romantic. How do you build that between two people who have both never acted before and are 12 years apart in age?

We treated the whole thing like a play. The only way to approach it was to learn it from top to bottom. As novices, they understood there would be enough discovery on the day without having to figure out the overall scheme of the story. 

There are so many unusual and surprising performances built into the movie. Bradley Cooper really stands out. It feels like a synthesis of his broader comedic roles and the more dramatic stuff. What was the genesis of your relationship to him?

Bradley told me that when he was a younger actor thinking about packing it in, he saw “Punch Drunk Love,” and that rejuvenated his conviction to try to stick it out and stay in Hollywood and push through. He seemed like he was in a pretty healthy place when I called him about this. I have always liked Bradley. I obviously love the “Hangover” movies, but my personal favorite performance of his is “American Sniper.” I’ve seen it a few times and we met casually not too long after that just to say that maybe there could be something one day we could do together. For this, I had one person in mind and it was him. 

With so many actors coming out of the woodwork for this, I’m surprised you didn’t find a way to coax Daniel Day-Lewis out of retirement. 

How the hell would you get Daniel Day-Lewis to do “Licorice Pizza”? 

If you hadn’t cast Sean Penn as the William Holden–inspired character…

Maybe! I think it would be kind of hilarious to see Daniel in a ’70s movie. He could maybe do the George Sanders version. 

But seriously. Can you please get that man back to work?

“Phantom Thread”

I don’t know. People ask me this all the time. But wouldn’t it be weird if you announced your retirement and then you said, “Just kidding”? I guess Steven Soderbergh did that. 

You’ve worked with a lot of major American actors, but very few on more than one occasion. How does that wind up happening?

Don’t get me started on how little time there is and how many good actors there are. That’s the curse of my life. There’s not enough time to work with all the people I’m desperate to work with. It’s like being in the library and looking at all these beautiful books on the shelf and you realize there’s just not enough time to get to it all. It’s endlessly frustrating. I really feel that way when it comes to actors. I have pages and pages of people I’d love to work with. 

Who’s at the top of the list? 

Tiffany [Haddish] would be nice. I have a Denzel Washington fascination at the moment. That would be so exciting, and I’ll get to it. But I also have the impossible list of people you can’t work with because they’re dead. Like Miriam Hopkins and George Sanders and David Niven. I waste a lot of time thinking about this. Like, here, a movie idea for James Mason that I can’t make. 

I suppose this would explain the William Holden inspiration for Sean Penn in “Licorice Pizza.”

William Holden was the only actor I ever wanted to work with when I was younger, believe it or not. That was it. 

Now that “Licorice Pizza” has been out a while, how do you feel about the complaints that have been made about the anti-Asian character played by John Michael Higgins, who speaks in an offensive fake Asian accent? 

It’s kind of like, “Huh?” I don’t know if it’s a “Huh” with a dot dot dot. It’s funny because it’s hard for me to relate to. I don’t know. I’m lost when it comes to that. To me, I’m not sure what they — you know, what is the problem? The problem is that he was an idiot saying stupid shit? What do you think?

The problem is that his racism could give people permission to laugh at the stereotype, rather than his stupidity. 

Right. Well, I don’t know, maybe that’s a possibility. I’m certainly capable of missing the mark, but on the other hand, I guess I’m not sure how to separate what my intentions were from how they landed. 

The discourse around representation and storytelling has changed dramatically since you started making movies. How much do you pay attention to that?

As long as the internet’s been around, people have been able to voice their opinions and excitement about things. Letterboxd is something I need to spend more time on. My daughter’s involved with it and quite likes it. I’m trying to think what my feelings are about it. 

Are you a lurker?

I have secret accounts all over the place. It’s hilarious. When my daughter was younger, she got Instagram and I tried to get a secret account to follow her. She was like, “It’s not a secret. I’m seeing you.” I was like, “Oh well.” The only way you’re going to film right now is to be aware of what’s happening in the world. I remember when I started out, it was impossible to break through. You used to put a trailer up in front of a movie and it was a nightmare. You had to go through the MPAA to get it approved, you had to get it approved by the studio, you had to go through all these hoops. Then you weren’t even guaranteed that it was going to be in front of a movie you wanted to be in front of. Now we have the ability to just put stuff out there  — Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, any fucking place. You can just do it. The joys of that are so extreme. We’ve depended upon that particularly for these last few films to make people aware of where they can see it and how they can see it in a certain way. Without it, imagine the amount of money you have to spend to let people know where they see it. I don’t see how you can participate in getting a film out in the world without understanding how to get to people. 

I’m curious about how you relate to your impact on younger generations of filmmakers. Benny Safdie is really good in this movie, but with his brother Josh, he’s also a signifier of filmmaking very clearly inspired by your earlier work. 

"Uncut Gems"

“Uncut Gems”

A24

Josh and Benny are the filmmakers I have the closest relationship with. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we have Adam [Sandler] in common. Personally, those are the filmmakers I know at this point in my life. I don’t really have a personal relationship with many filmmakers. I first came across them with some of the shorts they’d done, like “The Black Balloon,” and then “Daddy Longlegs” and “Good Time.” I was excited by their work and then Adam said, “What do you think about these Safdie guys?” That was a great moment. It was exciting to have that feeling of somebody a generation behind you who’s as enthusiastic and approaching the work the same way as you. It makes you very hopeful and happy. Their heads are screwed on in the right direction and their ambitions are their own. What I mean by that is that their ambitions are a result of their own creations. They don’t need outside influences to push them along. They can listen to their own wavelength. That’s important, because I don’t know what’s going to happen with this work, but I’m still hopeful. 

Beyond promoting “Licorice Pizza,” how are you staying busy these days?

We just did another video for the [Haim] girls, which was a fun way to keep busy. I told Alana to go write a song, to just go make something. I’d realized we hadn’t made something new in what felt like too long, in at least a year. The joy of telling the girls, “Write a song, here’s a date, let’s go do that” — that was very satisfying.

I’m looking around in old folders and trying to think about writing again. I’m thinking a little bit more about how we could all get together to do things. And then — nobody does it. It’s like, “Let’s do that next week!” I’m sure sooner rather than later, we’ll try to figure out what the next year could look like, whether that means a little down time or starting back up again. I’m not trusting any decisions I’m making at the moment. 

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