Everything you’ve heard about Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature is true. It’s a ‘70s Los Angeles film worthy of a slot next to all the rest of his love letters to the city; it’s a charming and—at times—uncomfortable meditation on passion and connection; and it’s a star vehicle for its leads, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper Hoffman, and Alana Haim, a multi-instrumentalist from the pop-rock band Haim.
The film follows charismatic teen actor Gary Valentine (Hoffman) and headstrong twentysomething yearbook photo assistant Alana Kane (Haim), who meet randomly at Valentine’s high school. From there, they embark on a whirlwind of ridiculous hijinks, entrepreneurial trysts, and a few immature plots to make each other jealous as they live and learn and fall in love in 1970s Los Angeles. "Licorice Pizza" is a movie that celebrates being young and dumb, and being full of endearment and tenderness that you just don’t know what to do with yet.
RogerEbert.com spoke to Haim about the making of "Licorice Pizza," beginning her acting career with the film's insane Bradley Cooper scene, acting opposite her family members, and more.
Your relationship with Cooper Hoffman is the cornerstone of the film. Can you recall a moment with Cooper [where] you sort of felt your connection fall into place and your chemistry started to take shape?
There's many instances, but, being on set, going through the tornado of Jon Peters in the first week really did bond us as a team, because we had never done this before. I mean, I hadn't been on a movie set. I'd been on a music video set, which is similar, but not similar at all. Cooper had never done this before, and we show up to set the first day, and it's pure chaos. There's so many people, and everyone's moving something. It was me, Cooper, and Cooper's gang of boys that were helping: Kirk, Mark, and Greg. We're all kind of in a huddle, and all of us are asking each other, "Do you know what we're supposed to be doing?" It kind of felt like the world was spinning at a really rapid pace, and then all of a sudden, it stopped very abruptly, and then it was like no one was there. You just heard an "Action!" out of nowhere. It felt like it was down the street. And Bradley Cooper walks towards us, and it's like, "Oh, we're in it now. Like, oh, OK. It's starting."
Luckily for day one, I didn't have the wrath of Jon Peters coming at me, but Cooper did. The first scene that we shot was, you know, "Do you know who I am? Do you know who my girlfriend is?" That was the first five seconds of me, and Cooper, and Kirk, Mark, and Greg's new career. The energy coming off of Bradley Cooper playing Jon Peters was insane. He fully was in it, and never broke, and it really did bond me and Cooper together, like, "OK, so we have this obstacle in front of us, which is Bradley Cooper playing Jon Peters. Like, this is our obstacle." And he would look at me and be like, "Am I doing OK?" I would say like, "Yeah, you're doing great." In my mind I'm like, "I have no idea. I'm not sure. But of course you are. Like, I think you are."
So that was day one, and then day two was me getting in the truck, and driving Jon Peters, and Cooper, and Gary around the hills of Tarzana with a camera strapped on one side, lights strapped on the front, me free-driving. I was actually driving the truck in stick shift. And we had like, I think four days of the Jon Peters sequence. So after something like that, it was just like what is going on? I mean, it was so wild. And then, funny enough, after that happened, then we were at Gary's house, and we had to jump forward to basically the end of the movie, where Alana is upset at Gary for wanting to get pinball machines when I'm working for Joel Wachs.
So basically, Bradley Cooper had wrapped, and we didn't have this movie star to carry the scene anymore. I mean, the Jon Peters sequence is all about Jon Peters. We're just holding on for dear life, and then all of a sudden, it's like, OK. It's Alana and Gary, and it's just we're the ones that are having to do this scene together. And that was the moment where it felt like, "Can we do this?" This whole scene is on our shoulders.
It was a hard scene to do, but it was also so much fun to do, and I think that after that, we all were kind of like, "OK, we can breathe a little, just a little bit," right? But we eased back into actually doing it, and being like, "OK, I'm getting my sea legs," and I think that was the moment.
You and your character fit so well in the PTA cinematic universe. Did you take any inspiration from any of his past films or characters?
Paul has shot movies in this era before, but this movie felt like it stood on its own, especially since me and Cooper had never acted before, so I couldn't really like ... I didn't want to take too much. I really wanted to stay in this zone of me and Paul. Like, Paul constantly had to reassure me that I could do this, and he constantly had to tell me like, "I got you." And when Paul Thomas Anderson says, "I got you," you just kind of fall down the rabbit hole, in a great way.
I think the thing that was so lovely about Paul was that he knew what I could do, and he knew that to get the best performance out of me was to let me run free. Sometimes, he calls me like a caged lion. He needed to set me free, and let me kind of take on this life on its own. And anytime I had any sort of idea, or anytime I improv-ed anything, he was so happy.
Every time I would do something that made Paul laugh, he would put his arms up into the air, and I knew that I hit a nerve. Like, I did something right. And that was the goal every day. We were just so happy to be on set, and so happy to make art, that I just kind of followed Paul's lead. He's the reason why there was such a good performance that got brought out of me, because he directed me through the whole thing.
What does Alana's last line mean to you? What does that ending mean and feel like for you?
You know what? It's so funny that you say that. I always think about what happens. Not specifically that line, but I always think about what happens after that. They're running away. What happens after that? I honestly have this vivid ending to my story, where we're running and Gary just pulls me too hard, and I fall forward, and I skin my knees, and then I don't talk to him for another three weeks. Because that's Gary and Alana's relationship. Like, sometimes it's good, and then he'll annoy the shit out of me, and I'll be like, "Ugh. Annoying. Annoying." And that's the best part of Gary and Alana's relationship. They come together. They overcome these obstacles together and it's great, but then you turn your head, Gary says something annoying, and I'm like, "Ugh." Then a week passes and it's like, "OK. Alright. I'm back. Like, what do you need help with now?" That's what I loved about Gary and Alana's relationship, that you never really know where they stand because they're constantly being pulled apart, and coming back together, and being pulled apart. But yeah, that last scene, like five minutes after that, I fell, and didn't talk to Gary for three weeks.
Which is honestly, like, kind of perfect, and I picture it as an alternative ending to the movie now, so thank you for that!
Yeah! [Laughs] That's my ending. That's the Alana director's cut, like you follow them, and I just don't talk to him for three weeks. But then [I talk to] Paul, and then I'll be like, "Alright, fine. You're fine. Just don't pull me anymore."
Right? "Remember, my knees really got skinned, OK?"
"Can we just stop running? Can we just stop running? You run so much. Let's just—”
So much running.
"Let's just walk. Let's just walk, OK?"
Yeah, there is so much running in the movie, like genuinely so much running. It's lovely cinematically, but y'all must be tired.
Oh, I could have been a professional athlete after this movie. [Laughs]
What was the hardest scene, do you think, for you to film? What was the most difficult emotionally, physically? Obviously, we know it was difficult to drive stick shift, but aside from that ...
That was the physical part. [Laughs] Honestly, I think the scene that surprised me the most was when we were shooting Joel Wachs—the scene between Matthew and Joel Wachs, and I didn't realize how emotional that scene was going to be. Joseph Cross is one of the most incredible actors and so is Benny Safdie. There were a lot of times I was in-between two of the most incredible actors of all time, you know? It's like I was always in the middle, and I'm like, "[Who] do I put my vision to?" But shooting that scene, I remember just watching it for the first time and watching that Paul kind of held the focus on me. I just love the fact that the audience and also me are kind of realizing what's happening at the same time. I wasn't expecting that. I thought that that was really beautiful, because it is such an important scene in the movie, and it really does take it to a different place, in a good way.
How did working with your family help you settle into this character?
My family is great, but honestly, my dad's a star. Like, I got to give it up to my dad. He has never been in front of a camera before, and watching my dad ... we were crying of laughter in-between ... during every scene, and the person that I felt the worst for was Skyler Gisondo [who plays Alana’s brief boyfriend, Lance]. I was like, "Wow. Now I understand what it feels like to bring a boyfriend to my parents," because I'd get to talking to him. Obviously, we weren't dating, but I was like, "Is this scary for you?" And he's like, "Yeah, it’s scary. Your dad is scary." I never have asked any of my boyfriends before like, "Was it scary meeting my dad?" Now I know, and he was such a trooper, and is such a good actor.
It was so fun having my parents with me, because at that point, I had been shooting for like a month and I didn't really have anybody around me. Cooper and Paul were my family, and then having my actual family come—I think I made an announcement before we started shooting like, "If my parents say anything embarrassing, I am sorry. Everyone, the Haim family has landed on set. Everyone, just keep calm."
That was one of the funnest scenes to shoot by far. We were all just hysterically laughing. Honestly, while we were shooting, I was like, "There's no way any of this is going to make it in the film. How are we going to edit this? There's no way this is going to be edited. Like, we're not going to make it." And it's in there, and I'm so happy that I have this snapshot that I can rewatch for the rest of my life. It's great.
“Licorice Pizza” opens nationwide on December 25.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.