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Director's talent makes 'Boogie' fever infectious

Heather Graham and director Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of "Boogie Nights."

Paul Thomas Anderson has made perhaps the best film of 1997, and at age 27 is getting the kind of attention no young director has had since Quentin Tarantino erupted. His "Boogie Nights," which follows a cast of colorful characters through six eventful years in the adult film industry, is the year's best-reviewed film - a hit at the Toronto and New York film festivals - and is now opening around the country.

Although the film's subject matter is touchy, "Boogie Nights" is not a sex film; porno supplies the backdrop to a traditionally structured Hollywood story about an unknown kid (Mark Wahlberg) who is discovered by a director (Burt Reynolds), encouraged by an older actress (Julianne Moore), and becomes a star - until his ego and drugs bring everything crashing down.

Apart from anything else, the film is about filmmaking. It captures the familial atmosphere of a film set as well as any film since Truffaut's "Day for Night." The focus is not on sex but on loneliness and desperation, leavened with a lot of humor, some of it dark, some of it lighthearted.

"Boogie Nights" is Anderson's second feature. When I saw the first one at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, I felt I was watching the work of a born filmmaker.

"Hard Eight" starred John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in the story of a relationship between an old gambler who shows the ropes to a broke kid in Nevada. As characters played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson get involved, the story reveals hidden connections. It is a riveting debut film.

Reilly and Hall also have important roles in "Boogie Nights" - Reilly as the porno star's sidekick, Hall as the shadowy figure who finances the films. And the big cast also includes such actors as William H. Macy (the car salesman in "Fargo") and Don Cheadle ("Devil With a Blue Dress"). In a year of often disappointing films, here is a great one.

On his way from Los Angeles to the New York Film Festival, Anderson stopped for a few hours in Chicago, and we sat outside on a perfect October day and talked about how he had accomplished so much, so quickly.

Q. So you made a shorter version of this film as a kid, right?

A. Yeah. When I was 17, I wrote a half-hour short called the "The Dirk Diggler Story." I was so influenced by "Spinal Tap" that it was in my brain, so it was like, "Let's play it as a documentary." I'd seen this piece on "A Current Affair" on (porn actress) Shauna Grant, which was the cliched-but-true story of a girl from Iowa who comes to Hollywood on the bus, looking for dreams.

Q. So this is basically a Hollywood story, except it's about the porn industry.

A. It's a Busby Berkeley movie. The reason things are cliches is because they're true.

Q. The whole period of X-rated filmmaking was over before you had an experience of it.

A. A lot of those people are still around, you know. And not happy, although they were probably not that happy to begin with. What they had was a little dignity by shooting on film, and now it's just video assembly-line crap. There are still certainly people who consider themselves mavericks, and once in a while there will be a porno film shot on film. And it's really like a big selling point - not that the public cares, if you know what I mean.

Q. I interviewed Gerard Damiano at the time. He was probably the best of the hard-core directors, and he went through a period of believing he could make art films about sex. Home video came along in 1979 and destroyed that illusion. The golden age on film was from about '69 to '79.

A. It's like there could have been a new genre. We've had sci-fi, murder mysteries, Westerns, and there could have been a sex genre. . . .

Q. But isn't it true that if you make a hard-core film, the sex scenes will derail whatever else there is?

A. There was a movie called "Amanda by Night" that kinda came close, and some of the early John Holmes stuff came really close, not only in terms of structure but - you could see different characters have sex in different ways. I think sometimes you can watch a character in a movie and you wonder what their sex life might be like. I get sick to death of totally unnecessary sex scenes, but there are movies where I do want to see what it's like behind doors for a movie character.

Q. The adult film industry is like a shadow version of the mainstream industry. They have adult film awards, they have their own trade magazines, their own stars.

A. It is filmmaking. When you go on porn sets there's a shock for a minute, but then it's just like any other set. It's like, let's get the shot, let's get in focus. And they have ceremonies to celebrate what they're doing; who else is going to celebrate it but them?

Q. There's a character in the film who I guess is from the Mafia?

A. With a name like Floyd Gondolli, and played by Philip Baker Hall, there's a hint of that.

Q. I've been told the Mafia wasn't involved in the films, but they used porno theaters to launder money. They'd sell 1,000 tickets and say they'd sold 10,000 tickets. That gave them a way to get rid of all those $5, $10 and $20 bills.

A. It was never really clear in my research how involved the Mafia was. I could never get a straight answer. I guess they were for a time, but apparently not now.

Q. Porno acting, in a way, is Method acting taken to its extreme. If the Method actor recollects an emotional event to re-create that emotion, maybe porno actors think of things that turn them on. . . .

A. The Method times 50. Some of them told me they put themselves somewhere else mentally, to make it look like they're having a good time. A lot of the acting is stiff and uninvolved. But good sex in pornos is probably some of the best acting there has ever been.

Q. There are rumors that Burt Reynolds is unhappy about the film. Here's a guy who willingly trashed his career with "Stroker Ace" and "Cannonball Run" and "Smokey and the Bandit." Doesn't he know this is one of his best performances?

A. I haven't talked to him since we finished, so I don't know. He's a good guy. He has a good heart and he's a good actor. He told me, "I was an actor first. I became a celebrity second." Sort of this weird sort of parallel to Jack Horner, the character he plays, who's always insisting he's a filmmaker.

Q. Except for what they do at work, there's very little sex in the world of these people. They've burned it out for themselves, right?

A. I saw a mixture of people that did it when they went to work and couldn't otherwise, and then people that were just 24-hour sex maniacs. In the film there's that set-piece sex scene, where we see Julianne Moore's and Mark Wahlberg's character have sex, and to me that was enough to take care of showing how it's usually done.

Q. The one character who is sex-mad is William H. Macy's wife, played by Nina Hartley, who was a porno star.

A. Still is. She makes a lot of money doing pornos and also makes a lot of money from lecturing. She's a sexologist and registered nurse and she gives incredibly wonderful, frank, odd lectures on sex.

Q. You're only what, 27? And you made "Hard Eight" when you were 25. You bypassed the film school route?

A. Yeah, pretty much. I did enroll for a couple of days at NYU but I went into it with a bad attitude. I was enrolling just so I could garner enough ammunition to bad-mouth what I knew was not a good situation. I made a short film, and then went to the Sundance Director's Lab, and worked on "Sidney," which became "Hard Eight." I had some money that I'd won gambling, funnily enough, and I had my girlfriend's credit card, and my dad set aside $10,000 for college for me and I said, "Listen, I'm not going. This 20-minute short will be my college."

Q. "Hard Eight" had a quality that I hunger for in movies: It knew a lot about something and told me about it. I found out how to take $150 and convince a casino to comp me for the night.

A. When I went to Sundance, all I had written was this wonderful long scene between John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in a car, where Sidney's telling him that there is a way, with $50, $100, he can get a bed and a meal and be set up for a couple of days. So I got to Sundance and Richard LaGravenese? (screenwriter of `The Bridges of Madison County') says, "Why isn't that in the movie? You just explained this wonderful scam to me! Why aren't you showing it?"

Q. I saw it at Cannes two years ago and loved it. But then it was one of those stories like "Normal Life" or "The Last Seduction" or "Red Rock West." The distributors didn't know what they had. Some of the best movies made in America recently have been misunderstood by studios, dumped on cable and video.

A. For me, it was a wake-up call that making a good movie unfortunately is only 50 percent of the job. The other half is dealing with studio politics. The company that paid for it didn't like the movie that I'd made and went to test screenings with it. I mean, you can't test-screen a movie like "Hard Eight." And when those cards come back and people were asking where the action was, and why wasn't Gwyneth Paltrow naked, then the studio just kinda gave up. You'd think that with the budget so small they'd at least try to recoup costs. But they looked at it as a nice little experiment, like a rat in a cage.

Q. Getting back to "Boogie Nights" - do you think it's going to have problems with people who are offended by its subject matter? If a movie gets an NC-17, it can't play in a lot of theaters or theater chains. You have an R. Will they still say they can't play it? Just as Blockbuster drops certain movies even though they're R's?

A. The main reason that I contractually couldn't make an NC-17 was because of Blockbuster.

Q. You're gonna have some people amazed that you got an R.

A. Ultimately we only cut about 40 seconds out of the movie. There are one or two that still bother me just slightly but not enough that it affects the story, so I'm cool. The biggest thing that we had to deal with was when Bill Macy first discovers Nina Hartley in bed with the man. And the MPAA said I can't show sexual movement and talking at the same time. So I got a flat and put it up, got a light in the camera, and I put Nina on the bed and I said, "Just move once, stop, and say the lines."

Q. Los Angeles is filled with people who want to direct films. They're always asking, "How do I get started? What do I do?" You have somehow managed to negotiate a path to that point. What do you tell people who want to be directors?

A. That there is nothing else I can do, and nothing else I will do. "No" is not an option. I have to do this or I will die. I only get to direct because I can write - that's the key. The scary thing is, if you can write, you hold a lot of cards. They're starving for material. Starving.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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