Like no filmmaker before him, Paul Thomas Anderson has made a signature out of his native Los Angeles, crafting epics out of the anxieties of porn stars (Boogie Nights), game-show hosts and their trophy wives (Magnolia) and lonely men in blue suits (Punch-Drunk Love). Now, after the period dramas There Will Be Blood and The Master, he’s returned to his hometown with Inherent Vice, a mystery set in a swirling ’70s L.A. of dawning Nixonian paranoia and the fading hippie dream. We sat down with Anderson to talk about the massive undertaking of adapting novelist Thomas Pynchon, along with the director’s love of slapstick and childhood memories of the San Fernando Valley.
You’re the first filmmaker to bring Thomas Pynchon’s work to screen. Do you know if others have tried and failed?
I don’t know if people have asked and he has not granted permission, or if they don’t present themselves that clearly. I would presume probably more of the latter. I came to it like everybody else—I just got my copy. But I am the type of person who hears there’s a new Pynchon book and I will go to the Internet five times a minute to see what new information there is. I am that pathological about it. So, when I heard there was a new book, I was just waiting and waiting for it to come out. I’d wanted to adapt Vineland, but I never had the courage. Then this book presented itself and it seemed to encapsulate a lot of his work. It seemed to be a great way to translate him into a movie.
Did you have to make your intentions clear to Pynchon himself?
Well, without, er…it was as simple as contacting the agent who represents his work, and writing a letter saying I’d like to. And they said okay. It was much simpler than you might imagine. I can only presume that I got the blessing. It was like getting the keys to your dad’s car. I’d like to think that our track record spoke well.
You’re smiling as you say this. Do you feel a responsibility to keep quiet about whatever direct collaboration you did or didn’t have with Pynchon?
Who? This tea looks delicious. No, I think it’s advisable to proceed talking about this like everything else with Pynchon: Just talk about the work and that’s it. That’s what’s so great about him, for me.
You’ve based a film on a book before: There Will Be Blood was loosely taken from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!. But this adaptation seems much closer to your heart and to the page. Is that fair?
The thing I had to get over was treating it like a bible. It’s a very faithful adaptation, but for the longest time, I was like, Oh, you can’t move a period, you can’t move a comma. Which was a fucking huge mistake. Once I gained enough confidence and the actors gained enough confidence to sort of improvise and make it messier, things started to get a lot better. We did not go wildly off-book or improvise new passages or anything like that, but it took a while for me not to feel like an imposter. Like, Who are you to fuck around with this work? That has to go away. You have to fuck around with it. You have to treat it a bit more aggressively. With Oil!, I felt like a rip-off artist. I just took some bits and went off completely. It was a more flagrant adaptation!
You were born the year Inherent Vice takes place, 1970. Is that relevant at all? Is this Anderson Year Zero?
It’s got to be! There’s a [specific] reason Pynchon set this book in the spring of 1970, but if you talk to anyone who was there, they do seem to feel a sense of loss and they pinpoint 1970 as when we crested and were coming in for a landing. The party’s over. Yeah, that’s when I was born. I don’t know. Anderson Year Zero!
You’re from Southern California and this is set in and around Los Angeles. Were there any visions of the place you were drawing on, apart from Pynchon’s book itself?
Robert Elswit [Anderson’s regular cinematographer] is from California like I am. He’s a bit older than me, and we both remember that the light was different back then. The reason is the environmental protections that are now in place. We had days when you couldn’t play outside because of the smog. Really, there were smog days. You could never go to school. It was so bad in the early- and mid-’70s that you couldn’t go outside to play. So the quality of light was drastically different, hazy and smoggy. It’s much cleaner now. That contributed to how we made it look. We were always going on then about how it felt like you had Vaseline on your eyes and your eyes were always watering from the smog. Even now, in summertime it’s fucking horrible.
Both the film and especially Joaquin Phoenix’s performance offer a fair amount of slapstick. It almost feels like a cartoon at points.
He’s good at it, isn’t he? I wish there was more. We had to exercise some good taste or discipline from time to time. In the book, there’s an amazing description of how the LAPD is behaving at the Wolfman mansion [a businessman’s home where they’re conducting a search and criminal investigation]. They’re eating cheeseburgers, playing in the pool, fucking around. If you’re from where I’m from and you know what the LAPD is like, it’s not so far from the truth—and this is 1970! There’s a long history of the LAPD being complete buffoons. It reminds you of a Zucker brothers movie [Airplane!] or their Police Squad. I know that Zucker brothers stuff really well, and it was a way of getting that stuff that was in the book into the movie.
Joaquin Phoenix suits the film’s tone very well.
It’s funny, he’s a lot more like he is in this in real life than he is in anything else, any other character he’s played. It fits him well. People think he’s really serious. But he’s a lot like Doc, actually. I talked to Robert Downey for two seconds about [playing Doc] when we were editing The Master, but then I thought, He’s right in front of me.
And yet totally removed from any sense of slapstick are scenes like a deadly serious and extremely sexually charged moment between Doc and his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She delivers a monologue and you invite us to watch her toes caressing the sofa as much as listen to what she’s saying. Did you direct her toes?
No, she did those toes on her own, I have to say! People are putting their finger on that scene and that makes me excited because I remember doing it and thinking, I like this, it doesn’t feel like anything I’ve ever done before. It’s directly from the book and it’s really well-written and it was one of those good moments that felt good when you were doing it. Katherine is new to a lot of people and she’s amazing. It was really nice to be in a spot where you could hire a new face. We really had to call in that card. I thought it was a good idea to have someone you’d never seen before.
Inherent Vice also has a voice-over delivered by Joanna Newsom. Was that a way of getting more Pynchon in there—but also honoring the noir tradition your film lives in?
Yeah, it just works. I fucking like it, and I love that it’s a girl. It was one of those decisions where I didn’t know what it means, but we needed a girl talking. It was one of those instinctual things. There’s so much good shit that’s going to be left on the floor if we don’t use this, and I think it’s useful in guiding an audience through. Just to stop it from going completely off the rails. Using the Neil Young songs is a little bit like that, too. It’s a comforting thing, like a blanket.’
You’ve said that with Inherent Vice, you took some inspiration from films like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, movies that just stormed ahead without worrying about confusing the audience. Were you nervous that this story was tough to penetrate?
I was a little bit. I also knew too that I’m not Alfred Hitchcock and Joaquin’s not Cary Grant, and this has twice as much crazy exposition! I think the film’s trying to be true to Pynchon’s way of winding you up and feeding you lots of information—all of it important, but ultimately you can take it or leave it. In some ways, the more information you can feed somebody to fuck with their head, the better. That’s the thing with Pynchon—he’s fucking with you all the time.
So there’s ultimately a logic to it?
Absolutely. There is a logic, you know? Pieces do fit. Also, getting wrapped up in so much information is part of Doc’s whole experience. One moment, hilarious to me, is when he’s looking through the binoculars with Benicio Del Toro and he says “U.S. Virgin Islands” and Doc says “Bermuda Triangle!” It’s the ultimate paranoid moment! Particularly at that time. Something being lost in the Bermuda Triangle became a catch-all. I think in that era, too, from what I can understand, and from what’s in the book, there wasn’t the amount of information we have now. There were these conspiracy theories and people saying, “You’re just being paranoid, the CIA is not really running drugs. Why would they do that? They’re the CIA.”
Times have changed. Now we watch a film like Citizenfour and almost fail to be shocked at its revelations about spying.
We’re accepting of the fact that the NSA is spying on us. No one is paranoid the way they used to be. We just accept that it is happening. I can only presume that, at the time this book is taking place, there were so many ideas floating around—is it possible that our government is completely conning us? People look back and talk about that time as being devastating.
Inherent Vice opens Fri 12.