Even those who love Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” have discussed how they want to see it a second time. Anderson’s films often have that effect on moviegoers, an initial opacity giving way to understanding and embrace.
“I think it started happening on ‘The Master’ a lot. People said that they wanted to see it again. And not necessarily in a good way, but maybe in a way that they kind of afforded the film some goodwill even if they didn’t really like it,” Anderson said during a recent phone interview. The impulse for a second viewing of “Inherent Vice,” the first screen adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, is compounded by its narrative, a shaggy dog detective story that twists and turns in ways that recall “The Big Sleep” and “The Long Goodbye.”
“There’s so much information packed into this book and therefore the movie, that it is a good thing [to see it twice],” Anderson added, before digressing in a way befitting of his latest feature film. “Oh, fuck, I don’t know. It was certainly not by design! You would never go into something saying, ‘Hey, you really have to see this twice!’ That’s just sort of so horseshit that a director would feel that he could fucking say that. That’s the last thing you’re allowed to say.”
He continued: “But I totally see it … [seeing a movie is] a different experience every time. I’m saying something obvious, but it really can make a difference. How many movies have you absolutely adored when you saw it, because you were in the right frame of mind or because of what you ate for lunch that afternoon, and then six months later you say, ‘What the fuck was I thinking?'”
Based on Pynchon’s 2009 novel, “Inherent Vice” follows the misadventures of Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective initially hired by his ex-girlfriend (breakout star Katherine Waterston) to investigate the disappearance of a real-estate mogul (Eric Roberts). Then all hell breaks loose: Nazis, a presumed dead saxophone player named Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a drug-addled dentist (Martin Short), an assistant district attorney (Reese Witherspoon) and a tough cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), whom the film’s narrator (Joanna Newsom) describes as having “a twinkle in his eye that says civil-rights violation,” all factor into the story. Set in California in 1970, “Inherent Vice” has a lot more on its mind than the plot: It’s a story about the battle between liberals and conservatives and a look back at a time, before Watergate, when the government hoped to crack down on any subversive elements left over from the free-love ’60s.
As with Anderson’s six previous films — “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” — “Inherent Vice” is an blessed with great performances, music and visual beauty. Working with his longtime cinematographer, Robert Elswit, Anderson shot “Inherent Vice” on 35mm film, giving it a worn-in look that suits the time period. Long takes, another Anderson signature, are ever present was well, including a striking sequence late in the film between Phoenix and Waterston, where the actress is completely naked for what feels like an eternity. (“It has to present itself naturally,” Anderson said of his predilection toward filming scenes in one take.) During what many have called a down year for filmmaking, “Inherent Vice” stands out as enjoyably challenging; it’s the type of movie people will discuss long after the year’s flashier awards contenders have faded into history.
Ahead of its limited release, Anderson spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about adapting Pynchon’s novel, the evolution of his career and what he learned about movies from his father.
Owen Wilson and Joaquin Phoenix in “Inherent Vice”
You’ve talked before about how the plot is almost secondary to the action, but having seen “Inherent Vice” twice now, it does make sense.
It does! It’s not necessarily a cop out with us saying plot doesn’t matter. It does connect, I assure you. But that’s the joy of Pynchon. All of his stuff, which is seemingly so rambling and wild, is carefully structured and really meticulously thought out. There is a point to everything and everything is connected. Every cause has an effect. When you’re sending this character off to investigate what happened to his generation, the points in the dots are connecting — he’s piecing it together. It’s all pretty damn accurate. It’s not just wild stuff that Pynchon is making up out of thin air. He’s looking back with proof in his hands: look at what these Republicans in power did to the country at that time.
There’s a scene at the end of “Inherent Vice” between Doc and Bigfoot that recalls a similar moment at the end of “The Master”: two men in opposition coming to an understanding that they must remain opposed. It’s emotional but in a way that isn’t obvious. What are you trying to say in those sequence?
It was just an effort to make sure that made it in the translation from the book to the movie. That’s where it starts. They’re trying to apologize to each other for how they treated each other the night before, and Doc and Bigfoot begin to talk at the same time. It struck me so sweetly in the book. It was like Tom and Jerry stopping to apologize to each other about their behavior. What I really like about that scene, and what ended up happening when we got there, is that for as emotional as Doc is throughout the movie, you never see him break down and cry. But in truth, the most emotional he gets is bawling his eyes out while watching Bigfoot have this meltdown in front of him. Doc says that beautiful line, which is from the book: “Are you okay brother?” Bigfoot rejects it: “I’m not your brother.” Doc says: “But you sure could use a keeper. Doc has become unglued along with Bigfoot. It’s just stuff in the book that I shuffled around and made into one scene.
There’s a lot of that sweet sentimentality running through this. I found the relationship between Coy and his wife to be some of the most heartfelt stuff you’ve ever done.
You’re never supposed to admit that your own material makes you laugh. When you’re writing it and laughing out loud, you have to think there’s got to be something wrong. Similarly, you’re never supposed to admit that you get a lump in your throat. But I remember a few times feeling proud and kind of emotional at the family’s reunion. With the music playing and the thought of their baby asleep in that crib; the daddy coming home. It’s all directly from the book, and it made me feel so emotional in the book. The job was how to get my camera going and not fuck up how I felt while reading the book, which was really touched and sweet and hopeful for this family to have a new beginning. Sentimental is a great word for it. That has become a misused, overused word. It’s sometimes bad to be sentimental. But that’s what is going on in this book. It was a time when it was okay to be sentimental. There’s actually a line in the book that didn’t make the movie and I regret it. Bigfoot is saying something to Doc, and Doc says, “Don’t get sentimental on me, man. It fucks up your head.”
Sam Cooke’s “(What A) Wonderful World” plays during a key part of the film, but it almost feels anachronistic based on the rest of the songs, by among others Can and Neil Young. Why did you pick it?
I got clues from the book about a wide array of music, and then kept it exclusive to just 1970 hits. It makes it feel a little more well-rounded in terms of the period. But truthfully there’s a kind of Pynchon nerd thing that I’ve done here with “Wonderful World.” Sam Cooke is referenced in Vineland. There is a character who is very similar to Doc in Vineland, and in moments of weakness he throws on Sam Cooke. I think I remembered that intuitively. “Wonderful World” was so skillfully used in “Animal House” that I had to wrestle whether or not to use it again. Because you can’t beat how it’s used in “Animal House.” But I thought the statute of limitations was up and that we could use it. But if you’re going to use a song that good, you have to really feel like you’ve earned it. Because it could be really easily cheating to throw that song on. It’s contagious.
Do you think you’ve changed as a filmmaker over the last 15 years?
Yeah! I mean I sure hope so, otherwise I’d be making the same movie over and over again. Look, my brain has gotten slightly bigger having been with Thomas Pynchon’s work over the past four years. The mental work that it took to go through all of this material was a work out. I definitely don’t think I could have done this when I was starting out 15 years ago. It was only through some little bit of experience and nerve that I was able to try it now.
You don’t want to make the same film over and over again, but there are certainly fans who want you to replicate the feeling of “Boogie Nights.” How do you balance the audience expectations with your own artistic desire?
You’re always thinking about an audience watching your film, to the extent that you’re wondering: Does this make sense? Is this funny? Is this clear? Am I shooting this properly? But we’re not really making films that are casting a super-wide net toward audience participation. We’re not making blockbusters, so we don’t have a price tag over our heads to deal with. But you’re making a movie. You want it to communicate. You want it to entertain. The last thing we want to do is have someone come in and have it feel like homework. No one wants to go to the movies for that.
One thing you use to entertain is filmmaking technique, especially long takes. How has your usage of them evolved since you started making films?
It’s always in my mind that if you can naturally create a scene that can play in one take, you should do it. But that can also work the other way too. Sometimes if you’re just doing it for an effect or if you’re doing it as an artificial construct, then it becomes an art project. Then it’s no good. We did that a few times on this, where you’re trying to do something for all the wrong reasons. The other option is covering it, where he says his lines and he says his lines and you cut it together. There’s a lot of fun taken away when you do it like that. It actually becomes more difficult and not in a fun and challenging way — just a pain in the ass. If you have a location and a set and a scene where it can fit and work, you take advantage of it and do it.
My dad used to always watch movies with me. I wouldn’t notice edits when I was a kid, but he would say, “Look at that. No cuts.” Or he would say, if something was being cut, he would snap his fingers and go, “Good cut. Good cut.” It’s so funny: The other morning, my daughter and I were at my mom’s house. Turner Classic Movies was on and they were playing “That’s Entertainment.” There was a long shot, and my mom just said, “No cuts!” My daughter realized, in that moment, that we sound exactly the same. I’ve watched things with my daughter, and I’m like, “Look at that, no cuts.” It’s like a fucking disease in our family. I don’t know what it is or where we got this from, but it’s like, what the fuck? What a weird family. We sit around and talk about “no cuts.”
Wait until you see “Birdman” together.
Yeah, exactly. No cuts! No cuts!
After “There Will Be Blood,” I remember hearing about both “The Master” and “Inherent Vice.” Now seven years later, they both exist. So do you have stuff you want to make now?
I do. There’s a catalog of material that I have. Most of it is pretty thin. Some of it is okay, some of it is sort of dying to be looked at. But I don’t have anything concrete at all to work on at the moment, which is a really exciting place to be after four years of working pretty hard on these last two things. It’s a wide-open road. Which I’m really enjoying. It’s funny because it can be weeks or days or an hour before the itch starts to happen again that you have to scratch. But I’m always writing. Some of it’s good, some of it’s not. I consider it writing even if you’re just sitting at your desk and not typing something out. As long as you’re sitting there, you’re working. Because you’re thinking about it or at least showing up to your job. You have to convince your spouse that you’re actually working if they open the door and they catch you doing what you’re doing. Which is twiddling your thumbs. You’re like, “No, I’m working!” Suddenly it turns into “The Shining” very fast.
Is there a genre you want to dabble in?
Yeah, but that’s a crazy question because the answer is all of them. The irony is, if you asked me if I wanted to do a detective movie, I would have said no. But here I am. It’s some combination of intuition and material and how these things line up. It’s still sort of a mystery to me. I would check all of the above. Make a horror movie or a musical or an action film? Yeah, of course, all of them!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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