10 Filmmaking Lessons From Paul Thomas Anderson

It probably says something about Paul Thomas Anderson that the first film clip he selected to screen at an event titled “On Cinema” was pulled from a television show. The sold-out chat, part of the New York Film Festival (and of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s ongoing “Directors Dialogue” series) was an amiable and enjoyable hybrid of master class, Inherent Vice promotion, and self-professed “nerd talk”; over the course of the 90-minute conversation with the Film Society’s Kent Jones, Anderson showed clips from not only movies that inspired him, but television and music videos as well. In doing so, he imparted some of his filmmaking philosophy, which we’ve helpfully compiled here for your easy digestion.

Still image from "Police Squad!"

1. Inspiration can come from anywhere.

That aforementioned first clip was from Police Squad!, the legendary, short-lived spoof 1982 television show from Airplane! creators David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (and the basis for their later Naked Gun films). Anderson’s memory of watching it as an impressionable kid was part of the process of making Inherent Vice, he explained: “When I was starting the new movie, amidst all the nerves and confusion about what you’re doing, it’s just like breathing — remembering, what am I doing, why am I here in the first place? Getting back to those original joys of viewing, they’re good to get back to… It was just a good energizing pill for me, and weird things come from all places that help you.”

Paul Thomas Anderson and Kent Jones at the New York Film Festival

2. Plot isn’t important.

Inherent Vice isn’t exactly a model for narrative cohesion — and that’s entirely on purpose. Its plot is, in many ways, convoluted for the sake of being convoluted, an idea Anderson explained with a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, a film whose plot was basically a clothesline upon which Hitch could hang set pieces he’d already devised. In that film, the intricate plot is explained in an airport sequence, where the roar of the planes overpowers it entirely on the soundtrack — a way, according to Anderson, to cue that this is “exposition that nobody cares about.” Expanding on this theme, Anderson explained, “I never remember plots of movies. I remember how they make me feel, and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen.” And on that subject…

Neil Young in "Journey Through The Past"

3. Find ways to evoke a mood.

The “longest, slowest, weirdest” clip (per PTA!) came from Neil Young’s 1974 film Journey Through the Past. It’s a scene in which not much happens; a car pulls up, Young and his lady friend get out, they eat, they smoke, they drink, they peer at the camera a bit, and then they get back in the car and drive away. But there was something about that scene, Anderson explained, that he wanted to capture in the sunny haze of Inherent Vice, something about the way it looks and the way it feels: “This looks like my idea of heaven on a Saturday afternoon. Going out with your girl and parking with a babbling brook nearby, taking a joint out and eating strawberries and drinking apple juice, I don’t know how it could get any better on a Saturday afternoon!”

Paul Thomas Anderson and Kent Jones at the New York Film Festival

4. Emotional logic trumps narrative logic.

In discussing the Hitchcock clip and his own work, Anderson explained his theory of “emotional logic”: “If emotional logic is betrayed, then you’ve got a problem. Not that none of it’s plausible — it seems to be vaguely plausible. It’s not ridiculously implausible. There’s a fine line between ‘No fucking way’ and ‘Ah, yeah, I could see that.'” So that’s the line he treads, because “if you start messing with the plausibility of somebody’s emotions, that feels against the rules a bit.” And the penalty? Anderson suggests having the movie police come confiscate your DGA (Directors Guild of America) card: “We have it on good authority that you have three unmotivated crane shots, handheld out of focus 500 different times…”

Paul Thomas Anderson and Kent Jones at the New York Film Festival

5. Learn how to do it the hard way.

In the raging film-vs.-digital battle among contemporary filmmakers, Anderson is firmly on the side of film — though not as vehemently as, say, his friend Quentin Tarantino (who, he says wants to “tar and feather” the digital folk, who turn Tarantino into a character from one of his films: “I’m gonna cut your fuckin’ ear off!” Anderson joked, in a near-perfect QT impression). It’s not that he thinks either should be dismissed entirely; it’s that both should be available, as choices. Digital is a great option for young filmmakers with no money, he explained, but “it looks different,” and the disappearance of chemical photography and processing means that cinematographers no longer have the specific skill of lighting for film. “The skill level has been diminished,” he said. “I would hate to think that there won’t be more artists like Robby Müller out there” — referencing the famed cinematographer for Jarmusch, Wenders, and Alex Cox (whose Repo Man turned up in a clip), whose night exteriors Anderson has been trying to replicate for years, to no avail. Thanks to digital color timing and elaborate post-production tools, most of that works is done after the fact now, Anderson said, “and that’s fucking cheating!”

6. Know the characters.

Anderson and Jones unspooled a clip from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which the filmmaker feels is a perfect scene (“It’s just a watermark for how you shoot a scene… and it’s so simple. It’s just an apartment and a fucking breakfast nook”); he also found the film helpful in putting together Vice, which, like Jackie, is set in Los Angeles’ South Bay area (where Tarantino is from; Anderson hails from up north, in the Valley). But what struck him immediately about the film, he said, is that it was filled with people he recognized: “Being from Los Angeles, seeing the combination of characters, it’s just one of those things that’s like, this makes sense. That Sam Jackson character, the way Bridget Fonda is, the way Robert De Niro is, I’ve seen these fucking people in Los Angeles. It’s not movie faking.”

Cary Grant in "North by Northwest"

7. Never underestimate the importance of good casting.

All of that said, there is certainly significant value in just getting the casting right. After all of their talk about the greatness of North by Northwest, Anderson added, “It always comes down to Cary Grant. You can go on and on about bullshit technical stuff, but it’s just nerd stuff… So all that stuff about what you shoot on and everything else, put Cary Grant in your movie and you’re square!”

8. Don’t let your music do your work.

The music cues in Anderson’s films are always spot-on (and Vice is no exception), but a viewing of the Grimes music video “Oblivion” (which Anderson said “made me hyper, made me bounce around the room”) prompted a discussion of the how carefully those preexisting songs must be curated. It should never feel like “you’re just watching the best of someone’s record collection. You know, that can be a bit nauseating: Here’s my mix tape, and here’s my movie afterwards.”

Still image from "The Bitter Tea of General Yen"

9. Know your history.

Though the clips that ran through the program were mostly inspirations of one sort or another, for Vice, Anderson bucked that trend by running a clip from the wildly atypical and semi-obscure 1933 Frank Capra film The Bitter Tea of General Yen, a wildly feverish “Pre-Code” movie he’d just seen, he said, “a couple of months ago.” So it didn’t influence his new film — “It’s new to me, and I just thought I’d share it, because that’s exciting, when you find something new,” he said, reiterating that the filmmaker (who famously keeps TCM on all day as he’s working) is always on the lookout for new artifacts from the past. “That’s what’s exciting about movies,” he said, “they’re like books on a shelf. You can watch them, but there’s always something you haven’t seen.” Or as moderator Jones noted, paraphrasing Peter Bogdanovich, “There’s no such thing as old movies, only movies I haven’t seen yet.”

Paul Thomas Anderson and Kent Jones at the New York Film Festival

10. There are no rules.

But perhaps the most vital lesson Anderson imparted came early on, after that clip from Police Squad!, a film whose comic tone is occasionally replicated in Vice. But its main influence, on the new film and his entire body of work, was a philosophical one: observing this wild stew of sight gags, verbal puns, and wild slapstick, the young movie lover was struck by how it was “so fresh, so fucking nuts, and it made me feel like, ‘Oh, you can do anything? You can do anything you want? That’s OK?'”

NYFF photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire