On Thursday November 8th, the Writers Guild of America hosted an extensive and exclusive Q&A session with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Moderated by film scholar F.X. Feeney, the sold out discussion covered a wide swath of Anderson’s career, from his nascent directorial efforts like short mockumentary “The Dirk Diggler Story” (which, of course, later became the basis for Boogie Nights) to his most recent offering The Master – and beyond.
The event was held at the WGA building on Fairfax in Los Angeles, and the crowd was comprised largely of aspiring writers. As such, much of the content of the discussion was arrived at through the lens of the writing process – and specifically the process of discovery.
Fans of PTA – especially those who track the development of his projects – know that the route he takes in writing his screenplays is often circuitous, with stops and starts, and long, frustrating periods of seeming inactivity. Those same fans though, no doubt understand that this is simply what he’s found to work for him, and many of his answers over the course of the Q&A seemed to back this up.
When specifically asked about the writing process on The Master, Anderson often touched on the alchemy that ultimately resulted in the screenplay. A strange combination of anecdotes from the John Steinbeck biography, “John Steinbeck, Writer,” secondhand World War II stories from men like his father Ernie Anderson and actor Jason Robards, and research he had previously done on the early days of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics.” All of these disparate elements eventually swirled around in his brain enough, and took different forms until they eventually resulted in the tale of wayward sailor Freddie Quell and charismatic religious leader Lancaster Dodd.
To hear Anderson tell it, he often doesn’t know where a story is going when he starts writing – but that he writes, just to write, until his characters eventually start to tell the story for him. This, in part, explains the typically long gestation periods for his projects. Although his first three films – Hard Eight (née Sydney), Boogie Nights and Magnolia – seemingly came fast and furious, Anderson admitted that it took him a decade of writing before he got the script for Boogie Nights the way he wanted it.
This may seem an unfortunate hang-up for a writer to have, but it’s hard to argue with the results he’s gotten to this point in his career.
As an unabashed PTA fan, I readily consume any form of media on him that I can find, including director’s commentaries, and something he had said in the opening moments of his very first commentary (on the Hard Eight DVD) always stuck with me: that one of his notions when it comes to writing is that if you have two strong characters, but you don’t know what the story is, just sit them down in a coffee shop and have them talk for as long as it takes until a story starts developing.
As a theory, that’s always been an appealing one, but I wondered how that approach (and indeed, his approach in general) was jiving with his current undertaking, adapting Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” When given a chance, I asked him whether adapting a book with a defined story arc was something that he was wrestling with, or whether he found it more freeing. His response was fascinating.
Anderson said that although he’ll have to get much tougher on the book sooner rather than later (in terms of paring it down to its essential elements), that in a way it’s comforting to have someone else’s words to stare at all day, every day, for months at a time – that it’s nice to not be horrified and limited by one’s own words for a change.
This sort of humility is what’s so refreshing about Anderson’s approach. At one point during the discussion, he mentioned (perhaps tongue half-in-cheek) that he wasn’t sure that he or any of the collaborators he surrounds himself have made any of the “right” choices over the last almost two decades. Legions of film fans around the world may beg to differ, but the sentiment is nevertheless an interesting one.
Anderson is a filmmaker who rarely places himself in the spotlight, and it was a rare treat to be given the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with him in a relatively intimate, unpretentious setting. Much thanks to Anderson, F.X. Feeney, and the WGA Foundation for making it all happen.
The WGA Foundation hosts Q&A sessions throughout the year. Tickets are available on their website. The next event will be with filmmaker David O. Russell.