Paul Thomas Anderson Reveals Secrets of Stoner Odyssey 'Inherent Vice'

Director on adapting Pynchon and how to talk to actors

Paul Thomas Anderson says Thomas Pynchon's writing "just lifts me out of my seat." Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux

Paul Thomas Anderson likes to take his time. Ask the 44-year-old director of Inherent Vice about adapting Thomas Pynchon's 2009 stoner-noir novel – in which a hippie-dippy private detective (played by The Master's Joaquin Phoenix) tangles with all sorts of Seventies Southern California types – or what he remembers about growing up in the Me Decade, and Anderson will thoughtfully stare out the window of his hotel's lounge. He'll run his hand over his gray-flecked beard. He'll gently tap his coffee spoon. Eventually, he'll smile widely and launch into an anecdote about the time he got his "weiner" caught in a white jumpsuit's zipper when he was a kid. (Just don't ask about whether he met or talked to the famously reclusive Pynchon; you'll simply get silence.)

By the time Anderson's done, you'll realize there's an answer embedded in those funky detours, the same way that you can pick out a family drama in his porn-industry epic, Boogie Nights; an old-fashioned romance in Punch-Drunk Love; and character studies about the self-made man in There Will Be Blood and The Master. You can see why Pynchon's wacky, roundabout mystery was a good fit for Anderson, and how it eventually reveals what it's really about – just like the filmmaker himself.

Do you remember the first time Pynchon's work came across your radar?
It's a little messy up here [taps forehead], but I think I tried to tackle Gravity's Rainbow first, based on its reputation. I would not advise people to start with that one [laughs]. So then I reached for a thinner one, The Crying of Lot 49, and that just got me hungry for more. I remember hearing Pynchon's name in high school, but I was a slow reader and a really slow learner. The schools I went to were very academic, and you were expected to be as smart as everyone else. I just wasn't moving at that pace. But by my senior year, I started becoming serious about reading because it wasn't a contest anymore, and that's when Lot 49 and V. just floored me.

What was it about his writing that grabbed you?
It's funny, I've been thinking about that a lot lately, because I have such a different relationship with his writing now that I've gone through this experience. I mean, it's challenging, which is fun. His writing . . . it just lifts me out of my seat. I read Vineland a couple of months ago, and there were sections where I felt like I was just floating. I got a high out of it.

Weren't you originally thinking about adapting Vineland or Mason & Dixon before tackling Inherent Vice?
Well, no. I think I just said that in an interview. I never tried, really. They're very difficult books. I mean, the story he tells of Mason and Dixon, of that line being cut through the Earth, has never been told in a movie. That would be a great one to do, though – maybe Lifetime or A&E could make it. Shit, I'd watch it! But Vineland? It's just too intimidating. My brain's not big enough.

This is the second time you've adapted someone's work, after There Will Be Blood [based on Upton Sinclair's Oil!], and it's the first complete adaptation of Pynchon's work for the screen. Did you feel like, "I better get this right or I'm screwed"?
Yeah, this was different than Blood. Being too precious about anything is bad for your health, you know? So being too precious about his words, or being too precious about making it my own – either one of those sounds horrible, and kind of a mistake. [Pauses] There were definitely times during the process of doing this when I thought I was being overly protective about what he wrote. And that was not a good place to be. . . . The film actually became more fun to make when we weren't doing that.

It's a pretty interesting choice of period music you have here – from krautrock to Sam Cooke. Not exactly K-Tel's Sounds of the Seventies.
We didn't want to be obvious with the Seventies music. We chose what we thought would work, but there's always all kinds of internal gymnastics over whether we've earned the right to use stuff. It's like, "There's gotta be a rule in the Movie Directors Handbook that says, 'This feels too good, so you're not allowed to do it.' " With a special sub-rule regarding Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World." That was the one obvious choice. Look, using someone else's song to prop up your movie is a privilege. You wanna use Neil Young's "Harvest," you better fucking work for it. Hopefully, we did.

What made you think of using Joanna Newsom's character as the narrator?
I was about halfway through the process of writing out the book in screenplay form, page by page, when I was starting to feel like, you know, there's a very good potential to bring in a voice that could add something to the story. Then I saw this great YouTube trailer for [the novel] that Pynchon narrates, all this material that's not in the book. It had such a great feeling to it. That clinched it. I just wrote "Narrator" – that was it. And then the dice rolled in my favor when we got Joanna, because she has this great voice. There's an innocence to it, and it sounds great, these foul things you shouldn't hear coming out of her mouth . . . like "fuck" or "LAPD" [laughs]. We kind of had to make her the narrator at that point.

"Joaquin Phoenix is like a dog that will fetch the ball over and over. He's the best dog I ever had."

Did you have a lot of discussions with Joaquin Phoenix about playing "Doc" Sportello, or did you just sort of turn him loose?
Those conversations didn't really have to happen, because the book was so gigantic, and it was so clear who this guy was. But there's this documentary on Daniel Ellsberg, called The Most Dangerous Man in America. There's a great picture of a buddy of his who has this great set of glasses, a floppy hat and these mutton chops. I took a still frame from that and I sent it to him, along with the omnibus collection of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic, by Gilbert Shelton – and that's probably the most we really talked about it.

Would you say he's the type of actor to give you something new in every take?
Yeah! He's like a dog that will fetch the ball over and over and over again. You can throw it down the cliff, you can throw it into the snow, you can throw it in the ocean, and he will go get the ball and bring it back. And he will curl up in your lap and keep you warm by the fire. He's the best dog I've ever had. [Pauses] That's going to be your pull quote, isn't it? "Joaquin Phoenix is the best dog I've ever had" [laughs].

Did it take you a while to figure out how to talk to actors, or was that something that came naturally to you from the get-go?
I was always hanging out with the actors. I was never the guy hanging around the special-effects crew, talking about blowing stuff up. I was lucky in that my first feature, Hard Eight, I was working with John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Sam Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow – they taught me a lot. I remember hearing them discuss frustrating situations they'd been in on other films – being over-directed or how the sets were so loud . . . the worst thing in the world is when there's an assistant director who screams right before a take [yells], "Everybody quiet! This is a very emotional scene!" 

Martin Short said that when he was filming Inherent Vice, he'd do a scene and ask you if it was too big. He said the response was always "There's no too big here, Martin!"
[Laughs] I don't remember saying that, but listen, when you're directing Martin Short, you want to abuse the privilege. You want to get your money's worth. You don't really want to say, "Smaller, and less." You want to watch him light up!

You have a great actor come in off the bench, and you think, "I'm gonna show you my fastball." And they do something and you think, "Holy shit, how do I say that that fastball's not working, we need a curveball?" The fun thing about making movies is that you can do big takes, you can do small takes – you can do it all. Take the "I drink your milkshake" line from There Will Be Blood. There are a lot of people out there who I'm sure think, "Kind of hit a sour note with the 'milkshake' bit, Paul" [laughs]. Because, yeah, it's big. But if memory serves, that exact line was taken from a transcript from the 1920s, when the Teapot Dome scandal was going on, so . . . if you can convince yourself that there's some link to reality, then you can justify anything.

You can go big, or you can just do a lot of close-ups.
There are a lot of close-ups in Inherent Vice, aren't there? It wasn't by design, but right here [holds hand in front of his face] always seemed to be the best place to be. You know, a lot of these locations, there's not much else to look at. They're kind of dingy little motel rooms and apartments and stuff, so. . . . Plus, what's better than a Jena Malone close-up? Not much. Pretty high on the list of great things.

What do you think of the state of movies today? Do you feel like the complaints about American filmmaking being nothing but superhero movies. . .
Ah, that's such a fucking crock of shit. I can't remember a year in recent memory where there were less complaints about the quality of movies. And what's wrong with superhero movies, you know? I don't know. You're talking to someone that enjoys watching those films. People need to get a life if they're having that discussion [laughs]. Those movies get a bad rap.

Do you think the Seventies get a bad rap? The consensus is that the Sixties is when things were going to change for the better, and then the Seventies became the para-noid, hangover decade – which is a big part of Pynchon's book.
It's exactly what he's talking about here, isn't it? Maybe it does get a bad rap. I can't claim any authorship over this film. I mean, it's really Pynchon's film. It's Pynchon's work, and it's his preoccupations with this place and time. I was born in 1970, so when I think of the period, I don't think of Watergate. I think of being in our station wagon. I think of waking up before anybody else and pouring cereal in front of the TV on Saturday mornings. Just, like, pouring it onto the floor and eating the cereal off the floor. I think of my mother coming down and saying, "What the fuck are you doing?" and handing me the vacuum: "Clean it up!" [Laughs] "You made this mess, you're gonna clean it up."

You grew up in a big family. Did you ever think that might be why you gravitate to making ensemble movies and why you're so comfortable on film sets?
Oh, absolutely. There is comfort for me in large groups of people making tons of noise. A film set . . . that's like Christmas morning to me. Yeah, if things are too quiet, I get a little nervous.