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Paul Anderson – There Will Be Blood

By Cole Smithey

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Paul Thomas Anderson has grown immensely as a writer/director since his last feature film ("Punch Drunk Love"), so much so that in a single film he has become America’s most visionary and accomplished auteur. Anderson based "There Will Be Blood" on the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s lesser known novel "Oil!," about a turn-of-the-century silver miner named Daniel Plainview (exquisitely played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who turns oilman after being approached by a young preacher about purchasing his family’s oil-rich land. Paul Dano ("Little Miss Sunshine") plays evangelist Eli Sunday, a man with Plainview’s greedy heart but not his iron stomach for exacting the pounds of flesh that comes with such desire. Embedded in Anderson’s profound adaptation are timeless themes of greed and social oppression that reflect injustices facing America today. Composer Jonny Greenwood (of the band Radiohead) creates the film’s fiercely original musical score that expands the scope of the story with unusual sounds that tweak with emotion and experience. Cinematographer Robert Elswit ("Michael Clayton") captures the vast scope of raw nature reduced in scaled by men. Moments of homage to "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" are evident in this miraculous picture that is simultaneously an art film and a mainstream masterpiece.

CS: What drove you to make this film?

PTA: The inspiration for the movie comes first and foremost from the book. I had been trying to write something, anything, just to get something written and I had a story that wasn’t really working that was about fighting families. It was two families fighting—it didn’t really have anything—it just had that premise. And when I read the book [Upton Sinclair’s "Oil"!] there were so many readymade scenes and a great venue of the oil fields. So those are the kind of obvious things that seemed worth making a film about—and the desire to work with Daniel, certainly, once that presented itself as a possibility, drove the engine for me to write it, finish it and get it him.

CS: There’s an ocean of political undercurrents in the story. How aware were you of that stuff when you made the movie?

PTA: Aware of it enough to know that if we indulge too much in it, or let that stuff rise to the top, that it could get kind of murky. It’s a slippery slope when you start thinking about just a good battle between two guys that see each other for what they are—just trying to sort of work from that first and foremost and let everything that is there fall into place behind it. It would be horrible to make a political film, or anything like that, just to tell a nasty story and let the rest take care of itself.

CS: Was casting the role of Eli [played by Paul Dano] in any way related to Daniel and Paul’s work together in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose"?

PTA: It was, because the first time I’d seen Paul was in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." I called Rebecca Miller to talk to her and tell her how much I loved her film, and to tell Daniel how much I loved the film. But really the first question on my mind was, "Who the hell was that"? because I thought he was so terrific. And I think I’d just finished writing the script, and I knew I had to find somebody to play the part. I’d originally thought that it should be a 12 or 13-year-old boy, and that kind of seemed ridiculous. Then I saw Paul and thought he’d be great. He certainly got a good recommendation from Rebecca and from Daniel. I had to meet Paul for myself, to know, and it was pretty clear that he’s a terrific young actor.

CS: How do you view America’s oil lust?

PTA: Well, I grew up in California, and there’s a lot of oil out there. I don’t live that far from Bakersfield, which is where the initial discoveries of oil were in California—and still are pumping away. I suppose I’ve always wondered what the stuff is, how we get it out of the ground, why we like it so much, and what the story was.

The story of oil in California, in particular, and probably in this country was really well told in the first couple of hundred pages of the Upton Sinclair book. He started to write the book in the ‘20s when he went with his wife to the Signal Hill area, which is down near Long Beach. It was originally set up to be vacation homes overlooking the Long Beach bay. What happened was somebody decided, instead of building a vacation home, to drill for oil--and they struck oil. So this community went absolutely mad. His wife owned a plot of land. They took a ride down there. This community was trying to get a lease together, so they were trying to meet independent prospectors to see if they could get together and potentially get a bigger pie made up. But when he [Sinclair] witnessed this group trying to get this lease together, in his words he said he witnessed human greed laid bare. He just saw these people go absolutely crazy. And he knew what he wanted to write about, and that’s what started him on the road of that story.

We just picked up where he left off I suppose. There’s a lot of other things that go on in the book—it goes to Hollywood, it goes to Washington D.C., it takes care of the Tea Pot Dome scandal, it takes care of the Russian Revolution. I mean, all of the massive things that we couldn’t do were at the core of the story-- the drive and ambition, not only from this independent oilman, but also from the people that he was supposedly getting the better of in leasing their land. The ambition was on both sides equally.

CS: How did you come up with the amended title?

PTA: We changed the title because at the end of the day there’s not enough of the book left to feel like it’s a proper adaptation of the book. Probably selfishly, I wrote the title down and it look really good, and I thought we should call the film that.

CS: Tell me about shooting the confrontation scenes between Paul and Daniel.

PTA: First up is the reservoir scene. And the next day we got to shoot the baptism scene, so Paul got to have his way. That was a very similar thing, with one exception. We didn’t rehearse it. We just knew where they would stand, and had a couple of cameras rolling. We figured that we would get the scene before the slapping starts, and then we could start slapping, but Paul either forgot or decided to take his own initiative and began to slap Daniel across the face.

CS: How did you arrive at Jonny Greenwood as your choice for scoring the film?

PTA: It sort of begins and ends with Jonny Greenwood and, I suppose the good idea that I had to ask him to do it. He had a couple of pieces that he’d written for orchestra. He’s better known for his day job—he was in a band called Radiohead. But he’d written a few orchestral pieces that I’d heard, that I thought were terrific. He also did an experimental film called "Body Song" that he wrote the score for. Anyway, I’d known him for a few years, asked him to do it, and showed him the film, and he said, "OK, great." I gave him a copy of the movie, and then about three weeks later he came back with two hours of music. I have no idea how or when he did it, but he did it and it’s kind of amazing. I can’t say I did any real guiding or had any real contribution to it except to take what he gave us and find the right places for it. There’s a couple of things that he’d written on piano that we then took to an orchestra. There were a couple of things that he’d written for a string quartet that just went straight into the film, and a few things that we thought again for orchestra. We did that over the course of a couple of months. It was a great experience working with him.

CS: You thanked Robert Altman in the closing credits. Did his "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" serve as inspiration?

PTA: Well, all of Robert’s films has been an inspiration to me. Seeing his films when I was starting out, and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is certainly one of them—"Nashville," everything—on and on. We became pretty close in the last few years of his life, and I got the job of sitting next to him on "Prairie Home Companion" for insurance reasons. My partner was in the film, and she was pregnant at the time, and just in case anything happened with Bob, I was hired to sit there next him. I can’t tell you what I took from it. Obviously it was a privilege and an honor, and all that, but it was just such an amazing good time to sit next to him. Bob was very good at relaxing. He was a very relaxed director. I don’t know if he always was like that—I think he might have been. I would find myself getting uptight about things, and he’d just sort of look at me like, "What are you worried about? It’s all going to be fine." Maybe I learned that from just sitting around with him—to relax a little bit more.

He died while we were cutting the film. I was planning to show it to him—actually I was in Ireland working on the film, and planning to come back and to show it to him, and never got a chance to, so that’s really a drag that he didn’t get to see it. So, yeah we dedicated the film to him.

CS: How did you find the child actor who played H.W.

PTA: We did start out in New York, reading young men with headshots and that kind of thing, and we thought they should be sent to their rooms. We thought we needed a boy from Texas who knew how to shoot shotguns and live in that world. We were looking for a man in a young boy’s body. We didn’t read scenes with him. We talked with him, and it was pretty clear that he’s a very special young man, and he took to it really well. We’re all so fond of him. He’d never been on a movie set. He’d never seen a movie camera—nothing like that but he just loved it. I remember having the first costume fitting, and you would think that most 10-year-old boys would not look forward to wearing those britches, but at the second he saw them he said, "I’ve always wanted to wear britches. I’ve always wanted to wear those."

CS: There’s a very specific lilt to the language of the dialogue, how did you develop that with the actors?

PTA: Well, the first speech in the movie is taken from the Upton Sinclair book, "Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve traveled over half our state." The one thing I did to it was—there was an accent applied to it the way that Upton Sinclair wrote it—"drill in." I didn’t want to impose any kind of accent or something like that on whoever was going to play the part, so I just wrote it out clearly—filled in the final consonants along the way. It’s just incredibly simple, very direct. Whether I thought this then or not, I can remember doing, "Just keep it simple, keep the language simple." But that kind of comes from—I just couldn’t imagine these guys using more words than I had to use. I’d see pictures of these guys in these oil camps and I’m pretty positive they’re so economical with what they say, which became a nice way to attack it. Ideally it gets to the point where it’s just happening and going well, and you write something and wake up the next morning and say, "Who wrote that? That’s pretty good."

Posted by Cole Smithey on February 4, 2008 in Film | Permalink
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