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Interview with P.T. Anderson


In the post-strike world, we have now have some room to run more “general interest” items on the BTL blog. And as we rush toward Oscar night, we present our recent interview with director Paul Thomas Anderson, on the subject of “There Will Be Blood,” his much-lauded adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking book, “Oil!” Enjoy.

BTL: How much of the “There Will Be Blood” actually came from the Sinclair book?

PT ANDERSON: Lots of it. We owe a big debt to the book. And we owe a really big debt to a lot of the California oil museums. There’s one in Bakersfield and there’s one in Taft. And they did an amazing job of keeping their history in tact at these little museums, whether it’s photographs or letters. And it seemed like there were a lot of locally published books chronicling the history of the area. So yeah, massive help in getting underneath it all, for sure.

BTL: Tell us about your research process. At the Below the Line screening, Jack Fisk said you’d done a lot of research.

PT ANDERSON: Well yeah. I mean it goes so hand in hand with writing the film. And God I wish it was really romantic, but it really was just as simple as taking drives up to the area and going into these museums. One museum is just a few different trailers, with a card catalog system and drawers full of old letters and photographs. But I didn’t want to approach either Daniel Day Lewis or Jack without knowing a little bit of what I was talking about… And, yeah it was actually really funny because we started talking to our drilling expert, a guy named Jim Farmer and he kind of helped us out with a lot of the old gear and there was a certain point, we were trying so desperately to get things accurate and right and he said something really sweet.

He said, ‘you know, there was no one way to do this back then, You can’t get it wrong.’ Cause essentially everybody had the same things that were working with, you know rope, lumber, drill bits. Beyond that it, it was kind of like all bets are off, like as long as you can get it up and out of the ground, you can have it. So you could cheat. It allowed us to kind of go, well we don’t have to have any kind of real historical accuracy to pin ourselves to. We’re just working with the same equipment they worked with and therefore, hey if we can invent something with these tools then, then we’re thinking like they were thinking.

BTL: So was the first crew head conversation with Jack?

PT ANDERSON: Yes. I mean, you know and (costume designer) Mark Bridges as well, but, but I worked with Mark before and, and Jack’s job was sort of front and center before Mark.

BTL: Was Jack your choice because of his historical experience? (With films like “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line,” and “The New World”)

PT ANDERSON: Yes. First off’s Jack on this one, like we said. Kind of in order second to top was Mark. The great thing with Mark is that we could say, can you just find me a suit, even if you’re just pulling it from a costume department, you know even if you’re just pulling it off the rack, something to, to lay out on the couch, to send to Daniel. Even if it’s not right. Let’s just hold something in our hands, you know. Cause from Jack’s point of view he had such a big thing to do, it couldn’t be done until it was done, if you know what I mean.

BTL: What about cinematographer Robert Elswit?

PT ANDERSON: Robert just buzzes on the sidelines, waiting for his turn, really. You know Robert and I worked together for so long (on “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” and “Punch Drunk Love”) that we’re able to pick it up pretty quickly. And quite honestly we weren’t creating a situation like where you are building sets and want to discuss something with a cinematographer, saying ‘how can we help build this set to accommodate your camera?’ We really didn’t want to do that. We wanted to build the sets first, as they would have been, and then you figure out how to film it. Which seemed to be good way to go. We didn’t want to start making allowances for making it easier to film.

BTL: How did you choose your location? Why Marfa, Texas, and not Kern or King’s County (in California)?

PT ANDERSON: I have to tell you, I can make a case for that argument. And being a Californian and telling a California story I felt such a heartache that I couldn’t do it here. And I felt for the longest time that we were cheating, you know. And, and I really had to kind of devour everywhere to find it. And, we just couldn’t find it. On top of that, even if you could find something that was close, to get a train track, to get a privately owned train track on a ranch, I mean it was too good to be true. We were so lucky because there’s no way that Southern Pacific will let you shoot on their tracks. And to build miles of train tracks would have been incredibly prohibitive. So yeah, I could argue with you, and I think make my case because God I tried as hard as I could to do it here.

BTL: Then you get to Marfa and see the world being built up.

PT ANDERSON: Yeah, Jack and I just had so many great trips out there walking around and putting tape or string on the ground and imagining where we might build our town. And really we were chasing our tails because the truth is its layout would be based on where the train station is. It was amazing how we that didn’t come to us until later! You get carried away with your imagination and you just kind of get smacked around, it says no, you can’t do that because that’s not how it would have been. But you know, most of (those towns) looked the same. Bakersfield obviously was always a little bit more of a city than a kind of elevated spur station. Which Taft was, Coalinga was, you know. And so it was finding all the best bits of those places and, and kind of doing it that way.

BTL: So it’s an amalgam of central California-ness.

PT ANDERSON: That’s right, yeah.

BTL: And if it had been an agricultural epic you could have thrown Fresno in there!

PT ANDERSON: I was so tempted. I mean there’s a movie to have written that was, you know 6 hours or 8 hours long or something, it would have included all that stuff, but it just would have been impossible.

BTL: Talk about working with Johnny Greenwood’s score. Did you consider using contemporaneous music of the era?

PT ANDERSON: Well, no. We decided that it was important to not use any kind of 20th century instrumentation. Johnny did a couple of different demo things, just to sort of see what fit and we had some stuff on a pump organ and some stuff on guitar and stuff with some string quartet and that stuff just sounded right.

BTL: So the instrumentation is, in fact, authentic?

PT ANDERSON: That’s right. That was sort of the biggest thing, yeah. And I mean we cheated a little bit. Johnny uses an instrument called an Ondes-Marten, which is a very early synthesizer from the 20s, that’s hard to describe but really sounds beautiful. So we cheated a little bit with that, but yeah.

BTL: (Editor) Dylan Tichenor talked about being delayed before he could start working with dailies on film. How early did you start assembling and working with cuts?

PT ANDERSON: (Second editor) Tatania (Riegel) was down in Marfa, which was really helpful. By the time you get to the weekend all you want to do is collapse. But perhaps there’s something nagging at you that might not be as good as it could be, so I would go in with her on a Sunday for a few hours just kind of look at something and say, yeah that’s maybe not as good as could be, and might benefit if we get a few extra shots. Or even, not very good at all! Let’s do that again! But that was really helpful to do down there.

And when Dylan and I finally got together we sat around for a week just talking and not really cutting anything. And then we decided to get out of our usual space and we moved to New York for 3 months. And we just started putting it together from the beginning. We never watched an assembly really. I think we were too scared to. There were scenes already that Dylan had taken a stab at, but we kind of went through it together from the beginning.

And around that time Johnny started really getting involved and coming up with stuff, so we were able to get little pieces (of music) from him and, yeah, I mean nothing special about it, just kind of working way.

BTL: What about (supervisors) Paul Graff and Grady Cofer and the ILM visual effects? When did that process come in? Were these the most complex digital effects you’d done in post?

PT ANDERSON: No. No, the frogs in Magnolia were the most complicated thing we ever did, but they did an amazing job because when we did the frogs in Magnolia it was pretty clearly storyboarded. And we knew what we were after and god, Paul was such a good sport actually because we would just completely be improvising and coming up with new shots constantly! We’d sort of come up with something and you could see him on the sidelines just chuckling putting his head in his hands. But at the same time saying just do it, we’ll figure it out later, you know. Which is a great thing for somebody to say, because I have been in situations where they don’t give you that encouragement. They say no, you can’t do that, or that’s gonna be too hard, or whatever it is. And Paul actually had a great way of saying it’s gonna be a nightmare, but let’s do it!

BTL: Was a lot of the oil digital?

PT ANDERSON: It’s a mix. When the gusher’s actually coming in it’s about, it’s about 20% physical effect and 80% digital.

BTL: In spite of the effects, was there a sense of making a western when you were shooting this?

PT ANDERSON: Only accidentally. I got so excited one time I turned to Robert when we had some horses out there, I was like Robert! We’re making a western and we didn’t even know it! But yeah, like, you’re like kid in the candy shop. You’re like ‘we have a train, we have a train station!’

BTL: Let’s rob the train!

PT ANDERSON: Yeah, exactly! You really felt like you were playing cowboys and Indians. It was great. God, I’d written this whole amazing sequence that was based on a real story that I had heard that happened in Oklahoma, because there were some land grants to Indians. And the oilmen would find out about them, and they’d go gobble them up, you know they’d offer ‘em everything, and by everything I mean a very few dollars and a lot of booze, and gobble up some of this land. Didn’t happen so much out here. And I wrote it, it was really good, but it just didn’t fit in the movie at all.

BTL: Here in California the Spanish took care of most the Indians before anyone else got here.

PT ANDERSON: That’s right.

BTL: Well, thank you. It’s great to have a piece of work that’s big and mature out there.

PT ANDERSON: Thank you so much!

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