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Director Series-Paul Thomas Anderson-There Will Be Blood

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By Mark London Williams
A phrase like “one of the year’s most critically acclaimed” is often trite at this time of year, but it applies to director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking California-set oil saga, Oil!. The film has been nominated for eight Oscars, including art direction for Jack Fisk and Jim Erickson, cinematography for Robert Elswit, editing for Dylan Tichenor, sound editing for Matthew Wood and Christopher Scarabosio, best leading actor for Daniel-Day Lewis—as well as best director, best screenplay based on existing material, and best motion picture for Anderson and his team. Below the Line recently caught up with Anderson.

BTL: How much of the There Will Be Blood actually came from the Sinclair book?
PTA: 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. They did an amazing job of keeping their history intact, whether it’s photographs or letters. And it seemed like there were a lot of locally published books chronicling the history of the area.

BTL: Tell us about your research. At the Below the Line screening, Jack Fisk said you’d done a lot.
PTA: Well yeah. 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 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 helped us out with a lot of the old gear. 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.” Essentially everybody had the same things that were working with—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… We’re just working with the same equipment they worked with and, 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?
PTA: Yes. And [costume designer] Mark Bridges as well, but I worked with Mark before and Jack’s job was front and center.
BTL: What about Robert Elswit?
PTA: Robert just buzzes on the sidelines, waiting for his turn. 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 wanted to build the sets first and then you figure out how to film it.
BTL: How did you choose your location? Why Marfa, Texas, and not Kern or King’s County in California?
PTA: 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… [but] we just couldn’t find it. On top of that, even if you could find something that was close, to get a privately owned train track on a ranch… I mean, it was too good to be true. 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. [But] I tried as hard as I could to do it here.

BTL: Then you get to Marfa and see the world being built up.
PTA: 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 that didn’t come to us until later! You get carried away with your imagination.
BTL: And you created an amalgam of central California-ness.
PTA: That’s right, yeah.
BTL: Talk about working with Jonny Greenwood’s score. Did you consider using music of the era?
PTA: 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 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?
PTA: That’s right. That was sort of the biggest thing. 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.
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?
PTA: 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 and 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 three 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.
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?
PTA: No. No, the frogs in Magnolia were the most complicated thing we ever did, but they did an amazing job [on Blood] because when we did the frogs it was pretty clearly storyboarded. And we knew what we were after and god, Paul was such a good sport because we would just completely be improvising and coming up with new shots constantly! We’d 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. 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 there a sense of making a western when you were shooting this?
PTA: 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 a kid in the candy shop. You really felt like you were playing cowboys and Indians. It was great.

Written by Mark London Williams

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