Show Biz Kids: Paul Thomas Anderson on Licorice Pizza

By Adam Nayman

Paul Thomas Anderson loves start-up entrepreneurs and fly-by-night schemes: you could run a straight line between There Will Be Blood’s (2007) oil magnate Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Punch-Drunk Love’s (2002) humble toilet-plunger impresario Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) just as easily as you could imagine the latter signing up for one of the “Seduce and Destroy” seminars run by Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) in Magnolia (1999). The ultimate huckster in the PTACU would be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012), a Wellesian tyro who’s found a way to package and sell the prospect of returning to a “state of perfect”—a costly but finally priceless means of exorcising any and all inherent vice. Operators are standing by.

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), the resourceful 15-year-old pisher at the centre of Licorice Pizza,is at one the most benign and most unformed of Anderson’s confidence men. In between acting gigs that have left him with plenty of walking-around money and a less-than-healthy disrespect for the conventions of adolescence (like going to school), Gary opens a profitable sale-and-delivery business in an abandoned storefront, staffed with pals and charging COD. As is the case with so many grand gestures throughout history, though, he’s just a boy trying to impress a girl: if his twentysomething friend Alana (Alana Haim) won’t consider dating Gary because he’s too young, maybe cornering the market on waterbeds in the San Fernando Valley will make him desirable beyond his years.

Chutzpah is the not-so-secret subject of Licorice Pizza, and Alana—the youngest of three sisters in a conservative Jewish family whose patriarch won’t stand for whispers of atheism at the Shabbat table—has at least as much of the stuff as Gary. The film, which, as advertised, is looser and less severe than anything Anderson has made since Punch-Drunk Love, chases Gary as he chases Alana—sometimes passionately, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes for want of anything better to do—and chases Alana as she tries to grab onto something of her own: an acting career, a political awakening, an age-appropriate boyfriend. Anything to keep her from doting daily on Gary and aiding and abetting his schemes, or dwelling on why someone with her gifts and brains is so content playing Wendy to a tribe of Lost Boys, or wondering whether the grown-up men waiting out there in the wilds of Studio City represent anything better than the juvenile delinquents in her midst.

There is real anxiety here, and Anderson—who specializes in narratives about hinge moments in cultural history—manifests dread around the edges of his portrait of ’70s Los Angeles: Nixon on television; a gas shortage at the pumps; cops throwing kids in jail for no reason. Haim, who strutted with her singing siblings through a series of beautifully conceived and choreographed music videos signed by PTA in the 2010s, joins Vicky Krieps of Phantom Thread (2017) at the apex of the director’s gallery of female performances: her Alana is plausibly self-divided, with the actress’ gawkiness suggesting a body in the process of pulling itself in two directions at once. Hoffman, meanwhile—who, as the son of the late Anderson stock company player, carries inescapable familial associations into his feature debut—is wonderfully crafty and craven as Gary, keeping his eyes on the prize at all times. And if the victories he scores in love and business feel provisional, it suits a movie that finds the seam between definitive and specific—between being a story of a certain generation and the story—and turns into its own cozily interlaced little sweet spot.

Cinema Scope: The first thing that struck me watching Licorice Pizza was the feeling that it was set in a world without adults. There are technically grown-ups in the movie, but they’re either preoccupied or far away from what’s happening in the story. And so you have all these kids, with all this freedom, working and acting older than they actually are. 

Paul Thomas Anderson: Or, more to the point, you have adults acting like the worst kind of fucking kids. I’m thinking of Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper’s characters.

Scope: Yeah, and even the Lucille Ball stand-in can’t help but smack Gary after he hits her during the television skit. The adults are all pretty juvenile.

Anderson: I was thinking about back then, and about my own childhood and the stories of other people that the film is based on, and you definitely ran a more independent life from adults or your parents. But when you did collide with adults, I think you were treated much more as an equal. Maybe it’s a show-business thing. Show-business people are so preoccupied with themselves and their work, and so children become a bit of an afterthought. But there’s also a mistake that movies make, where if you have a mom who’s working and not around, somehow it’s portrayed as a dysfunctional relationship, or as if she’s somehow an absentee. And that’s fucking horseshit. In the film, that’s the reality for Gary’s mother: there’s no dad around. She has to work. It’s all hands on deck, and so in addition to that, the kids are fending for themselves. They have to!

Scope: Gary is very good at fending for himself, and in the world of the kids, he’s sort of an authority figure—he’s like the ringleader.

Anderson: What’s the Anthony Michael Hall line in Sixteen Candles (1984)?“King Shit of Turd Island?” Or is it “King of the Dipshits?”

Scope: I think at one point Alana refers to Gary and “his dipshit friends,” right?

Anderson: Does she say that? She says something like “rubber is made of oil, dipshit.”

Scope: Well, “dipshit” is a great word.

Anderson: It’s great.

Scope: Talking about show-business people, I thought the funniest scene in the movie was when Alana goes to see the agent played by Harriet Sansom Harris, and while she’s looking Alana over you just hold this extreme close-up on her face, and you can just see this woman has seen it all…

Anderson: I love that scene, but the funniest part is on the drive over when Gary is coaching her, and tells her, “If she asks if you can dance, say you can dance,” and Alana protests: “I can sing and I can dance!” And when she turns to say it to him, you realize she’s got way too much makeup on, and she’s clearly done it herself—she’s looking like Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart (1990). I love how bonkers she looks all of a sudden.

Scope: Alana clearly wants to make something of herself, whether it’s by acting or getting into politics. The section of the movie where she volunteers for Joel Wachs’ (Benny Safdie) campaign is interesting, because he’s another guy who’s sort of in-between, age wise: he’s young-looking, he’s anti-establishment, and he’s all about idealism, even though we learn that he’s dealing with his own set of personal compromises.

Anderson: He’s a young Jewish politician fighting an uphill battle. He’s trying to outrun his own sexuality, and his own personal life. Joel Wachs in reality is a very interesting guy. He looks back at that time with some regret. He wishes he had been able to come out earlier, but he couldn’t. At that time, if you were a schoolteacher and they found out that you were gay, you were going to be fired. There had not been many, if any, openly gay politicians. This was four or five years before Harvey Milk.

Scope: You evoke Harvey Milk through the idea of surveillance, and the guy who’s tailing him at his office. I couldn’t help but think of Nashville (1975), and Taxi Driver (1976) as well.

Anderson: That’s a dangerous thing, and I was definitely aware of it. I was paranoid that there’s a generation of people who know Taxi Driver and expect that there has to be a sense of suspense and impending doom, and while that’s what’s needed, you also risk having that audience expecting the movie to go places that it doesn’t. There’s a more melancholy and soft landing to that storyline. So I just sort of had to lean into it and tell the story as clearly as possible. If you start running yourself ragged over what film references are going to mean to somebody, you’re gonna fuck yourself, you know? It’s maybe a slight exaggeration to say Joel Wachs was a real threat to anybody, but around every corner, there could be an enemy—a real-estate developer, whatever—who didn’t like what he was doing on city council, so he was in this position of paranoia. And then somebody could say, “I know what you do at night behind closed doors,” and then the wheels are off. It’s a quick road to Hell after that.

Scope: There are all these different sources of anxiety creeping around the edges of this movie: Watergate and OPEC, but even stuff like the visit to Jon Peters’ (Bradley Cooper) house, where it’s a really thin line between a fun escapade and real danger—which, I guess, comes with that feeling of freedom and just running around and doing whatever you want.

Anderson: The scene with the truck at Jon Peters’ house is a stand-in for the situations you get yourself into as a kid where you look back and cannot believe that you are still alive, or that you didn’t get seriously, seriously hurt. At the time, you’re thinking, “That was hilarious,”and years later you say, “What the hell were we thinking?”

Scope: Is it true that you wrote Licorice Pizza while you were in the middle of a different screenplay?

Anderson: Yes and no. It’s not really unlike how I would have written anything else. I’m generally working on a few things at once until something hits its stride, or until another idea comes out of the blue. There’s a leapfrogging thing that happens. Was I more deeply involved with something else when this came and started nagging at my door? Yeah, I was. But then it just stayed there and stayed there and I realized, “I’m heading in this direction now. We’re doing this.”

Scope: Was wanting to pursue the story more about the people or the period?

Anderson: The people. If anything, the period was something that was going to put me off doing it. Why do another period movie again, why do something in this place in 1972 or 1973? But it didn’t make sense to frame the details of the story any other way. In terms of the genesis of the story, I was at a playground where I saw this kid trying to get a date with a girl who was there to take pictures. What stuck with me was the dynamic: a 15-year-old boy trying to ask out a girl in her mid-twenties.

I think, at the beginning, the film seems to be Gary’s story because he’s got more going on: he has his auditions, he has this promotional tour for a movie, he has a business, he has all the moves. His whims are swift. He’s not bothered by things. But Alana ends up being the more interesting character. She seems grown up: she’s dismissive, tough, wise, and disappointed. She’s this ball of goodwill and emotion. And the more you see of her, you see that she’s really vulnerable. She’s the baby of the family. There’s a moment where a parent snaps at her, “You remind me of a dog”—and you have to be careful how you say this, but there’s something to that. The idea of wanting to be there for someone and by their side, that’s a big part of Alana’s personality.

Scope: I guess the word in that context would be loyalty: she’s fiercely protective of Gary even when she’s aiding and abetting all of his scams. There’s a slippage between friendship and family and even motherhood, and then all the other stuff between them…

Anderson: Yes. And then human nature takes over. She says, “I can’t be with you, you need to be with somebody your own age!” And the second Gary does that, she gets angry and jealous.

Scope: I don’t know how interested you are in talking about individual images, but the one that stuck with me is when they’re lying together on the waterbed and you see Gary’s fingers, and there’s this incredible, tactile evocation of what it feels like to hold back.

Anderson: I’ve learned at this point that if you put something on film that is, let’s say, pinpoint-accurate to something that’s happened in your life, people will respond. All of us have had moments, somewhere in your adolescence, where you’re eager to make it to first, second, or third base. Really, any of the bases. Even a sacrifice bunt. And your courage fails you, or your fear of rejection takes over. Those are the things that are in the scene. So you set it to great music and shoot it well, and you have a really lovely scene, I think. I’m quite proud of it. It’s as simple as that.

Scope: The big stylistic thing with the movie overall seems to be the moving camera, which is not new for you, but the tracking shots here are completely synced to the characters, and the characters love running around. There’s an abundance of velocity in this movie.

Anderson: I love that about the story. I mean, I think the wheels stay on, but it’s always moving, and it’s always moving forward. The thing is, when your source material is just stories…when you’re adapting somebody’s bullshit tales they’re always telling, they jump along exactly like that. They always tell it to you sort of in terms of highlights. Like, “Hey, did I tell you about the time I was on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968 with Lucille Ball?” Dot dot dot. “Oh my God, wait, did I tell you about the time I was arrested at the Teen-Age Fair for murder?” Dot dot dot. And then what happened? And then what happened? “Well, it all went belly up because of the gas crisis of 1973.” The movie is structured like that, like wild tales. It’s like skipping a stone across a stream, or how you find your way across a stream without getting your feet wet. Even if you’re hopping side to side, you need to stay moving forward to find the dry stone.

Scope: Is there an increased confidence to use ellipsis that way in your filmmaking—to not always show the way from point A to point B, or to not always fill in the gaps? I’m thinking of a movie like The Master,where the skipping is completely essential to the structure of the story and the editing.

Anderson: I think it has grown, yes. One particular fascination of mine, to this day, is the excitement of trying to condense a story down to the best possible form of telling it—the ways that you can help an audience understand it. Those combinations are endless. There are things you find in writing that you know will work, and they do. There are ones you think are going to be winners that fail. But then there’s the land of discovery when you get into the editing room and you find the ones you never saw coming. Like, there’s a trim that can join one scene to another scene, or you lop four lines of dialogue off of something and suddenly you’ve achieved lift-off. Those are thrilling to find.

Scope: The roaming aspect of Licorice Pizza seems connected to your videos with HAIM, no?

Anderson: Completely. We did those videos without a lot of money or time. So what could we do? We just had that movement and all of their talent, and I just sort of filmed it. It was the greatest way to work, and after doing that for a few years with HAIM, I wanted to make a feature the same way. Those videos are some of my favourite creative experiences I’ve ever had.

Scope: The pleasure of their music is predicated on harmony, and it’s a nice contrast with some of your movies, which are rooted in dissonance—all that atonal music and elliptical cutting. I think of the last moment of Punch-Drunk Love,where Barry plays the harmonium in alignment with the score, and it’s a beautiful thing to be inside of something that’s seemingly so casual, even though you know it’s not. The compliment is that harmony feels casual, not orchestrated.

Anderson: It is a great compliment. It is casual, even though I like that you said that it isn’t. You’re never supposed to admit this, but sometimes instinct takes over and everything aligns and it’s easy. Next! What’s next? As you get older you learn to accept those, because you only get so many before something blows up. Trusting that something being easy doesn’t mean it’s incomplete is hard for me personally. I used to think it required banging your head against a wall, with blood pouring out of your fingernails, when in fact it doesn’t.

Scope: You’ve talked a fair amount about casting Alana Haim and the connection you’ve made with her sisters and her family, but I wanted to ask about Cooper Hoffman. Is there more protectiveness there? And did that protectiveness—maybe even something parental—ever intrude upon the process of making the movie? Or was it that once he agreed to do it, then he’s just an actor on set and he’s got to hit his mark, and that’s the standard of making a movie?

Anderson: I mean, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do as a parent that I would do as a director. Every single actor is directed differently, you know? Somebody needs this, somebody needs that, you give them what you need. Cooper got a lashing like everybody else if he didn’t know his lines. But he knew his lines. He was great. He was there to work. The best direction I gave him was pragmatic stuff. Like, “Have you eaten today? How did you sleep last night? Do you need a cheese string and a juice box?” I’m joking a little bit, but not really. There’s an athleticism to doing this, to shooting for 65 days, to have concentration the whole time. It’s a lot of basic nuts-and-bolts stuff about getting through the day…you’d be surprised how much of directing is just sort of parenting.

Scope: Was this always the way you thought about directing? Has there been a shift from control to caring?

Anderson: I think it was always about care. I mean, look…I have to look after Joaquin Phoenix less than Cooper. Joaquin knows how he likes to do it. He drives himself each day. We both like it quiet, not a lot of distraction. For Licorice Pizza I was with a bunch of children, so I had to make a lot of suggestions that were meant to be helpful, and I was in a strong position because I could look at the kids and say, “Well, that’s not how Daniel Day-Lewis would do it.”

Scope: I know that when Vicky Krieps was making Phantom Thread,acting against Day-Lewis, especially in the shadow of There Will Be Blood,was intimidating…

Anderson: Well, hopefully the word isn’t “intimidation.” Hopefully it’s that a high, incredibly high standard is in effect. I expect an incredibly high level of concentration, professionalism, and talent. Because I’m used to it, you know?

Scope: I am hard-pressed to think of an American director in the last 30 years who has worked with more great actors, at least off the top of my head.

Anderson: I think so too. Obviously, you know as well as anyone my affection for actors and what they do and how much I need them to tell the kinds of stories that I like. I am in desperate needof actors for the kind of shit I like to do. That’s my shit! I like it like that! There are other directors who will say, “Give me any old asshole who can just stand there and say the words I need them to say, as long as they look the way I need them to look.” Not me. As Maya [Rudolph] likes to joke, I have a type. I do.

Scope: I have two more questions, one of which is about the movie and one of which is incredibly stupid, because who knows if I’ll get another chance for the dumb one. The non-dumb question is: how much do you know about waterbeds now? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie where they’re a plot point, but it’s so crucial to the movie, this almost fetishistic desire for waterbeds, and what it points to about the period.

Anderson: Fucking waterbeds…

Scope: I want to see what you can do with this.

Anderson: Well, if you wanted to start a business where you buy a bunch of industrial waterbags at like a dollar a pop and sell them for $49.95 each, that’s a good turnaround. But the beds break all the time. You have to learn the difference between a lap seam and a butt seam. A butt seam sort of shoves two seams together. A lap seam is more like if you interlace your fingers—that’s a good approximation. That keeps them from leaking. So now you’re in the waterbed business, and you know how to keep them from leaking. So then, how do you heat them? There are these hilarious episodes in waterbed history where people tried to put coil heaters underneath, and you can imagine what happened. Gary Goetzman told me about all this, and that you wanted your waterbed to be “UL-approved.” So then these heaters got UL approval, but it was a mystery organization. What is “U?” What is “L?”

Scope: As long as it stands for something.

Anderson: Anyway, waterbeds are like a dirty secret for people. Like somebody you’ve known for a long time suddenly says, “You know, my parents have a waterbed,” or, “I grew up with one.”

Scope: It feels like a weird aftershock of the sexual revolution, or maybe a way of commodifying it. And waterbeds are like a lot of other things in the movie, because they’re kind of childish—like a trampoline—but also dirty and exotic. Even the guy who brags that he’s “banging Barbra Streisand” wants one. The waterbed is the great leveller that brings Gary to Jon Peters’ mansion: the richest asshole in the valley has to call this little dipshit to get a waterbed.

Anderson: Well now, no matter what kind of frame you put around it, it’s still a plastic bag with water in it.

Scope: I know some people don’t believe that a 15-year-old kid could start a waterbed business in 1973.

Anderson: If somebody has a problem with that, they’re not going to like the movie. I mean, are you kidding? Give me a break. Back then, it would take you maybe two-and-a-half days to rent a storefront, get a fold-out desk and some chairs, and some drinks and some Gatorade, some streamers, and you have a company. Do you think anyone was doing anything by the book? You’d hand out flyers, get on the radio. You get the phone number out. The phone never stopped ringing. This is in the days of COD, right? The UPS guy turns up at your house, picks up your waterbed orders, and takes them into the hills of Encino or Reseda or wherever. He comes back at the end of the day with an envelope full of cash. If you’re 16, and pull this off, you feel like you’ve made it. You’ve grabbed the brass ring. That was the world back then. Cash on delivery. It’s pretty great.

Scope: OK, let’s end on my stupid question, because I don’t know for a fact that I’m ever going to talk to you again and it’s been on my mind for years. The Master is a movie that means a lot to me, I want you to know this.

Anderson: Yes.

Scope: When Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is going back and forth between the window and the wall, were you paying homage to Lil Jon’s song “Get Low?” If I’m right, I’ve blown the lid off this thing for all time.

Anderson: Well, you’re the second person who’s asked me that.

Scope: This is going to stay in the interview, so please give me a good answer.

Anderson: It’s only going to be disappointing. If I did that, it was subconscious. I only sort of put the pieces together later that it was a Lil Jon song. It’s hard to know if I’d heard it, and if I did, if it got in there, that’s what happened. I’d rather have gotten another song into a movie instead of that one, like Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”

Scope: Anyway, there is a video on YouTube where somebody has re-edited The Master to “Get Low,” so if you want to see your work repurposed that way, it’s a click away.

Anderson: Oh my God, I need to see that. Nayman Adam