A Beginner’s Guide to…Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson: 'As a film-maker, you have to convince people to follow your madness'

When it comes to directors in Western cinema over the last twenty years, Paul Thomas Anderson is without equal. Coming from a long line of American filmmakers who burst suddenly onto the scene and went from relative unknowns to highly regarded auteurs in no time at all, Anderson has earned a reputation as one of the most revered filmmakers working in the industry today.

Born in California in 1970, Paul Thomas Anderson was encouraged to become a filmmaker by his father, who saw a talent for story telling which the world needed to see. Coming to prominence in 1993 when his short film Cigarettes & Coffee was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, Anderson released his first feature film, Hard Eight, in 1996. He cites the likes of Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick as key influences on his work and at his current rate of quality, his body of work comes to eclipse that of any of his contemporaries.


Like Scorsese, Anderson has tended to collaborate with the same actors across different projects. To date, Philip Seymour Hoffman has appeared in all but one of Anderson’s films, and we are all poorer at the prospect of no further collaborations between the two. In Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson worked with large ensemble casts, with Philip Baker Hall, William H Macy, and Julianne Moore all appearing in both films. Joaquin Phoenix is the latest to be added to this list, with his captivating performance in The Master to be followed in Anderson’s next project, Inherent Vice, due for release this year.


Anderson has demonstrated in each of his films a fondness for keeping his camera constantly on the move. This technique is best demonstrated in the celebrated opening sequence of Boogie Nights, which follows the antics of 1970s pornographers in California. Anderson opens his second film with a continuous three-minute shot in which the camera swoops down and enters a downtown Los Angeles nightclub, introducing us to eight characters in succession. In the hands of a lesser director, such an opening might overwhelm an audience, but Anderson’s camera simply ambles through the scene, rejoicing in observing the film’s characters in their natural habitats. This is one the many joys of Anderson’s films; his characters inhabit a world which seems entirely believable.


Unlike his contemporaries, Anderson employs an unorthodox narrative structure in order to tell his stories. This has an unsettling effect on the audience as they can never be quite sure where the film will turn next; take There Will Be Blood. Rarely can a film have contained such contrasting opening and closing scenes. What’s more, Anderson’s characters are often unusual and unpredictable which only heightens the audience’s sense of unease at what may be around the corner.


Aside from his striking bold style, Anderson has played with a number of recurring themes throughout his career so far. His main protagonists are invariably flawed and desperate; see Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and basically everyone in Magnolia. Dysfunctional familial relationships, particularly father-son dynamics, likewise form a fundamental part of Anderson’s films; see the relationship between Daniel and H.W. Plainview in There Will Be Blood and between Freddie and Lancaster in The Master.

Magnolia 4

Much like his contemporary Quentin Tarantino, Anderson has become associated with deploying strange and evocative music to add an additional element to his films. Boogie Nights saw scenes of debauchery and drug use played out to the soundtrack of 70s disco anthems, while the closing scenes of Magnolia see all the main characters simultaneously sing Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up.’

For his last two features, There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson has worked with Radiohead’s lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to craft musical accompaniment sufficiently strange so as to underpin what was taking place on screen. Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, in particular, has an ability to convey a sense of an almost alien world in which the film’s anti-hero scratches around in the ground, searching frantically for oil.


Paul Thomas Anderson is rightly considered to be one of the finest and most distinctive filmmakers of his generation. The level of regard in which he is held is perhaps best summed up by Sam Mendes, who referred to him as ‘a true auteur – and there are very few of those who I would classify as geniuses.’


Top 5 Paul Thomas Anderson films:

Magnolia (1999) – Magnolia is Anderson’s magnum opus; the film in which he throws absolutely everything at the camera. Featuring an enormous ensemble cast, the film charts the journeys of a range of interrelated characters in search of happiness, forgiveness and meaning in the San Fernando Valley. Contains the definitive WTF? moment.


Boogie Nights (1997) –The film which really announced Anderson’s presence to the rest of the world. Reminiscent of Pulp Fiction in the way in which scenes are finely poised between comedy violence, Anderson takes the audience on a hedonistic rollercoaster ride through the 70s porn circuit of Los Angeles. The film features a break-out performance from Mark Wahlberg, who excels in the lead role.

boogie nights thing

Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – After the three-hour indulgence of Magnolia, Anderson deliberately set out to make a 90 minute film and focus on one central character, played by Adam Sandler. The story follows Barry Egan’s (Sandler) attempts to free himself from the constrictive force of his family and everyday life and find love, which arrives in the form of Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard. Aside from being charming, elegant and heart-warming, it’s worth a watch to see Adam Sandler demonstrate what he can do when freed from his formulaic comic routine.


The Master (2012) – Whether or not you actually like The Master, you cannot fail to admire it. The three central performances were eminently worthy of their Oscar nominations – quite how Philip Seymour Hoffman did not take home Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic head of ‘The Cause’, is beyond me. Yet this film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers a truly unhinged and frightening performance as Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to post-war American society.


There Will Be Blood (2007) – To my mind, the most accomplished film made in the 21st century thus far, featuring perhaps one of the greatest on-screen performances ever seen. Captivating simply fails to do justice to Daniel Day-Lewis’s achievement in the lead role. With its guarded warning about the debilitating effects of unrestrained capitalism, this is also Anderson’s most political work to date. Superlative in every aspect, this film has redefined the way in which people drink milkshakes.



One response to “A Beginner’s Guide to…Paul Thomas Anderson

  1. Pingback: Top 250 Tuesday #207 – There Will Be Blood (2007) « Durnmoose Movie Musings·

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