Maybe Paul Thomas Anderson brought the fog with him. The 51-year-old director had just returned from a trip to London, where his latest film, “Phantom Thread,” was set, and now the skies over his native San Fernando valley were choked with dark clouds and threatening.
“I like it that way,” Anderson said as we sat outside a vegan Mexican restaurant in the Studio City neighborhood. “You never get the fog blanket here. Take it while you can!
Anderson is the author who rained frogs in the sky in “Magnolia”; on camera, even the normally calm Southern California weather has the potential for greatness. The films he’s shot here, including “Boogie Nights,” have an appealing sprawl much like the valley itself, and Anderson is back home for his ninth feature, “Licorice Pizza,” which releases Friday. .
The 1970s film stars Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson’s former muse Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a soft-spoken high school student named Gary, who shamelessly flirts with Alana (Alana Haim ), a young girl in her twenties who helps take class photos. She pushes back his advances, but there’s always something about this no-nonsense con artist intriguing her, and they become friends, business partners, and ultimately something more.
Hoffman is sweet and attractive, but the revelation of “Licorice Pizza” is Haim, a wonderfully tangy onscreen presence. Although she has never directed a movie before, Anderson has directed several music videos in which she appeared with her sisters Danielle and Este, who together form the rock band Haim. “It’s funny, because she’s not the best musician in the band, but she’s the best actress,” Anderson said.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How did you get into Haim’s orbit and meet Alana Haim in the first place?
This story is wild. I first heard their music on the radio around 2012, the song “Forever”. Then I heard it over and over and started to think, “This song follows me everywhere.” I read a bit about them, I realized they were from Studio City. We invited them over to our house for dinner and then they revealed to me that their mother was a woman named Donna Rose, who was my art teacher in elementary school.
You had no idea?
Nothing. I am the father of three daughters, and you can imagine and hope that your daughters would turn out to be so miraculous. But there was something else I couldn’t put my finger on, an inexplicable feeling I had, so when they told me their mom had been my teacher, it all made sense. Like, why did I have this weird obsession with these three girls playing music?
And their mother had a huge influence on me. I went to a school with, for example, white-haired women who were rough, and there was a woman with long, beautiful flowing brown hair – who looked exactly like Alana, by the way. I was in love with her when I was a young boy, absolutely in love. She sang songs during class, and she was the exact opposite of all the other teachers. So that cemented the relationship in a pretty serious way. Our collaboration went beyond the production of their music videos: our families became intertwined.
And when did you target Alana as the leader of “Licorice Pizza”?
Music videos generally focus on [her older sister] Danielle, because she’s the lead singer. But when I thought about this story I had, it matched Alana.
I saw Alana’s ferocity. She might look like a Jewish girl from the Valley, but it’s kind of like a throwback to the 1930s, fast talking, very funny, very lively. You don’t want to challenge her in a fight with words because she will win.
Did the studio want you to pick an established actress over Alana?
It was not a battle. MGM trusted my track record, I guess. By the way, I wouldn’t want to think about having to convince another actress not to wear makeup and let go of that level of vanity that seems to surround a lot of young actresses. It takes someone with guts to say, “There’s no justification for wearing makeup in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, so I won’t. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s a big deal for a lot of people.
You wrote the film with Alana in mind. Did you also think of Cooper while writing it?
No. Halfway it occurred to me, but I quickly put cover on that thought.
I wondered why. It’s probably because I was protective, thinking, “Wait a second, there’s a traditional way of doing this, and there’s a lot of young actors out there. But I couldn’t find anyone who seemed to have the same soul that I knew he had. Everyone seemed precocious, maybe too trained at too young an age.
It was weird, the way it all started to line up. It was a very local movie where I was casting a pool of my life, not just a collection of actors that I auditioned. How am I going to get into this with the lead actor being someone I don’t know personally and intimately? But in fact, I didn’t really tell him what I was thinking. I said, “Just look at this script, and maybe you can help me read it out loud so I can hear something.”
You secretly audition the people in your life all the time, don’t you?
Exactly. Of course, it didn’t work at all. He saw through.
When you call on someone like Cooper Hoffman, who has never directed a movie before, what do you think of how the fame that will come from it will change his life?
You think about locking the door and throwing away the key and protecting them. Or, more realistically, holding their hand and guiding them in a creative endeavor, and showing them that the reason you’re doing it is for collaboration and experience. But it’s a good question. Another way to phrase the question is, “Have you ever thought about why you are trying to ruin this person’s life?” ” [Laughs.]
Does it surprise you how some people react to the age difference between Alana and Gary?
There is no line crossed, and there are only good intentions. It would surprise me if there was some sort of hassle about it, because there’s not much in there. This is not the story we made, by any means. There isn’t a provocative bone in the body of this film.
There is at least one provocative bone in the body of this film. I think of the scenes with a white restaurateur, played by John Michael Higgins, where he talks to his Japanese wife with such an offensive accent my audience took their breath away.
Well, it’s different. I think it would be a mistake to tell a period movie through the eyes of 2021. You can’t have a crystal ball, you have to be honest with that era. Not that it wouldn’t happen now, by the way. My stepmom is Japanese and my stepdad is white, so seeing people speaking English to him with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I think they don’t even know they are doing it.
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Gary and Alana are fascinated by Hollywood. When you were growing up in the San Fernando Valley, what did Hollywood mean to you?
I made the mistake of thinking that there was a magical place above the rainbow that you could reach where the movies were made, when in fact it wasn’t. is simply not the case. Hollywood is Warner Bros. Hollywood is Burbank. Bedford Falls [from “It’s a Wonderful Life”] was not shot in Bedford Falls, but in Encino.
Even though your dad worked in television, did you still think Hollywood was a mystical place above Valley Hill?
Probably, because talking about another era. It was a time when movies were magic and television was just something you had in a box at home. Those days are gone, you know? I was in the office the other day and a woman said, “I saw this brilliant new movie. It’s called ‘Dopesick’, with Michael Keaton. I said, “I think it’s a limited series.” She said, “Yeah, whatever. She doesn’t really think about movies as much as I or you do. She was just like, “What are you talking about? It’s a movie for me.
These lines are blurry, but sometimes I watch a limited series and I’m like, “Shouldn’t this be a movie?” “
It’s a great format when it works. It’s exciting. And then, the series too. I’ve never dipped a toe in this world, but I can imagine it’s very difficult to keep a story alive for more than two, three, four seasons.
Have people ever persuaded you to stick a toe in this world?
No, no one is asking. I’m just playing in my own corner of the sandbox. As a writer, I think we have fantasies when you have a hard time editing material: “I have so much material, maybe this is a limited series.” When in fact no it isn’t, you just need to edit your story. I mean, a movie should preferably be two hours long. This is when they are at their best. I’ve missed this mark a few times, but that’s really the point.
The last time I spoke to you, for “Phantom Thread”, you said that after filming in London, your next film would probably be shot here in the valley.
Do i really? Isn’t that interesting. I wonder how serious I was.
Any guesses, then, on where you’ll want to go after “Licorice Pizza”?
I have a few different things that I wrote down that need to be addressed, but I’m not sure what will end up happening. It’s like going shopping after eating a full meal: you know you’ll be hungry in a minute, but you’re still full. And time is more precious than anything when it comes to writing. [Pause.] Well, a deadline is more precious. But I also love the sound they make when they pass in front of my eyes.