Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson and His Actors

inherent_vice_3_phoenix_andersonDirector Paul Thomas Anderson and his ensemble appeared on the Walter Reader Theater stage on Saturday afternoon, after the packed press screening,  to discuss his new film, Inherent Vice.  

The eagerly awaited film, which premiered at the New York Film Festival Saturday night, October 4, as its prestigious center piece, bows December 12.

Anderson described his film as “beautifully written stuff, mixed in with the best fart jokes and silly songs that you can imagine.”

inherent_vice_5_phoenix_andersonJoaquin Phoenix plays drug-fueled detective Doc Sportello, who investigates the disappearance of a former beau.

Inherent Vice is narrated by Joanna Newsom. “I loved the way she talked; she’s a supporting character in the book — Doc’s best gal pal who knew more about things and was always right about things,” Anderson said of using a voiceover. “I got paranoid you shouldn’t use a voiceover narrator, but a lot  of my favorite films do. … I was afraid to until now. There was so much good stuff that character could say that seemed helpful, and wouldn’t step on it or subtract from it, but add to it.”

The opening scene has Newsom reciting the lines in person: “I was 99 percent sure that would not be in the movie, and it was.  There is a bit of a sense of floating on instinct or opportunity while on set with Anderson.”

The cast, aside from a silent Phoenix, also expanded on shooting countless long takes with Anderson, resulting in an experience that was either heavily structured or loose, but always highly creative.

inherent_vice_4_andersonFor Sasha Pieterse, best known to fans as one of the stars of “Pretty Little Liars,” the experience proved revelatory. “I’m used to TV, where we always stick to a schedule,” she said. “With this, one of my scenes took two days! No one really likes that on production side, but the fact that we can do that is amazing.”

“Paul runs a set that’s very subtle,” said Jena Malone, who plays one of the women who points Phoenix’s character toward the mysteries that he solves — sort of? — in the shaggy-dog tale set in 1970s California. “It’s very quiet. People all know what they’re doing and they don’t make too much of a fuss about it. It really lets the actors feel comfortable to raise their voice or whisper.”

Matin Short, who portrays “a dentist who really likes cocaine,” agrees. “Whenever you work with a director who’s already made the film in their head and you’re just going through the motions, that’s not as creative as working with someone like Paul, who says, ‘Okay, scream that line out. Now don’t scream it this time,’ ” he said. “Paul’s just printing as many variations as what life can be.”

inherent_vice_3_phoenix_brolin_del_toro_andersonSome enjoyed more improv opportunities than others: Sasha Pieterse said of a scene with Phoenix and Martin Short, “There was one take in particular where all three of us did something completely different. We didn’t tell each other, we just put our characters into that place, we collaborated and it turned to something beautiful. … That’s what made the film together: this chaos that we all brought that turned into something simple.”

Short agreed: “It was really trying to create as many elements and colors and hues that could help Paul later on when he was putting it together, and that was very freeing.”

Owen Wilson added that he always felt safe, and Michael K. Williams, who is used to TV’s regimented schedule, told his fellow actors, “It actually makes me feel good to hear you say that — I thought it was just me. I didn’t know if Paul liked me!”

inherent_vice_2_phoenix_andersonJena Malone’s dialogue-heavy moment was more structured: “We just started with the words because they’re so important in this film, and I guess that was a new thing for me,” she reflected. “I was never able to collaborate with a director to just sit down with the words and feel right. … The film’s chaos can only come from a grounded, logical base, because you have to know where you’re gonna be spinning from. … The logic become the chaos and the chaos becomes the logic.”

Hong Chau guessed of the director’s approach, “I don’t think Paul went into it knowing exactly what he wanted because I think he liked to experiment and have the possibility of interesting things happening on the day of, and I think that’s what he wanted to capture.”

Benicio Del Toro also said of the experience, “Anderson would take a scene that takes place on a table and he’ll move it into a car, and it was like dancing in a way, and I really enjoyed it. I think working with Joaquin with my scene with Josh Brolin too were a lot of fun — there was a lot of laughing and Paul was laughing at us.”

Katherine Waterston said, “Working with Paul was the best creative experiences I’ve ever had, I don’t kno w how he does what he does.”

Maya Rudolph summarized, “What I love so much about Paul’s work is it’s anything and everything, and yet it’s always his.”

“Luckily, we’re able to still keep that alive and going — I started doing at the beginning, so it’s the only way I know how to do it,” said Anderson, who was excited about the evening but anticipated “all the nerves that accompany that. Everything could break easily, but that adds to the thrill of it all, and it looks beautiful.

“Not to phase anything out; there’s room for both things,” he quickly added of other filmmakers digital preferences. “I’m just glad the projectors are still there. That should just be how it is, nothing should go away.”