Perhaps 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 sky over his native San Fernando Valley was drowned by dark, portentous clouds.
“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 cover here. Take it while you can! “
Anderson is the author who rained frogs in the sky in “Magnolia”; in front of your camera, even the normally placid Southern California climate has the potential to be great. The films he’s set here, including “Boogie Nights,” have an attractive expansion similar to Valle himself, and Anderson has returned to his homeland for his ninth feature, “Licorice Pizza,” which opens Friday.
The film set in the 1970s 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 girl from Twenty-something helping to take pictures of class. She rejects his advances, but there is still something about this innocent con artist that intrigues her, and they become friends, business partners, and eventually something else.
Hoffman is sweet and handsome, but the reveal of “Licorice Pizza” is Haim, a wonderfully pointy screen presence. Although he had never directed a movie before, Anderson has directed several music videos in which he appeared with his 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?
That story is wild. I heard his music for the first time on the radio around 2012, the song “Forever”. Then I listened to it over and over and started thinking, “This song is following me.” I read a bit about them and realized they were from Studio City. We invited them 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.
Did you have no idea?
None. I am the father of three girls, and you can imagine and hope that your daughters turn out to be so miraculous. But there was something else she couldn’t identify, an inexplicable feeling she had, so when they told me her mother had been my teacher, it all made sense. Like, why did he have this weird obsession with these three girls playing music?
And his mother was a great influence on me. I went to a school with, like, white-haired ladies who were badass, and there was a lady with long, beautiful, flowing brown hair, who looked exactly like Alana, by the way. He was in love with her when he was a child, absolutely in love. He sang songs during class and was the exact opposite of any other teacher. That cemented the relationship in a pretty serious way. Our collaboration was more than just directing their music videos – our families became intertwined.
And when did you notice Alana as the star 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 fit with Alana.
I’ve seen Alana’s ferocity. She may sound like a Jewish girl from the Valley, but she’s kind of a 1930s throwback, she talks fast, she’s very funny, very sharp. You don’t want to challenge her in a fight with words, because she will win.
Did the studio want you to cast 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 drop that level of vanity that seems to surround many young actresses. It takes someone with courage to say, “It is impossible to justify the use of makeup in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, therefore I will not.” It seems like it is not a big problem, but it is a big problem for a lot of people.
You wrote the movie with Alana in mind. Did you also think of Cooper while writing it?
No. Halfway through, it popped into my mind, but I quickly put the lid on that thought.
I’ve been wondering why. It’s probably because I was protective and I thought, “Wait a second, there is a traditional way of doing this and there are a lot of young actors.” But I couldn’t find anyone who seemed to have the same shock that I knew I had. Everyone seemed precocious, perhaps too trained at too young an age.
It was strange, the way everything started to line up. This was a very local movie where I cast a group from my life, not just a collection of actors that I have auditioned for. How am I going to get into this if the lead actor is 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’re secretly auditioning the people in your life all the time, aren’t you?
Exactly. Of course, it didn’t work at all. He saw through it.
When you cast someone like Cooper Hoffman, who has never directed a movie before, what do you think about how the fame of this will change his life?
You think about closing the door and throwing away the key and protecting them. Or, more realistically, take their hand and guide them through a creative endeavor, and show them that the reason you’re doing it is because of collaboration and experience. But it is a good question. Another way to ask the question is, “Have you ever wondered why you are trying to ruin this person’s life?” [Laughs.]
Are you surprised how some people are reacting to the age difference between Alana and Gary?
There is no line to be crossed and there is nothing but the right intentions. I’d be surprised if there was some kind of fuss about it, because there’s not much there. That’s not the story we made, no way. There is not a provocative bone in the body of this movie.
There is at least one provocative bone in the body of this movie. I’m thinking of the scenes with a white restaurateur, played by John Michael Higgins, where he talks to his Japanese wife with such an offensive accent that my audience gasped.
Well that’s different. I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021. You cannot have a crystal ball, you have to be honest with that period. Not that it doesn’t happen right now, by the way. My mother-in-law and father-in-law’s Japanese are white, so seeing people speak to them in English with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I don’t think they 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 on the rainbow that you could get to where the movies were made, when in reality that is not the case at all. Hollywood is Warner Bros. Hollywood is Burbank. Bedford falls [from “It’s a Wonderful Life”] It wasn’t filmed in Bedford Falls, it was filmed in Encino.
Even though your father worked in television, did you still believe that Hollywood was a mystical place on the hill in the valley?
Probably because we are talking about another era. It was a time when movies were magical and television was something you had in a box at home. Those days are long over, you know? I was in the office the other day and a woman said, “I’ve seen 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 you or me. She was like,“ What are you talking about? It’s a movie to me. “
Those lines are fading, but sometimes I watch a limited series and think, “Shouldn’t it be a movie?”
It is a large format when it works. It is exciting. On the other hand, so are the series. I have never put a finger in that world, but I imagine it will be very difficult to maintain the life of a story for more than two, three, four seasons.
Have people ever convinced you to stick a finger in that world?
No, nobody asks. I am playing in my own corner of the sandbox. As a writer, I think we have fantasies when you have trouble editing material: “I have a lot of 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. That’s when they are at their best. I’ve missed that mark multiple times, but that’s really the goal.
The last time I spoke to you, for “Phantom Thread,” you said that after filming in London, your next movie would probably be made here in the valley.
Did I really do it? It is not interesting? I wonder how serious I spoke.
Any guess, then, about where you’ll want to go after “Licorice Pizza”?
I have a few different things that I have written that need to be addressed, but I don’t know what will end up happening. It’s like shopping after you’ve eaten a full meal – you know you’ll be hungry in a minute, but you’re still full. And time is more valuable than anything else when it comes to writing. [Pause.] Well, a deadline is more valuable. But I also love the sound they make when they pass my eyes.