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What’s Up With This Script? Are You Down With This?

March 26th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Boogie Nights (1997)
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Produced by Ghoulardi Film Company/ Lawrence Gordon Productions/ New Line Cinema
Running time: 155 minutes

Boogie Nights 1997 poster Boogie Nights DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?
In the San Fernando Valley of 1977, busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) catches the eye of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), maker of “adult films, exotic pictures” at the nightclub where Eddie works. Jack lives in Reseda with Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), a coke sniffing adult film star whose line of work has cost her custody of her son. After Jack sends another one of his performers – the legendary Rollergirl (Heather Graham) – to inspect Eddie’s stuff up close, the troupe takes him for a cup of coffee. Jack expresses his vision to make an adult film where the story is so compelling the audience can’t get up and leave until they find out how it ends. Once Eddie’s spiteful mother (Joanna Gleason) kicks him out, Eddie finds a home with Jack.

Eddie’s new family includes the exuberant Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), actor/stereo salesman/cowboy Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), a grip (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who develops a crush on Eddie and The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely) who puts up the money for all of Jack’s films and urges Eddie to think about changing his name, “some name that makes you happy, or something with a little pizzazz.” Coming up with the handle “Dirk Diggler” while lounging in Jack’s hot tub, Dirk makes his film debut having sex with Amber. His physical endowments and charisma propel Dirk Diggler to the top of the adult film world, a position he solidifies with the character of Brock Landers, super agent and super lover whose debut Angels Live In My Town prompts Jack to declare, “This is the best work we’ve ever done.”

Boogie Nights 1997 Mark Wahlberg

Dirk’s fortune takes a detour in 1980, after Amber introduces her “baby boy” to cocaine and the adult film industry transitions from film to the much cheaper format of video tape, ushering in an era of amateurism in the industry. Dirk’s drug use effects his acting and his ego gets him tossed off Jack’s set. Dirk and Reed take a shot at becoming rock stars, but shoot so much cash up their noses that they can’t pay the recording studio to retrieve their pathetic master tapes. On his way to rock bottom, Dirk falls in with desperado Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) who hatches a scheme to rob Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), a drug smuggler with a fondness for mix tapes and firecrackers. Reaching a new low in life, Dirk Diggler realizes he has nowhere left to go but up.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
The Dirk Diggler Story was a 30-minute short Paul Thomas Anderson made when he was seventeen years old. Shooting on video and using two VCRs to edit, he was inspired not only by the porn movies he was obsessed with, but by fake documentaries like This Is Spinal Tap. Anderson chronicled the rise and fall of a porn star he based loosely on John Holmes, as well as a performer he’d seen profiled on A Current Affair named Shauna Grant. Anderson recalls, “There was some humor that I saw in it, I guess in a sick twisted way, maybe because it was the first time I was recognizing that a lot of these people in this story on A Current Affair were people I’d seen peripherally around the Valley, just in an area where I grew up, which is not a real shady area or anything, but there’s a lot of kind of goofy characters. So maybe it was just kind of being tickled by that.” Anderson ultimately wrote a feature length script based on The Dirk Diggler Story that ran 300 pages.

Boogie Nights 1997

A 26-minute short Anderson made starring Philip Baker Hall opened doors for the filmmaker at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. When Samuel L. Jackson agreed to join the cast of a feature Anderson had written – ultimately titled Hard Eight – financing was secured from Rysher Entertainment. Anderson enthused, “I remember on day two of shooting, calling my agent and saying, ‘After I’ve finished this movie, I wanna go right away and make Boogie Nights, ’cause I’m here with four actors and I LOVE IT! But I need more! I need fucking more! I need 80 of them!’ I knew it would be cool to consciously make a small movie – and a big fucking epic sloppy huge movie.” In the summer of 1995, Anderson went back to The Dirk Diggler Story, jettisoning the documentary approach and honing his script to a straightforward narrative of 185 pages.

One of the first people to get a look at Anderson’s script for Boogie Nights was the 31-year-old president and chief operating officer of New Line Cinema, Michael De Luca. Anderson’s pitch to DeLuca was that this was a four hour movie with a disco intermission. He talked about the opening shot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and how he wanted to open with something similar: a black screen with disco music thumping underneath, which would then explode into a club marquee with the film’s title. Anderson described a long tracking shot that would descend into the club and introduce nearly every character, without cutting. DeLuca – thinking this sounded like Lawrence of Arabia, with disco – was hooked. He signed on immediately, regardless of the running time. “I would do Berlin Alexanderplatz with Paul. He’s Orson Welles. I’m the blank check guy.”

Boogie Nights 1997 John C. Reilly Don Cheadle

New Line chairman Robert Shaye had reservations about the thick script, which DeLuca assured his boss that Anderson could cut. Other executives remained dubious. VP of Marketing Karen Hermelin recalled, “I remember Mike DeLuca asking me to read it and I thought, ‘Who would watch this? You can’t make this.’ But DeLuca was totally passionate, he believed in Paul. And Paul believed in himself.” Hermelin came around. “And he was totally uncompromising. He had this five-thousand page script which was completely misogynistic. I loved it.” Shaye struck a deal with Anderson: He could make Boogie Nights with the freedom to cast whoever he wanted, provided he kept the budget below $15 million, secured an R-rating from the MPAA and delivered a running time of no more than three hours, which New Line would ultimately retain final cut over. Anderson agreed.

The first actor Anderson seriously considered for Jack Horner was Warren Beatty, who had phoned to flirt with the role. Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show in October 1997, Anderson revealed, “I think what I eventually, I started to figure out was that Warren wanted to play Dirk Diggler, you know? ‘You don’t really want to play Jack Horner. You want to be the kid on this movie. He said, ‘Yeah.’” Anderson felt Beatty’s reticence had something to do with morality. “I think what he might have been looking for, which maybe some other people were looking for, was a clear kind of moment or a clear moment when someone stands up and says, ‘What we are doing is wrong,’ you know?” After considering Jack Nicholson, Anderson made an offer to Sydney Pollack, but the director/actor blanched over the subject matter. Once they saw the film, Beatty and Pollack both regretted saying no. Burt Reynolds had said yes and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Boogie Nights 1997 Burt Reynolds Julianne Moore

Leonardo DiCaprio attached himself to the role of Dirk Diggler, but weeks before shooting was to begin, the rising star was talked into taking the lead in Titanic. On his way out the door, DiCaprio recommended one of his co-stars from The Basketball Diaries – Mark Wahlberg – for the job. Joining him were most of the cast from Hard Eight – John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Ridgely, Philip Baker Hall – as well as actors that Anderson was eager to collaborate with. Don Cheadle had previously worked with Julianne Moore in a production of Jean Genet’s The Screens at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “I called her and said, ‘What’s up with this script? Are you down with this?’ And she told me she got a real good feeling from Paul. I did too, but I was still nervous about how the film would come off. I didn’t want to be naked and exploited. I wanted the film to take a deep look at these people. And it does.”

A twelve week shooting schedule commenced in July 1996. The perfect house for Jack Horner had been found, but the location ended up being in West Covina, a 45 minute commute. Little about the production was a breeze. Producer John Lyons recalls, “Boogie Nights was a truly grueling shoot. It was made for basically no money, $12 million. It was a period piece and we shot a lot of it in the San Fernando Valley and West Covina. It was very hot and we shot so many days where it was 104 or 105 degrees. We shot a lot at night, which was really exhausting. When we made that movie, there was a lot of talk about workers in the sex industry and how it was a liberating thing. The reality was that I think we all got sort of depressed during the making of the film. It was intense and the reality of the lives of those people were leading are far from glamorous.”

Boogie Nights 1997 Burt Reynolds Mark Wahlberg Philip Seymour Hoffman

Screened for the executives at New Line, Boogie Nights met with enthusiasm, for the most part. At 165 minutes, Robert Shaye felt the picture was just too long. While Anderson hemmed and hawed at trimming anything, Shaye brought in his own editor to cut the movie. When test screened, New Line’s 140 minute version somehow scored even lower than Anderson’s version, which was generating a miserable 30% among recruited audiences. New Line marketing chief Mitch Goldman explained, “The truth was – people didn’t want to say they liked it, even if they did. That’s the fallacy of testing a picture like this. They’d applaud, laugh, cry at the right places. Then the cards would come in shitty. When they put pencil to paper they’d say, ‘I don’t know anyone I’d recommend this to’ because it was a distasteful subject. But you could tell they loved it.”

The MPAA’s reaction to Boogie Nights was predictable. Anderson recalled, “When we submitted the movie, it was NC-17. I said, ‘I can’t argue with you.’ What they said next surprised me: ‘We just want you to know we love this movie, and we want it to be NC-17.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘We created that rating for movies like this, movies that deal with explicit material but that are also legitimate films. Then Showgirls came along and made us look like girls, sort of wiped the rating back to an X. So we need a movie like this.’ That changed my mind. I understood, but I said, ‘I can’t be the guinea pig.’” After recutting and resubmitting the film at least six times to no avail, Anderson reshot the sequence in which William H. Macy discovers his wife nonchalantly enjoying sexual relations at a New Year’s Eve party. “The MPAA broke it down like this: you can either hump or talk. You cannot hump and talk.”

Boogie Nights 1997

Boogie Nights premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1997. By late October, it had opened in the U.S. to nearly universal critical acclaim. Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “Some of the most distinctive American films of recent years – Pulp Fiction, The People vs. Larry Flynt, L.A. Confidential and now this one – have invoked a sleaze-soaked Southern California as an evilly alluring nexus of decadence and pop culture. Boogie Nights further ratchets up the raunchiness by taking porn movies and drug problems entirely for granted, and by fondly embracing a collection of characters who do the same.” Marjorie Baumgarten, the Austin Chronicle: “From the second it begins, Boogie Nights seizes your senses and pulls you right in: no turning back, no time for debate, no regrets.” Emmanuel Levy, Variety: “Darkly comic, vastly entertaining and utterly original.”

Far from a blockbuster – grossing $26.4 million in the U.S. and another $16.7 million overseas – Boogie Nights did receive three Academy Award nominations (Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore and Anderson’s script were up for Oscars). Anderson trumpeted his magnum opus in one of many interviews by stating, “It’s about finding a family, to tell you the truth. I know that sounds kinda preposterous, ’cause it’s about porno! You know, and that’s a really kinda weird thing, is that you want to say ‘Well, it’s about the pornography industry’ and then you want to quickly say well, not really. And then maybe people might look at you sideways and go, ‘Come on, which is it?’ But I think ultimately, the thing that I really liked most and really focused on is that it’s about a lot of people searching for their dignity, and trying to find any kind of love and affection they can get. And they find it in really fucked up and twisted ways – but they get it, you know?”

Boogie Nights 1997 Julianne Moore Mark Wahlberg

Why Should I Care?

Just about every minute of Boogie Nights – which clocks in at 155 minutes – looks, sounds and feels almost exactly like I’ve imagined that movies should look, sound and feel. Photographed by Robert Elswit, we’re dazzled on a technical level. Karyn Rachtman – music supervisor for Pulp Fiction – deserves some kind of special award for mixing up The Chico Hamilton Quintet and Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band with the usual suspects like The Commodores and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. In his script, Anderson tackles challenging subject matter and takes on big, sloppy ideas, while swinging back and forth between darkness and light. If the picture has a flaw, it’s in the two dimensional portrait of just about every single character, who speak, act but very seldom it seems, think. Rollergirl flies out of the movie almost as thinly sketched as when she flew in.

Great insight is not a service Anderson offers. Where Boogie Nights succeeds masterfully is as a document of a moment in show business history and how the camaraderie of the players binds them together after the show is over. As a pure entertainment, it features plenty of ‘70s kitsch, a consistently twisted black wit, a ceaselessly mesmerizing visual palette, and that ass kicking retro soundtrack. Musician Jon Brion pitches in with a sparse but wonderfully kooky musical score. The cast – which includes Luis Guzman, Melora Walters, Nicole Ari Parker and Ricky Jay – has to be one of the finest groups of character actors ever assembled under one tent. What’s most admirable is how Anderson resists making a crowd pleasing, derivative comedy and instead, has the maturity to explore the darkness in each his characters, redeeming the ones still left standing.

© Joe Valdez

Boogie Nights 1997 Mark Wahlberg

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“The Don” By Justine Elias. Interview, 1997 August

“The Innocent Approach to an Adult Opus”
By Margy Rochlin. The New York Times, 12 October 1997

Boogie Nights (New Line Platinum Series). New Line Home Video, 1997

“Q & A with PTA”
By Matt Grainger. Cinemattractions. 1998 February

“20 Questions” By David Rensin. Playboy, 1998 February

Movie Moguls Speak: Interviews with Top Film Producers. By Steven Priggé. McFarland (2004)

Rebels on the Backlot
. By Sharon Waxman. Harper Entertainment (2005)

Tags: Bathtub scene · Coming of age · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Father/son relationship · Master and pupil · No opening credits · Prostitute · Rated X · Shootout

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Mar 27, 2009 at 6:59 am

    This is an excellent post! I love this film and I thought you did a great job delving into how it got made and how the critics responded to it. BOOGIE NIGHTS really holds up to repeated viewings and has aged very well. It also put PTA on the map and he hasn’t looked back since, cranking out one incredible film after another.

  • 2 Chuck // Mar 27, 2009 at 8:17 am

    In Afterglow, Pauline Kael said of Anderson, and I’m paraphrasing “I don’t know what he’s up to, and I don’t think he knows, he’s feeling his oats.” She meant this as a compliment, and, at that time, she was only judging from his first three pictures. I think, even after Punchdrunk Love and There Will Be Blood, that this view still holds.

    We tend to convince ourselves of a filmmaker’s rank of master genius overnight, because filmmakers aren’t, due to the altered nature of the business, allowed to hone their skills cranking out anonymous pictures. I think PTA is supremely talented, and I called Blood the best picture of that year, and Boogie Nights is one of my favorite pictures. But something about Anderson is still unformed, he makes young man’s movies in both the best and not-so-best senses. The most exciting thing about Anderson is how much pleasure he’s already given us, and I don’t think he’s anywhere near his best film.

  • 3 J.D. // Mar 27, 2009 at 9:22 am


    “I don’t think he’s anywhere near his best film.”

    And that is a pretty exhilarating thought when you think about the films he’s already given us. But I agree… THERE WILL BE BLOOD, I think, hints at an evolution in PTA’s filmmaking abilities and that the best is only yet to come.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Mar 27, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    J.D.: Thanks for discovering this site and sharing your thoughts with my 22 readers! It’s hard to believe that Boogie Nights is 12 years old, but you made a good point in that it has held up strong over the years. I have no real complaints about the film at all. Warren Beatty or Sydney Pollack might have been better choices for Jack, but Burt Reynolds gave an outstanding performance. The scene with Ridgely in the jail is beautiful.

    Chuck: Thanks for commenting! I liked Pauline Kael’s writing a great deal. Unlike a lot of critics – even Roger Ebert – who I don’t think fully understand the medium they’re writing about, Kael knew how movies were made and what their potential was. Her comment about Anderson could be applied to virtually any filmmaker under the age of 40, but I think it’s relevant that the media not bestow “genius” certification on directors who only have two or three credits to their name. I think you need reflection as much as you do good taste and a clear eye when trying to be a critic.

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