“Without the pornography, I feel like I’m naked,” writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson nervously confides, rapping his knuckles on a cluttered coffee table, less for emphasis than to break his own tension.
“With Boogie Nights,” Anderson says, sitting in the family-style stone house in Bronson Canyon that now serves as his production office, “at least I had that ‘topic’ in front of me. The pornography aspect of the film was like some kind of armor. I know it’s bullshit, but in a way, it let me step aside and say, ‘Hey, if you didn’t like that movie, well, maybe you just didn’t connect with the topic.’ With this one, it’s just me, right out there, saying ‘Don’t you like me? Don’t you like me?’ ”
A boyishly unkempt pre-30-year-old with a new Mercedes in his driveway, an Oscar nomination (for his Boogie Nights screenplay) on his track record, and a hopelessly slept-in white dress shirt on his back, Anderson’s a mess. His metamelodramatic Magnolia finally in the can, he’s too fraught with what looks like postpartum depression to squat on his laurels before he’s seen them in print. “I woke up yesterday,” he says, “really afraid that I’m going to take a beating from the critics. Three hours, baby. Three fucking hours! But I know what I’ve done. This is unquestionably the best film I will ever make.”
An epic downer with an apocalyptic interlude, a score full of Aimee Mann’s heart-scraping pop songs, and an oddly happy ending, Magnolia is all about families—the devastatingly unhappy kind. Much of the movie’s wrenching emotionality is confessional, a result of the “cancer spiral” Anderson’s friends and loved ones seemed to be succumbing to during the last few years. But he’s managed to transform those losses into clarity, even to the point of admitting what others had been pointing out to him all along: that he’s a director with a theme. “Who’d a thunk it?” Anderson crows. “Me, the ‘family’ guy! It’s the simplest, most direct way I can say it: My movies are about family. But it wasn’t like, there I was at seven years old, watching Close Encounters and planning it all out.”
There’s also an increasingly grown-up, settled-down aspect to his work. For one thing, Anderson claims that Magnolia was written with women in mind, and specifically for the women in his life. “First of all, I wrote it for Aimee, who has been my best friend and inspiration, like, forever. But on a much bigger and more personal level, I wrote it for Fiona Apple.” Anderson and his significant pop-star other have been in a serious relationship for some time now, and when he mentions her, he’s not just waxing slushy. Asked what he’ll be doing with his time off during the next few months, the answer’s immediate: “I just want to be the boyfriend for a while.”
But he’s not all through with his former bouts of big dick-ery just yet. In Magnolia, Anderson’s hilariously humongous prosthetic is Tom Cruise, who plays a magnoliously oily expert on the art of seduction. “You never expect to get the world’s biggest movie star for your film,” he says, “but when you do, you run with it.” Cruise clearly adored every raw, randy line Anderson wrote for him, and, on-screen, his every move appears coiled and ready for more—right down to the sea monster that seems to be straining in his briefs. But is that touch of Dirk Diggler for real?
Anderson smiles cinemascopically, a foam of Diet Coke still ringing his lips. “Tom Cruise is the biggest movie star in the world,” he says, like a carny barker letting the promise of freakish grandeur sell his show. “Are you kidding? Of course he’s got the world’s biggest cock.”