New York Film Fest: Paul Thomas Anderson's Ensemble on the Chaotic Logic of 'Inherent Vice'

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
'Inherent Vice'

Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Sasha Pieterse, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Jena Malone, Martin Short and Maya Rudolph spoke on the detective film before its NYFF premiere

Paul Thomas Anderson and his ensemble cast took the Walter Reader Theater stage on Saturday afternoon to talk about his latest film, Inherent Vice, ahead of its New York Film Festival premiere.

The psychedelic SoCal detective tale adapts the Thomas Pynchon book for the big screen in a way that one reporter felt was comparable to Howard Hawks' 1946 film The Big Sleep. Anderson agreed, noting that when he saw that film, "I realized I couldn’t follow any of it, and I didn't care because I wanted to see what happened next. … That was a good model to follow, to just throw all that stuff out the window."

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Though the feature — which has a tone Anderson described as "beautifully written stuff mixed in with the best fart jokes and silly songs that you can imagine" — follows Joaquin Phoenix as drug-fueled detective Doc Sportello investigating the disappearance of a former beau, Inherent Vice is narrated via 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 told the Lincoln Center venue of reporters 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. Some 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!"

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Jena 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 becomes 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 know how he does what he does," and Maya Rudolph summarized, "What I love so much about Paul's work is it's anything and everything, and yet it's always his."

The press screening was held before the film's New York Film Festival premiere — a Saturday night screening of the feature shot on 35mm film. "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."

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