With a commanding, possessed performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and a subject that lies at the root of our modern nation, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a transfixing journey into the American character. By James Ponsoldt
In 1989 as Communism was crumbling in Poland, Krzystof Kieslowski was a guest on a talk show called 100 Questions (100 Pytan Do; viewable on the Facets DVD collection of The Decalogue). A room full of Polish journalists interrogated Kieslowski about his monumental, recently completed Ten Commandments-inspired compilation, The Decalogue.
The line of questions was amiable until a reporter (Adam Horoszczak) asked Kieslowski, "One of the journalists at Cannes referred to a scene in 'A Short Film About Killing' (Decalogue V), where the priest administers the Last Rites, and asked you whether you believed in God. You answered that you believe in a Supreme Being but you don't need intermediaries. In France this answer is not shocking, but in predominately Catholic Poland, it may seem peculiar. Do you believe in the power of The Decalogue to motivate our befuddled, tired and demoralized society?"
The tone in the room shifted. Journalists leaned forward to hear the director's reply. Calmly Kieslowski answered, "No, I don't. I don't believe in anything at all. I don't believe film has any motivational power or role. I absolutely do not believe in this. But I do believe that maybe because someone has come in touch with these films, they will want to reflect."
The journalists, who seemed flustered by Kieslowski's seeming refusal to declare himself a dissident, goaded him until he stated, Tou don't understand. You assume that I wanted to accomplish something. Well let me tell you - I did not want to accomplish anything. Because you can't accomplish anything through film.... I don't believe you can change anything through film."
Now let us consider Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, There Will Be Blood.
It is an important film.
Anderson has never lived under martial law, but he lives in America while the U.S. has been engaged in a war in the oil-rich Middle East for almost five years. But this is not what the director cares to discuss.
In his first film since 2002's ethereal romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson looked backwards and chose to adapt Upton Sinclair's 1927 muckraking examination of the California oil industry - and a father-son rift - Oil!
What results is an intimate character study of an insular, demonically driven man. There Will Be Blood is one of the most fullyformed, mature films ever made that deals with America's fossil-fuel economy, the myth of Westward expansion, and the tensions that exist in a capitalist society whose leaders cross party lines by claiming to have an allegiance to, first and foremost, God and Christ.
Daniel Plainview is the black hole at the center of There WiIlBe Blood. He is the film's Kane, its Kurtz - though, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis, he is a complete original. Plainview is a man who seems literally to emerge from the Earth, who has little personal history. When he first appears on screen, in great silence, he is digging the hole that will either make him wealthy or become his grave. This miner possesses a brutal determination that is most terrifying when it is felt in quiet glances. Midway through the film, after an accident that causes his well to bum and his son to go deaf, Plainview stands in front of the flames at night, covered in oil, and seems almost to vanish into the blackness. The iconic image brings to mind both the fire in Days of Heaven and the nightmarish imagery of Hieronymus Bosch, and it is impossible not to feel that the heart of our protagonist has grown pitch-black.
Is this a place for faith? This is a harsh world, where turn-of-the-century oil derricks can resemble a hangman's gallows, and men, up to their chests in oil wells, are crushed by falling equipment and die miserable deaths. One young man, Eli Sunday (played by Paul Dano), possesses no snakes but seems to evoke serpents during his heated church sermons. Daniel might control people with wealth, but Eli uses religion. Both men understand the value of a good show and fight for the hearts and minds of Little Boston, California.
Family - including Plainview's son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), and his mysterious brother, Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor) - factors into There Will Be Blood, but God and money ultimately battle for supremacy. While the film spans decades, the final moment, set soon before the Great Depression, is already famous for dividing audiences. The showdown between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, using a private bowling alley in a mansion as a stage, is loud, merciless, heretical and brave. In a film that features a prophet of God and a prophet of profit, it seems tragically inevitable that blood must be spilled, and the scene, which takes place 80 years ago, is prescient - and purely American. There Will Be Blood is currently in theaters through Paramount Vantage.
So I read somewhere that you watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre over and over and over while developing There Will Be Blood. It feels like [that story] has gotten completely exaggerated at this point, but yeah. What was nice about that movie was that it's kind of a play wrapped up in the clothes of an adventure film. It's essentially a dialogue, a dynamic between these three guys. [The film's] traditional straightforward storytelling was what I was influenced by, and it was something that seemed to apply when trying to make a big story on a limited budget. You know, it was kind of like, well, how expensive is it to get your cameras outside? It's not expensive. And you get a good location, all right, so you're an epic, [laughs] What's next are the smaller scenes and taking care of it from the ground up, if you know what I mean. [Treasure of the Sierra Madre] is really so much about the way those guys beat each other up, and the paranoia and that madness that happens. It's so simple and so economical. But I'm just babbling about what I really liked about the movie.
When you talk about appreciating that film's sense of economy, are you talking about story economy, or are you talking about visual economy too? It was less of a visual thing than a storytelling thing, I think. Daniel got into it, and I tried to get everybody else [to watch the film]. And it was, "I've seen that fucking movie, I get it!" No one would watch it. [laughs] Jack Fisk watched it, and he was like, "That movie's not that good!"
You used the word "epic." What does that word mean to you? Do people just project the word "epic" on a film if you set it against a big landscape? Probably, but it has to do with length too. If a film is over two hours, it's an epic, [laughs] If you verge on two and a half, you are most certainly an epic. I don't know, I guess [people call it an "epic"] probably because of scope of story and what it's about. It's hard to make a film about oil without getting the label "epic" whether you want it or not. It doesn't make me feel bad, it's just another way to describe a film. "It's an epic, okay, I want to see one of those."
It's such a strange misnomer because the way I felt watching it was almost the way I felt the first time I saw Barry Lyndon. While the film seemed "epic," it is ultimately an intimate character study. But I wonder, for you, isn't Punch-Drunk Love - 90 minutes of walking an emotional and tonal tightrope - just as epic? I know what you're saying. They all fucking end up feeling epic just because they're so hard to do. By the end, whether they're 90 minutes or two-and-a-half hours, it's like, fucking hell, I can't believe we just did that. But the idea that you're talking about is something too. I knew early on that we certainly weren't going to get an epic-size budget, [laughs] And really, for me, the scenes that were the pain in the ass were the scenes that are "epic," like lighting things on fire or [scenes with] lots of extras. The scenes that were really quite fun to do were just two people in a room or some minor scene. But the funny thing about [the period world of There Will be Blood], the oil camps and all that stuff, is that it was so simple. I mean, the derrick is not exactly simple, but the camps themselves are just canvas tents. Everybody lived so economically, so sparsely then, and [the way we approached the production] kind of came from that. We didn't want to get out there with a lot of baggage, you know, with cranes and unnecessary things that we didn't need. Feeling like you're carrying an entire army on your back can just slow you down.
At the end of a feature do you feel the difference between a 90-minute film and a two-hour-and-forty minute film? They are equally taxing. I mean, they both take the same amount of time to finish. It's kind of ironic, isn't it, that somehow you can get a 90-minute movie done and it still takes you, whatever, a year to edit. I'm not quite sure how that works. You would imagine that it would take you twice as long.
Do you expect people to project onto the film that it's your allegory for Iraq, for Bush, for capitalism? How do you respond to critics who view the film in this way? You deal as delicately as you can while trying to avoid it and letting the story do its own work. No matter what I might have thought when I sat down to write the story, everything goes out the window if you're just after two guys who are trying to fucking pummel each other. If you break it down to those essentials, that's really the engine [the story] has to run on first. But it's inescapable to not think about oil and religion right now, isn't it? It'd just be horrible to think that we were "being political." But then if you're not trying to be political, you are being political, aren't you? I don't know how to deal with it. [long pause] Does this sound cagey, because it's so obnoxious when it becomes cagey?
I fully expect you'll be asked this question over and over. It's like Titanic. You know the Titanic is going to go down, you just don't know how. So this story, you know how it ends, don't you? I mean, we all know how it ends. But what's interesting is the beginning, or how this stuff is born. I don't know, I guess it just feels preposterous to take on big subjects, [laughs]
Well to boil it down, in the case of Daniel Plainview, if someone's a pure entrepreneur, embodies Western capitalism and that kind of entrepreneurial spirit, in your mind is it possible to operate as a land speculator in oil, a profiteer in oil, and have a conscience? I believe he has a conscience. It's a sliding scale of what his conscience is, which I daresay any of us have. I mean, I can convince myself of anything. I can justify just about anything, unfortunately. But you can't underestimate what that world was and how hard it was to survive in it, let alone to survive in it on your own terms. Somebody asked me, "Is mining for silver a lot like filmmaking?" And I was like, "I think it is a lot like making a movie" - the anger and ambition and drive that you have to have to get one of these things done. It completely takes you away until it's over and you sort of snap out of it and say, "What did I just leave in my wake?" You're not quite sure. Do you know John Cameron Mitchell? I asked him to be in the film, in a small part, but he couldn't do it. He finally saw the film and sent me this great message I have to share with you. He says [Anderson reads a text message off his cell phone], "Besides everything about love and family, it's amazing to see the actual moment when the unholy modern Republican coalition was born. Will it die the same way? Hmmmm." Better his words than mine.
Your child was born after the film was shot but you were in post, is that right? No, she was born before we started shooting the film. Did being a father make the filmmaking process any different for you? Yeah, you don't spend as much time in the cutting room. God, we used to fucking do nothing in the cutting room for hours, days, and drive ourselves crazy. But it's not like that anymore. I think we ended up spending just as much time anyway, we just stretched it out over [more months]. We'd sort of cut for two weeks, take a couple of weeks off, cut for two weeks, take a couple of weeks off. It's for the better, without question. It used to be easier to indulge, but that doesn't really happen anymore. You gotta go home.
With your composer, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, was it really as simple as you talked to him, you gave him the film and he delivered something of a score? Something like that, more or less. I guess there were a couple of back and forths with minor demos that Jonny had done in his house, very simple things with piano and ondes martenot that he sent me, these two-minute pieces. There were some things on a pump organ and some things on a guitar. We just went back and forth to indicate what sounded right. I remember taking a piece that [Jonny] did that was two minutes long and looping it because it needed to be eight minutes long. He [listened to] the repetition and then went away, expanded it and wrote new parts for it. After that, he really got a handle on it enough to say, "Okay, I'm going on vacation, and I'll be back." I kind of assumed he'd write a few pieces, and then he sent me an e-mail saying, "I've gone a little bit overboard." He literally recorded two hours worth of music with a string quartet. The majority of it was great, and some of it was great but didn't fit the film. Or initially, I thought, this is wrong, this does not fit, but he didn't talk to me for two days after he sent it. He did the right thing, too - he knew I needed to settle with it, and he just didn't call me back. I wanted to say to him, "This is not right," but then of course we sat with it and put it in and it worked great. So more or less over the course of a year we went back and forth on it and got it all into shape.
Did you download the Radiohead album? I did, but I bought the big box too. And if you're wondering what I paid for it, I paid 80 bucks. No friends' prices from Jonny. I was like, "C'mon, send one of those fucking things through." Not a chance.
Did religion play much of a part in your childhood? I was raised Catholic, but not really strict. Went to Sunday school. And we went to church in a confusing kind of way. We didn't go every single Sunday; we were very loose about it. I have to ask my mother because I kind of assume that we started to go at times when there was something in her life that was bothering her. I found it really, really boring. Really hard to sit through. I didn't take much from it except, I don't know, wash your hands after sex. [laughs]
People often say that novelists and filmmakers tell the same story over and over in different permutations. Do you put any stock in that? In your films, starting with Sydney [aka Hard Eight] and certainly in There Will Be Blood, the father-son relationship, or a surrogate father-son relationship, seems to be a theme that just comes up repeatedly. That's something I know people project onto your work. Well they project it because it's there. [laughs] But that said, I mean, I'm convinced every single time that we start a movie that we're not doing what we did before. And we have varying degrees of success. I just think, I don't know what we're going to do but I certainly don't want to do that again. I didn't have any kind of conscious feeling [writing There Will be Blood] that I shouldn't write anything that has to do with family or fathers and sons. I remember initially writing some scenes that had a 9-year-old boy in them. And more than not wanting to write about a father and son, I thought, God, I'm fucking dealing with a 9-year-old kid and you get nervous about [doing] that in a practical way, just the crapshoot that [finding a good child actor] is.
What were you like in the audition room when you were casting H.W.? How did you work with the children? Cassandra [Kulukundis], the casting director I work with, is so terrific. I tried to not make it feel like an old-fashioned audition with a video camera and the sides and all that stuff. I just tried to make it seem more natural. I didn't have [Dillon Freasier] read scenes initially. Cassandra met him and talked to him about his life. His father owned some horses that he was trying to sell. She said, "What would it be like if you were with your father and you were trying to sell horses?" And he played make-believe. He described the horse and what the price would be, and they kind of bickered and haggled and just did this little make-believe scene. It was clear from that that the boy had the power of make-believe in him on top of his general charisma and integrity as a young man. So then I read the script with him. We sat on his floor and talked it through like a story, and then I said, "I'll play Daniel and you play H.W.," and we just did a scene. He was so terrific and that was that. And then we had a few different girls for Mary Sunday, and he would read with them. I said, "Which one do you like?" [smiles] It was so great to see this little flirtation between these 9, 10-year-old kids.
He picked the right girl? He sure did.
He gives a wonderful performance, but he's a child, and untrained as an actor. How did you talk differently to him than you did to Daniel Day-Lewis on set? Everybody's different, so there's no difference because he's 10 years old. The things I would talk with Daniel about are the things that Daniel needed to talk about. We were all so in agreement by the time we started to make the film about what we were more or less trying to do, so most of the stuff Daniel and I talked about was whether or not he was going to leave his hat on, you know? Hat on, hat off? Pipe, no pipe? Small stuff that says everything. And with little Dillon, after the first few weeks he brought things to the table. When he had to do scenes using sign language, he would come up with the ideas. He'd say, "I think I should be signing on the long walk from the car to meet my father when they're building the pipeline." Terrific! He's such a smart boy so it didn't need to be overexplained to him. He didn't like to do scenes with big emotion. It was written that he cries in one scene. Well, he's a boy from West Texas, so he's not going to fucking cry.
It was an issue of masculinity? I'm not sure, but I would think so. Quite possibly a young actor whose mother has pushed him into it at age 10 in Los Angeles would have been desperate to cry. But a boy from West Texas, he'd rather be angry than cry. And that's what he would do in a scene. I'd say, "Well, what would you do?" and he'd say, "I'd be angry, I'd be pissed, I'd give him the stink-eye." It was fun - I mean, it makes you feel like an idiot as a writer. You're like, that was stupid, I don't know why I thought he would cry.
Was "stink-eye" his word? That was his word. [In a Texas accent] "Hey, in that last take, did you see me give the stink-eye?"
I just read Altman on Altman, and your preface is beautiful. I thought about that section on M*A*S*H where Altman talks about Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland feeling like they wanted to get him fired because they felt that they hadn't been directed. They thought he just talked to the extras the whole time. Well, your extras are phenomenal in There Will Be Blood. They feel "cast" - they feel as instrumental as any of the leads, in a way. That's great of you to say, thank you. A lot of it has to do with Cassandra and also Mark Bridges, the costume designer. He gets a lot of credit for that because he's great at sussing out the good ones. Ideally you get somebody who looks right first, and then hopefully if they look right they will kind of fall into place after that and not try to do too much. It's funny on this film because we started in Texas, where all the people were local people and had such good will. It's so fucking hot out there, and they were in those costumes all day long. Not only did they have patience and the good will, but their instincts were always right. You just described the scene to them, talked them through it, got them involved, and it would be great. When we got back to California, at the risk of getting in trouble, [we hired] professional extras and they were desperate to act and be noticed. We pulled it off and everything worked out fine, it was really only for one scene, but it was incredibly frustrating. We thought, "Everybody's after something else here, but in Texas, all the people were only after one thing, which was being genuine to the scene and not getting in the way." No one was angling, no one knew where the camera was. They weren't positioning themselves for screen time or acting up a storm. They didn't do any of those tricks, and it was great. Because as good as Daniel and Paul can be, it'd be highly distracting if [the extras] weren't good too.
I was in Marfa, Texas, in late April or early May of '06, and I guess you guys were going to shoot maybe two months later there. I had been as far west as Austin, but had never been to West Texas, and it was isolated in a way that I didn't have personal precedent for. And you've never shot in that kind of isolation before. How does that affect... The collective mind-set? The group mind-set was great. We've been on location making our films before, whether it was Hawaii or Reno. Even a majority of Boogie Nights felt like we were on location because we were out in West Covina at this house, and we were all staying out there so we weren't going back to our regular daily lives. We were away from our families, which as hard as that can be, was a blessing. There's not much to do except make the film. And in terms of creating that environment where ideally the only thing you're doing is drilling for oil, it's a huge leg up [to be isolated]. We came back to California for two weeks, and again, like with the extras, we all felt different, we all felt more disconnected from each other. We used to go home to the same hotel - all that stuff that people have said a million times about being on location is true. There's a real reason to go on location. And what was nice too is that it was so far out there that the feeling before we started was bring everything you need. If you're shooting in Los Angeles and you need something, an hour later you can have it from a prop or costume house. But more or less, Mark would just have to bring the costumes out that we needed and that was it. But that was part of the fun - work with what you got because that's all we got.
Were there any moments where you desperately needed something and it wasn't there? No. There's one day I stupidly talked [producer] Daniel [Lupi] into getting a crane that I was convinced we would use. The second we put the camera on that crane we were like, "This is a worthless piece of shit." It looked so out of the place so we got rid of it. It wasn't the crane's fault, it was just that we didn't need it.
At what point does your d.p. Robert Elswit get the script? When I'm done. I might talk to him from time to time and tell him what I'm writing or what I'm working on. Robert's always out doing something else, and he's like "great, great, great." Robert lingers on the edges through preproduction, never really saying much because he knows once we start shooting it's him front and center. He has a great way of staying back and letting everybody do their work and not jamming his opinion down anybody's throat. He's the master of not peaking early. He's done so many films he knows just how to pace himself. He lingers, lets things settle and hears everybody out, and then comes in and cleans it all up and makes it happen.
How do the two of you work in preproduction? We just go to the set and walk things through, talk about the possibilities. More than anything else we plan [the shooting schedule]. Ideally we can do this in one or two days. I mean, we do our tests, looking through lenses and playing around like that, but that's usually just fun time and getting used to each other again.
So you don't storyboard? No.
Was there any overlap between you and the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men, which also shot in Marfa, or did you guys miss each other? We were scouting, and we had heard that they were looking around too. We were like, what the fuck are they doing here? I remember we had come down for a scout, and they were down for a scout, and I opened the door at the motel and saw Ethan. I said, "This town is not big enough for the both of us!" Because literally, it wasn't. And they had very intelligently heard about us and snapped up all the motel rooms, those sneaky bastards. They were only there for a week, and we were in preproduction then so it worked out fine for everybody. But it was kind of hilarious.
Had there been a major film shot in Marfa since Giant? Not a major film. Down south in this town called Shaft where we shot that silver mine stuff they shot The Andromeda Strain. Other than that I don't know.
No one seems to have really talked much about Kevin J. O'Connor's performance. You know it's funny. Somebody asked at one of our first Q&A's, "How did you find that guy who plays Henry?" I knew just what he meant. He meant, "Who is this stranger, this vagabond guy that looks like he just came out of 1911?" And I said, "He's one of the great underappreciated actors, Kevin O'Connor." It's undeniable, Kevin's contribution to the film, I think.
Was it his performance in Altman's Tanner on Tanner that brought him to your attention? It was nothing in particular. Peggy Sue Got Married, maybe. But I didn't have Kevin in mind. I wasn't sure what to do with that part, and he sent a DVD of him doing a scene. We looked at it and there was no question, so we stopped looking. I hope Kevin gets some more work because he's a great, great actor.
How much of Daniel's back story in the film is from Upton Sinclair's novel? The character's name in the book is J. Arnold Ross, and I don't remember what his background is. What little background there is in the film kind of comes from [real-life oil tycoon] Edward Doheny. Where he's from, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; working for Geological Survey; mining for silver in New Mexico - those are all things that Edward Doheny did.
And in the book, is the child's name H.W.? No, the kid's name is Bunny.
Do you know what you're going to do next? No, I don't.
You haven't started writing? No, I got really annoyed at this friend of mine who I had shown the movie to. This one friend said, "That was great, that was worth the wait." And then this other friend was like, "That was really good, what's next?" [laughs] And I was like, "What do you mean, what's next?" [laughs] I don't think he liked the movie very much. [laughs] He was like, "Dude, what's next?" So I'm not feeling that way right now at all - "What's next?"
Would you ever do a horror film? I think I just did. [laughs]
"SOMEBODY ASKED ME, 'IS MINING FOR SILVER A LOT LIKE FILMMAKING?' AND I WAS LIKE, ? THINK IT IS A LOT LIKE MAKING A MOVIE' - THE ANGER AND AMBITION AND DRIVE THAT YOU HAVE TO HAVE TO GET ONE OF THESE THINGS DONE."
HOW THEY DID IT
* PRODUCTION FORMAT: Format: 35mm.
* CAMERA: Panavision cameras, various models with anamorphic lenses.
* FILM STOCK: Kodak 5201, 5217, 5218.
* EDITING SYSTEM: Avid Meridien 9000, OS 9 version 11.2.7.
* COLOR CORRECTION: Traditional film finish and timed at Deluxe labs (no DI done).
"MOST OF THE STUFF DANIEL AND I TALKED ABOUT WAS WHETHER OR NOT HE WAS GOING TO LEAVE HIS HAT ON. PIPE, NO PIPE? SMALL STUFF THAT SAYS EVERYTHING."
GO BACK & WATCH
This sprawling 1956 epic directed by George Stevens and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean brought an Oscar nomination for Dean and a win for Stevens, along with creating a film that proves everything really is bigger in Texas.
* CITIZEN KANE
The drive, greed and madness of Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane is echoed in Day-Lewis's Daniel Planview. And you can't help but compare his grandiose mansion in the film's conclusion to that of Xanadu.
* TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
It's been reported that Paul Thomas Anderson would fall asleep watching John Huston's masterpiece while preparing for Blood. A cautionary tale of how far men will go to find riches, the film has become a master class for filmmakers studying the balance between character development and genre storytelling.
JAMES PONSOLDT (pp. 40, 60) is from Athens, Georgia. His debut feature, Off the Black, was released in theaters by THINKFilm. He workshoped his new project, Refresh, Refresh, at the 2007 Sundance Screenwriters Lab.…