Paul Thomas Anderson on Inspiration: “The Rainbow Is Right in Your Living Room, Idiot!”

Paul Thomas Anderson is calling from the Valley. “Where else would I be?” the Oscar-nominated writer-director exclaims when I ask. He’s lived in this slip of Los Angeles for much of his life and set several of his genre-defying, rabidly obsessed-over films there, including his most recent—the ’70s-era coming-of-age story Licorice Pizza. It’s an endearing, risqué tale about Gary, a 15-year-old boy (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana, a 25-year-old woman (Alana Haim, of the sister-trio rock band Haim) who form an immediate, curious bond that borders on an inappropriate romance. Gary’s charm and hustle, based on the real-life adventures of producer Gary Goetzman, a former child actor, is a fine match for Alana’s wry tongue and a lifestyle so aimless that she hangs out with teenage boys all the time. The movie is jovial and sun-drenched, so much so that Anderson didn’t want to release it in the dead of winter. 

“I really wished that this was a summer movie,” he laments. But the powers that be want the film to be in the awards conversation, hence a November release. “That’s the nature of the game, at least in terms of the types of films I’m making with the studios I’m working with,” adds the director, whose previous movies include Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and Phantom Thread. “They want to be a part of that. I can’t say no to that because I spend too much time saying no about a lot of other things.”

In a recent phone interview, the director talks about the making of Licorice Pizza, the “unhinged” magic of Bradley Cooper, and more.

Vanity Fair: Were there other ideas boxing for your attention before you decided to make Licorice Pizza?

Paul Thomas Anderson: Well, I had just been going about my business writing things and revisiting things that I’ve written over the years, nothing too out of the ordinary. But every two to three months, I would think of this idea that I’ve had for about 20 years, which is: what happens when an 8th grader asks a grown woman out for a date and she actually turns up to it? That was the premise. It was always sort of a screwball comedy premise. Somewhere along the way of having this friendship with Gary Goetzman and this friendship with Alana, I got lucky enough to get these three things aligned in my vision at the same time, and it became clear to me that I needed to get writing. This is a good two, three years ago now.

I wrote chronologically, and it was a very easy story to write chronologically because I had the premise. But the source material was all these stranger-than-fiction stories Gary had told me over the years, like, “There was a time I went to New York to promote Yours, Mine, and Ours with Lucille Ball and I had a chaperone! Her name was Kiki Paige!” That’s a great story. 

Great name too.

Kiki Paige! She’s got a great biography called Kiki on One Wheel. She was a burlesque dancer whose specialty was a unicycle. There’s even a chapter about Gary and their trip to New York. 

Did Gary know all along that you were tracking these stories?

Yeah, because I kept coming back and asking him again and again for details. I think he did the right thing by just pretending I wasn’t that serious about it.

Alana and Cooper are at the heart of this film. You’ve worked with Alana’s band, Haim, a lot. I’m curious about the moment you realize you wanted her to star in one of your movies.

Haim had a performance at Coachella where they opened before Beyonce’s world-famous performance [in 2018], which is amazing because Beyoncé had three soundstages at Sony Pictures and we had a curtain and some fucking shadow puppets! [Laughs] Trying to bring some level of showmanship to the situation when you’re opening for the queen. So, anyway, we were working on some footage that could play on the screens behind them and I shot some stuff that would be there. And it was during that time I remembered this idea [for Licorice Pizza] and looking at Alana and thinking, She’s right in front of you. She’s right in front of your face. 

The baby of the family is always an interesting role. They’re fighting for survival. They’re probably smarter than everybody else because they’ve been watching everybody else, but they are not afforded the same respect. It’s very, very hard to not be typecast as the baby of the family. So thinking about that in terms of this story, it seemed to make sense dramatically. There was something that could propel the engine of the story along. Blurring the line between who Alana is in real life and this character was interesting to me.

You auditioned a lot of folks for the role of Gary, but Cooper was also right in front of you, in a way. 

[The role] plays to a lot of Cooper’s strengths. Cooper’s very social, he’s very charming, he’s very easy. But there’s a certain moment where it really stops. What’s interesting is when kids have one foot in adulthood and another foot in adolescence. They’re so fucking vulnerable. They’re trying all these coats on for size to see what the real world is like, and that’s the character that he plays. It was very hard to find another actor who was maybe a child actor who had some experience who wasn’t anything but just precocious and irritating. Maybe many of them have been trained by their parents to try to get a role on a television show, or to do sitcom acting, which is much more theatrical—and which has a place, but it would not have fit right in this story.

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