How Paul Thomas Anderson Dropped Out of NYU Film School in 2 Days; Studied Literature with David Foster Wallace

See­ing how the ever-more-dis­tinc­tive cin­e­ma of Paul Thomas Ander­son has devel­oped from his fea­ture debut Hard Eight to his new Thomas Pyn­chon adap­ta­tion Inher­ent Vice, you have to won­der how he learned his craft. Boo­gie NightsMag­no­liaPunch-Drunk LoveThe Mas­ter: ambi­tious pic­tures like these, artis­ti­cal­ly unusu­al and heav­i­ly ref­er­en­tial but also sur­pris­ing­ly pop­u­lar, make you sense an unschooled film­mak­er behind the cam­era (a path to film­mak­ing great­ness best exem­pli­fied by Quentin Taran­ti­no).

But Ander­son did­n’t get this far entire­ly with­out high­er edu­ca­tion: let the record show that he did spend two semes­ters at Emer­son Col­lege — a brief peri­od, but one in which he took an Eng­lish class from none oth­er than David Fos­ter Wal­lace. “It was the first teacher I fell in love with,” he told Marc Maron in an inter­view on Maron’s pod­cast WTF . “I’d nev­er found any­body else like that at any of the oth­er schools I’d been to.” Ander­son even called Wal­lace, a pro­fes­sor “gen­er­ous with his phone num­ber,” to dis­cuss “a cou­ple crazy ideas” on a paper he was writ­ing about Don DeLil­lo’s White Noise at “mid­night the night before it was due.”

(At The Paris Review, Dan Piepen­bring has more on the inter­sec­tion of Ander­son­’s life and Wal­lace’s, includ­ing the lat­ter’s opin­ions on the for­mer’s movies: “he was a fan of Boo­gie Nights, which he told a friend was ‘exact­ly the sto­ry’ he’d want­ed to write. He was less jazzed about Mag­no­lia, though, which he found pre­ten­tious, hol­low, and ‘100% grad­school­ish in a bad way.‘”)

Ander­son also enrolled at New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s film school, but rather than stay­ing only two semes­ters, he stayed only two days. In the clip up top, from an inter­view with crit­ic Elvis Mitchell, Ander­son recounts the whole of his NYU expe­ri­ence. His first instruc­tor announced, “If any­one is here to write Ter­mi­na­tor 2, get out.” And so Ander­son thought, “What if I do want to write Ter­mi­na­tor 2? Ter­mi­na­tor 2’s a pret­ty awe­some movie.” (An assess­ment, inci­den­tal­ly, from which Wal­lace’s great­ly dif­fers.) When he turned in a page from a David Mamet script for his first assign­ment and his unsus­pect­ing teacher gave it a C+, Ander­son knew he had to leave. Liv­ing off of the tuition NYU returned to him, he got to work on a short film of his own.

“My film­mak­ing edu­ca­tion con­sist­ed of find­ing out what film­mak­ers I liked were watch­ing, then see­ing those films,” he told the Los Ange­les Times. “I learned the tech­ni­cal stuff from books and mag­a­zines, and with the new tech­nol­o­gy you can watch entire movies accom­pa­nied by audio com­men­tary from the direc­tor. You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school.” He said that just a few years after leav­ing NYU, when he hit it big with Boo­gie Nights — a film whose high­ly enter­tain­ing DVD com­men­tary from Ander­son him­self pro­vides anoth­er few years’ worth of film school at least.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Syl­labus for His 2008 Cre­ative Non­fic­tion Course: Includes Read­ing List & Foot­notes

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

Wern­er Herzog’s Rogue Film School: Apply & Learn the Art of Gueril­la Film­mak­ing & Lock-Pick­ing

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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