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 Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, The 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.
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.