The Scholarly Filmmaker: Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson is a great filmmaker with overwhelming ambition. If he weren’t so talented, he’d buckle under the weight of his own desires. Similar to other ambitious directors like Alejandro G. Iñárritu or Tommy Wiseau (if we’re talking worst-case scenarios), Anderson wants to make films that are as good as Citizen Kane. However, unlike these other directors, his egomania doesn’t cripple his work. Instead, it empowers him with the confidence to create bold visions of American cinema that harken back to the glories of the New Hollywood era. In many ways, Anderson is a filmmaking prodigee. He demonstrates that unlimited convince combined with genuine talent can accomplish cinematic greatness.

Paul Thomas Anderson was born in 1970 in Studio City, California to Edwina and Ernie Anderson. Ernie Anderson was a late-night horror movie host on local television and encouraged Anderson to pursue films from a young age. He bought him a Betamax camera, which Anderson used to make short films beginning at age 12. After experimenting with filmmaking throughout his adolescence, Anderson made his first “real” short as a senior in high school. The Dirk Diggler Story (1988), a mockumentary about a male porn star, would serve as inspiration for Anderson’s later breakout film, Boogie Nights. After high school, Anderson attended Emerson College for two semesters and spent two days in the film program at New York University before dropping out.

After deciding post-secondary school was not for him, Anderson worked as a production assistant on television movies, music videos and other small-time gigs. He eventually filmed a 20-minute short called Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), which got into the Sundance Festival Shorts Program. Anderson agreed to expand the short into a feature in order to gain entry into the Sundance Feature Film Program, where he was mentored by Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy).

While in the Sundance Feature Film Program, Anderson made a deal with Rysher Entertainment to produce his feature screenplay. The resulting film, Sydney or Hard Eight (1996), follows a Las Vegas gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) who takes a younger man, John (John C. Reilly), under his wing. Sydney and John eventually get involved with the prostitute Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who complicates their relationship as she pushes John to ignore Sydney’s sage advice. While Sydney is Anderson’s weakest film, it’s a promising debut showcasing his unique blend of interesting character drama and lavish formal style. The film’s success is also a testament to Anderson’s artistic confidence. After completing the film, Rysher Entertainment re-edited the cut without Anderson’s permission. In retaliation, Anderson, who still retained a copy of his director’s cut, submitted his cut to the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in the Un Certain Regard program. Anderson leveraged the film’s festival success to get his original print a theatrical release, where it garnered significant critical attention.

Anderson used the capital of Sydney’s critical success to make his breakthrough picture, Boogie Nights (1997). Boogie Nights follows an up-and-coming pornstar, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), during the Golden Age of porn in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Inspired by the films of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, Boogie Nights has a large ensemble cast and follows multiple characters simultaneously. Although Diggler serves as the focal point of the film’s drama, Anderson evenly divides screen time between his many interesting characters, including Burt Reynold’s porn director, Julianne Moore’s starlet, William H. Macy’s pathetic assistant director, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boom operator. The film’s impressive cast also boasts John H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Philip Baker Hall, and Luis Guzmán among others.

Much of the pleasure of Boogie Nights is in its decadence. It’s attention to period detail, all bell-bottoms and disco collars, is ravishing, as is the film’s infectious soundtrack sampling some of the best tunes from the late seventies and early eighties. Like with Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Boogie Nights demonstrates the pleasures of its characters’ lives, along with its pitfalls. Also like Goodfellas, Boogie Nights is full of astonishing camera work.

As if hoping to top Scorsese’s famous Copacabana steadicam shot in Goodfellas, Anderson opens the film with a complicated crane shot to steadicam that starts on the marquee of a lavish nightclub and ends in the bathroom inside, introducing many of the film’s characters along the way. The opening shot is brilliant not only for its technical audacity, but also for demonstrating what kind of film will follow. The shot’s multi-layered focus shows that the film’s interest lies in more than one character. Its lavish set decoration and attention to period detail demonstrates the time period as well as the film’s focus on pleasure. And the formal prowess of the shot indicates to viewers that this is a film where the filmmaking doesn’t take a backseat to the narrative. They work hand-in-hand and share focus.

However, Boogie Nights is more than technical flash. While highly stylish, the film’s deep sympathy for its characters is its greatest asset. Like Altman, Anderson doesn’t favour one of his characters over the others, nor does he judge them. He invests in them, which makes their failures all the more painful, and their minor triumphs genuinely ebullient. Boogie Nights is a deeply entertaining film, but it’s also a profound look at desperation and the limits of family. Boogie Nights was a critical and commercial success, garnering Anderson his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights is even more ambitious than its predecessor. Arguably, it pushes his cinematic ambition to the edge of breaking point. After the success of Boogie Nights, New Line Cinema gave Anderson carte blanche for his next feature. The result was Magnolia (1999), a drama following several isolated individuals suffering heartbreak and loneliness in the San Fernando Valley. The film starred his usual performers Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Luis Guzmán, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore, as well as Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in key roles. While Magnolia is visually enchanting and dramatically interesting, its borderline-convoluted plot and inclusion of magic realism push the boundaries of narrative believability. If one were to label Anderson as pretentious, Magnolia would be the chief exhibit.

However, the film has many virtues, chiefly Tom Cruise’s riveting performance as a pickup artist self-help guru. The filmmaking is also superb. As if unsatisfied by one-upping Scorsese Goodfellas steadicam shot, Magnolia seeks to upstage Boogie Nights. One steadicam shot follows characters as they enter a building and pass down the hallway, and then switches to follow new characters as they pass the first set. While the shot arguably distracts from the narrative of the scene, its naked ambition is impressive in and of itself. Like Boogie Nights before it, Magnolia garnered three Academy Award nominations, including another Best Original Screenplay nod for Anderson.

In 2002, Anderson moved away from ensemble dramas with Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Punch-Drunk Love is a dramatic romance starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Personally a fan of Sandler’s comedies, Anderson used his artistic reputation to secure Sandler for the only dramatic role of his career. It’s no surprise, then, that Punch-Drunk Love contains Sandler’s best performance. Cunningly attuned to Sandler’s man-child personality, Punch-Drunk Love channeles Sandler’s immaturity and anger into an ode to loneliness and masculine disaffection. While Punch-Drunk Love is lesser Anderson, it’s a fine film full of unusual pleasures and surprsing complexity. It’s also a film with its share of passionate defenders who’ll gladly and persuasively argue it to be Anderson’s best film.

However, the pleasure of being Anderson’s best film belongs to his follow-up, the mammoth There Will Be Blood (2007). It’s his masterpiece. Based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, There Will Be Blood follows the tyrannical energy tycoon, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), in the early twentieth century as he builds an oil empire and achieves domination over a small southwestern town. While Boogie Nights and Magnolia saw Anderson making films in the styles of Scorsese and Altman, There Will Be Blood is a film that’s distinctly Andersonian. It marks the moment he came into his own as a filmmaker, no longer copying the masters, but instead matching them, and in many ways, surpassing them.

If Boogie Nights and Magnolia were the works of a confident, talented young turk, There Will Be Blood shows the steady hand of a master. Anderson’s confidence is evident in the film’s quiet approach to exposition and narrative. For instance, the opening of the film is virtually free of dialogue. Instead of building a conventional introduction, Anderson lets his images and Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score tell the story of Plainview’s transition from poor silver miner to oil magnate. The film as a whole is filled with a similar visual clarity and confidence. A derrick fire late in the second act of the film is one of twenty-first century cinema’s greatest moments. Anderson uses his famous steadicam shots to follow Plainview and his men as they race to put out an oil fire that is consuming his business and threatening the life of his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). Anderson cuts out most of the soundtrack during the initial moments, allowing Jonny Greenwood’s minimal drum score to propel the scene.

Perhaps There Will Be Blood is Anderson’s best work because it examines an ambition that matches his own. He explores his own artistic hubris in the work of examining Plainview’s misanthropy and capitalistic fervour. The film is also remarkable for Daniel Day-Lewis’s towering performance at its centre, which belongs in the pantheon of cinema acting. There Will Be Blood won Oscars for Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert Elswit, while garnering Anderson nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.

It took Anderson another five years to follow up There Will Be Blood. That follow-up was The Master (2012), which initially began life as a thinly-veiled take on the birth of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology before growing into something more fictional and dramatically potent. The Master follows animalistic former seaman, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), as he takes up with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a religious cult in the early 1950s.

The Master is an intimate drama filmed on a grand scale. Anderson chose to shoot the film in 65mm, which gives each shot an incredible richness and warm palette. However, instead of filling the film with wide vistas, Anderson favours close-ups, focusing on the faces of Phoenix and Hoffman as they hold intensely personal conversations. The standout scene in the film is Freddie’s “processing,” in which Lancaster Dodd asks him a series of questions during which Freddie cannot blink. Anderson shoots the scene in close-up, holding on Phoenix’s face for much of the scene. As the scene develops, Anderson holds in close-up and the sight of Phoenix straining to keep his eyes from blinking while answering Hoffman’s repetitive questions becomes excruciating and tense. However, the intensity and intimacy of the scene has a purpose.

For one, the 65mm lets us see every detail on Phoenix’s face. More importantly, it lets us search his performance for any subconscious or inadvertent dishonesty in much the same way Dodd searches Freddie for dishonesty. And as Dodd is satisfied with Freddie at the end of the scene, so is the audience satisfied with Phoenix and his remarkable performance. The younger Paul Thomas Anderson would have never relinquished control of this scene, but the older, wiser, more quietly confident Anderson trusts Phoenix to carry the entirety of it. As the entire scene is about Freddie’s capacity for brutal, unmotivated honesty, the decision to let the actors carry it was the right one. The stationary close-up was the right shot. The Master is not the work of a young filmmaker. Instead, it shows the patience and control of a master. It’s another testament to Anderson’s maturity and talent as a filmmaker.

In 2014, Anderson adapted Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice for the big screen, becoming the first filmmaker to ever adapt Pynchon’s work. The film is a bizarre one, full of rambling dialogue, endless narrative detours, and confusingly dense narrative devices. In short, it’s a perfect adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, which uses a shaggy dog detective story to demonstrate the moral failings of the 1970s and the growing conspiratorial nature of American democracy.

Inherent Vice is a rush, both formally and comically. It follows Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello, a stoner detective living on the beach in LA County in the early 1970s, as he investigates the disappearance of his old girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). The film deliberately approximates the feeling of being high, with scenes following characters down odd digressions or into drug-induced adventures. The mystery is beside-the-point. Instead, what’s important is the atmosphere, which is overwhelmingly paranoid. Inherent Vice is a divisive film, as its disinterest in its own narrative throws many viewers off. However, viewers who can attune to the film’s wavelength will be greatly rewarded. It’s a provocative film, full of formal daring and hilarious moments of absurdity. It’s unlike anything else Anderson has made, even if it showcases his typical control over character and camera movement.

Paul Thomas Anderson shows no signs of artistic stagnation. In 2015 he made a short documentary detailing the recording of Junun, a musical collaboration between Jonny Greenwood and famed Israeli composer and poet, Shye Ben Tzur. In 2016, he filmed a music video for Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” off their most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool. Each successive film of his grows more daring and more assured. The brazen ambition of Sydney and Boogie Nights has turned into the patient confidence of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Seemingly through sheer force of will, Anderson has transformed himself from a hungry wunderkind into an old master, even though he’s only 46 years old. If Anderson can continue to grow with each film he makes, there’s no doubt he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest filmmakers America ever produced. He’s living proof that great ambition can produce great art.

Inside The Chaos with Toronto Youth Shorts

I believe that talent can be found in all walks of life. Finely-tuned, highly polished talent shines in the highest circle of celebrated academia. Expansive, collaborative talent grows in pockets in of urban areas, or blossoms in the suburbia. Yet still, gritty, raw, unchecked talent can be witnessed at the edges of every creative category of our world. Talent is does not discriminate; it transcends race, gender or age.

I come to you today to endorse a film festival that showcases one of these types of Talent- the talent of youth. The Toronto Youth Shorts Festival is a film festival that exclusively showcases the  work of young local filmmakers.

This year 44 different works will be showcased in 4 specific divisions. Each short created by a young local filmmaker with a variety of different styles, voices and messages.

Why should you attend this screening? I was able to get in touch with the lovely Festival Director, Henry Wong, who gave a keen insight to the perks of this unique catalyst of artistic expression.

  1. Important Voices
    Over 50% of the submissions this year are Female directors, a firm reason to support the festival, as female directors are still a vast minority in the industry. And on the topic of diversity, a large portion of the films are created by filmmakers that identify as a visible minority.
  2. Topics of Interest
    The topics of this year range from humor to drama,  covering media representation, human rights, LGTB, disabilities, women’s issues, immigration and sexual assault, just to name a few. So this is a chance to explore hot social and political topics that are current and relevant to our present lives- while also examining from from the perspective lenses of Youth.
  3. Locality
    Not only are these local filmmakers, they are filming  the amazing city of Toronto, AS TORONTO- not masking it as Chicago or New York. Better yet, many films cover local stories- such as the Bowmanville Zoo Scandal and Tiny Tom Doughnuts. So check it out to see the real backbone and heart beat of your own backyard.Now For the Nitty-Gritty Details
    The Toronto Youth Shorts Festival will have its Opening Presentation on August 5. at SickKids
    All other screenings on August 6 at Innis Town Hall
    Toronto Youth Shorts on Twitter
    Toronto Youth Shorts on Facebook
    Toronto Youth Shorts Festival Line Up
    Toronto Youth Shorts Website and Ticket PurchaseAnd of the utmost importance, check out there amazing trailer!
    YouTube Preview Image

Inside The Chaos: An Interview with Heather Webb of WIFT

There are simply not enough good things I can say about WIFT (Women In Film and Television). Back in 2013 I was gifted tickets to the WIFT Crystal Awards. Nervous, new, and knowing nobody, I navigated my way through the event and found myself welcomed with open arms. I left the 2013 Crystal Awards determined one day to be part of the community. Today, I am exceptionally proud to call myself a member of this amazing organization built on promoting and advancing the careers and skills of Women in the film and television industry.

After joining WIFT and attending several mixers and events, I made contact with  Executive Director Heather Webb, who kindly agreed to an interview  with me, to give an introduction and overview to all things WIFT.  It was an absolute pleasure to learn more about the community and it is a delight to share it with you all today.

I am always a supporter of communities such as WIFT.  Where the active goal is to enrich and support the members of that make their living in the world of Film and Television. Regardless of personal identification, WIFT has something to offer everyone! Check it out to see how it can benefit you!

1) How was WIFT founded in Toronto, and Why? 

WIFT-Toronto was founded in 1984 by a group of Toronto-based female filmmakers who saw an urgent need for a female-focused support network in what I can only imagine was an even more male-dominated industry at that time. It was modelled on Women in Film Los Angeles which is credited as being the first WIFT organization that started in 1973. WIFT-Toronto has evolved and grown over the past 32 years and is still as relevant as when it was founded; as lack of gender parity and diversity in the screen-based industry is still a huge problem that needs to be addressed world-wide.

2) Heather, tell me about yourself, your position at WIFT, how long you’ve been there, and how you got involved?

I joined WIFT-Toronto (WIFT-T) as Executive Director in 2011 (just over 5 years ago). As ED, I work closely with WIFT-T’s volunteer Board of Directors to develop and implement strategic priorities. I am also responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of both WIFT-T and the Foundation for WIFT-T (a charitable non-profit). I have been working in the arts and culture sector for over 20 years, including 15 years (cumulative) as the Executive Director of three non-profit organizations. My background is the visual arts, specifically contemporary Canadian art, and coming to WIFT-T was a sector change which was scary at first as I was out of my comfort zone somewhat but everyone was great in sharing their knowledge about the screen-based industry with me and I have learned a lot by attending WIFT-T programs and learning alongside our members. It has been a great experience.

3) What Makes Toronto’s WIFT different from Other WIFT sectors in other areas

There are approximately 45 WIFT organizations world-wide. WIFT-Toronto is one of five in Canada and is the largest. We all share the same mandate but offer different support and programs to our respective memberships. We offer a discounted dual membership for members from other WIFT’s so they can build networks within our Toronto-based community and vice-versa.

4) What sources of support does WIFT offer it’s members Career Wise? At What levels? 

At WIFT-T we invest in people by focusing on career development; providing our members with opportunities to Connect, Learn, and Advance. This includes access to professional and career development programs, mentorships, networking, and promotion of achievements. Our professional and career development offerings range from 1.5 hour presentations/panel discussions (free to members) to five-month programs affiliated with post-secondary institutions. All our programs are geared to specific career stages, we call them cohorts, that range from Emerging (0-5 years industry experience) to Established (20+ years industry experience). This is what is so exciting about WIFT-T; we are an organization that has something to offer you at every stage in your career.

5) Talk to me about the mentorships at WIFT and how they assist those developing their careers? 

We believe in the power of mentorship. Every year, WIFT-T connects industry leaders with talented female professionals in order to expand their knowledge and their network. In 2015, we awarded five incredible WIFT-T members with this opportunity. Our mentorships provide women with behind-the-scene access at companies where they get to learn the ins-and-outs specific to that company and meet with company executives. Last year we had mentorships related to broadcasting, production management/equipment, post-production, directing and gaming.

6) Tell me about the Networking and Career Seminars at WIFT. 

Relationships are the foundation upon which all careers exist. From day one WIFT-T members are immersed in opportunities to expand and deepen their networks, not to mention develop lasting friendships. Every program, event, and activity enables members to meet new people in a welcoming and supportive environment. In addition, we offer our members several dedicated networking mixers throughout the year.What makes WIFT-T’s community so dynamic is that it reflects a cross-section of the industry with members from every aspect of the industry and at every stage in their career development.

7) What are some of the best WIFT Events?

This is a difficult question to answer as everything we do has value, relevance and impact. The annual Crystal Award Gala, however, is a favourite of mine because it celebrates and promotes the achievements of women leaders, and men who support women, who have been nominated and selected by their peers. It is always such an inspirational day and it underscores that WIFT-T is about supporting and promoting women at every stage of their careers as we also present some of our Mentorship Awards on stage; so you have the women who have trailblazer alongside the women who will benefit from those role models and who will, in time, become the next generation of leaders and hopefully continue to play it forward for future women.

I also love our annual WIFT-T Showcase that features a screening of short format work created by our Members as selected by a committee of WIFT-T Members. It is a fun event by Members for Members.

8) Males can be members of WIFT as well, correct? 

Yes, WIFT-T’s dynamic community of members includes both women and men. There are a number of reasons why WIFT-T encourages the participation of men in our membership and programs the least of which is in an industry where “who you know makes a difference” having men participate in WIFT-T helps build collegial and business relationships amongst men and women in a supportive environment. The old refrain “there are no women…(fill in the blank—directors, screenwriters, DOP’s) to hire” gets busted when you walk into any WIFT-T program or event. They are there and they are talented and you will want to hire/work with them. WIFT-T’s community is a gold-mine for talent.

9) Tell me about volunteer opportunities at WIFT, and tell me about options for memberships for Students?

There are a variety of ways to be involved with and/or support WIFT-T. We have various membership categories including a very affordable student membership which is a great way for post-secondary students to get a head start on their careers and begin to build a valuable network. We rely on dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers all year round from helping with our programs and events, participating on committees (Showcase Selection, Membership, Fundraising, etc. ), to serving on our Board of Directors. We also have practicum placements each semester for post-secondary students who are enrolled in programs that offer internships in return for course credits.

10) Are their career opportunities at WIFT? 

Not at the moment. We are a small team of four full-time and 1 part-time staff. However, we publicize employment opportunities and there are lots of volunteer opportunities as mentioned earlier.

11) Anything other exciting things happening at WIFT right now?

Sign up for our bi-weekly digital newsletter on our website ( if you are interested in hearing more. Also, check out our 2015 Annual Review (released in May) for a great insight into WIFT-T and the impact we have on the careers of women:

If you don’t think a membership is for you but you value the support that WIFT-T provides to women’s advancement please consider donating to the Foundation for WIFT-T. The Foundation raises much-needed funds to help WIFT-T provide its high-quality professional programs and provide women access to those programs through bursaries. You can donate here:

12) What is something in WIFT you are most excited for the upcoming months?

Our Corus Media Management Accelerator Program. The inaugural program ran last year and is the newest program in our trio of post-secondary affiliated certificate programs. We had an amazing first cohort last year and I can’t wait for the second group to go through this important program. We have partnered with the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, to providing emerging professionals with access to key business fundamentals that will set them up for success as future leaders.

Wonderful Filmies, TV fans, Writers, Cinema-buffs and Industry-professionals alike- WIFT has a rich world full of opportunity. It is a very fertile ground to grow your professional roots. Check it out because, as I am fond of saying, to make it in this industry isn’t as hard as we think it is- we simply have to show up and do what we love.