Paul Thomas Anderson wasn't even born when the 1970s began. Yet he's written and directed a 1970s epic about the California porn industry, "Boogie Nights," that is drawn partly from his own experiences growing up in the San Fernando Valley.
"I have strong and distinctive memories of the Valley, from my pre-adolescence and adolescence," said the 27-year-old filmmaker by phone from New York, where the picture played the New York Film Festival. It opens today at the Neptune and Lewis & Clark theaters and moves into 2,000 theaters Oct. 31.
"The Van Nuys industrial section had large warehouses, with people walking in and out of them who were not there to pour concrete," he said.
"I remember I was about 10 or 11, when across the street from my grandmother's house appeared this van and lights, with a lot of shady-looking people hanging around." He even recalls someone saying "They're shooting a porno movie over there."
Anderson soon discovered other kinds of movies, and he began to put together a story drawn from "real-life porn stuff, mixed in with legit actors and my imagination." By the time he was 17, he had already directed a half-hour video forerunner of "Boogie Nights," called "The Dirk Diggler Story."
"It was very close to the story you see in the movie, but it just centered on Dirk. When I really sat down to write it as it is now, in 1993, I ended up with about 300 pages of text. It was not really a movie yet."
While shooting and editing his first feature, "Hard Eight," he finished the bulk of the rewrite, turning "Boogie Nights" into a story so filled with characters and incidents that it would eventually take 2 1/2 hours to tell. Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle and other prominent actors signed on.
"I saw the Valley the way David Lean saw the desert in `Lawrence of Arabia,' " said Anderson. "It had to be an ensemble piece, an epic. I wanted to work with 80 different actors, and all these great actors just responded to the script. It was really clear in the script what the movie was. There was no confusion."
Nevertheless, "Boogie Nights" has drawn criticism, even from some admirers who claim its creator is too young to understand the 1970s.
"Anderson has a view of the era and the hard-core porn business that could make sense only to someone who wasn't there to live it," claims Robert Hofler, a former Penthouse magazine editor writing in The Advocate. "It's amazing how entertaining a film can be and still espouse so much anachronistic nonsense."
"He doesn't even know me," said Anderson. "That's just silly. Does that mean (Martin) Scorsese can't make `The Age of Innocence' because he didn't grow up in the 19th century?"
Although "Boogie Nights" is frank enough to earn an "R" rating for its simulated sex scenes (Anderson barely escaped the dreaded "NC-17" after a four-month tug-of-war with the ratings board), it's not primarily about pornography. Like Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," it's the story of a group of marginally talented misfits, operating on the fringes of the movie industry, who form a family that's based largely on their bonding as ambitious outcasts.
The father figure is porn director Jack Horner, played by Reynolds, who wasn't Anderson's first choice. He talked to Warren Beatty and considered Jack Nicholson and Sydney Pollack before making his final selection. He decided Reynolds would best bring out Horner's longing to create something better.
"I do see a certain amount of talent in Jack's work, though I respond more to the hope and the effort," said Anderson. "That `e' for effort means a lot. I certainly see his talent for spotting talent, and I think I would like Jack Horner movies."
For the role of Dirk Diggler, the inexhaustible young man who becomes a porn legend under Horner's guidance, Anderson originally wanted Leonardo DiCaprio. But DiCaprio suggested his co-star in "The Basketball Diaries," Mark Wahlberg, who accepted the role because he saw aspects of his own up-and-down career in this character.
Julianne Moore was able to fit the role of porn star "Amber Waves" into her busy schedule (she followed it with "The Lost World: Jurassic Park"), and Anderson brought two of his "Hard Eight" actors, Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly, on board. The transition from the small-scale "Hard Eight" to the multilevel "Boogie Nights" wasn't easy.
"I shot my first movie in 28 days," said Anderson. "This one took 62-63 days, and every day was packed solid. I actually felt I had more breathing room with the 28-day schedule."
Although he talks about resting now, Anderson makes it sound like a short break before a necessary return to work: "I haven't decided what to do next. I'll know in the next two or three weeks. I do have the luxury that I write my own stuff, and I can rush if I want to. I know I gotta do it very, very soon."