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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Two Shorts: A Way to Express and Experiment

Like many of his fellow generation X directors, Paul Thomas Anderson kick-started his career making short films. Despite attending film school at New York University, PTA dropped out after two days stating that he found the study of film to be like “homework or a chore” and instead placed his focus, money and attention into creating a short film. As PTA stated, his experience filmmaking was far more rewarding than gaining an academic education at college.

He scrapped enough money to shot his short film Cigarettes and Coffee (1993) which was selected for the Sundance film festival. However this was not PTA’s first short. In 1988, he had shot The Dirk Diggler Story a few years before back in 1988. Both Cigarettes and Coffee and The Dirk Diggler Story are interesting films to study as they are like test runs for PTA’s features Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997).  By examining both of these films we can see the makings of the auteur and begin to see the foundations that make up his filmography and his distinct approach to film-making.

The Dirk Diggler Story is shot as a mockumentary in a similar fashion to This is Spinal Tap, (a film which young PTA was obsessed with) and follows the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, a well-endowed male porn star. The character of Dirk was modeled on real life American porn actor John Holmes and reflects Anderson’s obsession with the adult entertainment industry. Even though the film is only 32 minutes long, we can already see themes and concepts that Anderson keeps returning to throughout his work, including the idea of the surrogate family, and an identity crisis that the main character endures throughout the narrative. The main difference between The Dirk Diggler Story and Boogie Nights is the mockumentary versus narratives styles in the former and latter films, it almost seems that by playing around with the format of the short Anderson could get that mockumentary idea out of his head and concentrate on the bigger picture.

What stands out in The Dirk Diggler Story, is how (unknown) actor Michael Stein manages to make the character of Dirk seem naive and immature, he’s a fish out of water, lost in the chaos of the world that surrounds him. Interestingly enough, Mark Wahlberg’s performance of Dirk captures this same aspect of the character as well in Boogie Nights. Dirk isn’t the only character to be introduced in this short, we are also introduce to Reed Rothchild (Eddie Delcore), Rothchild is played by John C. Reilly in Boogie Nights. Anderson’s short hints at a possible relationship between Dirk and Rothchild. Anderson often repeats the theme of friendship borderline relationship between two male characters with the most obvious example being seen in The Master (2012).

Anderson’s second short, Cigarettes and Coffee shows his interest in the concept of the multi-strand narrative. The film tells the story of five people’s lives all connected through a $20 bill which reflects Anderson’s admiration for the filmmaker Robert Altman who often used multi strand narratives within his films (Nashville being the most well known). The film’s inception came into being when Anderson met Philip Baker Hall as a production assistant on a PBS movie. Anderson told Hall about his short script that he believed Hall would be prefect for as one of the characters. Hall gave the kid a chance, read the script and agreed to come on board.

The film’s budget was $20,000 financed with money Anderson had won gambling, his girlfriend’s credit card, and $10,000 his dad set aside for college. His friend, Shane Conrad, had connections at Panavision and was able to borrow a Panavision camera for one week-end (which would normally cost $6,000). Anderson hired a professional cinematographer, rented a Fisher camera dolly, and used his network to cast professional actors Miguel Ferrer, Scott Coffey, and Kirk Baltz. Producer Wendy Weidman rented a cheap diner in the Gorman Pass for the shoot which helps create the aesthetic rundown look to the film’s mise-en-scene. Although, when the film began shooting things were “chaotic” since the crew hadn’t worked together before, there wasn’t a strong producer or cinematographer. The whole shooting process showed that Anderson still had a lot to learn.

However his hard work paid off and the short became a sensation on the short film festival circuit and was accepted to the 1993 Sundance Festival Shorts Program which was quite an achievement for the young film-maker who dropped out of college. After it was screened at the program, Anderson was invited to the 1994 Sundance film-makers’ laboratory to develop a feature film. Anderson expanded the principal idea of the short into his first feature film Hard Eight (1996).

Both shorts are available on YouTube, although sadly the quality is not that great thanks to the deterioration of early 90s videotape cassettes. However you should seek them out if you’re a PTA fan and we can all admire the hard work and effort that went into these two films. PTA proves that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know and sometimes learning on the job is the best education!


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