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Sydney / Hard Eight: The Blueprint of a Filmmaking Master

American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has come a long way. And he made an impactful journey into the world of feature films from the start. Solid, exceptional, extraordinary films, one after the other. Some we had to wait longer for than others. Each one seemingly different from the last. Yet Anderson has managed to project a revolving, complex bunch of motion pictures, dedicating space for varied periods, underlying political and social themes, even Biblical. Compelling music cues, and composer collaborations. An eye for camera motion and gravity. Fresh takes on techniques and structures from filmmaking greats, for which Anderson wholeheartedly shines a beacon on throughout his creativity.

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Anderson has just received only his second Oscar nomination as Best Director for “costume” drama Phantom Thread. A title which still kind of eludes the writer-director, and was late to the awards race party. Before that he adapted Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, a colorful, both figuratively and physically, trippy crime flick. Well, sort of. Joaquin Phoenix also appeared in the previous picture written and directed by Anderson, The Master, joining co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams as Oscar nominees. The filmmaker was exploring an even deeper exposure of his darker side on the back of There Will Be Blood. Both films tackled subjects perhaps not on the surface truly accessible to the audience – but considered masterpieces from the outset nonetheless.

There was a five year gap for Anderson between the Upton Sinclair adaptation and his 2002 “romance” Punch-Drunk Love. Scouting Adam Sandler in an attempt to capture his variety as a performer, Anderson (a genuine fan of Sandler’s comedy work) got a terrific performance out of him. It was a small film, but had many of the PTA hallmarks we already felt comfortable with. Magnolia was intended as a small picture too, and we all know how that turned out. Anderson said at the time this would be the best film he would ever make. Likewise, Boogie Nights exploded across the film universe in 1997, a bona fide hit, when it seemed many were doubting any form of success when word got out what Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature would be about.

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His debut, Hard Eight, aka Sydney, was shot in just 28 days. Transforming his 1993 short film, Cigarettes & Coffee, which premiered at Sundance, Paul Thomas Anderson set out a kind of road map of where his illustrious career would eventually go. The studio behind Hard Eight insisted he change the title (from Anderson’s much preferred Sydney), they petty much butchered it in the editing room, and a seemingly endless battle ensued. PTA got his edit once the ordeal died down, but the title remained. Let’s have a quick look at eight (right, right?) elements of Hard Eight that Paul Thomas Anderson followed through to much of his brilliant work afterwards:

FAMILIAR CAST

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut, Hard Eight, he nailed Philip Baker Hall, who was it turns out perfect for Sydney. His little gambling apprentice would be John C. Reilly. And having discovered was so impressive at playing an asshole in Scent of a Woman, PTA hired Philip Seymour Hoffman too in a small role. In case you missed her, Melora Walters also plays a very brief part towards the end.

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All four performers would play key parts in Anderson’s next two films as well. They would portray video producer, porn guy, porn film assistant, and porn girl respectively in Boogie Nights. Baker Hall would play Walters’ estranged father in Magnolia, while she would be wooed by lonely cop Reilly. And Hoffman would nurse another dying father, before working with the director again in Punch-Drunk Love and The Master. Ironically, John C. Reilly did not continue his lucky streak with Anderson for Punch-Drunk Love in 2002 – the year he appeared in 3 Best Picture nominees.

More recently, male leads Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, Inherent Vice) and Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread) have agreed to wok with the filmmaker again. A couple more? Alfred Molina, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, and Luis Guzmán all appeared in Boogie Nights and Magnolia – Guzmán would also play a key role in Punch-Drunk Love. If you’re reading, Paul, how about a reunion?

THE WHIP-PANNING CAMERA

Perfectly captured in the casino scenes in Hard Eight, one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s trademarks would be the whip-pan and drift zooms. In fact, his camera rarely stops moving. The studio of his debut movie did not make things easy for Anderson, cutting some of his dolly shots making them a bitch to edit. But also taking away from the creative impulse of the now proven filmmaker.

The rapid panning movements are used famously in some of Martin Scorsese’s work – I mean, watch Goodfellas and Boogie Nights as a terrific tracking shots double bill. Robert Elswit was the cinematographer / director of photography behind all but two of Anderson’s films. Mihai Malaimare Jr. would work wonders on The Master, and perhaps the director himself in the uncredited Phantom Thread.

As well as Boogie Nights, PTA executed the whip-pan numerous times in Magnolia and then Punch-Drunk Love to astonishing results. The second half of his filmography, as we discover, has certainly lowered in pace, but certainly not quality.

LITERAL EXTERIOR WALLS

The opening scene of Hard Eight has Sydney approach John, who is sitting against a wall outside the diner they would eventually start their journey together. The sparse outdoor wall is something that appears a number of times in Anderson’s films. Not an essential ingredient, but certainly a memorable part of the visual world.

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In Boogie Nights there are numerous wide shots of exteriors – the club, the donut place, record store et al. The wide walls taking up the majority of the frame would also feature in Magnolia – Stanley on his way to the show, outside Solomon’s, Donnie and Jim following the frog fall, and so on.

Later, in his more period films, this would not be as common. As stated above, the cinematography styles would evolve with the more diverse story themes and settings thereafter. The clearest example of the building exteriors is Punch-Drunk Love, the camera seems magnetized by them.

STATIC EXISTENCE INTERRUPTED

So Sydney approaches the luckless John, and is quick offer a way out of his predicament. Wanting to somehow find $6,000 to pay for his mother’s funeral, the understandably skeptical John agrees to drive off with Sydney to learn the gambling trade.

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Many of Anderson’s characters that are going nowhere in whatever form (emotional, financial etc) conform to the change in lifestyle in hope for much better things. Eddie wants to be a big, bright, shining star in Boogie Nights; in Punch-Drunk Love, Barry, cautious as he is, wants to fall in love; and in the realm of love, Doc (Inherent Vice) is forced to get off his couch to help an old flame.

On the flip side, you’ll find a heavy resistance to have their lives invaded, whether it eventually happens or not. Frank TJ Mackey (Magnolia) is forced to not only step out of his sex guru persona, but also face the lies he has told that his father was dead. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview intervenes on the calm lives on the Sunday family, which soon turns back on him as he openly admits the abandonment of “his child”. There is a massive interruption for the well-routined Reynolds Woodcock, of course, in Phantom Thread, when he meets and falls for the straight-laced Alma.

MISERY LOVES COMPANY

Having established a flourish of gambling luck on his own in Hard Eight, John makes contact with Sydney once again when in a frantic situation. He has eloped with cocktail waitress, and sometimes prostitute, Clementine, held and beaten a hostage who refused to pay for services rendered, but also formed a friendship with good-for-nothing Jimmy – who knows more than John ought to.

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See just about everyone in Magnolia, be it fatal illnesses, dark family secrets, parental pressures, drug reliance. And there’s falling into the wrong crowd aplenty in There Will Be Blood and The Master – a complete aside from the religious tones Anderson employs in his stories I might add.

FATHER FIGURE

Sydney not only mentors John, assists in his meeting Clementine, but also bails them both out of a horrible situation – thus sending them off to their honeymoon escape. Sydney cleans up their bloody mess, only to be confronted by Jimmy who threatens to tell John how Sydney killed his father unless he pays him $10,000.

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Father figures were especially rife in the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson. Unhappy with his own troubled parents, Eddie takes off and is taken under the wing of a porn filmmaker in Boogie Nights. Of course. Magnolia has daddy issues all over the place – and not in a particularly glowing light as it turns out. Plainview (There Will Be Blood) raises a child that is not his for a while, but being the selfish, greedy bastard that he is, he ought to have just left him in the basket as a baby. And then The Master, yet another take on the trust of a surrogate, older figure of authority.

COMPELLING CHARACTERS DIFFICULT TO LIKE

I remember watching Hard Eight and thinking of the main character Sydney, and the general low-key tone of the film at that stage, that he might actually be a good guy. I mean, Philip Baker Hall is compelling throughout, no doubt about that. But the writer’s trick is to pull that rug of impression from under you. A finely tuned character, memorable, sure, but turns out he is a shifty piece of work.

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Frank TJ Mackey is an obnoxious asshole in Magnolia, but given his outlandish expression, Anderson’s brilliant dialogue, as well as that performance from Tom Cruise, you can’t take your eye off him. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays another asshole in Punch-Drunk Love. Totally watchable, and quotable. Daniel Plainview, treacherous, greedy, heartless, ruthless in There Will Be Blood. But what a presence. The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread all have socially awkward, male central characters, acquired tastes you might say, but big and bold enough to draw your attention – and keep it.

THERE WILL BE MUSIC

The track playing (or that you have paused) is Clementine’s Loop by Jon Brion and Michael Penn. The haunting piece is from the scene in Hard Eight when Clementine thinks Sydney want to sleep with her, but in fact he wants to push John in her direction. It is used with chilling effect in Boogie Nights during the grim montage sequence in the final act. Anderson loved the atmospheric music so much he also sneaked it into the prologue of Magnolia. How many of you spotted that?

Michael Penn would go on to score Boogie Nights. Jon Brion, who was also Aimee Mann’s producer, would turn out an immense score for Magnolia. Anderson and Mann were friends, and his writing of Magnolia was heavily influenced by many of the songs on her upcoming album Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo. A few of those songs occupy the soundtrack. Brion meanwhile would go on to score Punch-Drunk Love, the last collaboration between the musician and the filmmaker before Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood took over.

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