Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Inherent Vice and now Licorice Pizza, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson loves the San Fernando Valley. He also loves the 1970s — when Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice and Licorice Pizza are set. That’s natural, since he grew up there at that time, but there was a moment where he asked himself, “Are you really going to make another film in Los Angeles in the seventies again?”
“Then you ignore that voice, and you swat it away like a fly,” he told Variety. “Comfort. Joy. I like the way [the Valley] looks. I like the way it tastes and smells. I don’t know beyond I love it.”
His latest film is a comic coming-of-age love story starring relatively unknown actors Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman; this is the film debut for the co-stars. It’s set during 1973 amid great political change, shifts in popular culture, and a gas crisis, and has a soundtrack featuring songs by David Bowie, The Doors, Paul McCartney and Wings, Sonny & Cher, Chuck Berry, Blood Sweat and Tears, and others.
It’s a dramatic change of pace from much of Anderson’s other work, such as the avarice and paranoia depicted in There Will Be Blood and The Master, or the Gothic romance at the center of Phantom Thread.
“This story just emerged,” says Anderson. “I love the way it unfolds. You meet these two people. You have them fall in love and get to see their relationship blossom, and there are various episodes that challenge them in different ways. I didn’t overdesign it. I just got lucky.”
Vanity Fair’s Yohana Desta describes the film as “an endearing, risqué tale about Gary, a 15-year-old boy (Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana, a 25-year-old woman (Haim) who form an immediate, curious bond that borders on an inappropriate romance.
“Gary’s charm and hustle, based on the real-life adventures of producer Gary Goetzman, a former child actor, is a fine match for Alana’s wry tongue and a lifestyle so aimless that she hangs out with teenage boys all the time. The movie is jovial and sun-drenched, so much so that Anderson didn’t want to release it in the dead of winter.”
Anderson tells Desta the role plays to a lot of Hoffman’s strengths. “Cooper’s very social, he’s very charming, he’s very easy,” he says. “But there’s a certain moment where it really stops. What’s interesting is when kids have one foot in adulthood and another foot in adolescence. They’re so fucking vulnerable. They’re trying all these coats on for size to see what the real world is like, and that’s the character that he plays. It was very hard to find another actor who was maybe a child actor who had some experience who wasn’t anything but just precocious and irritating. Maybe many of them have been trained by their parents to try to get a role on a television show, or to do sitcom acting, which is much more theatrical — and which has a place, but it would not have fit right in this story.”
READ MORE: Paul Thomas Anderson on Inspiration: “The Rainbow Is Right in Your Living Room, Idiot!” (Vanity Fair)
“I’ve seen Alana’s ferociousness. She may look like a Jewish girl from the Valley, but she’s sort of a ‘30s throwback, fast-talking, very funny, very sharp. You do not want to challenge her in a fight with words, because she will win,” he said.
“MGM trusted my track record,” adds Anderson. “I wouldn’t want to think about having to convince another actress to not wear makeup and drop that level of vanity that seems to surround a lot of young actresses. It takes somebody with some guts to say, “It’s impossible to justify wearing makeup in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, therefore I won’t do it.” It sounds like not that big a deal, but it’s a big deal for a lot of people.”
Punchy, ballsy, broad-shouldered despite her slightness, Haim seems a fitting woman to be Anderson’s first female lead, says Catherine Shoard in The Guardian’s interview with Haim and Anderson. “What is strange is that Anderson himself, for a father of four who has specialized in movies about masculinity, seems so feminine,” she adds. “Yet his film is less simple when it comes to gender. The three sisters, for instance, are shown as fractious, needling, difficult. The boys, meanwhile — Gary, his nine-year-old brother, and the troupe of friends they hang out with — are collaborative, loving and can-do. Is that generally the case?” she asks.
“Sometimes you love each other,” Haim replies. “Sometimes you don’t. I grew up in a household with three girls sharing one bathroom.”
In the film, all three are still living with their parents, “well past when they should be,” says Anderson (who has three sisters around his age, and four older brothers). “The boys are running free, free of supervision to roam the streets.”
“So perhaps it’s less about a gender divide than two types of parenting: one top-heavy, the other over-light (Gary’s father is unseen, his mother overworked and often absent). It’s not hard to decipher which product of these approaches is presented as better-adjusted,” observes Shoard.
Later Shoard reveals that Anderson and Haim are doing all the press for the film, with Hoffman “carefully protected.”
“Haim — once his babysitter — proves as tough a bodyguard as her boss,” she notes.
“Me and Cooper are two peas in a pod,” Haim warns with a smile. “Us against the world. With Paul.”
“Haim likes the idea that she is a beast to be unleashed,” Shoard adds.
“I’m very territorial when it comes to the people that I love,” Haim says. “I love very hard and if you’re in my family, I will do anything to protect you. Cooper is basically my family now. I would do anything for him. I can be very sweet, but you don’t want to mess with anyone that I love.”
READ MORE: ‘Being in love is the most difficult challenge of your life’: Paul Thomas Anderson and Alana Haim on making Licorice Pizza (The Guardian)
Deadline’s Pete Hammond says the film is “often raucously funny,” adding that Anderson “has served up a slice of his own view of a cockeyed relationship between two young people — one with the boy quite a bit younger than the girl — and their series of episodic adventures navigating of the terrain of the San Fernando Valley, a favorite haunt of Anderson who grew up there himself.”
READ MORE: ‘Licorice Pizza’ Review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Welcome Return To The Valley Hits A Comic Peak For The Filmmaker (Deadline)
The film has not been without some criticism, however. “The [blossoming friendship] grows into something more, which has given some critics pause,” writes Zack Sharf in IndieWire. “Anderson told The Times there’s nothing creepy at play in his film.”
“There’s no line that’s crossed, and there’s nothing but the right intentions,” the director said. “It would surprise me if there was some kind of kerfuffle about it, because there’s not that much there. That’s not the story that we made, in any kind of way. There isn’t a provocative bone in this film’s body.”
READ MORE: Paul Thomas Anderson Would Prefer If All Movies Were 2 Hours Long: ‘I’ve Missed That Mark’ (IndieWire)
It is, indeed, Anderson’s happiest creation to date, says influential critic Anthony Lane at The New Yorker, adding “blithe, easy-breathing, and expansive. The odd thing is that, in terms of space and time, it’s what Bowie would have called a god-awful small affair. Aside from a short trip to New York, it clings to the San Fernando Valley, and we’re firmly stuck in the early nineteen-seventies.”
Lane adds, “There isn’t much of a plot to this movie. Rather, it’s shaggy with happenings — with the weird, one-off events that tend to crop up during adolescence, and to grow funnier, and taller, in the telling.”
“Once upon a time in Encino…” intones David Fear in Rolling Stone. “Licorice Pizza is a lot of things, from cockeyed rom-com to dual coming-of-age tale, from affectionate ode to American can-do hucksterism to the sort of ramblin’, amblin’ hang-out movie that you wish you could lounge about in for days,” he adds. “But it’s also very much a memory piece, and even though Anderson was only three years old when this boy-meets-girl story takes place, you can tell that he’s returning to a period that he very much wants to trap in amber. Proust had his madeleines and Sunday mornings at Combray. PTA has his movie cameras, production designers, and the Tail O’ the Cock restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The film is such an intimate, personal look back that you almost feel like you’re flipping through someone’s old scrapbook.”
READ MORE: ‘Licorice Pizza’ Is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s Power Ballad — and the Funkiest Love Story of the Year (Rolling Stone)
According to LA Weekly’s Lina Lecaro, sets, costumes and props can recreate an era (and depending on the wardrobe department, some do it better than others) but it’s the story and the director’s approach to telling it that make or break it.
“Anderson has become known for making it more than once, conjuring the past in a dynamic and immersive way,” she says. “In particular his mastery of atmosphere no matter the era, from the smoky casinos of his debut Hard Eight, to the coked-out pool parties in Boogie Nights to the rainy car rides of SoCal in Magnolia, stands out and puts him on the shortlist beside contemporaries (Quentin Tarantino, Cameron Crowe) as well as his own influencers (Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme) in terms of transportive filmmakers.”
READ MORE: Licorice Pizza: A Conversation with P.T. Anderson About his new Slice of Nostalgia – (LA Weekly)
This is a less-complicated world, Eve Barlow writes in Variety. “A slower world, a more meaningful world, a world in which you had to remember someone’s phone number if you wanted to get to know them, a world in which cigarettes were still considered a rite of passage and sushi was still new, a world in which airplanes were an exotic experience, a world in which a 15- year-old boy could order ‘two Cokes’ in order to seem grown-up to a girl 10 years his senior.
“In Licorice Pizza, Anderson finds hope in the Valley again,” Barlow continues. “Gone are the plagued, alienated, lonely characters; instead [we have] a group of restless young things with schemes and plans to procrastinate from their most questionable, most illogical, yet most victorious feelings for one another.”
According to NPR’s Justin Chang, the movie unfolds like a jumbled ‘70s flashback, one that Anderson seems to have scrapped together by rummaging through cherished old stories and songs. “We hear some of them on the gloriously overstuffed soundtrack: Nina Simone, Sonny & Cher, The Doors and others. The movie is funny, shaggy and altogether wonderful,” says Chang. “That said, it’s an Anderson movie through and through. It might be sunnier and more laid-back than his earlier dramas like There Will Be Blood and The Master, but it’s no less rich in historical detail. One of the movie’s funniest set-pieces, an action scene involving a runaway truck, takes place during the gas shortages that would cause car lines to stretch on for miles.”
The intriguing title refers to a record store from Anderson’s youth, as he told Variety:
“After many months of banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to name this film, I concluded that these two words shoved together reminded me the most of my childhood. Growing up, there was a record-store chain in Southern California called Licorice Pizza. It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film. I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood. Maybe it just looks good on a poster?”
READ MORE: Paul Thomas Anderson on ‘Licorice Pizza’ and Moviemaking: ‘Anyone Who’s Done This Knows That Confidence Is an Illusion’ (Variety)
Anderson used 1970s-style filmmaking processes for the visuals including shooting on 35mm film with vintage glass. The film itself has a limited theatrical release in 70mm. Cinematographer Michael Bauman (who shared lensing duties with Anderson) told Deadline, “Most of the time you’re using more modern glass, you get a sharper image. That was the exact opposite of what we’re doing here. We had a set of lenses Gordon Willis used from the ‘70s. The C Series is a very old series of lenses too. It adds that texture in the image.”
Dailies were screened, well, every day, as filmmakers would have done to review footage in the ‘70s, before video playback became widespread.
READ MORE: ‘Licorice Pizza’ Used ‘70s Film Tech to Tell A ‘70s Love Story – Contenders L.A. (Deadline)
Editor Andy Jurgenson goes into greater detail with Steve Hullfish for Frame.io’s Art of the Cut, including how Anderson and his team do everything on film.
“We’re still cutting digitally obviously, but during the shoot, we’re watching film dailies, so we do have to prep that. Then, once we get to a certain point, we do conform workprint. And when we lock, we make lists and cut negative for the photochemical version of the movie,” says Jurgenson.
“This film was all shot in LA, which was great because we could gather together at the beginning or the end of the shoot day in our space, have a drink, and just watch dailies from the day before,” he adds. “Usually, we get the film first even before we’re getting it digitally because that’s just the way that everything gets processed with the scanning. The pipeline is so unique. So, the first time we’re seeing it is on print. We can just judge so many things when watching it big on film. Not only the performance, but the lighting, and the lenses and focus.
“I feel pretty lucky to be straddling these two ways of filmmaking. It’s so fun. Yes, it can be annoying at times because there are all these extra elements that we have to make, but it’s also so special being in this old photochemical style of filmmaking,” he continues. “Obviously, I do other movies too, so it’s interesting how Paul’s process has influenced how I approach those projects. It’s a unique experience.”
“We don’t set the characters up or provide any establishing shots of the school,” Jurgensen tells IBC365. “We just launch straight into the movie. Paul and I were keen to keep the momentum going throughout, to propel you through all these stories and retain that youthful quality.
“Perhaps the toughest scene to crack was set in the [oak-paneled bar-restaurant] ‘Tail of the Cock’ when Alana is with Jack Holden (Penn). Gary and his friends enter the scene and we got bogged down in early assemblies with setting up Jack as being drunk and then Gary trying to catch Alana’s eye, meanwhile Tom Waits is talking to the whole bar. We just had to continually pair it down so it worked.”
The opening sequence wasn’t quite as effortless as it appears either.
“As you can tell from his other films, Paul doesn’t like a lot of heavy cutting. He wants to keep the performances intact so he’d try to find two or three perfect takes he can pull from. This scene was shot over two days and we’d initially assembled it from more of a front-on angle which just didn’t feel right. We found a take of Alana and stayed on her facial expressions for a minute, maybe more, before switching to Gary and that just clicked.”
IndieWire‘s review described the film’s camerawork as “an extension of the characters in front of it and the movie they’re pin-balling across. It’s not always sure where it’s going, but it’s hellbent on getting there without stopping, and enraptured by what it might find along the way.”
READ MORE: ‘Licorice Pizza’ Review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Coming-of-Age Comedy Is a Perfect Slice of ‘70s Nostalgia (IndieWire)
Licorice Pizza was also filmed on location in order to lend the film a more freewheeling naturalism. “We were scouting to find intersections, big streets where we did full takeovers and designs of 10 storefronts,” says production designer Florencia Martin. “It was just taking away and really committing to de-modernizing the Valley and bringing it back to the ‘70s.”
Those choices are not super surprising, Aurora Amidon writes in Paste, “but he did throw in a bit of a curveball when asked what his favorite movies of 2021 were.”
“[Anderson] cited Shang-Chi as a theater-favorite, while also admitting that he does, indeed, live in a Marvel household. He also sang the praises of Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Titane, the Cannes-winner our critic describes as “108 bloody minutes of bodily mutilation and perversion.”
READ MORE: Paul Thomas Anderson Cites Fast Times at Ridgemont High as a Licorice Pizza Inspiration, Lists Venom 2 as 2021 Favorite (Paste)
Back to those influences on the film in hand though, and as Anderson was one of the two cinematographers on Licorice Pizza, Eric Kohn at IndieWire asked him how tried to import the visual style of those earlier “Valley” movies.
“Photographically, I love, love, love American Graffiti. I love what happened in that time when filmmakers were doing things in [Cinemascope] but they clearly had no money for lighting,” Anderson explains. “You hear these famous stories of Haskell Wexler coming in to help with the photography of the film. If you see any behind-the-scenes photographs, the absolute minimum they were working with to make these beautiful images still kind of amazes me. Believe me, I’ve tried to say, ‘What if we worked with two lights to get American Graffiti light?’ And I can’t do it. It’s one of those magical things that Haskell Wexler figured out. I just love it photographically. Sound design, too. It’s never not worth repeating how beautiful the sound design is. Very unique.”
Interviewing Michael Bauman, who, while a longtime collaborator with Anderson, didn’t have a single feature DP credit to his name before Licorice Pizza, Luke Hicks on The Film Stage reveals that the duo did a series of screen tests over the course of year. “It was really [Anderson] testing to make sure Alana and Cooper would work out,” Bauman tells Hicks. “We’d roll into a test. They’d be doing dialogue scenes. And it was [Anderson] also working the dialogue out, what’s the dynamic like, all this kind of stuff — putting some meat to the bones.”
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Later Bauman reveals how they approached the visual aesthetic of the film.
“With Paul what’s great is he’s got this whole screening room set up at his house,” says Bauman. “So he can screen 35mm or 70mm at his home. And he knows all the studios and who controls their film libraries.
“So when we did this movie, [Anderson] was like, “We gotta watch American Graffiti,” adds Bauman. “So we watched the damn thing like three times. And that was really the strongest visual reference. Then, we looked at Manhattan — you know, the Woody Allen movie — because there’s a lot of interesting walk and talk in that particular production. At the beginning of the movie, where he’s asking for her number and he messes it up a few times and they’re just walking… you know, Manhattan is considered an amazing work of black and white cinematography, and it is! But what we were looking at is these walk and talks and how [cinematographer] Gordon Willis handled them. He would just put a light over camera, and he had all sorts of stuff going on in the background, and he just went with that. So we duplicated that. Normally on a movie now, you’d light up all the backgrounds and do all this crazy shit. We didn’t do any of that. We were like, “Let’s just let it go black.”
It was similar to American Graffiti, Bauman says. “Haskell Wexler was like, ‘Dude, I got no money. So we’re just gonna light their faces and whatever happens in the background, hey bonus!’ And that’s what happened. So, we embraced that.
“When you’re talking about the aesthetic of it, for starters we’re already shooting film,” he adds. “Paul sits down with Dan Sasaki over at Panavision, who’s their lens guru. I mean, in a world of digital, lens choices and lensing have become more and more important. And Dan is this total propellerhead who goes in and is like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this glass from this Gordon Willis set of lenses back in like 1970. Let’s put that in something.’”
READ MORE: Michael Bauman on Lighting Licorice Pizza and Bringing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Vision to Life (The Film Stage)
Watch co-cinematographer Michael Bauman break down how Licorice Pizza embraced a 1970s aesthetic in The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast:
The film’s stellar supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits, John C. Reilly and Ben Stiller.
If that weren’t enough, there are also roles for two of Steven Spielberg’s daughters, Destry Allyn and Sasha Spielberg, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s father, George.
Licorice Pizza may be set in an adjacent neighborhood to Burbank, but — like Quentin Tarantino’s 1969 set-piece, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood — references the ending of the Golden Age of American movie making by weaving in contextually rich characters. In Licorice Pizza these include Sean Penn’s character, which is based on famed actor William Holden; producer Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper; Fred Gwynne, the actor who portrayed Herman Munster, played by John C. Reilly; and talent agent Mary Grady, whose clients included Nick Nolte, Penny Marshall and Ashley Olsen.
David Remnick speaks with Paul Thomas Anderson about the film in this episode of The New Yorker Radio Hour:
“Licorice Pizza seems to be the buzziest movie that is not about superheroes in ages,” Jason Hellerman notes in No Film School. “While it prepares to go wide, Anderson is quite aware that given the state of the industry, that feels special. So few original movies are given wide releases now. But the pandemic and the state of Hollywood are topics that affect us all.”
READ MORE: Paul Thomas Anderson Says We Need Movies of All Sizes for Hollywood to be Successful (No Film School)
Want more? Watch a Q&A with Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman and Licorice Pizza director Paul Thomas Anderson in the video below:
Or watch PTA and Alana Haim discuss the making of Licorice Pizza in a conversation moderated by Justin Chang from the Los Angeles Times, below.