NYFF: Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix & Cast On the Zany World of ‘Inherent Vice’

Katherine Waterston and Joaquin Phoenix in "Inherent Vice" | Warner Brothers
Katherine Waterston and Joaquin Phoenix in “Inherent Vice” | Warner Brothers

Can a film be both a masterpiece and a mess at the same time? “Inherent Vice” appears to prove that it can. I’m not reviewing the film and will only recommend it to a few die-hard film fans. But I laughed heartily throughout and loved the crazy world that director Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master,” “Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood”) created based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel (which I have not read).

The film is a loving spoof of the late 1960’s, leaving no cliché unturned, including Joaquin Phoenix’s mutton chops, expressions like “outasite” and “far out,” beaded curtains, walls covered with purple carpeting, crocheted dresses, and bell bottom jeans. It was even shot in 35mm rather than digital to give it more of a period look.

The problem is that the film as a whole is not as good as its parts, and you’re left wondering why you should care about the characters, despite the fact that they’re endlessly entertaining to watch. Even though it’s a noir mystery, the plot is a tangle and an after-thought. No, this is all about the people and their wild, wacky, and wonderful quirks.

Joaquin Phoenix in "Inherent Vice" | Warner Brothers
Joaquin Phoenix in “Inherent Vice” | Warner Brothers

Warner Brothers apparently sees “Inherent Vice” as an Oscar contender, which is unusual for a comedy. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is definitely Oscar-worthy, as is Anderson’s work as director and screenwriter, but I don’t think I would place the film itself or the rest of the performances in that category. Josh Brolin could garner a Golden Globe nomination if the film is on the list of comic film contenders.

Anderson and Phoenix appeared at the 2014 New York Film Festival for a press conference after a screening of the film, joined on stage by fellow cast members Katherine Waterston, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sasha Pieterse, and Hong Chau. (It’s a shame Brolin couldn’t make it.)

Below are some of the highlights:

Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson

Anderson on whether or not he was influenced by “The Big Sleep”:

Yeah, I saw “The Big Sleep,” and it made me realize that I couldn’t follow any of it. And it didn’t matter because I just wanted to see what was going to happen next anyway. So, yeah, that was a good model to go on, to throw that stuff out of the window.

Anderson on the use of a narrator in the film:

For a long time, I was told that if you use voiceover, that’s a no-no. Somebody ingrained that in my mind. And I think the premise is that you have to have your characters do work for you, that you can’t rely on a narrator to do it. So, I kind of got paranoid that you shouldn’t use a narrator, but my favorite films use narrators and narration.

And I always was paranoid to do it until now where there was so much good stuff that that character could say that was from the book that seemed helpful to the story and wouldn’t step on it or irritate it or subtract from what was going on, but hopefully add to it at its best.

Anderson on the changes in tone in the film:

That’s Thomas Pynchon. That’s what he does in his books – I don’t want to say literary because that’s a bad word – but beautifully written and sort of profound and deeply felt stuff mixed in with just the best fart jokes and poop jokes and silly songs and stuff that you could imagine.

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in "Inherent Vice"  | Warner Brothers
Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in “Inherent Vice” | Warner Brothers

The actors on working with Paul Thomas Anderson:

Martin Short: I think that for me, if you’re working with a great director, you feel very, very, very safe because you know that all decisions and all directions of this film will be made months later in an editing room. So, you just feel completely loose. What I loved is how many variations – we’d go in the car, get out the car, go in the car, go out the car, try it again, try it again, say anything.

I’d maybe improvise an approach to a line, and I’d say, “Paul, should I do that again? Paul, should I do it again?” “Yeah, do it!” And we’d do it again, it was really trying to create as many elements and colors and hues that could help Paul later on when he was putting it together. And that’s a great freeing up, I think, as an actor, particularly if you’re working with someone really great.

Owen Wilson: Joaquin, do you want to weigh in on this? [Laughter followed by silence, as Joaquin generally doesn’t speak at press conferences. I honestly don’t know why he bothers to show up for them.]

Martin Short: Owen, how did you get started? [Laughter]

Owen Wilson: … I don’t remember a lot of improvising, but we were encouraged to kind of do anything.

Jena Malone: … I’ve never been able to collaborate in a way with a director, just sit down with the words and see what feels right, which was a very structured process, I think….

Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Kenneth Williams in "Inherent Vice" | Warner Brothers
Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Kenneth Williams in “Inherent Vice” | Warner Brothers

Michael Kenneth Williams: It actually makes me feel good to hear you guys say that because I thought it was me. I didn’t think Paul liked me. [Laughter] It was very loose, and I came into the project a huge fan of both Joaquin and Paul. I think I hadn’t slept for 48 hours. I came straight from another job to this one.

The process was different. Most of my credits are in television where they crack the whip. Everything is just time, time, time. And I get to this situation, and it’s like, “No, let’s sit down and talk about this.” I’m like, “Really? Don’t you just want me to perform?” “No, let’s talk about this.” And Joaquin was so generous….

Although the process was new for me, I knew I was safe, I knew I was in good hands, and I knew I had to trust. And I’m grateful that I was given the opportunity to do that.

Hong Chau: I think Paul was just trying to make you feel paranoid.

Michael Kenneth Williams: It worked!

Paul Thomas Anderson: I didn’t like you! [Laughter] Oh, no, that makes me feel terrible. What did I do wrong?

Benicio Del Toro: I remember jumping in right into a three-page monologue. I think someone said that in order to learn your lines, you need to repeat them 300 times. So, by the end of the scene, we knew our lines. [Laughter] But he would take a scene that takes place on a table, and he’ll move it into a car. It was like dancing in a way, and I really enjoyed it.

Watch a video of the entire press conference below:

And here’s that trailer! Enjoy…


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