Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY (1988)

Years Active: 1987-present

Alma Mater: Emerson College/New York University/Sundance Institute

Associated Movements: New American Independents

Influences: Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles 

In the larger film community, director Paul Thomas Anderson is widely considered to be one of the greatest living directors in America.  While his output is relatively small compared to his peers, each of his films is of such an impeccably high caliber that his impact on the medium is undeniable.  Affectionately called PTA by his fans, Anderson is held up by his contemporaries as a shining example of a true artist creating truly important work—high praise for a man who has yet to even win an Oscar for himself.

Filmmakers of my generation look to Anderson like the Film Brat generation looked to Stanley Kubrick—a god walking among us, an elder young enough to accessible, an ideal to which we aspire.  It should come as a surprise to no one that Anderson is a profound influence on my own work.  I had first heard rumblings of his greatness towards the end of high school, when all the artsy drama kids could talk about was 1999’s MAGNOLIA during its cult resurgence on DVD a few years after its release.  When I entered Emerson College as a second-semester freshman, my roommates sat me down to watch 1998’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, his second feature and his mainstream breakout.  I was instantly hooked.  Anderson was the first filmmaker where I could actually see how his work was constructed and subsequently desired to emulate it.  He was a role model and a guiding light in the crucial moment of my life when my paradigm of what film could be was radically blown open.  To later find out that Anderson too attended Emerson (albeit only for a year) was a moment of untold delight for me—validation that I was on the right path towards a rewarding, fulfilling career in filmmaking.

Born in 1970 in Studio City, California, Anderson is firmly a member of Generation X, whose filmmakers were raised on an endless diet of movies on videocassette.  The first to cut their teeth using cheap video and not expensive film, they could afford to make mistakes– and they made plenty of them.  Like his peers Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, he broke out as a professional director in the heady days of 90’s independent film, catapulted into the limelight by a formidable debut at the Sundance Film Festival.  But unlike Tarantino and Soderbergh, Anderson came from a family already well-steeped in the entertainment industry.  His father, Ernie Anderson, had been a late night horror TV show host under the name of Ghoulardi—a name that Anderson would later appropriate for his own production company.

At the age of eight, Anderson made his first home movie, and at twelve he began regularly making them with his father’s Betamax video camera.  His father encouraged his pursuits, unconsciously enabling them by providing the junior Anderson with a never-ending source of creative character fodder- Ernie’s own eccentric showbiz friends.  From this ragtag collection of aging hooligans, PTA drew inspiration and began to forge a distinctive voice for himself.

By age seventeen, Anderson felt ready to tackle his first “serious” project.  He recruited the talents of his father and his friends, and raised the money he needed to shoot by taking on a job as a birdcage cleaner.  He wanted to make a film about John Holmes, the legendary pornographer with a legendarily large package.  He was fascinated by the subculture of pornography, at least as it existed in the late 70’s when it was still relatively underground and unregulated.  Stylistically, he was influenced by Rob Reiner’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) and its comedic documentary conceit.  All of these elements converged to form THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY (1988), a mockumentary about the eponymous, John Holmes-inspired porn star with a large endowment rivaled only by an even larger ego.  Clocking in at 30 minutes (noticeably long for a first work), the short plays like an early blueprint for his breakout feature BOOGIE NIGHTS by featuring prototypes of characters and the same basic plot progression found in the full feature.   Anderson’s friend Michael Stein plays the role of Dirk Diggler, establishing the character as a combative, egotistical force of nature long before Mark Wahlberg got his hands on the part. Bob Ridgely, a friend of Ernie Anderson’s, plays the role of director Jack Horner (later inimitably played by Burt Reynolds in his career comeback).  Ridgley wrings a lot of emotion out of his role, despite hiding his eyes behind giant black sunshades. Other core characters from BOOGIE NIGHTS make their prototypical appearance here, like John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild in the form of an impossibly buff Eddie Delcore and Rusty Schwimmer’s Candy Kane, an early version of Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves.

Anderson’s first work is admittedly lo-fi, filming on videotape partly out of necessity, but also because of the inherent video aesthetic of both the documentary and pornography formats.  Anderson’s penchant for constantly moving the camera is already evident in THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY, seeing him utilize both handheld and Steadicam-based camera moves that roam the space and adjust the composition mid-record to lend a degree of immediacy and realism.  The documentary footage is interspersed with staged still photographs and taped interviews with the characters, further riffing on the style ofTHIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Because the year was 1988 and computer-based nonlinear editing suites had yet to become commonplace, (and editing video on a flatbed Steenbeck was impractical), Anderson had to edit THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY using the archaic, terminally frustrating VCR to VCR method.  The bane of many a young filmmaker’s existence in the 90’s, the method consisted of tediously syncing up a desired take on one VCR, recording it to a blank VHS tape on the second deck, hitting pause and then finding the next chronological shot from the original footage.  Any mistake meant you had to rewind the tape to just before the error and start over again.  It was a horrible process that also completely destroyed the quality of the footage, in addition to probably discouraging a significant number of would-be directors from pursuing the profession.

Several of Anderson’s defining thematic conceits make their first appearance in THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY, like a constantly-moving camera and the presence of an omniscient narrator (best employed in 1999’s MAGNOLIA), who here is voiced by Anderson’s father, Ernie.  What really strikes me about the DIRK DIGGLER STORY is the presence of a palpable family dynamic amongst this group of pornographers.  The family angle would later be played to a more substantial degree in BOOGIE NIGHTS, but already we get the sense that Anderson has a genuine love for these characters, like they’re a part of his own family.  They depend on each other, they need each other, they are not complete without each other.  At a very core level, Anderson’s films are about people trying to find their place in a family unit, and those who actively turn away from the embrace of family are met with tragedies like accidental death (Dirk Diggler in this film), murder/suicide (William H. Macy in BOOGIE NIGHTS), or abandonment (Daniel Day-Lewis in 2007’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD).

As an early draft of BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY story is already interesting on its own merits, but what makes it even more compelling from my standpoint is how fully-formed Anderson’s filmmaking voice already seems.  The fact that this short follows BOOGIE NIGHTS’ general plot progression shows how long Anderson had spent developing the idea while conveying his gift for interesting, unique stories.  Despite being shot on shoddy video, the film has a certain polish that places it above what 99% of aspiring, pre-film-school directors are capable of.  There’s not a lot of directors that most can say were born to be a filmmaker, but in the case of Anderson, it’s a notion that’s nearly impossible to deny.

THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY is currently available via the Youtube embed above.