Notable Festivals: Sundance
When it was time for director Paul Thomas Anderson to go to college, he naturally went the film school route, like so many other would-be directors did before him. He was admitted to Boston’s Emerson College as an English major, lasting for 2 semesters (it seems like all the prominent Emersonians are actually dropouts). Unsatisfied with his education there, he enrolled in NYU’s film school, and he was there all of two days before he decided that the institution of film school in general held no benefit for him. Instead, he decided to make a short that would serve as his “film school”, so to speak. He scraped together funding with $10,000 his father, Ernie Anderson, had squirreled away for college tuitions, and supplemented that with some gambling winnings and his girlfriend’s credit card. Once funding was complete, he worked with producer Wendy Weidman to secure a desert diner location for a weekend of shooting, as well as a camera package donation from Panavision. This one weekend soon ballooned into a much longer shoot as production issues and on-the-job training caused no shortage of hiccups for the burgeoning director. The final result was CIGARETTES & COFFEE (1993), a weaving narrative about three sets of characters connected together by a single twenty dollar bill. The film debuted to an incredibly warm reception at the 1993 Sundance Festival, effectively kickstarting Anderson’s directing career into high gear.
In a diner in the middle of the desert, a variety of transient souls come and go, on their way to destinations unknown. In this particular moment, at this particular diner, several of the patrons are unknowingly connected to each other by a twenty dollar bill that has passed between them. In one booth, an elderly man (Philip Baker Hall) has met his squirrely younger friend (Kirk Baxter), who reveals that he’s discovered his wife to be cheating on him with his best friend, and he fears it might be too late to stop the hit he’s ordered on them both. Two booths over, a newlywed couple in the middle of their honeymoon are quarreling over the wife’s loss of a significant amount of the husband’s money at a casino gambling table. Outside the diner, a mysterious lone man has arrived and conducts a mysterious conversation in a phone booth. The twenty dollar bill unifies the characters in some kind of cosmic conspiracy, all tied together by the time-honored ritual of brutally honest conversation over cigarettes and coffee.
Anderson’s deep knowledge of film history and obscure character actors is highly evident in CIGARETTES & COFFEE. The piece is anchored by Philip Baker Hall, a venerated performer who has since become a key player in Anderson’s repertory. His calm, collected delivery grounds the film and sets the tone just so. Getting Hall on board was something of a coup for Anderson, who approached him on the set of a CBS TV movie that the two were on together (Baker as an actor, Anderson as a lowly production assistant). Anderson gave Baker the script to the short, and Baker was generous enough to take a gamble on this unruly, untested young director. Anderson also recruited the help of Kirk Baltz, who had previously made a name for himself as the unfortunate cop Marvin Nash in Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS a year earlier. Additionally, Baltz acted as a producer and was instrumental in getting the film made. Scott Coffey and Miguel Ferrer round out the cast, with everyone turning in fine performances that make Anderson’s direction look confident and competent, considering this is his first real time at bat.
Anderson has made a name for himself with his precise, classical approach to composition and camera movement. Unconcerned with modern, trendy techniques like “shaky cam” or rapid-fire editing, he takes his cues from the revered directors of yesteryear. CIGARETTES & COFFEE is the first evidence of this aesthetic, lensed by cinematographers Vincent Baldino and David Phillips. Shot on handsome color film, the short is a far cry from the washed-out analog video of THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY (1988). At least, I think it is—the only copy available to view is sourced from a rather degraded VHS tape, and I have no idea if a pristine transfer is out there somewhere. The first thing I noticed about CIGARETTES & COFFEE’s visual presentation is somewhat of an abstract, intangible thing—but there is such precision to Anderson’s compositions in the piece. Every shot is thoroughly considered, telling the most amount of story with minimal force. This is echoed in his camerawork, which glides on dollies and Steadicam rigs fluidly and flawlessly. Like his peer Tarantino, Anderson uses punchy insert shots sparingly, using them as bold punctuation rather than detailed cutaways.
Furthermore, there’s a distinct California vibe here, despite the story itself possibly being set in Nevada. Having lived his entire life in the state, Anderson’s work examines the nature and psychology of California more so than any other contemporary director. Almost of all of his work is set in California—specifically the San Fernando Valley where he was born—and explores the weird and wonderful characters that inhabit it. This part of his style is better realized in his features, but CIGARETTES & COFFEE has elements of California-ca (?) in its dusty diner setting, beat up muscle cars and sunshade-wearing mystery men.
The early period of Anderson’s career was heavily influenced by Robert Altman. Both men made ensemble films that followed a variety of colorful characters instead of a traditional plot with a singular protagonist. While these characters initially seem very disconnected from each other and thrust into a sprawling narrative, Anderson pulls the various story threads tighter together to form a coherent mosaic centered around a singular theme or idea. In CIGARETTES & COFFEE, we have three separate sets of characters who, on their face, are completely uninvolved in each other’s affairs. However, they are each united by a particular twenty dollar bill that has passed between them. Possession of this bill brings different fortunes to different owners—some lose everything, some gain only a little, and for some, it’s simply a routine business transaction.
CIGARETTES & COFFEE is undoubtedly the work that launched Anderson’s career. Its selection into the Sundance Film Festival’s shorts program brought him to the attention of the industry’s best and brightest. The Sundance Institute even invited him to develop the short into a feature at their directing labs, a program that also helped Tarantino launch his first feature. In the labs, Anderson got a film education much more valuable than the one he sought and failed to find from Emerson College and New York University. In Park City, Utah, he learned from the best and honed his skills—all while developing his first full-length feature he liked to call SYDNEY, but we’d come to know as HARD EIGHT (1996).
CIGARETTES & COFFEE is currently available via the Youtube embed above.
Produced by: Kirk Baltz, Shane Conrad, Patrick Hoelck, Wendy Weidman
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Vincent Baldino, David Phillips