Paul Thomas Anderson’s HARD EIGHT (1996)

Notable Festivals: Sundance, Cannes (Un Certain Regard)

Screening his short film CIGARETTES & COFFEE at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival was a transformative event in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s career.  Not only was he invited to workshop his film in the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Directors Lab, but he was also approached by producer Robert Jones, who offered his assistance in expanding the film into a feature.  Naturally, Anderson went to work, developing his short into a larger story that concerned itself with an aging gambler who will do anything to hide his dark past from a pair of close friends he’s come to love as if they were his children. Anderson lovingly gave his story the name SYDNEY, like he was naming a child.  His experience in making the film, however, was anything but blissful.  He was hamstrung by Jones’ constant meddling and sizable ego, and further compromised by an inept distributor (Rysher Entertainment) that strong-armed his film away from him only to dump it into theaters with little fanfare.  That film exists now as HARD EIGHT (1996)—beloved with immense fervor by Anderson’ cult of followers but completely overlooked by the mainstream film community.  Last released as a bare-bones DVD in the early 2000’s, HARD EIGHT is in desperate need of a latent rediscovery and a restoration of Anderson’s original vision.

In a diner in the middle of the Nevada desert, an old man named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) offers a forlorn-looking young man named John (John C. Reilly) a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  They get to talking, and John reveals that he’s just lost all his money in Vegas after going there in hopes of winning enough money to pay for his mother’s funeral.  Sydney takes pity on this poor soul, offering to take him to Reno and teach him a little trick that will net him some money at the casinos.  Two years later, John and Sydney are nearly inseparable—that is, until a streetwise cocktail waitress and sometimes-hooker named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) enters their life.  Initially, the three form something of a family unit, with Sydney acting as the father figure.  However, Clementine risks everything when she makes a bloodied hostage out of a cheap john who won’t pay up.  Fearing the legal repercussions of Clementine’s actions, Sydney urges her and John to flee the city and lay low for a while.  At the same time, he’s approached by John’s friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a smooth operator who knows a secret about Sydney’s dark past– a secret that would destroy Sydney’s little family unit forever.

Veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall finally steps into the limelight as Sydney, a paternal and patient soul.  He’s a helper of people, seemingly trying to atone for some great wrong he’s done in his life.  Hall brings a great deal of class and respectability to the film, expanding upon his role in CIGARETTES & COFFEE with an involved performance that might just be his best.  Known primarily for his Judd Apatow comedy gigs, John C. Reilly turns in a rare dramatic performance as the anxious, yet loyal John.  Reilly plays the character like a dog who doesn’t know any better, constantly screwing up and depending on Sydney to bail him out.  John is a lost young man, deeply in tune with his emotions but unable to properly express them.

Gwyneth Paltrow is convincing as the cynical, disillusioned cocktail waitress/hooker Clementine.  Considering her real-life personality, the role of Clementine is an extremely edgy one for her.  She courageously lets her makeup smear and doesn’t shy away from the inherent ugliness of the character’s personality.  As Jimmy, Samuel L. Jackson is dangerously slick and unpredictable.  The 90’s were Jackson’s heyday, seeing him turn in unforgettable performances for directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg.  His trademark pitch-black charm is present all through HARD EIGHT, providing yet another variation on that Jackson persona we all know and love.

Over the years, actors like Hall and Reilly have become a core part of Anderson’s repertory of performers.  A few cameos contained in HARD EIGHT illustrates the foundations of this repertory, like the appearance of Oscar-winning actor and regular Anderson collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a cocky craps player, and THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY’s Robert Ridgley turning up briefly as a schmoozing keno manager.

Anderson’s repertory isn’t just limited to the talent, it extends to the skilled craftsmen he employs to help bring his stories to life.  As his first feature, HARD EIGHT naturally sees the first instance of collaboration with several of them.  Robert Elswit serves as the cinematographer, shooting on Super 35mm film and helping to establish Anderson’s formalistic aesthetic.  The film is presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but it wasn’t shot in anamorphic, despite Anderson’s desire to do so (budget constraints).  The visual presentation applies the same approach used in CIGARETTES & COFFEE—a classical, economical style of photography that’s short on fuss and long on power.

The gaudy Reno setting and a low-key lighting scheme lends HARD EIGHT a loungy, neo-noir vibe.  This is also reflected in Anderson’s constantly moving camera, which is always precise and never frenetic.  He utilizes graceful dolly moves, using handheld cameras only sparingly to convey immediacy.  More notably, Anderson incorporates several Steadicam tracking shots that create a slick energy and sense of space.  While he would later use the Steadicam to more striking effect in his later films, Anderson keeps its usage in HARD EIGHT relatively simple, following Sydney as he walks through the casino floor, or as he approaches the fateful motel room that will shake up his adopted family unit forever.  Overall, Anderson chooses to cover a lot of his close-ups in profile, which subtly conveys a feeling of precision and thoroughness in his compositions.

HARD EIGHT also marks the first time that Anderson works with the musician Jon Brion in a score capacity.  Brion collaborates with Michael Penn to create a jazzy, cool-cat sound that accurately reflects both Reno and Sydney’s aged sophistication.  The film also contains the first instance of a particular tonal bell cue—dark and relentlessly foreboding.  It works so well that Anderson opts to use it again in his later works, unconsciously creating a musical bridge between his first few films.  A couple Christmas songs litter the soundtrack in order to give us a sense of the film’s wintery setting (because we’re in the desert, we wouldn’t know it’s December otherwise).  Furthermore, an Aimee Mann song shows up in the end titles, which is notable because Mann would later become a very important collaborator for Anderson in his 1999 feature MAGNOLIA.

Of all the themes that Anderson continually explores throughout his career, the theme of the family unit is the most apparent in HARD EIGHT.  The characters have all adopted each other in some fashion, as they all seek the comfort of companionship in a cold world.  Sydney and John share a father/son relationship, while John takes the very literal step of inducting Clementine into his family by marrying her.  Sydney’s unconditional love and uncompromising generosity towards his young charges is revealed to come from a terrible secret that threatens to undo their union, thus the theme gives the film its stakes and driving force.  The tone is very similar to CIGARETTES & COFFEE, with the first scene of HARD EIGHT lifted nearly directly from the short.  Nonetheless, Anderson does a fantastic job expanding the scope and changing the focus of his story while creating a consistent tone.

While the process of production was relatively painless, Anderson’s experience in post-production was a hard lesson in the corporate obstinance of the studio system.  He was faced with a difficult distributor in Rysher Entertainment, who wanted him to change the film’s name from SYDNEY to HARD EIGHT out of a fear that people would mistake the film for being about the city in Australia.  Anderson begrudgingly acquiesced to their demands, but they weren’t about to stop there. Producer Robert Jones became a constant source of headache, refusing to give his consent for Anderson’s request to place the credits at the end of the film instead of the beginning (despite the rest of the cast and crew being fine with it).  When Jones and the studio balked at Anderson’s 150-minute director’s cut, the young auteur refused to make any cuts and was subsequently fired.  Rysher took the film away and re-cut it.

Anderson’s original vision was validated when HARD EIGHT was accepted into Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program—on the condition that his director’s cut was the version to be screened.  After the festival, Anderson’s cut was never seen again, and the finished film languished on the shelf for two years after Rysher suddenly (and unsurprisingly) went belly-up.  Given how much of a mess Anderson’s experience in post-production on HARD EIGHT was, it’s something of a miracle that his debut turned out as assured and confident as it did.

A dismissive attitude towards the film hasn’t stopped the home video market from reclaiming HARD EIGHT as a lost treasure.  Most cinephiles agree that it’s an underrated gem of a film, a work on par with any of Anderson’s best.  While it exists today as an outdated transfer on a bargain bin DVD, HARD EIGHT marks the humble starting point of one of our greatest contemporary auteurs.  Until somebody (come on, Criterion) comes along and releases the director’s cut, we’ll just have to content ourselves with a watered-down, abridged version that provides fleeting glimpses into a brilliant young filmmaker finding his footing.

HARD EIGHT is currently available on standard definition DVD from Columbia Tri-Star


Produced by: Robert Jones, Daniel Lupi, John Lyons

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Director of Photography: Robert Elswit

Production Designer: Nancy Deren

Edited by: Barbara Tulliver

Music by: Jon Brion, Michael Penn