During the period between the release of his breakout feature BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and his sprawling follow-upMAGNOLIA (1999), director Paul Thomas Anderson branched out into other forms of cinematic expression. He did what many filmmakers do between features to pay the bills: shoot commercials and music videos. However, unlike other directors, it can be argued that he wasn’t exactly doing for-hire work. Almost all of his short-form work from these years can be tracked to some kind of investment in his feature work or his personal life.
MICHAEL PENN: “TRY”
For instance, his first music video was made for BOOGIE NIGHTS composer Michael Penn to promote his single “TRY”. The video was shot almost entirely in secret, with Anderson, Penn, and co-producer JoAnne Sellar stealing away during BOOGIE NIGHTS postproduction for a couple hours. They shot in what is allegedly the longest hallway in America, located in downtown Los Angeles. The video follows Penn in one long Steadicam take as he sings to camera and marches through various vignettes. The piece is indicative of Anderson’s mastery of the camera and sense of movement, as well as his confidence with a Steadicam rig. Complex moves are pulled off with a dance-like grace that makes the entire piece look effortless. Anderson is known to be somewhat of a mischievous director, and “TRY” follows suit with a cameo by his close friend and collaborator, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as a slobby sound recordist.
FIONA APPLE: “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE”
The success of BOOGIE NIGHTS led Anderson into an echelon of celebrity that was previously unknown to him. He started dating singer/songwriter Fiona Apple, a relationship that birthed a small run of enchanting music videos. The first of these was for Apple’s cover of the Beatles’ “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE”, a track commissioned for director Gary Ross’ film PLEASANTVILLE (1998). Anderson adopted PLEASANTVILLE’s black and white midcentury aesthetic for his video, albeit with a twist. Conceived as a series of long takes, Apple sings to camera while hooligans in letterman jackets trash a diner in slow-motion around her.
“ACROSS THE UNIVERSE” is a deceptively simple piece, with expertly-executed camera movements that give no trace of the complicated rigging and blocking required to achieve such shots. For instance, in the opening shot we track in directly on Apple, but we don’t see the camera in the mirror behind her (when common logic dictates we should). The piece is filled with little “how’d they do that” flourishes like this, and like Michael Penn’s “TRY” before it, includes a cameo from one of Anderson’s repertory performers in the form of John C. Reilly as a suit stealing music from the jukebox.
For 1998’s RET Inevitable 1 Festival in New York, Anderson was commissioned to make a seventeen minute short titled FLAGPOLE SPECIAL. The short apparently works as an indirect groundlaying for the Frank TJ Mackey character played by Tom Cruise in Anderson’s MAGNOLIA. Based on a random conversation Anderson found on an old audiotape, FLAGPOLE SPECIAL was shot on digital video and features John C Reilly and Chris Penn riffing on their frustration with women and coming up with plans on how they would “Seduce and Destroy” them. As of this writing, it is publicly unavailable for viewing.
FIONA APPLE: “FAST AS YOU CAN”
In 1999, Anderson made his second music video for Fiona Apple, for her song “FAST AS YOU CAN”. It’s a much simpler piece, with Fiona performing straight to camera, locked into very precise compositions. While the video is straightforward and uncomplicated, Anderson does add various visual obstructions to the frame, like smudges and smears on the lens in a bid to make things a little more interesting.
FIONA APPLE: “LIMP”
Anderson’s third video for Apple covered her song, “LIMP”, and takes place in a dark mansion as a lovesick Apple roams the house, unable to sleep. The piece is full of the graceful, fluid camerawork that Anderson is known for, but he counters the elegance by chopping it up into a series of staccato, rapid-fire edits as the song’s intensity builds.