The Harvard Crimson recently joined a college roundtable with acclaimed writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson to discuss the making of his latest film, “Licorice Pizza.” Anderson is best known for crafting bleak, intricate films about difficult characters. For instance, his 2017 period romance “Phantom Thread” was a searing exploration of masochistic love and fretless obsession over art in haute-1950s London. Suffice to say, there haven’t been many rosy stories in Anderson’s films of late. But that’s changed a bit with “Licorice Pizza” — at least on the surface.
Anderson’s latest follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), two misfits stuck between adolescence and adulthood. They’re flawed characters — an odd, explicitly “not boyfriend-girlfriend” pair who could’ve met a darker fate if Anderson was in a foul mood. But in “Licorice Pizza,” Alana and Gary’s flaws aren’t a death-knell, they are a product of youthful insecurities — of feeling just a little out of touch with people their own age. Their winding story navigates the emotionally turbulent boundaries between a friendship and a relationship, all while the pair bounce around episodic misadventures in 1970s Los Angeles.
Gary and Alana can only ever remain friends, and yet they find themselves constantly drawn to each other. Anderson commented on their complicated “platonic romance” dynamic: “The idea that two people can’t be together instantly creates this dilemma,” he said. “This is a very traditional formula for 1930s romantic comedies which really stand the test of time, to me. And it allows you to do endless comedic situations for them to be in.”
Haim and Hoffman have received widespread critical acclaim for their lead performances. “I know what it’s like as an audience member when you see somebody on the screen that you’ve never seen before. It’s a thrilling feeling,” Anderson said. “Imagine that as the director of the movie. I kind of built the whole thing on the premise that they could do it, and they did it. Gives you proud papa feelings.”
Anderson shared especially glowing praise for Haim. After collaborating on music videos for her pop-rock band HAIM in the past, Anderson then decided to write “Licorice Pizza” specifically for her. “I had a story that was floating around that needed help, that needed something,” he said. “And knowing Alana was what that help was. It was written for Alana. There was only one person that I ever considered and it was Alana. She’s the reason the whole thing exists.”
The level of care and attention that Anderson puts into directing his actors is matched by the care he puts into crafting luscious visuals. “Licorice Pizza” is shot on 35mm film, and Anderson captures colors in a way that really maximizes that medium, with gorgeous dream-like frames that reflect a hazy, fuzzy 1970s San Bernardino filled with characters that literally glow off the screen.
Still, Anderson says a lot of his directing approach isn’t always planned to the T. Speaking on the process of how he plans his shots, he said, “It’s all over the map. For some things, you have an idea in your mind. I was writing a film that took place where I lived. So there wasn’t that much that I was supplying with my imagination. You know, these were all real places from real stories. So I knew what they were, or I had to find stand-ins that would fit. What I mean by that is, there was an actual ‘Fat Bernie’s Waterbeds’ and it’s now a tanning salon, so I couldn’t use that. So, ok I’ve got to go find something else.”
“Now a lot of the shots end up really cementing themselves in the location scouting process,” he added. “You have the time to go to these locations over and over again, as many times as you need, and there isn’t a clock ticking of 50 crew members standing around wondering what to do. You get a chance to make the film quietly and without a lot of pressure when you’re location scouting.”
Anderson doesn’t just revisit the aesthetics of classical cinema with luscious cinematography — in many ways, he returns to old distribution methods of getting people into movie theaters. This included an extended two-month preview period between November and December, where the film screened in select locations at many traditional movie houses before being released nationwide. A theater near Harvard’s campus that has screened “Licorice Pizza” since its wide release is Somerville Theater, which was first built in 1914 and has been projecting films for a century. “We’re trying a lot of old-fashioned techniques in terms of getting the movie out there,” Anderson explained. “Making it go slowly, trying to raise people’s awareness over a long period of time rather than what seems to happen recently with films, which kind of get carpet bombed into existence and then forgotten about within two days … To stop and give audiences a chance to breathe, or at least present the film in a more respectable way, in turn gives respect to an audience.”
Part of the freedom to pursue these old distribution techniques can be attributed to how the pandemic has changed the way audiences interact with films. “The exciting thing about releasing a film right now is that normally everybody at the movie studio likes to look at you and think that they know everything and tell you what should happen,” Anderson said. “The great thing is they’re all looking at the landscape of what it means to make a film and release it today and they’ve thrown their hands up and are saying ‘we have no idea what to do.’”
As the roundtable wrapped, Anderson was asked what he wanted audiences to take away from “Licorice Pizza.” “When I started working with HAIM the band, we never had any money, we never had any time. We just did what we could with what we had. And we had a similar situation on this film,” he said. “We had to shoot it quickly, we had to shoot without too much thinking about it, just instinctual. And we were really using all our friends and all our family to make the film. So if anything, it verifies this belief that you don’t really need anything more than the desire and a handful of your friends and a handful of your family to make a great film.”
The Crimson reviewed “Licorice Pizza” and gave it 5 out of 5 stars. “Licorice Pizza” is showing in theaters nationwide.
—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.