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Directing the Page with Master Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson

By Kevin Nelson · November 29, 2021

Sometimes people are lucky to find their true passion at an early age. They discover what they were born to do on this earth and there’s no sense in deterring them from that path. Paul Thomas Anderson was born to write and direct films — having made his first film at the age of eight on a Betamax camera. From that point on, there wasn’t really a backup plan — no other choice. He was going to be a filmmaker.

Over the years, PTA developed his own striking filmmaking style — with ensemble casts, long tracking shots, and the use of expressive syncopated scores. But, how does his directorial style match his writing style? 

It’s an exact measurement. 

His writing is full of directions for camera angles and movements, editing transitions, and music cues. His scripts detail exactly how everything should play out for a full audial and visual experience. (That’s the benefit of directing your own screenplays.) By reading Anderson’s words and seeing how they translate to the screen, it’s clear that he has full control over every aspect of the film’s creative vision from page one.

Let’s take a look at the screenplays of the master’s filmography to see how his skills have developed over the last three decades. 

Scripts from this Article

Hard Eight

After dropping out of college, Anderson decided that the best way to learn how to make a film was to make a film.

Using money from his father that would have gone to film school, his girlfriend’s credit card, and gambling winnings, Anderson made the short film Cigarettes & Coffee, about multiple lives connected through a twenty-dollar bill. The short was screened at the 1993 Sundance Festival Shorts Program and he was subsequently accepted into the 1994 Sundance Feature Film Program, where he developed the short film into a feature titled Sydney, which would then go on to be titled Hard Eight, his feature debut. He had a difficult time with the production company over final edits and the release of the film — finally making concessions on the title and runtime in order for his original vision to be released.

Hard Eight went on to premiere at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and would help solidify his name as an emerging force-de-auteur. The script features sharp dialogue and that slow-burn intensity that Paul Thomas Anderson would later become known for. Over the years, he’d refine his approach yet maintain a similar blunt sinisterness in making audiences wait for the carnage. 

His debut also found him collaborating with many people that would return for future projects, including composer Michael Penn, Director of Photography Robert Elswit, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and Philip Baker Hall.

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Boogie Nights

In high school, 1988 to be exact, Anderson saved up money while working in a pet store and shot a thirty-minute mockumentary titled The Dirk Diggler Story. The mockumentary was about a porn star inspired by John Holmes, who fell into a deadly spiral of destitution.

While stuck in limbo over Hard Eight’s release, Anderson began work on what would become Boogie Nights. It’s clear that he writes with the intention to direct, not shy to describe the camera’s DOLLY INTO CU (Close Up) or a 360 PAN in all caps. This script and film shot Anderson into a new echelon in the industry, racking up nominations and awards.

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Magnolia

The success of Boogie Nights gave Anderson full creative control over his next project. What was meant to be small in scale ultimately blossomed into an ensemble cast.  

The camera directions are capitalized and bold, signifying a stylistic shift from his earlier work. He has said that the structure of the script was inspired by The Beatles song, “A Day in the Life,” in that, “the story builds up, then drops and recedes, then builds up again.”

An ebb and flow that slowly builds into a storm — of raining frogs.

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Punch-Drunk Love

Punch-Drunk Love really played on one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest strengths. The ability to push a narrative forward into uncertain terrain where the unexpected often subverts the readers’/viewers’ expectations. In a similar fashion, in his first dramatic role following a series of comedic blockbusters, Adam Sandler delivered a tremendous performance that went against the brand he built for so many years. 

The script still plays with humor. After all, it’s a Romantic Dramedy, but the comedy digs into darker topics. There’s a heightened sense of spontaneity when it comes to his characters’ choices when it comes to making simple mistakes that get blown way out of proportion.

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There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood is a loose adaptation of Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Anderson was working on a screenplay about a blood feud between families but it wasn’t quite coming together. While homesick in London, he was drawn to the cover of Sinclair’s book and the pieces finally clicked in place. 

Through intense research, Anderson was able to really dive into the world and authentically portray the time period in which it was set. The script is only loosely inspired by the first 100-150 pages of Sinclair’s book, despite there being 400 more pages. That’s where Anderson found his story.

To research, he visited museums and his desk was a mess of research materials. The story is a slow build of tension like the tightening of a guitar string until the characters finally snap.

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The Master

The final edit of The Master differs from the script in that the film is framed in a circular story structure by starting on the beach and ending in Freddie’s return to the beach. In the same circular fashion, The Master is a psychological drama that touches on patterns and cycles of abuse and trauma, especially when under the influence of a charismatic, cult-like leader. 

Apparently, the idea for the film had been floating around in Anderson’s head for twelve years or so. He was interested in the rise of spirituality after periods of war. It began as a collection of unrelated scenes, rather than a coherent storyline, and he even used scenes that he never used for There Will Be Blood

Important details are capitalized, underlined, or both. The scenes with dialogue between Master and Freddie are full of rhetorical questions that leave Freddie stumped, denoted with ellipses. As both Freddie and Master both seem to spiral out of control while circling each others’ orbit like two toxic chemicals reacting with an explosion, the writing reflects each character’s identifiable characteristics with capitalized dialogue sequences to denote Master’s anger or capitalized action lines to display Freddie’s physical rage.

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Inherent Vice

Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice perfectly fits Paul Thomas Anderson’s vagrant and somewhat erratic style. His characters tend to find themselves in strange and otherwise impossible situations, where the only way out is to plunge deeper into the chaos. Inherent Vice is a period neo-noir film with a comedic lean about an inept private investigator who slips deeper into the criminal underworld despite his best intentions.

To adapt the novel, Anderson reportedly rewrote the entire 384-page novel sentence by sentence in that it would be easier to cut down the script than it would be to limit the novel. He loved how Pynchon balanced the sublimely profound with the absurdity of a fart joke and wanted to cram as much humor into the script as possible.

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Phantom Thread

Revisiting the theme of obsession, The Phantom Thread centers around a protagonist whose muse ends up controlling him, both his love for dressmaking as well as his toxic and abusive relationship with the poisonous Alma. The title alone has multiple meanings. How one controls the invisible threads in a relationship with either emotional abuse or poison, or how Victorian seamstresses would return home exhausted after a long day of work and continue to go through the motions, sewing threads that aren’t there. A great title is more than a name.

Meant to be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final bow, the script is carefully tailored with the precision of a dress fit for royalty. Written during a time when Anderson was ill and his family had to take care of him, the script offers a self-reflection of an artist reaching for the pinnacle of his craft while sacrificing his health and family in the process. 

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming coming of age dramedy, Licorice Pizza, is already making waves. It’s an ode to the San Fernando Valley, where Anderson calls home, and centers around a friendship between a twenty-year-old woman and a teenager with aspirations to make it in the movies. As with most of his material, there’s a large chunk of his heart that he wears on every page. Anderson uses his life experiences to fuel his stories. Often, his work is a way of making sense of what’s going on in his life.

By focusing on psychological dramas about flawed characters grappling with desperation as they sink deeper into the consequences of their failed responsibility, Paul Thomas Anderson is able to tap into the narrative well of human emotion while laying out a clear plan to bring it to life on the screen. Paul Thomas Anderson the writer is inseparable from Paul Thomas Anderson the director. It’s all right there on the page.  

Scripts from this Article