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Paul Thomas Anderson has been watching porn flicks since the early ’80s. That’s not such a long time, except that the Boogie Nights director was not born until the early ’70s.

“I’ve always watched porno movies, since I was 9 years old,” says the 27-year-old director. “I watched them as a sociological experiment, or just as a horny young man.”

The cocky, unshaven Anderson flops in a chair at the Park Hyatt Hotel. He’s wearing a big-collared polyester print shirt that seems to be of roughly the same vintage as Dirk Diggler, the dim but well-endowed porn star played by Mark Wahlberg in the director’s high-profile second film. He smiles when asked how his not exactly coy account of the disco-era porn industry got an R rating.

“Ask the MPAA. [It took] four months of negotiating with them. You know, we submitted it the first time and it was an NC-17, which I certainly couldn’t argue with. It was, like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. No child under 17 should see this movie.’ Why don’t I call you back?”

“It’s just a negotiation,” he explains. “Ultimately, 40 seconds came out of the movie because of it. No scene was removed. You’re not missing anything, believe me. I was going to do an unrated version for foreign and laserdisk, but I looked at it and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t miss any of this. None of it matters to the story. So fuck it.’”

The director is clearly having fun with his new notoriety and enjoying his first big chance to lie to the press. It’s been widely reported that Diggler’s 13-inch penis is made of latex, but lately the director has been denying it. “Who says it’s not real? That’s absolutely false,” he says, managing to hold a straight face for a few seconds before breaking into a grin.

Anderson’s first film, the moderately well-received Hard Eight, followed some small-time gamblers around Nevada. Two of the stars of that film, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall, turn up again in Boogie Nights. The director seems to have a liking for fringe characters.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” he admits. “I have an affinity for fringe character actors. I keep writing parts for them, and they keep coming out like this.

“I grew up in the [San Fernando] Valley,” he continues. “And I spend a lot of time in Reno. I spend a lot of time in Vegas. I was never in the porno industry. But I did grow up in the Valley, so it was always around me. And I have gambled a lot. I have a gambling problem,” he giggles. “But I’ve never murdered anyone, and I don’t have a 13-inch penis. It’s just the emotions and stuff that are very personal to me.

“I write parts for specific actors,” he notes. “If John C. Reilly is your favorite actor, which he is mine, you’re not going to be writing these fluffy [movies]. I’m not going to write the [U.S.] president role for John C. Reilly. He’s this freaky, weird character actor with a face like no one else in the world.”

Boogie Nights adds such well-known names as Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, and William H. Macy to Anderson’s troupe. “They knew what they were getting into,” says the director. “The script was really specific. I knew that that might be an issue, so I wrote it as specifically as I could, like, ‘She takes her clothes off here. Everything, underlined.’ Any actor who was interested in being in the movie had read the script and knew what they were getting into. That was the way to manage it, to be totally aboveboard. Sure, there were people who had no interest in coming to meet with me, who read the script, who were probably, like, ‘OK, I do get it. No fucking way!’ But you don’t bother with those people.”

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In addition to the roles he wrote for actors he’d already worked with, Anderson visualized some of the other performers he ultimately hired as he was writing the script. “How could you write a movie about porno with a character named Jack Horner without once or twice thinking of Burt Reynolds? That’s just gonna happen,” he laughs. “And then I thought of Mark maybe a couple of times. But I came to them both as sort of second or third choices, because some other people that I’d been talking to didn’t work out. But I can say now that they were my first choices, do you know what I mean? Because there’s no one else who could have done the jobs that they did.”

The director took GoodFellas as one of his models for Boogie Nights, and both films are placed and paced by vintage pop songs. “I love the music in the movie,” he says. “And I’m really proud of it. We did a cool job.

“I’d written the movie to the music,” he explains. “Just, like, songs that I liked, songs from my record collection. Songs that were either, like, ‘That’s just a cool song,’ or, ‘That’s not only cool but kind of works thematically.’ A lot of the movie was planned out to music; there are more than 50 music cues. Usually what happens is you make the movie, and then afterward you put the music in, and everybody looks at you like, ‘We’ve got one dollar left to put music in this movie. Pick one.’

“I knew that, so we really had to plan it out and budget for it. We had to set out a massive chunk of money and make sure we could get these songs, because I’m planning out sequences. I couldn’t get to editing room and not have the song. We’d be fucked.”

That didn’t happen, Anderson says: “We got really lucky. We got everything we wanted.”

Assembling the score was easier because it’s drawn heavily from the disco era, a time of little labels and one-shot artists whose catalogs are now not in great demand. “You know, don’t go for a Beatles song and don’t go for a Rolling Stones song, and you’ll be able to get a lot of songs,” the director laughs. “You can either have 50 songs, or you can have one Rolling Stones song. Walter Egan is easy.”

There was one close call, Anderson remembers. “With Jeff Lynne, for the ELO song at the end of the film, we called him and he had heard about the movie. And he said, ‘Listen, I kind of have a problem with sex and violence in movies. I have two young daughters. Could I see the film?’ So we screened the film for him, and as the last shot happens, as the ELO song starts to play, he raised his arms in the victory sign. Like, ‘Yes!’ And he called me at home and said, ‘I just want to tell you, I don’t like sex or violence in movies. I have two teenage daughters. This is the most fucking brilliant movie I’ve ever seen.’ And I’m, like, ‘Wow, thank you.’ It was cool.”

One of Boogie Nights’ motifs is the way filmed porno yielded to video. “The transition from film to video is what ruined porn,” says Anderson. “Porn had a glimpse of legitimacy, a moment where it was going to be a new genre: sex films that were well-told stories, with a little bit of plot, a little bit of character, a lot of fucking. It could have been this new thing. Then it was snuffed out when video came along.

“Film’s expensive,” he explains. “You need to think it through. ‘What are our shots? What do we need to do to tell the story the best we can? This costs money.’ When video comes along, it’s cheap. You don’t have to think about anything. It’s like an assembly-line mentality. Just shoot and shoot and shoot. We’ll edit it together later. There’s no sense of storytelling.

“It’s this degraded industry already. At least in the ’70s they could find solace in the fact that they were filmmakers, that their films would be projected in theaters, and they could link themselves to legitimate films. That they were all in it together: We’re making films.”

As he reveals with a quick, impromptu history, Anderson knows well the period of almost-legit porno that began in 1973 with Deep Throat. “There’s a whole world of porn out there to search out that’s actually pretty good stuff,” he enthuses. “And no, it’s not fucking great. But at least it has some kind of sense of humor about itself. There is at least a sense of effort, which you’re not going to find right now. It’s a filmmaking issue. It’s not a pornography issue.”

Boogie Nights is actually a remake of Anderson’s first film, a short called The Dirk Diggler Story that he made while still in high school. This time, he says, he has exhausted the topic. “I’ve made the movie about porno,” he claims. “I don’t think there’s much more to say, for me.” He’s not yet sure what his next script will tackle. “I’ll just write things that are interesting to me, that I connect to. I don’t know what it will be, exactly, but I know it will be good.”

If Anderson is outspoken about his own talent, he has less to say about Boogie Nights’ final words. As the credits end, a voice can he heard to say, “I know where Ringo is.” Asked about the line, the director shrugs. “All us young filmmakers need our little Rosebud moments,” he laughs.—Mark Jenkins