Aiming to delve deeper into the minds of cinema's greatest, Behind the Camera is the ultimate guide to get you in the know for all things film.

Paul Thomas Anderson, or PTA, as he is known by his loving legion of fans, is a true genius of his craft and a real cinematic auteur. He dedicates himself wholeheartedly to his films, often spending many years and even his own money to realize his vision. His films are sensational and captivating, often demanding repeated viewings. Here we take a look at why that is and what makes PTA one of contemporary cinema’s most exciting directors.

Early life and getting into film

Growing up in LA's San Fernando Valley in the '70s, Paul Thomas Anderson was exposed early to the entertainment business. His father was a voice actor and late-night horror movie host named Ghoulardi (at one point commanding nearly 70% of late-night TV audiences), as well as a full-time prankster and anti-authoritarian figure. He famously ran his mouth, worrying TV executives that he might go too far, often blowing up a variety of objects both on-and-off the air (one time almost burning down the studio). His shenanigans earned him a reverence of almost rockstar level, leaving an indelible mark on Anderson's youth and influencing much of his career.

Unsurprisingly Anderson was often surrounded by cameras throughout his childhood, shooting his first film at age eight and progressing from 8mm to 16mm by the time he was a teenager. Some of his short films even went on to inspire his later feature films - a 30-minute mockumentary on made-up porn star Dirk Diggler shot in 1988 became the basis for Boogie Nights.

I really subscribe to that old adage that you should never let the audience get ahead of you for a second. So if the film’s abrasive and wrongfoots people then, y’know, that’s great. But I hope it involves an audience. If not, that’s my fuck-up.

After a short stint at NYU’s prestigious film school, PTA dropped out deciding a more independent route was in order and he went his own way from there. “I can remember being a kid thinking, ‘I’m going to make movies some day.’ I didn’t imagine what my filmography was, but I can imagine I probably thought, you know, I‘d be making action adventure films and all kinds […] I didn’t know.”

Visual and thematic trademarks

Anderson's films share several common themes, styles and trademarks. In terms of camerawork, he clearly has an eye on Scorsese’s cinematic world, particularly the prolonged Steadicam shots. Boogie Nights' opening shot is reminiscent of Goodfellas' opening Copacabana nightclub scene. This three-minute long tracking shot, which weaves between characters and locations, incorporates both crane and Steadicam footage and has since become a hallmark of PTA’s directing skills.

As for acting, Anderson has a strong eye for talent, handpicking his favorite actors and working with them extensively throughout his career. He writes roles specifically for each actor and assembles incredibly talented ensemble casts, including the likes of John C. Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Baker Hall. Every film sans Hard Eight takes place in his home state California, proving the importance his childhood and upbringing have had on his body of work.

A complex, strained father/son relationship always seems to find a place in his films. Not necessarily based in fact from his life, but rather influenced by the awe that his father inspired. Magical realism also has an important role in his films, from cataclysmic frog downpours to disillusioned drug sequences – the idea of a limitless cinematic world pushes PTA to be original, adventurous and audacious.

Regarding influences, his work is indebted to filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Jonathan Demme, Orson Welles, John Ford and Max Ophüls.

Overview of important films

Hard Eight

Anderson's first feature-length film (originally titled Sydney) was released in 1996 as a labor of love. Originally created as a short film titled "Cigarettes & Coffee" during the Sundance Institute Filmmaker Lab, it was later turned into a full-fledged feature. After completing the film, producers re-edited it, upsetting Anderson by altering his vision. Anderson's original Director's Cut was screened at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim. However his battle with the studios caused a delay in the film's release, so Anderson funded its distribution the following year with his own money – his devotion being a harbinger of his career to come.

Philip Seymour Hoffmann also played a small role here, and would continue to be in every subsequent PTA film sans There Will be Blood. Anderson later recalled seeing Hoffmann: “When I saw him for the first time in 'Scent of a Woman', I just knew what true love was. I knew what love at first sight was. It was the strangest feeling sitting in a movie theater and thinking, ‘He’s for me and I’m for him.’ And that was it.”

Boogie Nights

While Hard Eight’s distribution conflict ensued, PTA worked on this follow-up feature which was released in 1997 to critical and commercial acclaim. Fast-paced, fast cut, glamorous and infused with the hedonism of 1970s drug-infused Los Angeles, Boogie Nights depicts a rise-and-fall narrative of porn star Dirk Diggler, played by Mark Wahlberg.

My dad was one of the first guys on the block to have a VCR. So along with all the videotapes that I would rummage through, I would find porno movies. Not that it twisted me into some maniac or anything. I was watching porno from age 10 to 17. I had an interest in it.

Reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s epic masterpieces, the film is a decadent ode to the Golden Age of Porn. It solidified PTA’s career as a masterful filmmaker in all aspects, and subsequently revived Burt Reynolds' AND Mark Wahlberg’s careers in one fell swoop.


Written after the death of his father, this exceedingly long film (even Anderson acknowledged it might have run far too long) is a heavy-hearted, elegiac masterpiece that reflects on the universal ideas of coincidence and redemption. Clearly influenced by film legend Robert Altman's work, Magnolia is an overly sentimental and emotional film, but for fans of PTA this is precisely what makes it so sincere.

Driven by an oddly enthralling Tom Cruise performance, as well as by PTA ensemble regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy, Magnolia is most remembered for its sky-splitting, frog-raining biblical imagery. This is PTA at his most enigmatic, honest and truthfully, his best. On the meaning of the film: “Oh, how I hate it, when directors are supposed to explain their films. I only say this much: If I had had more cash, I would have let it rain cats and dogs.”

There Will Be Blood

This 2007 epic drama, adapted from the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, follows an oil baron’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) ruthless pursuit for fortune. It turned out to be one of Anderson's most successful oeuvres, yet took almost two years to even acquire funding from the studio, as they didn’t believe in the film’s potential commercial success. PTA took influence from one of his favorite childhood directors, John Huston, purportedly watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre day after day to get in the mood. The film was also strongly recognized during the awards season, picking up two Oscars – one for Daniel Day Lewis' brilliant lead performance and another for Robert Elswit's cinematography.

The Master

Loosely inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, 2012’s The Master follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he falls under the spell of Hubbard-esque religious leader and former alcoholic Lancaster Dodd (Philipp Seymour Hoffmann). The film veers from There Will Be Blood’s historical biopic, focusing rather on the mens' relationship and the dynamics of religion, power, self-absorption, self-awakening and blind faith.

It examines the role of a Scientology-esque religion in society, but critics have noted that perhaps Anderson doesn’t quite reveal the true depths and potential darkness of Scientology – he even screened it to members within the organization who viewed it favorably. Regardless, PTA does indeed create a beautiful and wholly enjoyable film. Always favoring analog film over digital, The Master was shot on 65mm film stock, with the hope of it being projected exclusively in 70mm-equipped screening theaters – further attesting PTA's love of cinema.

Inherent Vice

Released in early 2015, Inherent Vice is the first - and perhaps will be the last - adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s been said that no Pynchon novel could possibly be adapted for film. However, there could only be one director that could make it work – this is precisely because PTA understands the southern California, drug-dazed, philosophically enigmatic world in which Pynchon inhabits. Seen through the (stoned) eyes of private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the film is wry, witty, preposterous and extremely entertaining.

It has great paranoia, which you must have if you're doing a Pynchon book. But most of all it seemed to be a way to address something that's prevalent in all his books; that outlandish spirit, the humor, the nostalgia – that kind of sweet, dripping aching for the past.

The star-studded ensemble cast does a wonderful job portraying the hazy nonchalance of the counterculture '70s as they seek to uncover political conspiracies. Despite the lackluster reviews, for those who know Pynchon’s world, the film succeeds on all fronts and does justice to its literary inspiration. And apparently even the reclusive Pynchon gave PTA his thumbs up. If that’s not a sign of success, we’re not sure what is.

Written by Brian Papish for

Now make sure you go Behind the Camera with Quentin Tarantino and find out the 30 Film Directors You Should Know.

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