In a suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about the movie, which opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 26, the two notoriously media-shy artists are disarmingly loose and engaging. Day-Lewis, with shaggy, graying hair, golden hoops in his ears and tattoos covering his right arm, liberally interjects mischievous remarks into the conversation. Anderson is unshaven and rumpled, and radiates the youthful energy of someone who is still very much in love with film.
Anderson: I knew through the grapevine that Daniel had liked "Punch-Drunk Love" a lot, so I felt confident enough to ask him to read the script I was writing. It worked out really nicely just because our lives were at a good spot. He was ready to work and I was in New York at the same time he was in New York. So, long afternoon walks and really good breakfasts.
Day-Lewis: We really tucked away some ham and eggs.
Anderson: You get to learn a lot about somebody you might want to work with from what they order for breakfast.
Day-Lewis: Yeah, yeah. What's that appetite like? [cocking an eyebrow] And do they resist the appetite? Are they really very hungry but they order the fruit plate?
So did you craft the character of Plainview with Daniel in mind?
Anderson: Well, yeah, certainly hoping that it would be a possibility. It didn't start that way. The character in the book had its own personality and then I sort of added to that along the way. At whatever point, I thought, if there would ever be a great time to ask Daniel to do something, this would probably be it. Whether or not he was going to do it, that kind of gave me the confidence to write something that only he's capable of doing. Which was great, because you think, there's only one person who can really do this, one person mad enough to say this stuff. [Laughter]
Is it true you started the idea for the script before you came across "Oil!"?
Anderson: I'm always writing and have things lying around, like wolf dust. You know the old phrase, when you don't have anything in the kitchen but you've got lots of little bits and pieces and leftovers, things in the can, and you get a meal together out of that. It's "wolf dust," so when the wolf comes knocking, you'll have at least enough to keep him away from the door. I felt like I had nothing solid to offer up but enough things that I'd written down that maybe matched up with what I saw in "Oil!" and could pair up with it.
I wonder why a project with you two attached would have trouble getting financed, as this did, apart from the lack of car crashes and women being tortured.
Day-Lewis: Probably someone somewhere said, "If ever we let those two . . . get together, there's going to be trouble."
Anderson: Yeah, that's probably what they said.
Day-Lewis: It's a bit like crunching numbers to work out whether an actor or a director is going to be a payoff. They do the same thing with all the ingredients, apparently, of any given project. And this is a period film, which apparently nobody wants to go see; there are no girls in it . . . Anderson: Length . . . [The film clocks in at 2 hours, 37 minutes.]
Day-Lewis: And it's a film without a perceivable happy ending. Although I think it's quite happy.
Anderson: Do you remember when we were sitting at dinner and we were kind of moping about and there was a long pause and I said, "What's the movie you were in that made the most money?" And you said, "Don't . . . blame it on me!"
Back to the adaptation, if you can call it that, because your version bears so little resemblance to the book. Pretty much everything is different but the setting. The familial relationships, the plot, even the names are different. So what about that text was inspiring to you?
Anderson: So many things. I mean, you can say, 'Why did you fall in love with your wife?' 'Well, she's beautiful, she's got a great sense of humor,' but I don't feel like I've said anything. I had enough books and a passing interest in that time and the oil fields of California. But this was a book that had a substantial story. Whether or not we could tell all of that story, it was enough to really get started and to piggyback on the language that was started in the book. It's a great feeling to take a scene from the book, we're talking about the real estate office, which is quite a long scene and detailed in terms of the operation of how Plainview is going to gobble up a bunch of land. We very slowly shrunk it down and shrunk it down and shrunk it down to what we needed. It was very simple. "I have just bought the Sunday ranch. Where's the map?" But it's a great feeling to know what the bigger version of that scene is for Daniel and for me; you're armed with as much information as you can.
The way you pared that scene down makes Plainview seem like the model of efficiency: "Here are the pretenses under which I'm going to buy land, and here's what I really want."
Day-Lewis: It kills two birds with one stone. It gives you Plainview's efficiency, it gives you an incredible sense of his momentum; but it also gives the film momentum at a time when it needs to be really going forward. You need to feel that once Plainview goes into action, everything is in his slipstream, everyone is just struggling to catch up with the man. He sees where the scam is, where dirty deeds have to be done and just gets on with it.
When I think of the Sinclair book, I think of a socialist diatribe about the relationship between labor and management. But that's not present in your film. You grab the Eli story and go in a totally different direction. Was that because the Eli story was more dramatic for you, or were you not interested in that (rather timely) labor-management dynamic?
Anderson: I was interested in it but certainly not as interested as I was in the juicier stuff. And while it might be interesting to read, it seemed impossible to film. I didn't know how to film that kind of struggle without it being overly talky.
Were you consciously trying to get away from things you'd done before? It feels so different from your other films. Different collaborators, a period piece . . .
Anderson: Definitely. But I remember feeling that way when I made "Punch-Drunk Love." "Whatever I did last time, I don't want to do that again." Desperate to not feel comfortable or to not repeat yourself. Probably secretly only happy if completely terrified. . . . But the thrill of working with new people too, I mean, to work with Daniel and Jack Fisk, a production designer I hadn't worked with before, it's great. You start out being so polite with your new collaborators, don't you?
Day-Lewis: Mmm, yeah, yeah.
Anderson: And then it's great when you get to that point where you're not polite anymore. You're all savages.