Hard Eight (also known as Sydney) is the first feature from skilled writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who established himself as an incredible talent with his subsequent retro-porn epic Boogie Nights. But Anderson wasn’t holding anything back in his debut and, though quite different in tone, Hard Eight is likewise a compelling character study set against a traditionally seedy backdrop. Listen to any Anderson commentary track and you’ll know immediately how highly he regards his actors, and none of them let him down.
PT Anderson is a brilliant filmmaker who emersed himself in audio commentary tracks from laserdiscs. In his ‘Sydney’ (aka ‘Hard Eight’) commentary (accompanied by Phillip Baker Hall) he unleashes a fury of discussion about his film, the process of writing it, the Sundance Lab, his struggles with financiers and the influences on the genesis of the story. It’s done by someone who loves audio commentaries and, therefore, knows exactly what makes a good one. He provides two more tracks on the DVD release of his second film, ‘Boogie Nights’, both of which are also excellent for different reasons, but that would appear to be where it ends. Luckily, he’s given us great examples of an audio commentary on his first two films. —Racking Focus
Read, learn, and absorb this screenwriting gem: Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for the Hard Eight (also known as Sydney) [pdf]. (NOTE: For educational purposes only)
Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of his film Sydney during the 1993 Sundance Institute Directors Lab. Sydney renamed Hard Eight later premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.
The next summer Anderson came back to the Sundance filmmakers’ lab to work on his first feature. Although he was starting to avoid interviews and leave old friends like Stein and Conrad behind — which has left many of them hurt and puzzled — he was a great presence at Sundance, open to everything and friendly to everyone and completely absorbed in the entire history of movies at a level far beyond most other young filmmakers. He liked to tease the box-office lady about all the films he was going to sneak into. He would make people list their favorite directors and then defend their choices, Cooper says, arguing so fiercely they spent days questioning their judgment. There was no question where he was headed. And this is where the story of Paul Thomas Anderson becomes almost mythical, a parable about the necessity of real art. The evidence is in the scenes he shot that summer at Sundance, now available in the supplemental material on the DVD that was eventually released under the title Hard Eight. (But the working title, the title he still prefers, is Sydney, just as he told Carole Stevens back in high school.)
Although Anderson would soon become famous for some of the most dizzyingly ambitious sequences in the history of film, the DVD scenes are mostly just Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly sitting in a coffee shop and talking. There are no tracking shots, no fancy cuts. He barely moves the camera at all. Despite his youth and seemingly endless ambition, he already knew that a real story is about people talking around the things inside their hearts — in this case, an older gambler who speaks in an oddly formal diction while becoming a father figure to a lost young man. It seems inevitable that the fools who financed it locked him out of the editing room to cut it faster and more commercially, that Reilly and Hall faked sore throats to avoid dubbing that edit, that Anderson recut his original version from scraps and got it accepted into the Cannes Film Festival, that the resulting acclaim launched his career, that his next film (and first masterpiece) was a three-hour remake of something he shot on videotape when he was seventeen. An artist whose great theme would be the destiny coded in the seemingly random fragments of our lives was already standing in the doorway to his future, pulling together the fragments of his past, furiously fulfilling the person he already was and imagining the person he would become — anything so he wouldn’t have to go back. —The Secret History of Paul Thomas Anderson
Here’s the snippet of Paul Thomas Anderson discussing his horrifying experience on his first directorial feature, Sydney (aka Hard Eight), and how he survived and overcame:
Before you made Hard Eight I presume that this wasn’t the first script you wrote. How come you chose it to be your first one?
Yes I had only written maybe one or two other scripts that I didn’t really like that much and I liked this one and it seemed that I could do it. It seemed that I could make a movie which was small with only four characters in Reno, Nevada and that I could raise money for it. It was really all I had.
You had no choice!
Yeah but I really didn’t need any other choice. It was that movie that I wanted to make. I got very lucky on that movie just to start making it but I got in a lot of trouble when I made the movie. There were some producers that fired me actually after I… It was my movie. I mean I wrote it and directed it and then I found these guys to finance it and they were real criminals. (Laughing) I put the movie together. And they had all these ideas for cuts that I wouldn’t make. Some of them were actually good ideas but I was too arrogant to like see that they were good ideas and they were kind of dicks too. But they ended up taking the movie away from me. It was like this amazing lesson very early on where I was hit fucking repeatedly over and over again and I fought and I desperately tried to get the movie back and it was just a long, long battle. And eventually I got the movie back but there was a period where I did get beat up enough and where I was swimming in the darkest depression and I thought my career is over and I will never get another chance. But I pulled myself out of it somehow and the only way that I could get things going again is if I go to work again. So I went and got Boogie Nights made and the amazing thing in doing that was I went to get Boogie Nights made and that became kind of easy, getting money for it and at the same time I reinvestigated the fight to get my first movie back. And I got that movie back so I was in pre-production on Boogie Nights while I was re-cutting and finishing off my first movie. And it was kind of a this great lesson that I learned just having gone in this really deep and dark depression where I couldn’t get out of my fucking bed and the only thing that I could do is just get up and attack, attack and attack. And I am happy that that happened. So it was kind of a great first lesson on my first movie. And I was able to learn right then and there all kinds of mistakes that I have made. All that arrogance where I wasn’t seeing anything and where they were right and I was just too blind to notice it. But I also learned that I was right on a lot of stuff and I should have fought for what I believed. So it’s just kind of a great lesson on my first movie.
This is a second great tip of the season. Beat depression by breaking it!
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