P. T. Anderson’s fifth movie There Will Be Blood has very little in common with his previous four in that there’s very little deliberate humor in its exploration of the early days of the oil drilling business in California as told through the rise and fall of oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose oil drilling business is thriving until he arrives at the ultra-religious town of Little Boston and finds himself in conflict with their young evangelical minister Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Even as the town proves to be a bonanza of oil profits, Plainview’s personal life takes a downturn as the important things in his life like family succumb to his greed and lust to find oil.
Anderson and actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano held a press conference in New York City to talk about the movie that was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” and ComingSoon.net was there to take notes.
ComingSoon.net: What was the inspiration and impetus for adapting the Upton Sinclair novel into a movie and for Daniel, this movie was written with you in mind, so what was the collaboration like and what was the challenge to play such a miserable pr*ck in this movie?
Daniel Day-Lewis: No challenge. (laughter)
P.T. Anderson: I think the arc goes like that (does a downwards sweeping gesture with arm) goes from miserable to more miserable hopefully. The inspiration for the movie first and foremost comes from the book. I’d been trying to write something, anything, just to get something written. I had a story that wasn’t really working that was about two fighting families and it didn’t really have anything, just that premise. When I read the book, there were so many ready-made scenes and the great venue of the oilfields. Those were the obvious things that seemed worth making a film about, and the desire to work with Daniel certainly, once that presented itself as a possibility, certainly drove the engine for me to write it and to finish it and to get it to him.
Day-Lewis: I never really saw him as a miserable pr*ck, but I suppose I don’t know what the challenge is. The challenge, I dare say, is the same as it always is, which is to try and discover a life that isn’t your own. Plainview, as he came to me in Paul’s beautiful script, was a man whose life I didn’t understand at all. It was a life that was completely mysterious to me and that unleashed a fatal curiosity, which I had no choice but to pursue.
CS: Do you see him as a miserable person?
Day-Lewis: He’s just a fellow trying to make a living.
CS: Does he descend into madness at the end or is that anger and hostility there from the very beginning?
Day-Lewis: Oh, I’m not really the best person to say this, but I believe you see the seeds of the man you meet at the end in the man you meet at the beginning but to me, he’s undergoing a transformation. It never occurred to me that his journey was a short one.
CS: Daniel Plainview has a very distinct dialect you establish and then sustain through the film. Can you talk about creating that?
Anderson: Well, the first speech in the movie is taken directly from the Upton Sinclair book”Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve traveled over half our state ” It was just incredibly simple; very direct. I can remember thinking, “Just keep it simple, keep the language simple.” I couldn’t imagine these guys using more words than they had to use, anybody in this venue, which became a nice way to attack it. Ideally it gets to the point when it’s just going well, you write something and wake up the next morning and say “God, who wrote that? That’s pretty good.”
CS: Was casting Paul as Eli related to his previous work with Daniel in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”?
Anderson: It was, because the first time I’d seen Paul was in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” and called Rebecca Miller to tell her how much I loved the film, and tell Daniel, but really, the first question in my mind was “Who the hell was that?” ’cause I thought he was so terrific. I think I had just finished writing the script so I knew I had to find somebody to play the part. I originally insanely thought it should be a 12 or 13-year-old boy and then that seemed ridiculous, and then I saw Paul and thought he would be great. He certainly got a good recommendation from Rebecca and from Daniel. (At this point, Daniel covers his ears.) They said (laughs) nothing too great. (laughter) I mean, I had to meet Paul for myself to know, and it was a pretty clear that he is a terrific young actor, and we’re just very lucky.
CS: Originally Paul was only supposed to play the role of Paul Sunday, and then it was expanded for him to play Eli as well. Could you talk about that decision?
Anderson: We had an actor, and it didn’t really work, out, and we had Paul, and he was in a small part. We though, “God, why is he in such a small part?” And then, better yet, maybe because of my obsession with “East of Eden,” I thought, “Well, they’ve got to be twins, right?” I had actually been talking to a friend at the moment that all this was happening, who was telling me about his twin brother. I thought it was too good to pass up.
CS: In the Times profile on Daniel, it was mentioned that the other actor who was going to play Eli was intimidated by Daniel and that Paul originally auditioned to play Eli.
Anderson: Yes, he did, and I was too dumb to give him the part.
Day-Lewis: I’m probably not the right person to speak about it anyhow. I was quite surprised when I read that comment. Whatever the problem was during that time with that particular person, I absolutely don’t believe that it was because he was intimidated by me. I happen to believe that; I hope I’m right.
CS: And what was your reaction when you found out you would be playing both parts, Paul?
Dano: [Deadpan] Double the pay. (laughter) I didn’t have a lot of time to think about things like that. I certainly didn’t relish the idea of getting a bigger part in this film because of trying to throw myself into the character, and that was the priority. I have to say in retrospect, yeah, it was wonderful to get to spend some more time in Texas with these guys here. I feel very lucky, and hopefully I was able to contribute to it in so short amount of time. That was my main concern, to try and make a contribution without a lot of time to prepare.
CS: Paul, what research did you do for your role?
Paul Dano: It first started with just trying to learn a little bit about the time period. I think whenever you’re doing a period piece that’s important, but especially, to me, sharing a lot of scenes with Daniel and how well he immerses himself within the period. I’ve seen him working, and it was something that I really wanted to pay attention to. I looked up some stuff about evangelical preaches, but I sort of had a privilege with Eli. He didn’t have radio or television, and I don’t think he had the opportunity to see a tremendous amount of preachers, except when somebody traveled through his town or a town close by. He didn’t have a lot of books either, so I think he sort of made himself up once he found what his gifts and his savviness and charisma could bring him. I think that slowly took over in him, and through the words of the Bible and loving to hear himself talk, he found some way to be spiritually seductive via himself. As an actor, I don’t know if it was an excuse on my behalf, but it was a way for me to run with the material that Paul gave me and not have to base it on one person or a group of people in particular, and sort of try to run with whatever instincts I had for the character.
CS: Daniel, this role was incredibly physical, so can you talk about preparing to drill for oil and Paul, what would you not have him do in terms of the dangers of the oil drilling situations?
Anderson: Ha, nothing. He’s required to do it all.
Day-Lewis: Well, the thing about those lads when you discover Plainview at the beginning, he’s almost learning himself how to do it. Anyone that can swing a pick ax or a sledge, which anyone can do, can dig a hole in the ground. In terms of the physical preparation, there wasn’t really anything except to stay fit and then start digging holes. They kind of made it up as they went along and that was true, even as you see in the story. Before even cable or rotary drilling became common use, they began by scooping this muck as erupted naturally out of earth, scooping it up in saucepans and buckets. That was the first way of gathering oil and then someone had the bright idea of trying to set up an A-frame and plunge the equipment of a telegraph pole down into ground, see if that will help it along. (chuckles) It was incredibly primitive. As the story progresses, then there’s something to learn about because the drilling procedure is a fairly complicated thing, but at the beginning it’s sheer blood and sweat really just to scoop the stuff up.
CS: What were you going for in terms of the impact of oil lust on human behavior and how it reflects on current affairs, and why did you choose a different title from the book?
Anderson: Well, we changed the title because I think at the end of the day, there’s not enough of the book probably left to feel it’s a proper adaptation of the book. Probably selfishly I wrote the title down and it looked really good and I thought, “We should call the film that.” And in terms of the U.S. liking oil and all that, well I grew up in California and there’s a lot of oil out there. I don’t live that far from Bakersfield, which is where the initial discoveries of oil were in California and still are pumping away. I suppose I’ve always wondered what the stuff is, how we get it out of the ground, why we like it so much and what the story was. The story of oil in California in particular and probably in this country was really well told in the first couple hundred pages of the Upton Sinclair book. He started to write the book in the ’20s when he went with his wife to the Signal Hill area, which is down near Long Beach, which was essentially set up to be vacation homes overlooking Long Beach Bay. What happened was that somebody decided that instead of building a vacation home, they decided to drill for oil and they struck oil, so this community went absolutely mad. His wife owned a plot of land, and they took a ride down there. This community was trying to get a lease together, so they were trying to meet independent prospectors to see if they could get together and potentially get a bigger pie made up, but when he witnessed this group trying to get this lease together, he said in his words that he witnessed “human greed laid bare.” He just saw these people go absolutely crazy, and he knew what he wanted to write about and that’s what started him on the road of that story. We just picked up where he left off I supposed. There was a lot of other things that go on in the book. It goes to Hollywood, it goes to Washington D.C., it takes care of the Teapot Dome Scandal, the Russian Revolution, all these massive things that we couldn’t do, but at the core of the story was the drive and ambition, not only from this independent oil man, but also from the people he was supposedly getting the better of in leasing their land.
CS: How conscious were you about the socio-political commentary that you were putting into the characters and how conscious of the subtext were the actors?
Anderson: Aware of it enough to know that if we indulged too much in it or let that stuff rise to the top, that it could get kinda murky. It’s a slippery slope when you start thinking about something other than just a good battle between two guys that see each other for what they are, just trying to sort of work from that first and foremost. You let everything else that is there to fall in place behind it. It would be horrible to make a political film or anything like that, but just to tell a nasty story and let the rest take care of itself.
Paul Dano: No, I think for me I would leave any of that for Paul to bring out in the film if that’s what he wanted, but I certainly didn’t look it as anything more than a story to try and tell. I think it would have been dangerous for me to have worried about trying to bring out some sort of political theme or something other than being truthful to the character.
CS: Can you talk about the three amazing confrontation scenes between the two men, how you prepared for them, how they were shot in terms of doing multiple takes or not, etc.?
Anderson: Yeah, well I’d say that first off was the reservoir and Daniel takes the first swing.
Day-Lewis: That was a very difficult day, wasn’t it?
Day-Lewis: Things weren’t going right. People were doing all kinds of things to try and fix the pipe which needed to be working in the background filling the reservoir, so we lost a day in this place, which we couldn’t afford to do since time was very tight and essentially, out of necessity, often something interesting is born, and Paul set up a tracking shot which covered the whole scene. We didn’t know if we could make it work, because obviously with the hits, you have to get each angle right and in a moving shot that covers the whole scenes, the chances of getting everything right in that shot are pretty slim. So we sort of attacked it like that and there was nothing you could do to get ready for that expect to try it and try it again.
Anderson: And the next day, we got to shoot the baptism scene, so Paul got to have his way, and that was a very similar thing with one exception. We decided that we would shoot everything up until we didn’t rehearse it. We just knew where they would stand and had a couple cameras rolling, and we figured that we would just get the scene before the slapping stars, we would get that, and then we would start slapping, but Paul either forgot or decided to take his own initiative and began to slap Daniel across the face. (laughter)
CS: What about the last scene?
Anderson: That’s a fog. That’s two days of fog in a bowling alley. I don’t remember quite exactly honestly. (laughter) I don’t remember.
Day-Lewis: The last one? Again, we shot that scene in the Duhaney Mansion and Sinclair loosely based the character in his book “Oil!” on the life of Duhaney, so by a second removed, there was also a connection there. And this was this huge, great gloomy pile was the pyramid that he built to himself with the wealth he accumulated and it’s overseen by the Duhahey Trust and they employ a very large army of people in extremely neat uniforms to watch every goddammed move that you make in the place. I don’t know what they thought we were doing in there but they seemed quite disturbed by the whole thing. We had already entered into a realm where we didn’t know one thing from another, but it was very tight. Again, we had very little time to play with, and yeah, it was a fog.
CS: What about Dillon Freasier, the boy who plays Daniel’s son H.W.? How did you find him and what was it like working with him?
Anderson: Cassandra Kulukundis was the casting director. We did start out in Los Angeles and New York reading young men with headshots and that kind of thing. We thought we needed a boy from Texas who knew how to shoot shotguns and live in that world. She asked around schools, she said, “I’m looking for a man in a young boy’s body,” and one principal said “I have just the boy.” And it was Dillon. She didn’t really have him read scenes or anything like that. We talked with him and it was clear he was a very special young man. He took to it really well. We’re all so fond of him. He’d never been on a movie set, he’d never seen movie cameras, nothing like that, but he loved it. I remember having the first costume fitting. You would think that most 10-year-old boys would not looking forward to wearing britches, but the second he saw them, he said “I’ve always wanted to wear britches.”
Day-Lewis: I agree with everything that Paul said about him. I felt very close to Dillon, I’m very fond of him. He’s a cowboy, by the way. His father is a rancher. He’s got his rodeo buckles, he’s won numerous events, he does round-ups, he’s the real thing. He has this strange maturity that’s very unusualsomething that a lot of kids his age might have in common in that part of the world. He’s really used to hard work. He’s got handsyou could knock out a horse with those hands. He’s the most delightful person. He had that curiosity, as Paul was saying. Everything that was going on, every department, he was just constantly drinking in all this new information with such excitement. As we approached the moment when we were going to start shooting, I started to worry a little bit. We were quite close, we had a nice friendship, and I thought, “Man, how’s he going to feel when I start treating him harshly?” So I thought I’d better have a conversation with him about that, so I kind of sat him down and I created this sort of portentous atmosphere. I said, “Dillon, you know how I feel about you. There are going to be moments in the next months to come when I’m going to speak harshly to you, I’m not going to treat you nicely. I hope you understand that I love you and so on ” And he looked at me like I was insane, like “Of course I know that.” He was just one step ahead of us, pretty much most of the time.
Anderson: He just needed the go-ahead every once in a while. He had to struggle with Ciaran and he had to slap Daniel. He didn’t like to do it initially.
Day-Lewis: He developed a taste for it though. (laughter)
Anderson: But once we said, “Yeah, you have to hit him across the face as hard as you can, it’s okay.” And his mom said, “You’d better do it, Dillon. They told you to do it, you can do it, it’s OK.”
Day-Lewis: His mom just raised him so beautifully. She no longer is, but at the time his mom was a state trooper. She wanted to do things right and she thought she’d better check out this bunch of people that were going to be taking care of her son. She said, “I’ll go rent a movie that fellow did,” and she went and got “Gangs of New York.” She was absolutely appalled. (laughter) She thought she was releasing her dear child into the hands of a monster. There was a flurry of phone calls, and somebody sent a copy of “The Age of Innocence” to her. Apparently that did the trick.
CS: It would seem like Daniel’s relationship with his son is what defines whether his character can be considered a complete monster or not. How did you understand his relationship with the boy?
Anderson: I think his relationship to the boyI wish Daniel could have done better with illness, but the trouble that he has facing up to what happens to the boy. It would have been nice if he could have done better with that.
Day-Lewis: You know, there’s a real connection between those two. It’s not pure exploitation, even though Daniel kind of taunts him later on, the idea of a cute face to buy land. Even earlier on there’s a sort of joke made of it. It definitely goes deeper than that. The problem is that Plainview has no understanding of what the responsibilities of a parent are. His son is preternaturally responsible in a way that a genuine partner would be for the day-to-day running of his business. From Plainview’s point of view anything that interferes with the running of a business is something that he has to take care of, for his son’s sake as well. He doesn’t know how to deal with this damaged creature. He’s a childhe doesn’t know how to be a father to him. He’s a friend and a partner, but he doesn’t know how to take care of him as a father. He has no means of knowing that.
CS: The score was almost a character unto itself, so can you talk about how that came about?
Anderson: It sort of begins and ends with Jonny Greenwood. I suppose the good idea that I had [was] to ask him to do it. He had a couple pieces that existed before that he’d written for orchestra. He’s better known for his day job; he’s in a band called Radiohead, and he had written a few orchestral pieces that I heard and thought were terrific. I had known him for a few years and asked him to do it, and showed him the film. He said “Okay, great.” I gave him a copy of the movie, and about three weeks later, he came back with two hours of music. I have no idea how or when he did it, but he did it. It’s kind of amazing. I can’t say that I did any real guiding or had any real contribution to it. I just took what he gave us and found the right places for it. A couple of things that he’d written on piano that we then took to an orchestra, a couple things that he’d written for string quartet that just went straight into the film. We did that over the course of a couple months. It was a great experience working with him.
Day-Lewis: Paul recorded the music at Abbey Road in London. The astonishing thing about Jonny is that he didn’t study composition. I think he was a violinist, and then he went into the band and the band became his life, but somehow, along the way, he taught himself composition. He is the resident composer for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He scored the whole thing himself. I don’t know how he did it.
CS: You thanked Robert Altman in the credits, so did his film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” influence the look and feel of this movie?
Anderson: Well every one of Robert’s films has been an inspiration to me. I saw his films when I was starting out, and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” was certainly one them, “Nashville” everything. All of them. We became pretty close in the last few years of his life. I got the job of sitting next to him on “A Prairie Home Companion” for insurance reasons. My partner [Maya Rudolph] was in the film, and she was pregnant at the time. Just in case anything happened with Bob, I was hired to sit there next to him. I can’t tell you what I took from it. Obviously it was a privilege and an honor and all that, but just such an amazing good time for 30 days to sit next to him. Bob was very good at relaxing; he was a very relaxed director. I don’t know if he always was like that. I think he might have been. I would find myself getting uptight about things, and he just sort of looked at me like “What are you worried about? It’s all going to be fine.” Maybe I learned that from him, to relax a little bit more. He died while we were cutting [“There Will Be Blood”]. I was planning to show it to him. I was in Ireland with Daniel working on the film, and I was planning to come back and show it to him and never got a chance to. That’s really a drag that he didn’t get to see it, so yeah, we dedicated the film to him.
There Will Be Blood opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 26.