paul thomas anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson: Breaking Down His Directing Style & Techniques

Some people are quick learners, some people have a keen sense already and polish their skill while some seem to have been born with the skill and talent to accomplish something great.

Paul Thomas Anderson famously known as P.T Anderson happens to be such a filmmaker who seems to have been born with the ability and eye of a filmmaker. Born on the 26th of June, 1970 P.T Anderson was born in Studio City, California to Ernie and Edwina Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson

Credit: Paul Thomas Anderson

Ernie Anderson was the renowned and familiar voice of ABC and a horror show host Ghoulardi, which used to run on Cleveland television late at night. San Fernando is the place where the young P.T Anderson grew up. He did not have a close bond with his mother and shared a troubled relationship with her, but he was particularly close with his father Ernie whose support and encouragement made him make a place for himself by being a writer or a director.

Being the third youngest of nine siblings, Anderson attended numerous schools which included Buckley in Sherman Oaks, John Thomas Dye School and then Campbell Hall School. He and his group of friends were always up to something related to filming and shooting and which got a bit out of control for which his parents sent him to Cushing Academy which was a very refined boarding school.

He had his share of attending elite schools but never really fit the mold. As he was skinny, smart and had a sharp tongue too. Being sent too far from the man he idolized didn’t bode well for him, and somehow he talked his way back and ended up in Montclair Prep and that is where he began to grow in the true sense.

Anderson was interested in film making since a young age. It will be surprising to know that he made his first movie when he was 8 years of age. Ernie, his father knowing his son’s passion gave him a Betamax video camera when Paul was 12 years old and since then, it started. Paul’s teenage life thorough out schooling went by shooting something or another.

Teenage Filmmaker

He has living been living his life following his teenage life motto, anything for a shot. His friends tell how annoyed they used to get because that camera used to be with him anywhere and everywhere and he shot anything he set his mind to. Anderson seemed to have been born with a sense of how the camera could relate to the people and the images could be utilized to narrate a story. And that is exactly how he became a renowned American film director, screen writer and producer.

Anderson had no alternative plan to directing films. After his Betamax he began using 8mm film and arrived at the conclusion that video was easier.

Anderson had begun writing at an early age and by the time he was 17 years old, he was experimenting with Bolex 16mm camera. Anderson wrote and filmed his first real production as a senior in high school at the Montclair Prep after spending years of experimenting. He got the money for his movie by his cage cleaning job at the pet store.

This film was a mockumentary of total 30 minutes which was shot on a video called The Dirk Diggler Story (1988). The plot was about a pornography star and the story seemed to be an inspiration of John Holmes which had also acted as a huge inspiring element in Anderson’s other, Boogie Nights.

Emerson College was where Anderson was enrolled as an English major but he spent only two semesters there and only two days at the New York University before he took a step towards his career as a production assistant on television films, music videos as well as games show in New York and Los Angeles.

Anderson felt that the stuff that was being shown to him at school was more like homework rather than experience. So that is why he decided to make a 20-min movie which would play the part of his college.

In 1993, Anderson made Cigarettes & Coffee with a total budget of $20,000 which were comprised of some college tuition money set aside by his father, gambling winnings and his girlfriend’s credit card.

Cigarettes & Coffee’s was a short film that connecting numerous story lines together with only a $20 bill. This movie was screened at the Sundance Festival Shorts Festival of 1993. Anderson though to expand it in a feature-length film and following that, he was sent an invitation for the 1994 Sundance Feature Film Program where Michael Caton-Jones acted as his mentor.

According to him he saw Anderson as a talented and fully formed creative voice just with lack of experience and taught him some tough and practical lessons.

Launching of a Career

In 1996 at the Sundance Feature Film Program Anderson got himself a deal with Rysher Entertainment and that was how he directed his first feature film, Sydney which was later retitled as Hard Eight.

Rysher re-edited the movie upon completion but Anderson submitted the original cut which ended up getting accepted and screened in the Un Certain Regard section at 1996 Cannes Film Festival. And Anderson was able to release his own version after the retitling and raising $200,000 which were needed for its completion. Hard Eight was what launched Anderson’s career.

According to Anderson, he uses the influences of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick and Max Ophuls in his movies.

Bring on the Porn Industry

While Anderson was coping with the troubles of Hard Eight, he had already started off on the script of his next feature film, Boogie Nights (1997) which was based on The Dirk Driggler Story. The New Line Cinema’s President absolutely loved the script.

PT Anderson is the first he steals shots and entire sequences from other movies. Here is his inspiration for the iconic pool sequence in Boogie Nights:

And Boogie Nights was an immense commercial and critical success. Boogie Nights won three Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Burt Reynolds) and it was a revival of his career. It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Julianne Moore).

Frogs from the Sky

Anderson was then given complete creative control by New Line. The result was Magnolia (1999) whose plot circulated around different people coming together in the San Fernando Valley. Aimee Mann’s music was the base and inspiration for this, and has been called the example of American cinema’s strength. Magnolia received three nominations at the 72nd Academy Awards for Best Actor in Supporting Role, Best Original Song and Best Original Screenplay.

After Magnolia, Anderson wanted to give comedy a try and he featured Adam Sandler in his next movie Punch-Drunk Love (2002) which was a light romantic comedy drama. The story was about a business owner who has anger issues and seven sisters. Sandler earned critical praise for his role. And Anderson won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

Anderson happens to have very real and flawed characters in his movies and most of his movies focused on the dysfunctional family relationships, surrogate families, regret and desperate characters as well as themes of denial & responsibility.

Pulling a Daniel-Day Lewis

Little bit based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil, There Will Be Blood (2007) was regarded as one of the greatest films of the decade by the critics. It earned $76.1 million worldwide, this movie earned 8 nominations at the 80th Academy Awards tying with No Country for Old Men for the most of nominations.


Photo: There Will Be Blood

The lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis, won an Oscar for Best Leading Actor. Anderson was greatly appreciated and nominated for the Directors Guild of America. This movie was also said to be a wholly American movie to be ever made.

Breaking Down Scientology

The Master (2012) was about an individual bursting with charisma who initiated a new religion in 1950s. Anderson started on its script in 2009 though it was in his head for 12 years. The film received three nominations at the 85th Academy Awards for Best Leading Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actor, (Philip S. Hoffman) and Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams).

Anderson is famous for his bold visual style of film making, stylistic trademarks like a continuously moving camera, memorable use of music, long takes based on steadi-cam and multi-layered audiovisual imagery. P.T Anderson is called one of the most exciting talents that surfaced in years. His movies represented feelings of loneliness, destiny, and ghosts of the past as well as destiny.

The Vice

May 2013 brought along with it the production of Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice which ended up in August of same year. It was the first time ever the writer had allowed his work to be adapted for screen.

The film’s supporting cast included Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Shot, Katherine Waterston and Eric Roberts to name a few. And the film earned two nominations for 87th Academy Awards. Mark Bridges for Best Costume design and Anderson for the Best Adapted Screenplay.


Anderson again displayed remarkable skill while directing a 54-minute documentary Junun which was regarding the making of an album which shared the same name by Jonny Greenwood, an Israeli composer and few Indian musicians. Majority of the performances were recorded in the Mehrangarh Fort, a 15th century building in the Indian State of Rajhastan. New York Film Festival of 2015 was the place where Junun was premiered.

Currently, Anderson happens to have his hands full with a drama based on the London fashion industry in the 1950s whose filming will began in the end of 2017.

No Limits

Because of his incredible skill that how exactly a scene is to be shot, his amazing realistic approach of showing the characters, Anderson is the only director who has won three director prizes from all the three renowned and prestigious major film festivals Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Ben Affleck stated in his acceptance speech that Paul Thomas Anderson is whom I think is quite like Orson Welles. Paul Thomas Anderson is the artist who has no limits.

Below is by far one of the best video essays on Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational non-profit collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. You can donate to support the project at:

Paul Thomas Anderson – THE SUNDANCE KID

3.1: THE SUNDANCE KID is the first installment of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, covering his lo-fi origins and his breakout at the Sundance Film Festival.

-HARD EIGHT (1996)


3.2: THE CALIFORNIA CHRONICLES is the second installment of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, covering the pair of sprawling ensemble-based pictures that cemented him as a major new voice in American cinema:
-MAGNOLIA (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson – THE CONCEPT COMEDIES

3.3: THE CONCEPT COMEDIES is the third installment of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, covering his short foray into experimental art comedies:

Paul Thomas Anderson – PORTRAITS OF POWER

3.4: PORTRAITS OF POWER is the fourth installment of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, covering his monumental pair of epic character studies:
-THE MASTER (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson – HIGHER STATES

3.5: HIGHER STATES is the fifth installment of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, covering his explorations into the possibilities of an altered state, whether it’s naturally or chemically-induced.

-JUNUN (2015)

If you liked Paul Thomas Anderson MasterClass: Breaking Down His Directing Style & Techniques, then take a listen to:
David Fincher: His Secrets on Directing & Visual Storytelling

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