The creator and star of Licorice Pizza take us on a tour through the San Fernando Valley and reveal why HAIM love to walk everywhere.
Locals just call it ‘The Valley’ – the glamorous region nestled between the Los Angeles Basin and the Santa Susana Mountains. It’s a place best known as the home of Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studios, and – more notoriously – has been the atom heart of the adult entertainment industry for some 30 years, until the advent of the internet ushered in its decline.
The San Fernando Valley is also the neighbourhood where Paul Thomas Anderson grew up, providing a rich source of inspiration throughout his career. Valley-set works include Boogie Nights from 1997 which charts the rise and fall of porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), swiftly followed in 1999 by the epic ensemble fresco, Magnolia, and then after that in 2002 the offbeat romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love. After 2018’s Phantom Thread led the director to foggy London town, he returned to the familiar warmth of California sun for his latest, Licorice Pizza, an effervescent story of boy meets girl set during the summer of 1973.
The Valley is also home to Licorice Pizza’s leading lady, Alana Haim, whose mother coincidentally taught the filmmaker art in elementary school. Better known as the youngest member of all-sister folk-rock trio HAIM, this is Alana’s first professional acting role, and she announces herself as a cocky, magnetic screen presence playing directionless twentysomething Alana Kane, whose chance meeting with fast-talking teen entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Drawing on elements of arcane Hollywood history as well as anecdotes from his own friends and colleagues, Anderson’s film is a wry, sun-drenched portrait of youth in revolt. The San Fernando Valley is as much a part of its DNA as the all-killer-no-filler soundtrack and the effortlessly charming performances from its stacked ensemble cast.
LWLies: What’s the first place you’d recommend to someone spending a day in the San Fernando Valley?
Paul Thomas Anderson: If you were to consider the Valley starting in Burbank, Burbank has Warner Bros, and then right next door is Universal… So you’re starting on these two epicentres of film production, then you take Ventura Boulevard, which is the main artery that runs through the San Fernando Valley. I would just start on Ventura and slowly cruise west. On the left-hand side you’ll see the old Du-par’s diner, which is now a fucking Sephora.
Alana Haim: So sad…
PTA: Just a little bit further down to the left, you’ll see the Studio City Theatre built in 1940, which is now unfortunately a Barnes & Noble. Well, we like Barnes & Noble so we’ll support that, but we wish it was still a movie theatre. Continuing west past the mini malls, you can stop at the Weddington golf course, for a quick little bit of that, or a little tennis. You can get to Coldwater, where the great Tail o’ the Cock used to be.
AH: Don’t forget Art’s!
PTA: Oh, Art’s Deli, I’m sorry!
AH: We can go back, that’s okay.
PTA: I don’t wanna do the whole tour! You can get to the intersection of Van Nuys and Ventura and see the location where the three Haim sisters walk down the street in the ‘Want You Back’ video.
AH: That’s true. I also worked in a shop on Ventura Boulevard.
PTA: Yeah? Oh fuck it, I don’t know. You would see a mini mall that looks kinda gross and not that attractive, but within it is the most incredible sushi restaurant that you’ve ever been to in your entire life, run by a Japanese masterchef who’s decided that the San Fernando Valley became third to Tokyo and Kyoto as this place where Japanese food is specialised. You would not know it, but you have to look for it. But I mean, fuck, it’s just a suburb.
AH: Yeah, we try to glamourise it but it is just a suburb.
Do you feel like the San Fernando Valley that we see in Licorice Pizza has changed beyond recognition?
PTA: There’s a horrible thing that happens every couple of months where you drive by a beautiful old ranch home, and the next day you go by and it usually has green fencing around it, and it means that it’s going to be demolished and they’re going to build these horrible three-storey cookie cutter houses. Like anything, less and less of the past remains. But if you squint, you can still see what it looked like back then.
You mentioned the ‘Want You Back’ video. One thing in Licorice Pizza is that there’s a lot of walking and running.
AH: Two things that I’m apparently very good at.
Yeah, it’s a continuation of a thread that started a long time ago, in both the HAIM promos and Paul’s films. There’s a lot of people walking around, which seems kind of antithetical to the geography of Los Angeles. Are you trying to subconsciously subvert that narrative, maybe reposition LA as a walking city?
PTA: That’s a tall order. I do like it – I had an experience recently where a very hardcore New Yorker was coming over to my house and they posted up in a coffee shop about a mile away from where I live. They looked at their phone and thought, ‘Well, I’ll just walk from here to his house.’ It was a classic New Yorker mistake. There was absolutely no way. Even though it may say it’s only a mile, you’re just not going to make it: it’s 100 degree heat; it’s up hill; it’s windy roads – it’s just not gonna work. So no, we’re not trying to change the narrative, but there’s a certain point through making a film, where having people driving around runs out of gas. It’s more cinematic to have people running and walking. The reality is that there’s more driving, but no one wants to see that.
AH: You know, it’s really funny. That walking kind of came naturally to me.
PTA: I have my own answer about this, but I want to hear what you say first.
AH: I think walking with my siblings… we’ve heard it’s really hard to make walking seem natural when you’re on camera, and I never really knew that. In music videos we’re walking to the beat and we have music playing. One of my favourite memories was when we were shooting the opening scene of the movie, where I’m walking and I’m in the Tiny Toes outfit, and Paul had played me Nina Simone’s ‘July Tree’ right before I was going to walk, so I had the beat in my mind. He was like, ‘You can do this!’ Apparently that’s very hard for some people, but not hard for me.
PTA: There’s nothing to it except that when you’re making a video and you have no money, what else is there to do? You need something to happen. You need some action. You have no time so it’s cheap, quick and cinematic. Just fucking walk.
AH: I mean, damn. You’re really peeking behind the HAIM curtain. But I will be walking in music videos till the day I die. I will say, though, walking and running in this film is very important ’cause it got me out of my head. When you’re focusing on something like that, you don’t think about what you’re saying, you’re exhausted and that was something that actually shocked me. Paul would always be like, ‘Go run,’ and I’d be like [sighs] ‘Okay, I’m gonna run.’ But the thing is, it’s super important to how me and Cooper were able to do it, because it got us out of our heads in the best way.
There’s a visual parallel between the end of Licorice Pizza and the airport scene in Punch-Drunk Love. Is there is a connective thread running between all your films set in the Valley?
PTA: There must be, but none of it is by design. I can’t underline enough, not by design. There’s no cinematic universe that I would be struggling to create, there just isn’t. You end up repeating yourself accidentally sometimes, never on purpose. Or perhaps you do realise after you’ve written some things, ‘Well, I have done that before, shall I try to do something else?’ And you think, ‘Yes, you should try to do something else,’ and then you can’t come up with anything else so you say, ‘Well I’m not gonna do anything else, this is what I’m gonna do. Fuck it!’
It worked the first time!
PTA: But really, you’re always serving this story, then the story at a certain point is taking care of itself. I can’t stress enough that there’s a lot of work that can go into the first half of a script generally. You’re creating these characters, you’re creating the scenario, you’re putting the pieces together, you’re trying to get it to flow, but there’s a certain point – you hope – when it is moving down a hill and all the things that you’ve created are taking care of themselves. They’re speaking back to you in the end.
From ‘Jessie’s Girl’ in Boogie Nights to ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’ in The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson has always had a knack for choosing the right track for the right scene. Not only that, the partnership between Anderson and composer-musician Jonny Greenwood, which began with There Will be Blood, has yielded some of the finest contemporary film scores around. Given Licorice Pizza’s ’70s setting, it’s only appropriate that the soundtrack features the likes of Paul McCartney and Wings, The Doors, Donovan and David Bowie as well as a few new compositions from Greenwood. HAIM’s musical history is fitting too; prior to forming the popular girl group they are today, Alana and her sisters Danielle and Este were part of a band with their parents covering Van Morrison and Billy Joel songs at weddings and community events. Their distinctive sound owes much to the pop music of the ’70s, notably Fleetwood Mac.
HAIM is very influenced by the music of the 1970s. Do you remember where that started for you and your sisters?
AH: Living in LA, you’re always in your car and my parents only let us listen to this radio station called K-Earth 101 which they pretty much only played ’70s music. Well, when I was younger it was the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s – when I got a little older they started getting into the ’80s and I think now they’re up to the ’90s. I heard NSYNC on K-Earth 101 which is shocking to me.
PTA: That’s 30 years ago Alana. Thirty years ago.
AH: But we were always so obsessed! All the concerts I went to when I was younger… my first concert was The Eagles. Some people like ’em, some people don’t like ’em. I love them. But I’ve always loved that era and it seeped into me and my sisters when we started making music for ourselves.
Is there a particular band that was the driving force which made you think this is something we want to explore musically?
AH: There’s so many, not just in the ’70s. I was in a cover band with my parents so that also helped. We did a lot of Santana, we did a lot of Van Morrison, Beatles, Rolling Stones. Billy Joel made its way in there too. I mean, I love Jackson Browne, I love Joni, Freda Payne… It’s just what I grew up with.
PTA: When you say ’70s music, there’s an assumption that this is some wild niche. We all collectively, in the whole fucking world, are looking back and going, ‘Oh my God, look at this jackpot and this incredibly fertile time, this music that’s lasted for so long that wasn’t just good then but is good now.’ Anywhere in the world right now you put on one of these songs that you’re talking about and everybody knows it and everybody likes it. It’s not even your style or taste at a certain point, it’s like no, no, no, the whole world is down with–
PTA: Joni. It’s not like, ‘How did you get into Squarepusher?’ It’s so worldly. It’s amazing how long… well, it’s not amazing how long this music has lasted. Like, it’s fucking obvious.
AH: It’s just fucking good!
Do you listen to music when you’re writing your scripts? I was really interested by how much pop music is in this film compared to your last few which were more heavily scored.
PTA: Yeah, it had been a minute since I had a story that would work with that use of music, the last few stories were dependent upon Jonny Greenwood and what he would bring to it. It seemed pretty clear that the best way to tell this story was to utilise songs of the period, songs that Alana and Gary would be listening to. Songs that would be on the radio. To not be afraid of digging even further back, using Nina Simone or using the Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters’ version of ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’ because that stuff would still be lingering on the radio. Believe it or not, a lot of radio broadcasts that I found from that time, depending on the station, weren’t shy about playing songs that were 20 years old – the K-Earth 101 of the day. So you didn’t have to just feel an obligation to play what was on the radio in 1972, you could be a little bit looser.
You just have to ask yourself, ‘Is it okay to use David Bowie?’, ‘Is it okay to use Paul McCartney?’ Because I’ve seen films that are willing to pay for that song but don’t deserve it because they’re cheating. They haven’t done the work with the characters and everything else that has to be there, to earn the privilege of having a Paul McCartney song or a David Bowie. I egotistically do feel like we worked really hard and I felt like we were worthy enough to use those songs and you benefit from it, obviously. We benefit from putting ourselves in collaboration with those artists, and pretending can get you up to a point, ’cause it helps an audience to feel something. But an audience will turn on you if you turn that up as a way to fill the void, if you haven’t engaged them with your characters.
Increasingly it feels like songs have been put in films because they got the licensing rights, but it doesn’t serve a purpose.
PTA: I just remembered there was an Onion headline I saw the other day, something like, “Young screenwriter plays ‘Cherry Bomb’ as substitute for female character development”. That’s funny!
That’s exactly it!
PTA: I’ll play ‘Cherry Bomb’ – that way I won’t have to fucking figure out anything else about her character.
I was really thrilled to see Tom Waits in the film.
AH: A dream. He is a dream. He is incredible and really came in with the best spirit and we needed it at that point ’cause we were a couple of months into the shooting and he’s just such a presence. He’s fucking Tom Waits. I mean, he walks into a room you’re like, ‘Fuck, that’s Tom Waits!’ He’s the coolest dude on the planet and he’s so talented and, on top of everything, he’s an incredible actor.
PTA: He’s a presence but he isn’t. What I mean by that is, for being a living legend, he’s not sucking the air out of the room, or making you feel that you’re around a living legend. He’s a very practical and pragmatic person who just happens to be Tom Waits and he’s there to do a job. The amazing thing about him is, pretty quickly, you’re in the business of working with him and he’s in the business of trying to do a good job as an actor, all the while being so incredibly cool.
AH: Yeah, the coolest.
PTA: You are just holding on for dear life. Trying to not disappoint him. He’s such a collaborator, so terrific to work with, and it’s a double as well. It’s not just Tom Waits, you’ve got Sean Penn and Tom Waits. There was a moment where I saw the two of them and I thought, ‘This is Christmas for me!’ I’ve got the two of them in a scene, together, with Alana in the centre of it looking baffled, three martinis in.
AH: That’s really me holding on for dear life, like, ‘How did I get here?’
You’re likely to hear people refer to Licorice Pizza as a love story – not just concerning the relationship between Gary Valentine and Alana Kane, but in a more ethereal sense: love of your hometown; love of movies; love of being young, directionless and unfailingly alive. While there’s often a creeping darkness within the meticulous worlds Anderson forges, there’s a sunny optimism to his latest work, and this warmth extends to the way he incorporates elements of Hollywood’s star-flecked history.
Sean Penn’s character is inspired by William Holden, and you have Bradley Cooper as Hollywood producer Jon Peters and Benny Safdie as LA City Councilman Joel Wachs. Gary is inspired by a friend of yours, Gary Goetzman, who is also a film and TV producer. How do you approach fictionalising real people in a way that’s respectful, but also gives you creative freedom?
PTA: You move a goalpost around a lot is how you do it. William Holden’s one of my favourite actors, and I didn’t want to ask Sean to do an impression of William Holden. So it can be an Easter egg, or you can see the parallel and that’s fine, but he doesn’t have to fill those shoes or do that. Most of the time, whether it’s a story, a real life person, a character from a book – shit – an animal, you can point an actor in a direction towards something to use in their portrayal. Gary Goetzman went to the Ed Sullivan show to perform with Lucille Ball, but I didn’t think doing a Lucille Ball impression would be the right thing to ask of an actress, so you just steal all the best bits. It’s an instinctual decision, I suppose.
Outside of the Valley many people don’t know Joel Wachs, but he really was a city councilman who worked for almost 30 years. The decision to use his actual name is if anybody took two seconds to look around and discover something about his life, I think they’d find it incredibly inspiring and fulfilling because he was a wonderful guy. Back to a question that you asked earlier, if you had been in the San Fernando Valley, particularly Studio City or Sherman Oaks up until the ’90s, it looked very much the same. A lot of the reasons why is because of Joel Wachs. He was very strong about development, disallowing development to change it. The second he wasn’t the city councilman, things did change for the worse, so I always admired him for that.
What did Jon say when you told him Bradley Cooper would play him given their past disagreement over A Star is Born?
PTA: He thought it was terrific casting. Maybe he wished it had been Brad Pitt but he was okay with Bradley Cooper [laughs]. I think he was very excited. He’s a good-natured guy at this point, in my experience with him. It was not even remotely close to this wild man producer. He was a big softie.
There’s a moment we see in the trailer where Jon’s smashing some car windows which isn’t in the actual film. How long was the first cut?
PTA: Not too much longer. That was a very quick moment after Gary and Alana drive off from the gas station that we went back to Jon Peters, so that scene that you see, it was only really about 15 to 20 seconds. The reason we didn’t leave it in the film is because it would’ve been the only moment that you weren’t with Gary or Alana. That’s changing the point of view of the film… for a good laugh, maybe? But not really worth it in the end. But it’s the kind of thing that can go well in the trailer. You get the energy of it and the feeling of it but in the body of the film it doesn’t shift to another point of view which I think is important to keep. We didn’t have that many scenes that we cut out. It was probably only about three or four, so maybe the longest the film ever was two-and-a-half hours. Maybe we cut about 15 minutes out of it. The hardest thing was cutting down the Tail o’ the Cock sequence to a manageable size. There was more stuff in there.
Phantom Thread is about the same length as this. Are your films getting shorter intentionally?
PTA: You’re implying that my films before were bloated, oversized…
AH: How dare you!
Of course not! I guess all films are about two-and-a-half hours nowadays, right?
PTA: Marvel movies are two hours and 45 minutes now. It’s crazy. When I was a kid, action films, adventure films were never longer than 100 minutes. I suppose as I do this more it’s constantly asking the question, ‘What can we get rid of?’ Shorter is better. I don’t remember thinking that as much when I was a kid making movies. I wasn’t asking myself that question but it’s become a preoccupation now, I think for the better. Until somebody says, ‘You might want to leave that best part of the movie in, you know. I know you don’t need it but…’ That can happen too. You can get a little scissor happy.
As someone who works on film and is committed to the cinematic experience, do you ever feel pressure to modernise?
PTA: I’m probably at the place where they think, ‘He doesn’t know how to do anything else, don’t bother him’. I was at the dentist the other day and the woman was about to clean my teeth and she was like, ‘Have you seen that new Michael Keaton movie?’ and she meant Dopesick. I said, ‘But it’s not a movie, it’s a limited series’, and she said, ‘Yeah whatever, it’s a movie’. It made me feel like a dinosaur. I make these films and they come out and they go in the theatres, but people are consuming things differently. They don’t really see it the way that I see it anymore. So, is your question: do I feel old? Fucking yeah, a little bit.
Alana, HAIM have such a distinctive sound. Have you ever experienced pressure to change the way you do things in line with what’s popular?
AH: You know, me and my siblings are very lucky that we’re very intimidating. It’s really hard to go against three people. We usually win. We’ve always been very adamant about doing whatever we feel and I feel like you can kind of see that in our records. No two sound the same. They’re always evolving, always wanting to switch it up. But it’s always on our terms. It’s never someone telling us, ‘Maybe you should try something else’.
PTA: If somebody said that they don’t get a vote.
AH: Yeah, we’ve got this! That’s how we’ve always been and it will never change, we’re way too crazy about it.
Published 1 Feb 2022
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From Valley Girl to Pulp Fiction and now Licorice Pizza, the San Fernando Valley is a familiar on-screen setting.