Widely-raved 1997 film Boogie Nights, starring Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds, turned 25 this year. In celebration, a special screening was held at Warner Bros., featuring an introductory Q&A with director Paul Thomas Anderson, producer/studio executive Michael De Luca, and a surprise appearance from cast member John C. Reilly.
Not only did the year 1997 bring the cusp of Gen Z, but it simultaneously introduced the world to writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s sophomore masterclass Boogie Nights — if zoomers haven’t seen this movie before, now is the perfect excuse to do so. With a talented ensemble, the plot follows Dirk Diggler and his rise to fame in the booming 70s/80s pornography business and his consequential downfall, influenced by those around him. The dramedy passed its 25th anniversary on Oct. 10, and on Dec. 5, Warner Bros. Studios held a special restored 70mm print screening in their Steven J. Ross Theater. Hosted by Pamela Abdy and Michael De Luca, co-Chairpersons and CEOs of Warner’s Film Group — the latter of which described PTA as “an American master storyteller — Anderson introduced the film with a 45 minute Q&A, alongside a special appearance from actor John C. Reilly, who plays the character Reed Rothchild. Here are the behind-the-scenes takeaways about the making of the cult classic, which still holds up today as a modern masterpiece!
The Inspiration & Original Fictional Documentary Format
The feature film that audiences have come to love was pulled from Anderson’s first original short film, The Dirk Diggler Story (1988), which he had written at 17. Inspired by his favorite films at the time, Zelig (1983) and This is Spinal Tap (1984), it was filmed in a mockumentary format, detailing the rise and fall of the fictional male porn star. “It was great because, on video, nothing ever looked like a movie; it didn’t look good,” Anderson said. “I thought, well, I can’t really make a movie that looks good, so what if I made a movie that looks bad like a video tape looked?” Additionally, he had liked porno enough at the time and had seen a story on the TV news magazine, A Current Affair about an aspiring Hollywood porn actress who met a tragic end. Growing up locally and experiencing the making of porn movies resonated with him to become the subject of his next feature story. After receiving positive feedback and support from the short, he decided to translate it into a full feature length, which took 8-9 years to develop. “I have to remind myself of this every time I write something is how long it takes,” the writer-director said. “I wrote it as a feature and still a fictional documentary, so it would be narration, interviews, stuff like that, but that didn’t really work. The benefit of that is I had kind of written this real story as a documentary, so I adapted it as a fictional film, a real film you would make.”
Casting & its Initial Plan
A young Mark Wahlberg plays the legend himself, Dirk, having only just four prior movies under his belt after getting nationwide recognition for his physique in Calvin Klein underwear modeling campaigns. “[Philip Seymour Hoffman] and I, we’d throw stuff back and forth improvisationally; you’ve got to keep up, you know,” said John C. Reilly when talking about Wahlberg. “I thought, wow, what’s this underwear guy going to do, and he just fell right in. I was impressed with him right away that he’s able to understand the sense of humor behind all of it, not just be able to improvise and play the character, but understand why we all thought it was funny.” But did you know Anderson originally aimed for Leonardo DiCaprio to have the role? Reilly — who Anderson also worked with for his debut film, Hard Eight — had worked with DiCaprio previously, who Anderson also got the chance to meet and thought would be a great fit. Ultimately, he decided to do James Cameron’s classic Titanic (1997) but put in a word for “Marky Mark” after working with him on The Basketball Diaries (1995), which hadn’t come out yet. “I sat down with [DiCaprio] at one point at Cafe Figueroa, and I thought, ‘I’m going to close this one for Paul,’” comedian Reilly said. “I met Leo when he was 17, and I was like, I’m going to tell him the right thing to do here; he respects me as an actor. So I was like, ‘Listen. The Titanic is about a boat that sinks. Everybody already knows the boat sinks, they’re not going to give a shit about who’s on the boat. You should not do that movie, you should do this one, or you’ll regret it.’ Well, he does regret it to this day, I guess.”
Anderson also planned for Jack Horner to be played by Jack Nicholson, who didn’t even bother before meeting Burt Reynolds. He also toyed with the idea of Sydney Pollack for the role, which he claims wasted months, then finally returned to Reynolds. “While it was very challenging to work with him, ultimately, it was completely worth it,” Anderson said. “I saw the film again, getting it ready, watching this print, and was just sort of really moved by his performance in a way that was hard to navigate at the time. It was difficult, I was a young filmmaker and probably very bossy, and he was a grizzled veteran who didn’t really want to hear too much of it. We made our way through it, and it’s great to see him up on that screen.” Julianne Moore had signed on early for the role of Amber Weaves, a major deal for PTA, who didn’t have enough credibility at the time. He described it as a “stamp of creative approval” that gave him the legitimacy he needed. Anderson had written the hilarious part of Scotty specifically for the late Seymour Hoffman, and the more he saw of Reilly’s work, he found him perfect for Reed Rothchild. Anderson spent a lot of time with the pair, along with Wahlberg, messing around and familiarizing themselves with the characters before filming. “By the time we were shooting, they knew how to inhabit their characters and talk to each other in a particular way,” he said.
The Film’s Musical Styling
Half a million dollars of the film’s $14 million budget was dedicated to the music, which was a significant amount set aside for a music budget at the time. “The type of story that it is, you’re going to drive it forward with all the colors of music, music more than score,” Anderson said. The soundtrack has an eclectic mix of classic 70s hits, resulting in two volumes being released, one at the time of the film’s initial premiere and the second coming a year later. Anderson said it was like going through an extensive record collection at a time when you can spend 50 cents each and have tons of songs at your disposal. He’d particularly search for things he didn’t know, coming across odd stuff like Stan Bush’s song “The Touch” from The Transformers: The Movie (1986) soundtrack, which Wahlberg gives a comically bad rendition of in Boogie Nights. “We found that if a porn star would make a song, well, that’s a great one,” Anderson said. Karyn Rachtman served as the music supervisor, and PTA credits her great ability to secure songs for a good price, particularly through their Capitol Record deal. This included the film’s final Electric Light Orchestra song, Jeff Lynne’s “Livin’ Thing,” and Anderson specifically wanted to get the singer into the screening room. “I stood in the projection booth, and I watched the back silhouette of his head watching the movie,” Anderson recalled. “It gets to the end of the film, and his beautiful song ‘Livin Thing’ starts; I see the back of his head, and I just see him [put his fist in the air]. He got it, he got the song. He was just raising his hands like yeah, you can have my song; turn it up.”
Research & How Side Characters Came To Life
Of course, Anderson wanted to be authentic with his movie in terms of portraying porn stars, so there was no other better way than researching the industry for himself. In anticipation of Dirk’s award-winning scene, Anderson, Reilly, and De Luca attended the 1994 Porn Awards in Las Vegas, which Reilly added that you needed to be in the porn industry to go to the event back then. There’s also the story of Anderson’s self-described “one of the most uncomfortable moments in the history of my life.” In a tiny 10×10 room of the Farmer’s Daughter motel with Anderson, Moore, and former porn actor Ron Jeremy, a guy had been filming his wife having sex with another guy. “We were like, I think we got it; we don’t need to do any more research,” the director concluded. He went on to share that Don Cheadle’s radio obsessive, stylistically lost character Buck Swope — whose name pays homage to Robert Downey Sr.’s film Putney Swope (1969) — was taken from a Black porn actor Anderson had seen who always tried on different outfits, never sticking to one style. “Porn seemed to be predominantly white in the 70s, and then there was this guy who’d turn up in a cowboy outfit; he was always just trying on different styles,” he said. The character’s story is just one example of Anderson’s exploration of porn stars’ attempts to straighten out their life, yet are followed by their lingering past that they can reconcile with or ignore, facing unexpected repercussions. And right before the movie played, he shared a short story of William H. Macy’s famous accidental line, “My wife has an ass in her cock in the driveway. The actor — widely known for his portrayal of alcoholic dad Frank Gallagher in Shameless — played side character Little Bill, who caught his wife with other men in a running gag. “The line is ‘My wife has a cock in her ass in the driveway,’” Anderson jokingly clarified. “We did it the first time, and I said, ‘That was a great mistake.’ I pointed it out; I wasn’t fussy about the lines; I just laughed, ‘Oh, that was funny, you flipped it.’ Then he did it again accidentally, and I just thought, well, no use trying to fix it, and that was that.”
PTA’s Learned Lessons & How The Final Cut Was Nearly Not His
De Luca was previously New Line Cinema’s former President of Production, overseeing various big productions that defined the studio in the late 90s, including Boogie Nights. It was a tumultuous time at the company after numerous failures, so they decided to invest in the early 90s renaissance of writer-directors, which led them to the discovery of Anderson. “If any of you watched [‘Hard Eight’] and met Paul, you would’ve made the same call we did,” De Luca said, describing their thus 25-year relationship as a brotherhood. “Paul’s scripts just read like the movie. It was exhilarating to read this thing, it checked all of the boxes of what we were looking for at the time — nothing else like it, completely audacious, bold, a big swing.” Anderson maintained their requirements of keeping it R-rated and not four hours long, but near finishing the movie, De Luca’s boss and founder of New Line, Robert Shaye, felt he could improve on the cut for the film’s release. This was before Anderson was protected by the director’s final cut privilege, but De Luca gave Shaye credit for ultimately allowing Anderson’s version to go out after the pair told Shaye they didn’t like his upon viewing. The director said it was gnarly for him briefly, hitting a peak he’d hoped it wouldn’t reach with Shaye when test screening scores were “dreadful,” despite the room being full of laughter. “When I met him, I had a bad time on my first film and was looking for somebody who felt like they were a comrade and I can trust them,” Anderson said. He found that in De Luca, who helped guide him through the process, and when both versions received the exact same score in retesting, Shaye moved on, with De Luca giving Anderson the go-ahead to “finish the film how you need to finish it.”
This was Anderson’s first time in a screening room, which is just one of everything that he says he learned as a filmmaker while on the Boogie Nights set, a “larger situation” compared to his directorial debut. It was the most editing he had done, as well as for the film’s editor Dylan Tichenor, who had more experience than him on the cutting room floor, which is where Anderson says he learned the most. “I just remember it as the most fertile, creative time, young enough to have the energy and enthusiasm, but not really knowing how to do it,” Anderson said. “Sometimes, you’d be dealing with Burt Reynolds, who wouldn’t always know his lines but could get the meaning of the scene across. It was a learning curve of figuring out well he’s getting the meaning of it, he’s not saying it how it’s written, but how do I learn how to improvise as a director and what coverage do I need to work in the editing room?” Reilly immediately saw Anderson’s focused intensity as a director juggling a star-studded, strong-willed ensemble. “That was a brilliant thing on [Paul’s] part though is even though you didn’t have this comfort like you had with every other actor in the film, you saw that no, it’s OK, this guy’s of a different generation, he’s supposed to be,” the actor said. “It was really comfortable to know ‘No, no, I see the horizon. Keep doing what you’re doing; I see where we’re going.’ He gave us a lot of protection and comfort to do the crazy shit we do.” As he watched everybody have a fun time during production, Anderson knew he wasn’t going to have the same carefree experience, driven by his determined goal to complete the film and not be swayed. Unlike the movie’s characters, he jokingly said there was “no sex and drugs for Paul” because of the director’s necessity to keep their mind straight while making a movie about people going crazy. “It was nice to be sharp in my decisions and leadership but watch everybody else swirl around and be crazy,” he said. “My joy was just in watching them work and getting the footage that I needed to get into the cutting room.”
You can currently catch the iconic film on Paramount+ or on Showtime.