NYFF Report: Joaquin Phoenix and Cast Helped Make 'Inherent Vice' a Noir-Nonsense Affair

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Earlier this week, the first trailer for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, took the Internet by storm — and you can expect a similar online explosion tonight, when the entire movie makes its world premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival. But if viewers occasionally have trouble following exactly what happens during the course of this two-and-a-half-hour slice of sunny California noir, don’t worry: The director doesn’t expect you to piece everything together. Although Inherent Vice is adapted very faithfully from the 2009 book by Thomas Pynchon — the first of any of the famously reclusive author’s novels to reach the big screen — Anderson was equally inspired by an older example of a labyrinthine detective flick, Howard Hawks’ 1946 version of The Big Sleep, starring Humprhey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s iconic gumshoe, Philip Marlowe.

"That movie made me realize that I couldn’t follow any of it and it didn’t matter," Anderson remarked at the press conference Saturday afternoon, following the very first screening of Inherent Vice. “That was a good model to go on, to just throw that stuff out the window.” Anderson was flanked by numerous members of his star-studded cast, including leading man Joaquin Phoenix, who stars as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a stoner P.I. caught up in a case that may (or may not) involve his missing girlfriend, a real estate mogul, and a boat and/or drug syndicate known as the Golden Fang. While the actor remained resolutely silent, his director and co-stars —including Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone, Martin Short and Joanna Newsom — picked up the slack. Here are some of the mysteries of Inherent Vice they solved for us:

Owen Wilson is Playing a Muppet

Inherent Vice takes place in Los Angeles circa 1970, and the film vividly recreates that bygone era, from the beer cans, to the TV shows, to the hairstyles (check out Phoenix’s hippie curls) and outfits. Anderson allowed the actors to provide some input into the way their characters looked…though he didn’t always take their advice. “I met with Paul and started figuring out what my character was going to be wearing,” remembered Wilson, who plays the rumoredly (but not actually) dead saxophonist, Coy Harlingen. “But Paul didn’t go with any of my ideas! I had one shirt that I really wanted to wear and I guess it wasn’t ’70s enough. Eventually we landed on overalls, because Paul was looking at a photograph of [Beach Boys singer] Dennis Wilson wearing some white overalls.” Anderson was also inspired by another legendary sax man: Zoot, the blue-haired wailer in the all-Muppet outfit Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. “He had that hat and those glasses,” Anderson laughed. “Zoot from the Muppets — that’s a good answer.”  

The Set Was Organized Chaos

Pynchon’s book is distinguished by the author’s typical ability to juggle multiple tones. Or, as Anderson put it, “You have deeply written and beautifully profound stuff mixed in with just the best fart jokes and poop jokes that you can imagine.” In order to preserve that wild mix of material, the director maintained a freewheeling mood on the set. “It was a very loose way of working,” Wilson said. “Sometimes I woudn’t necessarily know what I was doing. We were encouraged to kind of do anything.” Define anything? “There was a point where Joaquin and I started clicking at each other for five minutes,” recalled Malone, who plays Wilson’s on-screen wife. “It was pretty incredible. [But before that], it was nice to sit down with [with Paul] and see what felt right. That was a very structured process. Then I got to sit across the table from Doc and become a wild animal. That chaos can only come from a grounded, logical base because you have to know where you’re going to be spinning from. The logic becomes the chaos and the chaos becomes the logic.”

Despite some of the madness going on, the cast never felt anything less than protected when they took big risks. “If you’re working with a great director, you feel very, very, very safe because you know that all the decisions will be made months later in the editing room,” remarked Short, who has an out-there cameo as a cocaine-addled dentist. “I loved how many variations there were. It was really trying to create as many elements and colors and hues that could help Paul later on when he was putting it together.” Rudolph — Anderson’s real-life partner, who has a small role in the film — summed up the prevailing mood: “What I love so much about Paul’s work is that it’s anything and everything, and it’s always his. It allows for a scene to be crazy, but then something else to be dark and mysterious. And I got to improvise a little bit about an Afro or something like that.”

Joanna Newsom is Pynchon’s Stand-In

Just as Aimee Mann set the tone for Magnolia with her songs, musician Joanna Newsom provides Inherent Vice with a strong, clear voice. The first-time actress briefly appears onscreen as one of Doc’s best friends (and the better detective of the duo) Sortilège, but more importantly, she functions as the movie’s narrator, often speaking passages lifted directly from the book. “I felt I had a responsibility to speak for the actual text,” Newsom explained. “I felt yoked by this sense that nothing should come out of my mouth that wasn’t written in the book or, at least, in the script based on a decision made by the writer.” Anderson elaborated on her casting, saying, “Sortilège is a supporting character in the book and somewhere along the way, I got the idea of looking to try and do something to have a female voice come in. I asked Joanna, because I love the way she talks. We just started doing it and the more we did it, the more it worked.”

The NYFF Will Be One of the Only Places to See Inherent Vice the Way It Was Shot: On 35mm

Film is increasingly on its way out, but Anderson — along with Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino — are doing their best to slow its departure. The director shot Inherent Vice on 35mm stock and struck a 35mm print that he brought with him to New York. The press didn’t get a chance to see it, though. That’s a privilege that only the paying public will have at the world premiere. “[Shooting on 35mm] was something I started doing back at the beginning, so it’s the only way I know how to do it. I have a nice print to show, along with all the nerves that accompany that. Like, everything could break easily [in the middle of the movie] and that adds to the thrill of it all. I’m just trying to keep [film] alive a little bit longer. There’s room both things — that should just be how it is. Nothing should go away.”

Watch the trailer for Inherent Vice below: