Directors’ Trademarks: Paul Thomas Anderson

Anderson began his career without any related college experience as a production assistant. With some money he scrounged together, he made a short film, which he entered into the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. He decided to turn that short into a feature and was invited to attend the Sundance Feature Film Program, where he was mentored, and his talents were further developed. In 1996 his first feature film was released, Hard Eight, which Anderson had to raise his own money in order to edit it as he wanted, which was different than how the production company wanted to release the film. His version received some critical praise. His next film, Boogie Nights (1997) was another adaptation of a short film he had made, The Dirk Diggler Story. Boogie Nights was a commercial and critical success, including earning three Oscar nominations.


After the success of Boogie Nights, Anderson was granted full creative control for his next film. That film was Magnolia (1999), which was profitable and also received three more Oscar nominations. His next film was 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, which showcased Adam Sandler in a more dramatic role than audiences had seen him in before, and, as a result of his performance, it was well received by both critics and audiences. Anderson’s next film came in 2007. There Will Be Blood was his most profitable and well-received film, earning eight Oscar nominations and winning two of them. The Master was released in 2012, and earned three more Oscar nominations, but it was not profitable at the box office. Finally, Anderson’s latest film was Inherent Vice, released in 2014. This film was a flop at the box office but received positive reviews.

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Paul Thomas Anderson film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of PTA’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:

The Lengthy Tracking Shot

In many of his films, PTA borrows ideas from films and filmmakers that have influenced him in the past, including costumes, songs, dialogue, and even directorial techniques. The lengthy tracking shot is Anderson’s homage to Martin Scorsese, in particular the tracking shot in Goodfellas. Anderson first uses a long steadicam tracking shot in a casino in Hard Eight to establish the setting and make the character Sydney seem more important. In Boogie Nights, the opening scene is one long fluid tracking shot from the streets into a club that introduces all of the major characters, their initial relationships, and also establishes the setting. Anderson tops this with a complicated and lengthy tracking shot in Magnolia which snakes through a television studio and although it shows some of the characters, it is used more to establish a tone and explain what day-to-day business is like. In Punch Drunk Love, there are several longer tracking shots which are shorter and not as hectic to help explain the hesitancy of the main character in dealing with the outside world. One shot in particular, when he is visiting his sisters, creates a tone of uneasiness due to the way the camera creeps forward. There Will Be Blood features several longer tracking shots, including the sequence when the derrick is on fire and the camera follows Plainview as he is running through a crowd of people down the hill with his injured son clutched in his arms. In The Master there’s the photography scene where first the camera focuses on Freddie, and then it follows him as he assaults his subject before ultimately backing away and watching the resulting fight take place while moving through the store to show the audience what a big scene he is creating. In Inherent Vice, there’s a lengthy shot as Doc and his former girlfriend walk down a street. 

Ensemble Cast

boogie nights cast

Anderson’s films tend to have a large cast. Even though they only typically focus on one character (except Magnolia), there are many major and minor supporting characters that are important for moving the story forward. Sometimes they only have one or two scenes, or at other times an important character is introduced halfway through or later in the film. These supporting parts are often played by big-name actors and their skills bring a lot of depth to the film. As a result, PTA’s films tend to be pretty lengthy in order to incorporate all of these details. Films such as Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice may have a main character (or several main characters), but a lot of other faces come and go, some of them more important to the plot than the others. The only exception is Punch Drunk Love, which is more of a character study so the focus for all but a couple scenes is on the main character. However, important characters are still introduced past the halfway point, including the antagonist.


inherent vice

All of Anderson’s films take place in California, except Hard Eight which mostly takes place in Nevada. Boogie Nights focuses on the California porn industry in the 1970’s. Magnolia features multiple stories that take place over the course of a few days in LA. Punch-Drunk Love also takes place in LA, as does Inherent Vice. The Master finds the main character wandering through California after losing a job when he returns from war. There Will Be Blood tells the story of a man who finds oil in southern California in the early 20th century.

“Magical” Realism


A common trait in many of Anderson’s films is that reality isn’t always as straight forward as it should be. Either there are major characters that seem to exist in their own worlds, or the film itself takes a break from reality itself in order to get a point across. In Boogie Nights the entire film contrasts Eddie’s initial naive and somewhat glamorized perspective of the porn industry with sadness, perverseness, crime, and compulsive self-destructive behavior later on.  Anderson also uses a cutaway to a flashing neon sign to visually demonstrate Eddie’s dream where he came up with the name “Dirk Diggler”. In Punch Drunk Love, the entire plot feels somewhat removed from reality, almost like a fairy tale. The main character Barry appears to live in his own weird world, and Anderson’s use of brightly colored transitions add to the “magical” quality of the film. In There Will Be Blood there is a common theme of illusion vs. reality. Daniel Plainview manipulates everyone around him, almost like a skilled magician, for his own benefit. Meanwhile the religious fervor of the pastor Eli seems to mesmerize the locals, but it only angers Daniel. In Inherent Vice, the hazy “Doc” isn’t always sure what’s going on, and neither is the audience, making the film a wild and mystical ride. In Magnolia, there is a sense of “divine intervention” in the way that all of the stories in the film are somehow related and full of unlucky and lucky coincidences, including the eerie supernatural climax.

The Iris Shot

there will be blood

In Punch Drunk Love, as the two main characters leave their hotel room in Hawaii and hold hands, the camera focuses on that action and then the scene fades away in an iris shot. In Magnolia the first shot of the prologue opens with an iris shot, almost like you would see in a traditional silent film. In Boogie Nights the shot is used to show the perspective of Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he spots Eddie/Dirk Diggler. In There Will Be Blood, Anderson chose to film a few of the scenes using a vintage 1910 camera which had a special lens that bent the image at the corners. One of the sequences Anderson chose to use this camera was when the oil derrick caught on fire, the contrast between the dark and light created a “halo” around the picture which created an iris effect.

Want more?

Check out our review of  Inherent Vice

Check out the last installment of the series: Directors’ Trademarks: Stanley Kubrick