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Paul Thomas Anderson turns to youthful merriment for latest movie, 'Licorice Pizza'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Boy meets girl - classic story. But what if the boy is a 15-year-old child actor and the girl is a 25-year-old woman searching for her way in life?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LICORICE PIZZA")

COOPER HOFFMAN: (As Gary) I mean, ever since I was a kid, I've been a song-and-dance man.

ALANA HAIM: (As Alana) Come on. Ever since you were a kid? Song-and-dance man? Where are your parents?

HOFFMAN: (As Gary) My mom works for me.

HAIM: (As Alana) Oh, of course she does. That makes sense.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary) Yes, she does, in my public relations company.

HAIM: (As Alana) In your public relations company? Because you have that.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary) Yes.

HAIM: (As Alana) And you're an actor.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary) Yes.

HAIM: (As Alana) And you're a secret agent, too.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary) Well, no, I'm not a secret agent. That's funny.

RASCOE: The new movie "Licorice Pizza" tells the story of paths colliding and resulting adventures in California's San Fernando Valley in the 1970s. And it's the latest film in director Paul Thomas Anderson's storied career. Anderson joins us now. Welcome.

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: Hi.

RASCOE: So we first meet Alana Kane, played by Alana Haim, as she works at a high school photo day. She's very confident, super smart, but we also see her struggles. Like, how did you conceive of that character?

ANDERSON: I don't know exactly. I do know that I had seen a premise like this with my own eyes. About 20 years ago, I saw a kid chatting up a girl on picture day at the junior high down the street from where I live. I saw it from across the road, and I thought, that's a good premise for a movie. Taking the premise a step further, what happens if this kid wants a date, and what happens if this girl, against all her better judgments, turns up at the date? And the voice of this character became clear to me when I started writing it for Alana Haim. So so much of the creation of it belongs to being inspired by her.

RASCOE: She plays against Cooper Hoffman, who plays Gary Valentine. And Gary Valentine's a bit of, like, a hustler, actor, entrepreneur. But I feel like some of that is, like, all a bit the same, maybe. Like, to be a hustler, to be an actor, to be an entrepreneur, it kind of has some of the same skills. Is that what Cooper Hoffman brought to the role?

ANDERSON: Yeah, for sure. He - he's a very social beast, and he's also a very empathetic person. Known him since he was born, and he's always been somebody that was equally comfortable with adults as he was with kids his own age. What's interesting about that is it's a great thing when you see an adolescent hold their own in a conversation with an adult. But then you realize you turn around and you see that they've put their shoes on the wrong feet or they're - you know, they've forgotten to eat that morning. They're still like puppies.

RASCOE: And Cooper is the son of late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is, I assume, how you've known him since a baby.

ANDERSON: Yes, that's right, yeah.

RASCOE: Yeah, yeah. And so from the moment that Gary meets Alana, there is this spark between them. But there's also this 10-year age difference. There isn't a sexual relationship between them, but we see them become friends and they work together. And there's this hint of a deeper connection. Like, what did you have in mind when you were presenting this relationship?

ANDERSON: In a funny way, you can really - you don't have any sexual relationship. You can concentrate on all the other stuff that happens in a friendship or a romance - you know, romance that goes unfulfilled, you know? You can investigate the subtle shifts in power that happen between men and women, friendships and these kinds of things, jealousies that can occur when, in fact, no one's meant to have the right to be jealous. There is no relationship.

RASCOE: But did you have any qualms about that, or were you concerned that viewers might have some qualms about that?

ANDERSON: No. I thought that it was going to take care of itself because that's not our concern and that's not our intention. You just enjoy - you know, I can remember being, you know, 15, 16 - 14 or 15 and I had a great friendship with an older girl. She - by the way, she was, like, 18 or 19, you know? And she would give me rides, and we had an incredible friendship - still do. And I was thinking about that stuff.

RASCOE: I mean, this movie is definitely entertaining, and there's a lightness to it. It also moves really fast. There's a lot of running. They run a lot (laughter). We see Gary and Alana sprinting from one adventure to another, and all these things are happening in the background, whether it's, like, you know, the oil crisis of the '70s and long gas lines. And then, you know what inspired some of these very wild scenarios, like the water bed store? I used to love water beds, you know, personally. I like water beds.

ANDERSON: By the way, it's very funny. Getting into this and making a film that has water beds as an issue, you start to learn more about people than you ever thought you'd know. They say, you know, I've got a water bed, or somebody says, you know, my parents had a water bed. They're always - like, all right, I like a water bed.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: I had a friend of mine named Gary Goetzman, who got involved in the water bed business at a very young age. I think he must have been about 16 or 17. And Gary would tell me these stories, you know? And I said, well, what happened? He says, oh, well, the gas crisis. I said, well, what does the gas crisis have to do with water beds? He said, well...

RASCOE: Plastic.

ANDERSON: ...You know, it's plastic. It's vinyl, you know?

RASCOE: Vinyl, vinyl.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: And I'd think, man, that's a good - I guess it never occurred to me.

RASCOE: I wouldn't have thought of that either. No, I would not have thought of that.

So "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "Punch-Drunk Love" - these are your films and all set, like "Licorice Pizza," in San Fernando Valley, where you grew up. "Boogie Nights" was set in the porn industry. "Magnolia" is full of grief and disappointment. And Adam Sandler plays a painfully awkward Barry in "Punch-Drunk Love." But for this movie, you decided to go with more humor and joy in "Licorice Pizza." Like, why did you decide that?

ANDERSON: Well, I can't help but think that I probably intended those other films to be as funny and joyful, but I just missed the mark, you know?

RASCOE: (Laughter) Just - they got a little dark.

ANDERSON: They did - no, for sure they did get a little dark. I think that it has to do with - you're following people who are so full of optimism - their head's in the clouds, they're still - they're one foot in childhood, another foot in adolescence or adulthood. And they've yet to sort of run up against some of the real-world difficulties that are probably just around the corner. Things are bouncing off them still. I mean, less off of Alana - she's older and she's a bit more nervous about her future. But when you have a 16-year-old protagonist who's so endlessly optimistic and full of life, that's probably the kind of film you're going to end up with.

RASCOE: So critics have been calling this film everything from a coming-of-age film to a love letter to the '70s. How would you describe it?

ANDERSON: I would describe it as a home movie. You - while it might not be an entirely accurate depiction of my childhood, I think the best way I can describe it is the most fun home movie I've ever had the pleasure of making.

RASCOE: That's Paul Thomas Anderson. His new movie, "Licorice Pizza," is in select theaters now and opens widely on Christmas Day. Thank you for speaking with me today. I really appreciate it.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASON WILLIAMS' "GREENSLEEVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.