It seemed like a great idea at the time, when Mike Nichols built The Graduate around Simon & Garfunkel songs. But few filmmakers since have used one act’s tunes to anchor a movie. Director Paul Thomas Anderson, unofficial president of the Aimee Mann fan club, has revived the tradition with his new film, Magnolia. The ensemble drama has nine Mann songs complementing the pathos of such likable losers as actor William H. Macy’s lovesick ex-boy genius, John C. Reilly’s lonely cop, and Melora Walters’ emotional burnout. EW got symbiotic with the filmmaker and singer last month.
EW: Is it the romantic disappointment in Aimee’s songs that was particularly suited to this film?
PTA: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever made a movie as depressing, so I would blame that on Aimee.
AM: Even I could not write a character as sad as Bill Macy’s.
PTA: What’s great about Aimee’s writing is that clarity—hearing something you’ve felt before enunciated in a way that makes perfect sense. There’s a lot for screenwriters to steal from songwriters, in terms of getting to the point. Not that I’ve stolen enough, because the movie’s three hours long.
EW: Why use just one singer?
PTA: I loved the way it worked in Harold and Maude [with Cat Stevens] and The Graduate — one voice to a movie. Plus, I was thinking, here are these songs I’m completely in love with that I know are in her drawer, and I want to make a record out of them — my own mix tape of favorite Aimee Mann songs.
EW: You have Walters nervously recite a line from Aimee’s song ”Deathly” — ”Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?” — to ward off Reilly’s advances. Her character seems especially tied to Aimee’s music.
PTA: Exactly. Melora’s the one snorting coke off Aimee Mann CDs.
AM: That’s very naughty, Paul.
PTA: Everything [in the script] sprouted from that one line. That notion of ”don’t even bother; you have no idea how unlovable I am”—that’s the idea of the movie, and it was Aimee’s.
EW: Then there’s the surreal, incredibly audacious montage where the entire cast sings along with Aimee’s ”Wise Up.”
AM: I thought, Paul, this is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. It was shocking how moving it was when I saw it. It’s weird when your own song is making you cry.
PTA: I thought the best way to do that sequence was to have it creep up on you. When you see Melora singing along, you imagine that it’s playing in her room. Then you see Reilly and think maybe it’s just the two young lovers. By the time it cuts to Philip Baker Hall, you’ve been hoodwinked into a musical number!
I get up early to write and always get coffee at Winchell’s. There was this woman who had her car door open and was clearly dressed up from the night before — this was six in the morning — and she was crying her eyes out, playing ”I Will Always Love You” at full blast, singing along with it in the middle of the parking lot. It f — -ing broke my heart, and it made sense to me that you would sing along and wallow in it at that slit-your-wrist moment.
AM: Everybody has a song that keeps going in your head and it’s the soundtrack to your life. Nobody else hears it but you.
EW: Basically, the movie presents an idealized world where Aimee Mann is the collective unconscious.
PTA: That’s my idealized world.