Let’s begin with the facts.
In Inherent Vice, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s psychedelic crime romp that’s one of prestige season’s most befuddling and eagerly awaited titles, Josh Brolin plays a hippie-hating LAPD detective named Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson.
Newcomer Katherine Waterston—an accomplished New York stage actress and daughter of Law & Order’s Sam Waterston—portrays Shasta Fay, a surfer-girl femme fatale. And Joaquin Phoenix appears as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a shambolic gumshoe with a fondness for bong hits who’s investigating the disappearance of Shasta Fay’s wealthy boyfriend in ’70s Southern California.
If all that sounds like a far cry from Anderson’s last ’70s-set film—the porn dramedy Boogie Nights (1997)—not to mention his epic character studies There Will Be Blood and The Master, blame Inherent Vice’s source material. The new movie, which premieres at the New York Film Festival in October, was adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s gonzo 2009 novel of the same name.
As detailed in Entertainment Weekly’s Fall Movie Preview issue (on newsstands now), Inherent Vice swings between suspense and absurdity with an A-list ensemble cast (including Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, and Owen Wilson) and a pile-up of subplots involving conspiracies and faked deaths, heroin cartels and pimps.
According to Waterston and Brolin, the director allowed the magical realism dictated by Pynchon’s novel to flow from a place of possibility and collaboration—if not freewheeling experimentation—on set.
“With Paul, he’s interested in what might happen, not what should happen,” Waterston recalls of filming in Los Angeles last summer. “He doesn’t walk onto set with a clear goal. That can be…surprising. It didn’t feel chaotic; it felt thrilling. The set felt really vital. Like you are going into a question together.”
For his part, Brolin was particularly struck by the un-Hollywood tenor of Anderson’s filmmaking process. Exhibit A: the actors’ freedom to lodge constructive criticism (a no-no for so many Serious Auteurs) and course-correct using all means of unusual props.
“With this [film], there was a lack of pretense—a really strange lack of pretense,” Brolin says. “When something isn’t working, you can say, ‘This feels like a turd. Let’s cut the middle three pages. I’ll try to improvise and provide a bridge. How about some pancakes?’”
“I’m not joking about the pancakes,” he confirms. “Many, many pancakes. By the end of the day, you’re shaking so much because you’ve eaten so many pancakes, you know you’re going to be diabetic in the next 24 hours.”
Okay, there are pancakes. So, um, any other notable foodstuffs in Inherent Vice?
“A piece of fruit plays a major role. It’s frozen. And it’s my friend,” he teases. “Even talking about it now is making me chuckle.”
Brolin adds: “It’s Cirque du Soleil more than pretentious filmmaking.”
Inherent Vice opens Dec. 12.