‘Licorice Pizza’: Director Paul Thomas Anderson Was Inspired By a Real-Life Awkward Teen Encounter He Witnessed in His Neighborhood
Licorice Pizza, the new movie written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a heart-warming story about friendship and love. 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) meets 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim)—and their life in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1973 takes interesting turns.
Anderson, aka P.T. Anderson, is known for numerous critically-acclaimed movies, including Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), and Phantom Thread (2017).
He says there’s a moment in real life that inspired him to write Licorice Pizza, and he describes it as “an awkward teen encounter,” not unlike the moments that Gary and Alana have in the film.
There’s an adorable real-life moment that inspired how Gary and Alana meet
Anderson took a walk one day in his neighborhood, where the film takes place, the San Fernando Valley, and walked past Portola Middle School, he told Variety. He described a moment he witnessed that stuck in his head, sparking the idea for the film.
“It was picture day,” he said, “and I saw this very energetic teenager flirting with the girl who was taking pictures. It was an instantly good premise.”
Anderson said that was the moment that made him think about a possibility for a scene—a kid asking an older woman out to dinner, and what might happen next. “What if she said yes, going against her better judgment?” he imagined. But the idea didn’t seem to go anywhere, at first—not until he combined it with funny stories he heard from his friend, producer Gary Goetzman.
Goetzman sold waterbeds to celebrities as a teen, just like the character Gary does in the film. Goetzman also grew up in the San Fernando Valley. After hearing several of Goetzman’s outrageously funny true stories, Anderson was inspired to write the screenplay. Many of Goetzman’s tales made their way into it.
Anderson says the San Fernando Valley makes the perfect setting for the film
The San Fernando Valley plays a part in Licorice Pizza because the film depicts life in Los Angeles without all of the usual iconic Hollywood landmarks. Anderson grew up in the Valley and lives there now with Maya Rudolph and their four children.
Anderson loves the area so much that it’s the setting for three of his other films—Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. In the interview with Variety, Anderson says he often asks himself, “Are you really going to make another film in Los Angeles in the ’70s again? Don’t you think you’ve done that?”
His love for the area always wins out in the end, so he ignores that voice in his head—”swatting it like a fly,” as he told Variety.
So what is it about the Valley that’s so special to Anderson? He described it as feelings, specifically, comfort and joy. He also said he likes the way it looks and “tastes and smells.”
In any case, love, whether it’s for a person or a place, isn’t always easily explained. But if all the hype and critics are correct, Licorice Pizza seems to be like a love letter to the San Fernando Valley that you’ll want to watch.
Licorice Pizza has already won over fans and is on track to be a hit
The moment MGM released the trailer, Licorice Pizza seemed destined for success—sending social media into a frenzy, with Twitter calling it the best movie of the year. Anderson’s past films have been nominated for Academy Awards, but he has yet to win one of his own. Some say this may be his year for an Oscar.
Licorice Pizza is already winning numerous awards. The National Board of Review named it “Best Film” and named Anderson “Best Director.” The American Film Institute named the film one of its top 10 honorees for “Best Movie of the Year.” The New York Film Critics Circle Awards announced that Anderson won its “Best Screenplay” award.
Licorice Pizza is also a success at the box office, and MGM studio says its earnings are an all-time record. The film was released on November 26 in only four theaters in the U.S. but almost instantly scored big—earning an $83,8k opening screen average, Deadline reports.
A film’s cast is usually its main draw, but the two stars of the film are both making their acting debuts. Hoffman chose Haim, a singer and guitarist of the band Haim because she’s a legit “valley girl.” Keeping her first name, Haim plays Alana Kane. Before shooting the film, Anderson directed several of Haim’s music videos.
Hoffman, who plays Gary Valentine, has a famous dad—the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is in several of Anderson’s films. Anderson has said that casting the inexperienced actor brought a quality to the character that he preferred over a more polished performance that an experienced actor would have done.
The young soon-to-be stars have chemistry, critics say, and more prominent names join them in supporting roles. Bradley Cooper plays Jon Peters, a character based on the real-life Jon Peters, a producer in Hollywood. Peters started as a hairdresser, and he dated Barbara Streisand.
Sean Penn plays an actor named Jack Holden, a character meant to be William Holden. Musician and actor Tom Waits plays a movie director, Rex Blau.
Benny Safdie plays Joel Watts, a local politician who appears to be a character based on Joel Wachs. Christine Ebersole appears as Lucille Dolittle, a character meant to be Lucille Ball. Anderson’s wife, Maya Rudolph, also makes an appearance.