Why Paul Thomas Anderson Chose to Film Part of 'Licorice Pizza' at My Childhood Home
The filmmaker talks with me, Esther Zuckerman, about the architectural strangeness of the house I grew up in and the San Fernando Valley, then and now.
About midway through Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza, my heart skipped. It wasn't because it was the first time Bradley Cooper appeared on screen, stomping around in white bell bottoms and exuding the coked-up aura of the legendary hairdresser-slash-producer Jon Peters. It was because I recognized the bricks his platform boots were hitting. "That's my fucking house," I whispered.
I always figured Licorice Pizza would hit a certain emotional note for me. Anderson's film is nostalgic for his youth in the San Fernando Valley, and thus would make me consider my own childhood growing up in the area, not least because he centers a young Jewish woman played by Alana Haim. But I didn't know just how personal Licorice Pizza would be. Anderson staged an entire sequence set at Jon Peters' home in the house on Balboa Avenue where I grew up.
My parents bought the place in 1997 from Lyle Waggoner, the actor best known for his fleet of Star Waggons, the trailers where stars can go between takes on sets. At the time, my dad's career as a sitcom director was flourishing with stints on Friends and MurphyBrown and the house was nothing if not a statement piece. A large Tudor manor at a dead end of a block just off of Ventura Boulevard, it was vast and odd with secret passageways, wood carvings, and an English hunting scene full of hounds that adorned the dining room wall.
Explaining where I grew up was always slightly difficult. The San Fernando Valley has a reputation for ranch houses and porn palaces. This house looked like it had been dropped in from another country and era. There was a rumor that the neighboring spot, built by the same architect and previously owned by Stevie Nicks, once had a waterfall running through it.
Licorice Pizza perfectly captures the dichotomy of the Valley, a place that seems lame and suburban on its surface, but is filled with Hollywood-adjacent weirdos. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old child actor-slash-budding entrepreneur who meets the 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) during his school picture day. He flirts with her as she assists the gropey photographer, and she is entertained enough that she goes and meets him for dinner at the Tail O' the Cock, a legendary haunt in Studio City. (It's has since been replaced by mini mall.) From there, Alana and Gary get into all sorts of mischief, including a water bed hustling scheme, which brings them to Jon Peters' place—a.k.a. the house I know very well.
My mom and dad sold the property in 2019. Shortly after that, Anderson knocked on the door and asked the new owners to stop renovating so he could film there. Immediately after seeing the film, I reached out to Anderson to see if I could get a statement on why he chose it of all the homes in the Valley. He hopped on a phone for what was supposed to be a 15-minute call, which turned into a 30-minute discussion that eventually devolved into us reminiscing about the businesses that had opened and closed on Ventura.
Thrillist: Thank you so so much for taking the time to talk with me. I have a bunch of questions about the film, but I'm not sure if this was—
Paul Thomas Anderson: Oh, I know. Here's what I want to know: Did you buy it from Lyle Waggoner?
Well, my parents did. I was 7 when we moved into the house. But yeah, I sort of blacked out when I realized it was in the movie. I grabbed my partner who was sitting next to me and was like, "Holy shit." And so, I really wanted to ask how you chose it for Jon Peters' house? I know from personal experience it's a strange house.
Well, I was aware of the house. I was aware of it through reputation, growing up here, that there was a house that Lyle Waggoner had. I didn't really know Lyle Waggoner. He did know my father, because he was part of The Carol Burnett Show. [Ed. note: Anderson's father succeeded Waggoner as the announcer for Carol Burnett.]
I cannot explain to you the history of English Tudor in the San Fernando Valley as an architecture that became popular. It's so peculiar and so strange, but it was very common in the '70s. It became highly fashionable to have English Tudor homes or even markets. There was a Jurgensen's Market down the corner, which is now a Big Five, by Genesta Park there. I remembered a few years ago, I guess it would've been 2019, that it had been for sale. So as I was thinking of houses in the hills of Encino in that area, I remembered it.
We drove up to knock on the door, to see if we could come inside. And there was a family that had bought it and was remodeling it to sell it again. But they hadn't gotten very far in their remodeling. So we said, "Would you mind stopping, or at least stopping in terms of what this room is and this room? Because we want to come in here, and we want to film in here." And they said, "Okay." The first day of the shoot, we shot there. What else can I tell you? It was a terrific location, not easy to get to, very, very impractical.
The fact that you filmed with a truck up there was sort of shocking to me. I don't know how that truck didn't bottom out. My whole childhood was people bottoming out in that driveway.
Without question, it is built to bottom out in. I live in the area. I don't live far from there, and I cannot tell you the amount of trips that we took, just going back over and over and over and over and over again, mapping the entire sequence out, figuring out just where we were going to get the crew up there and how we were going to get that truck up the driveway, how we were going to back that truck down.
Backing the truck down is just heart-stopping to me.
But we did it. We did it all very quickly. I think we shot there maybe two or three days.
I grew up in the Valley in the '90s and 2000s, and I have to admit I have a fondness for it, but I didn't love growing up there. After I saw the film, I was immediately Googling all the locations to place them in my mind. Tail O' the Cock is now a mall with the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and the Western Bagel right where I went to high school. Where do you see the connection between the old and new Valley?
Well, every generation has something that connects them to the past, right? I'm 51 years old. Look, let me put it to you this way. I lived in Studio City. The woman that lived across the street from me, who was an older woman, was named Mary Brian. Mary Brian was in silent movies. As a 7, 8 year old, I would get cookies from my next-door neighbor who was a silent movie actress named Mary Brian, whose husband had already died. And her husband was George Tomasini, who was Alfred Hitchcock's editor. I grew up in Studio City in a quiet suburban neighborhood, but across the street from an 80-year-old woman who had been in silent movies. So I've touched the deep past. Now here I come along, and I'm going to make a film about my childhood. And it's remembering the Tail O' the Cock at Coldwater and Ventura, which to you is the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and the gas station. It's funny.
All I know is that the recreation of the Tail O' the Cock set and the recreation of Fat Bernie's Water Beds and Fat Bernie's Pinball Palace had many of my family members, my children and my children's friends, as background extras. I was able to create a world for the film that they got to live in. And their experience in both of those places had them wanting more. They could see my enthusiasm for it. But more than that, they had their own enthusiasms for it, because it was so warm. It was something that they couldn't believe no longer existed, and they wondered why they couldn't have it too. And I didn't really have an answer besides progress. Shit happens. I don't know what to tell you. The Valley at a certain point starts to look like somebody's doing the designing that quit smoking that day or something like that. Like, it's kind of schizophrenic and slightly all over the place and no real consistent vision. But I can still remember when it was just an incredibly quaint, beautiful place. It still is to me, funny enough.
When HAIM became famous, it was so cool because these Jewish girls from the Valley were rock stars. And I was a Jewish girl from the Valley. You've used the Valley in so many of their music videos that you've directed. How did you initially establish that rapport with them and how did that lead to casting Alana?
Well, our shared experience connected us growing up here, but the story is well documented that their mother was also my art teacher at elementary. It makes the Valley small. It's funny, we don't have any time or any money when we make those videos. And so, you do what you have with what's right in front of you, and you fight them with what you've got—as the Israeli army says, "Fight them with what you've got." And the best special effect in the HAIM video is them. That became kind of rule of thumb for how we would approach doing these things. All the people that I've worked with for 20 years lived in the Valley, the grips, the electricians, camera assistants. Some maybe live in Los Feliz, but we all live right here. The film developing lab is right here. It's in Burbank, FotoKem. So this is our backyard. This is a home game for us, and we know it.
That feeling that you had with your children and your children's friends appearing as extras and wanting more of that world, did that extend to your discussions with Alana and how Alana, the character, would have existed in this place in the '70s versus how Alana, the person, did when she was growing up?
I don't think enough has changed that it's that big a leap. We never had to have large scale conversations about character development or who this person is, because it's all right there. The dynamics of her family are right there. They're very similar. She was already well aware of music styles, cultural references of that time. I think I could pinpoint certain things and make it very, very specific, showing her particular films or things that might be there, but it's not that giant a stretch to take 1993, whatever year Alana was born, and place it in 1973.
So many of the vignettes seem to come from stories that you have heard, whether it's Gary Valentine being inspired by your friend the producer Gary Goetzman or the motorcycle jump coming from a legend about Evel Knievel. Would you say that's true of almost the whole movie, bits and pieces of lore of the Valley, are filtered in through Alana and Gary Valentine?
Absolutely. I don't think there's anything in the plot mechanics that isn't based on a story that I've heard. What's a creation is Gary and Alana themselves and their friendship, his desire for it to be a romantic relationship, her denial of that, and how they interact. That's the creation at the center, but every piece of structure around it... I'm trying to wrack my brain through everything, but just about every single thing has a touch to a factual story that I've heard. And by factual, I'd probably put that in quotes as well, because the stories that people tell have been elaborated and embellished over the years.
You're not obviously new to filming in the Valley, but did you approach the way you were telling stories of the Valley any differently for Licorice Pizza, which is so warm, than you did with any of your other Valley films, like Boogie Nights or Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love?
I'm trying to think. It may work, because for as much attention to detail as there is, there's no shot that isn't propelling the plot forward. There's nothing that showcases the Valley in a wide shot or an establishing shot. There's nothing to place you there except following these characters. That's the setting for the story. So there's no fetishizing of it. And yet what ends up happening as a result of that, I think it feels incredibly warm. That's a reflection of the characters and their feelings. I mean, I learned how to use a movie camera in here. I learned how to take photographs here, to frame shots, to make them elegant, or to make something realistic and un-elegant. I was filming something that I certainly felt an enormous amount of confidence doing. And I also didn't feel any need to embellish it, to romanticize it, or to make it something that it wasn't. And what it ends up equaling is, I suppose it just shows my affection for it, whether I'm meant to do it or not.
Back to the house: You incorporated some of its weirdest features, like the hunting scene and the stained glass knight. How did that figure into your conception of this Jon Peters character?
I don't know. For all I know, he could be horrified that I placed his character living in an English Tudor estate in Encino. He could have lived in a modern house. I don't know. But I didn't bother with those details because they felt inconsequential. I saw that English mural and the stained glass of King Arthur, whoever the hell it's supposed to be, and just thought, "How did I get so lucky?" It's very bizarre justifications. I probably try to not even think too much about it and just say, "Oh, there's lots of ways to justify this, but this is going to work for us. This works just great."
What do you think it says about the inherent strangeness of the Valley that this architectural style popped up and was a trend in a place largely associated with ranch houses or modern mansions?
I don't know. I guess I get a tickle out of it. There's absolutely nothing that links Southern California to English Tudor style, nothing. I mean, nothing. There's absolutely no reason, except some architect's personal taste. I suppose the reverse would be: Can you imagine a Beverly Hills mansion in the middle of London or something like that? Houses generally are meant to fit the climate of where they are built. A kind of honest reflection of the architecture is, "Well, what's the weather like?" It's funny to me. It's charming. Charming, which sounds really insulting... So you spent some time down at that 76 station presumably.
Constantly. I was so tickled that there was the continuity of Alana and Gary driving to the 76 station at the end of the block. You didn't even have to change that Valley Drug sign that's, I think, still there.
It's still there. I know. It's very sad though, the dry cleaners right across the street is gone.
Oh no! The one by the Johnny Rocket's?
Johnny Rockets is now a Fat Sal's. By the way, that corner there, the first post office of Encino was right at the corner of Genesta and Ventura. And then they built that horrible, some kind of doctor's office down the corner. It's not pretty.
Were you there when the place that's on the little lake there—it was an El Torito, and for two seconds, somebody put a strip club there. It was so crazy. It was like, who the fuck is putting a strip club on Ventura Boulevard, in broad daylight? No dad is going to sneak into a strip club on Ventura Boulevard on this beautiful location outside of this adobe. Anyway, but that didn't last.
Now it's a brunch place.
It's a brunch place.