Hard Eight, AKA Sydney poster art by Rich Kelly, https://www.rfkelly.com/hard-eight
By Tim Pelan
Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film Hard Eight (working title Sydney, preferred by Anderson, thwarted by his backers) arose from the performance of a veteran actor who caught his eye in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run—Philip Baker Hall. In a handful of brief scenes, Hall’s Las Vegas-based fixer for Dennis Farina’s frustrated crime boss Jimmy Serrano essays a calm, sharp, mannered stillness, with a certain old-school charm and pointed delivery. Anderson caught the film on its release in 1988. At the time, he was a precocious talent at Montclair Prep School in San Fernando Valley, under the good-humored tutelage of Principal Carole Stevens. In a piece on the director’s early years for Esquire, “Not long afterward, Anderson walked into Stevens’s office and handed her a piece of paper. ‘This will be my next film,’ he told her. Scribbled on the paper was one word: Sydney.” It didn’t quite become his next film, although it was his first feature after his debut short, Cigarettes and Coffee, which did at least feature Hall (the director as a young man had previously got to know the actor working as a PA on a PBS film). He laid his script on Hall, who he’d already admired for his roaring one-man performance as self-pitying, railing ex-President Nixon in Robert Altman’s ace one-hander, Secret Honor. Cigarettes and Coffee was a twisty character piece about a young gambler who thinks his wife is having an affair, who goes on to seek advice from an older mentor figure. It’s no stretch to see this develop into the main plotline of Hard Eight, about the Sydney from Midnight Run, a few years older, possibly surviving on the fringes of a life he once had after his boss Serrano is taken down. One day, seemingly out of the blue in a Reno coffee shop, Sydney takes a broken and forlorn young man, John, played by John C. Reilly, under his wing. He teaches him gambling tips to survive and blossom, until an unexpected series of events threatens to blow his house of cards down.
Sydney thrives on the craps tables and “old timer” games of the Reno casinos. Tracking and steadicam shots would become a signature move in Anderson’s later films but here they are used sparingly, except for one bravura shot. Kevin B. Lee has done a video essay for BFI on the progression of the director’s steadicam shots in his career. In the transcript on Hard Eight, he observes:
“In his first feature, Anderson’s use of Steadicam already exploits the dramatic qualities of cinematography, juxtaposing Sydney’s dynamic movement against other gamblers seated like zombies at their slots and screens. The camera whips to a side-angle view of Sydney, tracking him laterally; in doing so it seems to pass through walls of ordinary gamblers. It then opens into a wider view of the floor, a panorama of light and sound, both realistic and expressive.
No other shots are as flashy as this one in Hard Eight, a fairly low-key drama led by a reserved, even inscrutable lead performance. But Anderson allows this one shot to give a glimpse into Sydney’s subjective experience, the thrill of walking the casino floor. It’s a precocious display of character development achieved purely through camera movement and staging. The camera revels in this sensory landscape and simultaneously transcends it, as Sydney advances to his rightful place at the head of the craps table.”
How did he come to make this as his debut feature? From a snippet of an uncredited interview: “I had only written maybe one or two other scripts that I didn’t really like that much and I liked this one and it seemed that I could do it. It seemed that I could make a movie which was small with only four characters in Reno, Nevada and that I could raise money for it. It was really all I had.” Hall had thought the script for Cigarettes and Coffee was spectacular. “I was wondering, who was the first actor in the seventeenth century to see a Shakespeare script, and did he know what he was reading? I certainly knew what I had in my hand.” That’s why he didn’t need to be asked twice to reprise the role of Sydney.
Sydney’s quiet, becalmed old-school demeanor ruffles the feathers of a brash young gambler, rolling that “hard eight” and taunting his Zen-like opposite—a neophyte Philip Seymour Hoffman. “When we filmed Hard Eight,” Hall recalled to Rolling Stone after Hoffman’s tragic demise, “I was shocked at his ability to improvise his way through. He improvised most of that craps scene and just had such a sense for timing. At that point, I was older and he was very young. I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ He was so aware of everything and had the instinct of an older trooper. As I began to know him better and work with him more, I realized he was a genius and operating at a different level than the rest of us.”
Anderson shot the film in a tight twenty-eight days and edited it in three weeks. He spent a year in dispute with his backers over the final cut. The film essentially became his again when he recut it from the workprint at his own expense after it was accepted into the Un Certain Regard section of the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. He told Total Film in an interview in their March 2008 issue, to publicize There Will Be Blood, “The scrappiness was there to begin with. Coming from a big family… My God. We all fight all the time. But at the same time, nobody’s fight lasts more than five minutes. I certainly have that in me naturally, but going through what we went through on that first film was mad. It created such paranoia, such over-protectiveness. That said, I did things in the process that didn’t help it along. I could have been more diplomatic. But I was so arrogant. I simply thought it was my job to do this movie as best I can. It was so naïve to think I didn’t have to manage the people who were paying for it!”
Right from the start of his career, he gets up close to his actors, hugging the camera. Hall again, from the Hard Eight DVD commentary:
“When it’s possible—in terms of the type of scene it is, where the camera is, how close the actors are to the lens and to the camera itself—Paul gets himself down in and under and around the camera. He curls in down there somewhere… so that he has eye contact with you all the time. Now, many directors don’t do this, many directors watch the box–many directors don’t even watch the box, they stand off to the side somewhere, I don’t know what they’re looking at—but Paul gets right down in there so that it’s very intimate… And it could be disconcerting. Paul might be two or three feet away from you and locking eyes right into you. There’s something about the hard focus and his physical presence… inches away, that gives a kind of a dynamic to the performance that I’m not sure that you can achieve in quite the same way. Or any other way. It’s unusual. There are other directors who do this, I’ve seen this a couple of times, but Paul does it on virtually every shot… It’s almost like he is helping to will the appropriate performance from you… I always sensed… I sensed his will. He wanted this thing in a certain way.”
The film, therefore, benefits from a lack of “showiness,” forcing the audience to lean in and listen to the gaps between the words, the play of emotion across faces, the “tells” and poker expressions. Sydney doesn’t know the meaning of the word “redundancy”—he says and reveals exactly what he means to. John is a naif, saying what he thinks people want to hear. Even when he learns the skills Sydney divests, he never develops a hard carapace (amusingly, on “winning” a hotel room and dinner for the night after Sydney teaches him his first lesson on the casino floor, a slow trickle of information to the audience also, he plays the genial host). Gwyneth Paltrow is Clementine, a charming waitress bruised by life’s knocks, who Sydney maneuvers John into falling for. They are the seeming innocents he hopes will fill the gap where once his grown son and daughter occupied. She does a bit of her own hustling on the side, caught in a bind between being caught for sleeping with customers, and ignoring their advances and again getting sacked for losing the casino sucker’s bread. Her reluctance to give up even after John makes his intentions known (they get married on a whim) almost threatens to derail everything in the little group’s embryonic ordered world. Film Comment described the pair as being “superb at catching the precise blend of naïveté and fecklessness in their characters: each is just smart enough to know what they need to lie about, and desperate enough to believe the lies until the lies die gasping for fresh inspiration.”
John’s newer friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) is a verbose, coarse and showy Casino “security guy” who possibly overstates his importance and connections, but definitely knows there’s more to the eye as to why Sydney has taken John under his wing—a violent tragic backstory. The tale then becomes a kind of battle for the innocent John’s soul between two older, wiser father figures who each recognize the sourness at the heart of their opposite. Intimacy and openness are often thwarted or held at bay, as shown in Anderson’s framing of actors in uncomfortably long close-ups of the actors looking straight towards the camera, the other actor in conversation deliberately out of shot. It forces the actors to give the performance he wants, robbing them of collaborative variability. From Senses of Cinema:
“The opening encounter between Sydney and John, a five-and-a-half minute dialogue scene, comprises an almost fanatical adherence to the shot-reverse-shot structure. But it’s a full three minutes into the sequence before we get an over-the-shoulder shot. Until then, both characters are shot front-on, the camera offering the point-of-view of their interlocutor. After a cut to a two-shot to incorporate an interruption by a waitress, Anderson returns to the shot-reverse-shot rhythm, this time from over-the-shoulder. The respite is brief, however, since Sydney soon gets up from the table and the final minute-and-a-half separates the actors again.”
Anderson’s eye settles on odd little incidental details—John exchanges small talk with a bride in full wedding dress and incongruous neck brace playing the slot machines; he yelps for a bucket as a diligent spell yields a fountain of coinage; and as Sydney and Clementine talk at a table, a sudden ruckus nearby yields a whip-pan to focus on the next table’s folk, before panning back to Clementine’s screwed up What-was-that-all-about face. And life goes on.
Jimmy’s actions bring the monster beneath Sydney’s glacial cool not exactly roaring back, but quietly stewing, biding its time. In a move possibly cribbed by Martin Campbell for Daniel Craig’s James Bond debut Casino Royale (and mirrored by Marc Forster in its companion piece, Quantum of Solace), Sydney quietly waits in the dark for Jimmy to come home from gambling his ill-gotten extorted gains (luckily for Sydney, he made good on a hard eight role), pistol pointed at the door. The No-Name Movie Blog puts it nicely, stating that, “this is fully Philip Baker Hall’s movie, and in the end it’s a movie about a man who has lost everything so many times he seems to have almost forgotten how to be the monster you sense he was. He just wants people around him, even if those people will be the end of him. Every other character seems to try his patience, but he seems like he wouldn’t have it any other way. In the end, being uncertain and gambling it all on other people is better than the alternative—endless days spent playing the conservative gambles at casinos who all know his name.”
Whereas Bond shoots his cuffs with insouciance after his latest escapade, Sydney, back at the Reno coffee shop where the sins of the past caught up with him as he met and recognized John, tugs his jacket sleeve down over a spot of blood on his pristine white cuff, a shabbily shameful gesture. Sometimes, it’s not “always good to meet a new friend.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
In the video above, Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Baker Hall on filmmaking. Both men break down the 15+ minute Motel scene in Hard Eight. Philip Baker Hall also talks about the differences and challenges between cinema and theater acting and directing.
The emerging filmmaker conversations with Sundance Lab fellows Paul Thomas Anderson, From Here To Houdini’s House, written By Saida Shepard.
In January of 1993, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, a short called Cigarettes and Coffee, screened at the Sundance Film Festival. To make the film, Anderson pooled friends, acquaintances, and resources from his years as a production assistant. Cigarettes and Coffee inspired Anderson’s feature film script, Sydney, which he brought to the 1993 Filmmakers Lab. At the Lab, Anderson took portions of Sydney through a dress-rehearsal process, working with actors, workshopping his script, and learning about film industry politics. Sydney, later renamed Hard Eight, initiated Anderson into the challenge of retaining directorial control amid the promises and pitfalls of The Business. Anderson’s second feature, Boogie Nights, documents the makeshift family of a porn production empire from the excesses of the 1970s into the changing climate of the 1980s. At twenty-seven, Paul Thomas Anderson has been compared to Robert Altman for his ensemble work, and to Martin Scorsese for his anthropological detail. In this interview, part of a series with Lab alumni, Anderson talks about his start as a director, the lessons he’s learned from making two features, and his plans to make many more: “Either like thirty, if I continue to smoke; maybe forty if I quit.”
What were you doing before the Lab?
I wasn’t doing a goddamn thing. I’d worked as a P.A. for a long time, so I had a lot of access to people and camera packages, and I had some money and my girlfriend’s credit cards, and when I came up with the short Cigarettes and Coffee, essentially it was kind of an all or nothing situation. I put everything into this short, and then it was shown at Sundance. I had just written Sydney, or Hard Eight, rather. At that time it was called Sydney. And [Feature Film Program Director] Michelle Satter read it and she really liked it, and she saved my life by inviting me to the Lab. I really, literally, didn’t have anything to do. It was January, and I figured I’d be getting a job or something. I had no backup plan. In my egotistical, insane way, I was just sure that someone like her was going to come along. And she did.
Did the idea for Sydney grow out of your short?
No, it just grew out of the same actor. Philip Baker Hall was an actor who was in my short, who I really admired. And I wanted to get to know more about him. So my thinking in writing Sydney was that it was a kind of love letter, trying to figure out this man I didn’t really know.
How was the Lab?
I was initially kind of skeptical about it. Then I got there, and I just fuckin’ went crazy. I was very fortunate to have the actors who were going to be in the movie—Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly—with me. I mean, I met all these directors that I admired, like Michael Caton-Jones and John Schlesinger, and that was really quite a big deal. I remember [Artistic Director] Jeremy Kagan saying, “You’re here to fuck up, and then fuck up better the next day.” When someone says that, you’re ready to go. The best part of it for me was the Screenwriters Lab, because that’s where I got to meet three friends, three people who are very very close to me now, Richard LaGravenese, Todd Graff, and Scott Frank. They were advisors and just so dedicated to kicking my ass. And I needed my ass kicked.
In what areas did you need ass kicking?
I knew that my sensibility wasn’t incredibly art house, and I knew that my sensibility wasn’t incredibly Batman. I knew that I loved both sides of the spectrum. I had written a movie that was very small and intimate. And I said, “You know, I think I need a little bit of help, because this is reading and seeming to me like a movie that could play at the Nuart for a week, and I really don’t want to make a movie that plays at the Nuart for a week. I want to make a movie that people will come and see, and I need help in that department.” I was sort of shamelessly saying that I didn’t want to do a small movie. And of course it turned out that it played at the Nuart for a week. So a lot of fucking help they were!
Was there an experience or conversation at the Lab that ultimately shifted a direction of the film?
I had written a scene where two people talk about doing a scam. I had written one guy telling another guy about a scam that he could pull to get a free hotel in Vegas. I sat down with Richard LaGravenese, and he said, “Why am I reading about this? Why am I not seeing it?” And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of incredible. Why don’t I show it?” That’s just a very basic thing, one really strong thing I took.
Were there skills you learned at the Lab that you took to the experience of directing your film on set?
Funny enough, everyone seemed to recognize that I needed more advice about the movie business. While there may have been somebody else over on the other side who needed help with his character motivation and script, I was standing there with a pretty okay script and just needed someone to give me lessons in how to protect what I had. It was more like, “Okay. Here’s what’s going to happen. There are going to be all these people who want to suck your blood, and here’s how to protect yourself.” What they were trying to teach me at the Lab, which I was probably too silly to listen to, is that only 50 percent of my job was to write and direct good movies. The other 50 percent was dealing with people who pay for movies and dealing with the distribution process.
Once you got the money in place, where did you shoot the film, and what was the post-production process like?
We shot in Reno, Nevada, for twenty-eight days, and then went through a hellish process of editing it and trying to regain it back from the company that paid for it. In other words, everything that they had warned me might happen in Hollywood happened. I’ll just say that some people who paid for the movie accidentally forgot to read the script, and when they got the movie that was the script, they were… mad. If you’re a first-time filmmaker, and you’ve got someone to give you the money, you’re going to take it. Even if it smells fishy, you’re going to take it. Don’t. It’s better not to make your movie. You will get it eventually. If it smells fishy, don’t fucking get involved.
Did you have people in mind when you were writing Boogie Nights?
Again, I had written it for specific actors—John C. Reilly, Phil Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Ridgely, Melora Walters. All those people were in Hard Eight. I like working with the same people. And Julianne Moore is someone that I didn’t know personally, but I knew her work, and so I wrote the part for her.
What cinematic influences informed Boogie Nights?
Certainly I think the top three influences, in alphabetical order, are Altman, Scorsese, and Truffaut. They were people that I admired and loved. Jonathan Demme is probably my all-time king hero because he’s the combination of those three, I think.
What do you think about when you think about the future?
I met Francis Ford Coppola, and he shook my hand and said, “You’re the only one right now.” He said, “There’s always one time in your life where you get to know that you can make one more movie. You have it. You’ll never have it again.”
What do you want to make next?
I have a movie in my head, in pieces. I have been writing it for a while. It’s basically for a lot of the same actors.
Do you have a stock company that you would like to continue working with?
Yeah. The goal is to buy the entire Laurel Canyon area and turn it into a backlot for me and my actors. With a monorail from here to Houdini’s house.
Was this all part of your plan, years ago when you thought about what you wanted to do with your life?
It’s all happening. Well, it’s about a year behind schedule.
When you were a teenager, you were planning—
Even before that. Six or seven.
Six or seven?
Yeah. And the presidency’s mine in 2004.
Do you want to be a director that inhabits all genres? For example, Scorsese, who’s done almost everything —is that something that appeals to you?
Absolutely. I want to make a western. I like it all, and I want to tackle it all. There’s so much I want to do. There’s just not enough fuckin’ time!
THE CAREER OF PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON IN FIVE SHOTS
“In his first feature, Anderson’s use of Steadicam already exploits the dramatic qualities of cinematography, juxtaposing Sydney’s dynamic movement against other gamblers seated like zombies at their slots and screens. The camera whips to a side-angle view of Sydney, tracking him laterally; in doing so it seems to pass through walls of ordinary gamblers. It then opens into a wider view of the floor, a panorama of light and sound, both realistic and expressive. No other shots are as flashy as this one in Hard Eight, a fairly low-key drama led by a reserved, even inscrutable lead performance. But Anderson allows this one shot to give a glimpse into Sydney’s subjective experience, the thrill of walking the casino floor. It’s a precocious display of character development achieved purely through camera movement and staging. The camera revels in this sensory landscape and simultaneously transcends it, as Sydney advances to his rightful place at the head of the craps table.” —Kevin B. Lee
The Sundance Kid is the first installment of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and careers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, covering his lo-fi origins and his breakout at the Sundance Film Festival. This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Cameron Beyl.
Screenwriter must-read: Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for Hard Eight, originally titled Sydney [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
The way you look, I think you know what I’m sayin’, old-timer, I think you do.
Jesus Christ, why don’t you have some fun? Fun! Fun! Hahahahaha.
In loving memory of Philip Baker Hall (September 10, 1931—June 12, 2022)
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight. Photographed by Mark Tillie © Green Parrot, Rysher Entertainment, Trinity Distributors, Goldwyn Films, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in