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ODE TO LICORICE PIZZA
Majo Aguilar in conversation with Victor Avila on Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film & L.A.
México City, December 12, 2021
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon as I approach Victor Avila’s house while listening to Instant Karma by John Lennon. I begin to get more curious about what he has to say about his recent trip to Los Angeles for an early screening of Licorice Pizza, the latest motion picture by Academy Award nominee, director Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Haim’s guitarist Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and the urge to know about his most recent adventure became unbearable. Víctor Ávila is a 19-year old film aficionado. His film taste covers a wide range of genres, from Nouvelle Vague star François Truffault to American classics like Terrence Malick. Victor’s love for cinema can be described as unmeasurable, as he once said: “there are no buts when it comes to watching films, either you love it or you hate it, no in-between." He is also a vinyl collector and listens to classics like Nick Drake, The Beach Boys and George Harrison as well as film soundtracks. He just graduated from high school and will start a career in cinematography in January. He also happens to be one of my dearest friends.
Once inside the house, I greet his two dogs, Sam and Negrita. I'm able to give Victor a proper hug before taking a seat in his dining room. "I want to do other things with my life, you know?" Victor begins as I make myself comfortable and start recording. "This whole thing is a pretty thing to do but it consumes a lot of time, being active on Twitter and stuff like that. Anyways, I want to do other things with my life now, maybe I would go back to it if by any chance a friend of mine would invite me to go see Guillermo del Toro or Edgar Wright, maybe only like that I would feel tempted to attend." He is talking about the experiences he has had meeting famous people in film and music like Margot Robbie, Roger Waters and Brad Pitt among others. But now that he has met one of his all-time favorite filmmakers, he is considering “retiring” from what I like to call "celebrity haunting."
So Victor, you just returned from a special screening of PTA’s (Paul Thomas Anderson) newest film Licorice Pizza. How did this trip happen? How did you plan it?
To begin with, it wasn’t planned. I started to see some information on Twitter that said the film would arrive in México in February next year, and it was like “I’m not gonna survive until February without spoilers." Even before the trip idea, I was planning to shut down social media for a while to avoid spoilers. One day I was talking to my mom and I told her the film wasn’t going to be released here until February, then she joked about me flying to the premiere in the US. She was joking, but… you can not joke with me haha. But no, I mean it remained as a joke, but I was aware an early screening was taking place because all the films that want to compete during award season must be screened before a certain deadline, and Licorice Pizza wanted to compete. I thought it was going to be sort of big, that the movie was going to be available in cinemas from different states, and when they announced that the tickets were available, I immediately checked it out, but I was surprised it was only available in four cinemas in all of the US- three in New York and only one in L.A., that's nothing! immediately after, I logged in to the L.A. cinema’s page and saw the screening room was already three-quarters full, and I thought “What should I do?” I had a credit card in my hand and thought “F it, let’s do this!” and got the tickets. Then I got into crazy mode and started searching for flights. When my mother came from work I was like “Ma, I gotta tell you something. I got tickets for the premiere!” And she just stared at me like, ''Victor, what have you done?!” still sitting in her car (laughs). So she gets out of her car, enters the house, sits in the living room still analyzing what I just said, and at that moment I did feel a little bad because after all, it was an eccentricity. Now that I look back it was all worth it, but at that moment I felt bad. So then my mother told me to check the flights to see how viable it was, but the thing that worried my parents the most was letting me go to a foreign country alone since their visa ran out. Our first option was asking a friend of mine who has family in Los Angeles and also likes films to come with me. I texted him and he got excited about it but when we checked all the expenses he stepped back from the plan. After that I started to doubt I would be able to go but still had some hope, it was like flipping a coin, so on a Sunday night my mother told me she got someone I could stay with. He was the son of one of her middle school friends who lives there and also happens to like films. That left my parents more calm and it also meant that the cost of the trip would go down dramatically, so I left! And I know my parents think this trip was madness, but what may have made them think it wasn't such a bad idea was that around the same time the Coppola vinyl arrived.
Can you please explain to us a little more of what this Coppola vinyl is?
The thing is that during quarantine I joined a group of people who are dedicated to getting autographs by mail, and I saw that a lot of people were having good luck with The Godfather’s director Francis Ford Coppola, so I contacted some of the people from the group and asked them for his address. They gave me the information and then I went to DHL and asked if I could send a package to him. I even said I wanted to pay for both the shipping and return but they told me that wasn’t possible, and I wanted to do it as a polite gesture to Coppola in case he got the vinyl I was sending for him to sign it, but since the pandemic was still going they weren’t accepting packages from México to the US. Fortunately, I became friends with the people in the group and they told me what to do to be able to send my package. I even wrote a letter to him saying how much I admire his work and how the Godfather impacted me to prove I wasn’t only interested in getting an autograph, and I sent it. I was hoping it would get back to me in at least six months to a year because that was the estimated time, but it only took a month! And when it got back it was already signed! He even kept the letter.
The reason for this trip was because you are a big PTA fan. How did your love for his films start?
Well, it all started in middle school. I don't remember if I was in seventh or eighth grade, and as you know, I used to go to the national film archive very often and there I made some friends who worked in stores and who also enjoy cinema, and one day I told one of them, his name is Ivan, that I had just seen Boogie Nights (1997), and he went "Oh my God, Paul Thomas Anderson!" He went crazy about it, it was like me from now was reflecting on him back then. So, we talked about Boogie Nights and how great it is, coincidentally around that period Phantom Thread (2017) had just arrived in theaters and I had just seen There Will Be Blood (2007) at home with my father, and while watching it I thought "What the heck is this?! What am I watching?!" It was a completely different level, I was mesmerized, so immediately I went to see Phantom Thread. I didn't fall in love with it straight away, but after rewatching it I saw it as the masterpiece it is, but yeah, my first PTA love was There will be Blood, I think anyone that was in touch with me during middle school got to know about that movie, I wouldn't shut up about it!
Image Sourced from @licoricepizza on Instagram
Yeah, I remember that! You told me about it the first few times we met, because I remember just standing there and you approached and said “Have you ever seen There will be Blood?” and I was so confused, I didn’t even know what it was.
If anyone who went with me to middle school is reading this, I apologize. Anyways, I kept watching his films, for example, Magnolia (1999), which also blew my mind. Then I saw The Master (2012), so we could say his filmography is divided in two, the first part is formed by films like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, everything’s very quick and dynamic, there are a lot of characters, he focuses on the plot more than anything, whereas the second half could be described as more contemplative, everything is a little bit slower. Instead of having like ten characters, there’s only like two or three, but their psychology is on another level of development, and with those kinds of films I was unable to have good chemistry at first, I was more into his earliest work, but with time I learned to appreciate them. Then around 2019, I read the news that he was to shoot his new film and I got very excited. Then Covid happened and everything was delayed a year, but later the pictures from the set appeared. I saw Bradley Cooper covered in blood and the 70s and all I thought was “Another 70s movie? This is gonna be a masterpiece!”
Images Sourced from @licoricepizza on Instagram
"I saw Bradley Cooper covered in blood and the 70s and all I thought was, 'another 70s movie? This is gonna be a masterpiece!'"
Before diving into the film, could you tell us what places you went to and what things you did?
Well, I arrived on Wednesday night and got to Kat's house, my mom’s friend's son, and we chatted for a while. On Thursday, which happened to be Thanksgiving, we went to Santa Monica to take pictures and spend the night at New Beverly, Tarantino’s cinema, watching Meet me in St. Louis (1944) with Judy Garland. It’s a golden age musical. And that cinema is the one that appears in Tarantino's movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) in the scene where Margot Robbie goes to the movies, first I thought the Licorice Pizza event was taking place there, but turns out it was being projected at a cinema that is right in front of Tarantino’s. On Friday, it was finally the event and it was the surprise of the century because I didn’t expect him to be there. So, Friday was the premiere and Saturday I went to Warner Studios and Amoeba, it is like the most important record shop in the world, anyone who buys records has to buy in Amoeba at least once, it’s an honour to buy there, and I did buy some records. At the beginning I spent like five minutes without knowing where to start since the store is way too big, but then I got some soundtracks, I even got a very special edition of the Almost Famous (2000) soundtrack. it’s the original 2000’s version and nowadays it’s quite expensive, but I got it for way less than its actual value, that’s what I love about Amoeba, prices are fair and you can find rarities. On Sunday I saw Licorice Pizza twice. Finally on Monday I went to the Oscars Museum and then took my flight home.
What were your favourite pieces from the Oscars museum? How is it organized?
It’s like a typical museum divided into rooms, and there's history there! Some things are shocking to see, like the Rosebud sledge from Citizen Kane (1941), but the original one, I mean having it there…I feel like that piece is priceless, it produces a big impression. They have Oscars, there are iconic pieces that have been part of the awards. Do you remember the envelope that mistakenly said that La La Land (2016) had won for best picture? It is there! if I'm not mistaken I think Warren Beatty even wrote something on it, an apology. They have an exhibition of more modern movies, there’s even a sketch of There Will Be Blood, watching it was so beautiful! Maybe one of my favourite rooms is the one dedicated to Spike Lee. He always asks for autographs from other filmmakers, and sure there are pieces from his films and even the purple tuxedo he wore when he won the Oscar, but the best thing about his exhibition is that on the walls there are all the autographs from his icons: Coppola, Godard, Belmondo, Scorsese, Newman, Spielberg, Kazan, maybe the most impressive one is Terrence Malick’s! The thing is that Malick is the bigfoot of Hollywood, he has never given interviews, he has never attended a red carpet, the man has been nominated for the Oscars and won awards in festivals and he has never attended a single event! There are barely even pictures of him, we only know he is alive because he keeps shooting movies, witnessing his signature there was amazing.
"What I like about Paul is that he is very chameleonic, you’ll never know what to expect from him. You can watch Punch Drunk Love (2002) which is a very pretty and simple story, and then he makes The Master that’s about sects and everything is existential, so what I learned from his films is that one can never get to see a movie with expectations, it’s better to have your mind blank and pay attention."
Images Sourced from @licoricepizza on Instagram
Now the moment you have been saving! I know you aren’t able to say much because of the spoilers and regulations, but did Licorice Pizza meet your expectations?
What I like about Paul is that he is very chameleonic, you’ll never know what to expect from him, you can watch Punch Drunk Love (2002) which is a very pretty and simple story, and then he makes The Master that’s about sects and everything is too existential, so what I learnt from his films is that one can never get to see a movie with expectations, it’s better to have your mind blank and pay attention. So I had no expectations, a lot of people said it was going to be like Boogie Nights that’s also set in the 70s, and I was imagining very quick camera moves and all, but it wasn’t. For example, it’s like when Scorsese's The Irishman (2019) was released, some people were saying it was going to be like Goodfellas (1990), and it is not. All I knew about Licorice Pizza was that it was very Richard Linklater-esque, like a hangout movie like Dazed and Confused (1993). But for me this has been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie, it’s a fantastic work, it’s the best hangout film I’ve ever seen, it even overcame Dazed and Confused, which used to be my favourite hangout film. This is a movie made with a lot of love.
My first impressions of the film when it was announced was that Cooper Hoffman was going to carry the weight of the spotlight, but now with all I’ve seen on social media it seems like the star of the film is Alana Haim. How did you perceive this?
Like you, At first I thought Cooper would be the main character, but I feel like it’s a 50/50. They back up each other very well, they have the same amount of screentime, the same value, it’s pretty fair. Maybe because Alana is more famous she’s given more publicity, but in the film, they are very equal.
PTA said he would put Alana Haim’s acting in the same category as Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis. Do you think she has that same weight?
When criticizing an actor it is important to do it based on the film genre. Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat (2007) is a genius, and that’s a comedy. Or Joaquin Phoenix in The Master or Joker (2019) is also brilliant, and those are dramas. So, considering Alana Haim is making a comedy, I think what she does is fantastic, and for being her debut, her acting feels very natural, you can feel her spark, she captivates you.
Did you ever listen to any Haim music before the film?
Yes but it was because of Paul. I saw he made music videos and I got into Haim’s music watching the videos he directed. I even listened to their album Women in Music Part III (2020) and it’s nice, I haven’t become a super fan yet but I really enjoy them.
What’s your favorite Haim song?
It’s gotta be Summer Girl, it’s very good
Images Sourced from @licoricepizza on Instagram
You once said you were going to quit looking for celebrities the day you met PTA, How did you get to meet him, and twice?
Paul is the living director I admire the most. Since the beginning of the trip, I had the intention to meet him but I didn’t know when, where, or how. I started seeing on Twitter that a lot of people were going to Q&As with him, Cooper and Alana, and I texted like ten people who uploaded that, but only two answered. One of them was a very nice girl that told me she attended two events, one was organized by her college, she is studying journalism, the second one was a press event, that’s when she told me there was a page where one could register for attending but it was exclusively “for your consideration,"(for your consideration is advertisement campaign filmmakers do for judges to promote films for awards such as the Academy Awards), so all these events were only for people of the industry. She guided me in the registration process, and when she helped me I thought “This is proof that there are still good people in the world and everything is beautiful." I did what she told me and I had to put what affiliation I belonged to, so I wrote SAG (Screen Actors Guild), to which I don't belong, but it was to try my luck. The next day, the second person I texted replied to me, he did form part of the American Critics Guild, and he specifically told me that these events were only for people of the industry, and if I wanted to try to get in I could do it but it was difficult. The page said that the registered person could bring a guest, so I asked him if he wanted to go to the event and let me enter as his guest, but he couldn’t because he already had something to do. Unfortunately, I never received the confirmation email. When I travelled to L.A. on Wednesday I thought that since the press event didn’t work out, I would feel accomplished if at least I could see PTA from afar. I had hopes that on Sunday’s Q&A they would allow me to see him, at least at the very end when everyone is leaving. Friday screening day arrived, and I knew that Paul usually visits the theatre the very first day of any of his film screenings to thank the audience and present the movie. I thought this was a possibility but then I doubted since the pandemic is still going and maybe he wasn’t going to expose himself. So I enter the packed room, took a seat, even put my glasses on even though I rarely wear them, and the film had to start at 12:30 but it was 12:45 and it hadn’t started yet. I thought “This is the US, this doesn’t happen here," but the projectionists still took a while. Suddenly I heard a microphone turning on, I heard a “Hi!” and I was like, “I know that voice…” (Victor explicitly asked the reader to read this part with a nervous voice). And then I turned, I wasn’t able to see where he entered from, BUT OUT OF NOWHERE HE ENTERED THE ROOM, and everyone was shocked. The thing is I mentalized the possible case that I would see him on Sunday, at least I was prepared for not getting all hysteric and anxious, but at that moment I was not prepared! I guess you saw the videos I posted Majo, haha.
I did, you were shaking! I could even hear you muttering “I’m dying, I'm dying!”
I couldn’t believe it. He spoke for about two minutes, he asked us to turn off our phones, enjoy the film, and gave a basic introduction to the movie. He’s not much of a speaker so it was very quick. As he started to leave the cinema I was like “You don’t know if you’ll ever see him again, this is your chance," so I stepped up from the row and ran, well I didn’t run because that would’ve been creepy, but I tried to walk fast. I tried to reach him but there was a point where I couldn’t see him, the cinema was huge, so then I got to the lobby. At that moment I thought I definitely lost him. Then I got back to the movie theatre and tried to get out from another door, and when I got out he was there, like three-meters away. I approached and went “Paul!” He turned around and I asked if he could sign my There Will Be Blood vinyl. He said “Sure! you have a pen?” I handed him my record and the pen and started saying “You are my favourite director, I came from México to watch your film!” and he replied to me but I was so excited that I don’t know what he told me. Then I quickly pulled out my phone and took a video. I was unable to take a picture since I was shaking, so then I was going to screenshot the best take. Then, it was funny because I was nervous about meeting him and he was nervous that I wouldn’t make it on time to the film! He told me to leave and hurry up, but nicely, not like if he was done with me. I thanked him and left, since that moment during the whole trip I felt very weird, my serotonin levels were so high, I was so happy and I felt like I was in another dimension.
And what about the second time?
After meeting him on Friday I felt fulfilled, so if by any chance I made it to the Q&A it was good, if I didn’t it was good as well, but one of my dreams was to be in a PTA press conference. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to attend, but I invited Cat anyway. He was unsure whether to come or not because he had things to do. Sunday’s itinerary consisted of going to see Licorice Pizza with him, then eating something and later going downtown and prowling on Hollywood Boulevard. I told him to think about it once more in case he wanted to get to the event but he didn’t come. Before 7 pm, the time of the event, we got closer to the place where it was taking place, then Cat asked me “Are you going dressed like that? I mean, did you bring something formal?” And then I realised I hadn’t thought about that, it was a formal thing and I completely forgot, but Cat very nicely let me borrow a shirt of his and I kept it in my backpack. As I queued to get inside I saw all the people were formally dressed, it wasn't like a gala thing but they were formal, a funny thing is they all looked between 40 and 50 years old and I was very young. I never thought they would believe I was part of the SAG. What we did was that we walked two blocks away until reaching the subway, there I changed my t-shirt for a shirt but the shirt wasn’t my size! It was like a small panic attack. Cat took off the shirt he was wearing and we exchanged shirts. I gave him my backpack and left once again to the queue. I had to go through two “filters," in the first one there was a super-strong guy who asked for my vaccination certificate and an ID, so I showed them my INE, in the US (INE is the organization that regulates the public processes that involve the citizens, it also provides a card that is the official identification credential in México). Surprisingly they didn’t say a thing, they only looked at it weirdly, but they allowed me to enter. The second filter consisted of a man sitting behind a computer, he asked me for my name and he typed it, I was nervous but he let me in, but just as I entered he asked me to go back, then he asked if I had any invitation and I replied I didn’t, even though that very same day in the morning I received the confirmation email, but I said I didn’t. He just looked at me and let me in. I was seated in a middle row, front rows were still available but I was afraid Paul would see me and remember me and realize I shouldn’t be there. The lights went off and the movie started. It’s funny because I sat next to a 60-something-year-old lady who does belong to film unions, so I started to chat with her and asked if Cooper Hoffman was attending, and she was like “Who?” She only said “All I know is there’s going to be a director and an actress," but the lady had no idea! I thought, “I came from México, and you are here and you are part of the film union, and you don’t even know where you are or what is this about?!” So when the film finished the Q&A started, I was very chill now, and I made eye contact with Alana! When it was all finished both Paul and Alana were standing by the exit door, so I decided to approach for a second picture with him, but when I said hi and asked for a picture he did recognize me! He looked at me with a face that wasn't strict or annoyed but was rather surprised at how I got there. I took the picture and right away Alana walked past us, she was leaving and I asked for a picture, she accepted very kindly, she even wished me a nice day, she is extremely cool. That’s how the adventure concluded.
All in all, did you enjoy L.A, the city itself?
There are some mixed feelings, I even talked to Cat about it. The experience was great fun because going to L.A. will always be going to L.A, sure there’s Hollywood Boulevard and the Chinese Theatre and they're iconic, but at the same time they sort of feel like old but in a sense that they don’t belong to our era anymore. I don’t mean to sound rude but to me, it feels like decline, they don’t have the same spectacular vibe they had when I went seven years ago. And not only things are getting like that, but more people are also prowling around in negligent conditions than before, things don’t shine the same to me.
Images provided by Victor Avila
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