Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t announce himself when he stopped by the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft at least twice in the past two years. The acclaimed writer-director of “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights” slipped by, just another visitor interested in the museum’s replica wooden derrick.
“Well, I’ll be darned!” volunteer Agnes Hardt said with a laugh when she heard of the visits.
Known for his dark portraits of Southern California, Anderson headed north of the Grapevine for his latest film, “There Will Be Blood.” The oil-fueled epic starring Daniel Day-Lewis is partly inspired by Kern County’s black gold rush.
Opening Friday in Bakersfield, the potential Oscar contender has garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, in addition to a slew of early critics’ awards.
Production designer Jack Fisk (“Mulholland Drive,” “The Thin Red Line”) based the film’s nearly 100-foot-tall wooden cable tool-drilling derrick on the behemoth at the Taft museum. He purchased a copy of the museum’s 1914 derrick blueprint and used it in his design. The derrick is the centerpiece of the story and experiences several incarnations and disasters.
West Kern Oil Museum volunteer Bob Foreman, a rough-voiced former oil driller, couldn’t remember many details of the 2005 visit from Anderson and his crew.
“They came in one day and said they wanted to make a movie and wanted to build a derrick,” he said. “I said we sell plans for them up at the museum and all they have to do is buy them and that would tell them all the materials they would need.”
Anderson also stopped by the Kern County Museum. Assistant museum director Jeff Nickell only recalled the studio types who
contacted him in October, interested in using the museum’s photos for a history montage in the film or DVD. No one followed up.
Taft volunteer Foreman said that he wasn’t all that impressed by Hollywood.
“I don’t get all jittery and tittery about that kind of stuff,” he said, later pointing out he rode choppers with the late actor Steve McQueen in Newhall.
Some eight men came to the West Kern Oil Museum, “visual arts” people and production crew, Foreman said. He doesn’t remember their names, but they mentioned something about a Daniel Day-Lewis movie.
The men had plenty of questions about the 106-feet derrick, modeled after the ramshackle 1917 structure torn down in 2003 and rebuilt two years later.
They wanted to know how it was built by hand, without rig builders or power tools.
“They had Levi’s on, they didn’t come in shiny Cadillacs, nothing like that,” he said.
“There Will Be Blood” is based on the 1927 novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair, best known for “The Jungle,” his muckraking expose of the meat-packing industry.
Day-Lewis plays oil baron Daniel Plainview, who adopts a son along with a taste for greed during the oil boom of the early 20th century. In 1911 he lands in Little Boston, a fictional Central California town on the brink of oil madness, and clashes with idealistic young pastor Eli Sunday over morality and the fanatical boy’s family property. Plainview’s quiet son, H.W., suffers the consequences of his father’s ambition.
In his novel, Sinclair slammed the corruption of a budding California industry. The writer modeled his tycoon J. Arnold Ross after barons such as Edward Doheny, implicated in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal for leasing Kern’s Elk Hills national oil reserve. He also explored Ross’ relationship with his son, who sides with a family of religious fanatics to rebel against his father’s greed.
Sinclair set the novel in fictional Beach City, based on the oil-rich Signal Hill in Long Beach, where his wife owned property.
Anderson came across the book in London and was drawn to its California-themed cover, according to Paramount Vantage studio production notes. In writing the script, he relied on its first 150 pages, which describe the dangers that befell workers in the industry, according to the studio.
Themes of greed and spiritual fanaticism intrigued him. That’s when Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday began to take shape.
Anderson changed Sinclair’s Beach City to Little Boston and plopped it down in Central California.
The director visited oil museums throughout California and collected period photos. Along with the script, he gave the crew a notebook with more than 100 snapshots.
“You get giddy looking at all those amazing photos, getting a real sense of how people lived their lives,” said Anderson in the studio notes. “There’s so much history in the oil areas around Bakersfield — they’re filled with the grandsons of oil workers and lots of folklore. So we did an incredible amount of research and I got to be a student again and that was a thrill.”
NODS TO KERN
While Little Boston isn’t a carbon copy of early Taft or another Kern County town, Anderson made several visual and verbal references, such as setting the town in “Isabella County” (perhaps a tip of the hat to Lake Isabella) and writing Plainview’s angry rhetorical question, “Can I build around 50 miles of Tehachapi Mountains?”
There’s a mention of pipelines to Port Hueneme and Santa Paula. The young pastor speaks of evangelizing in “Oildale, Taft and then on to Bakersfield.”
BUILDING A MONSTER
It took four weeks to build the film’s main derrick on location in West Texas. Production designer Fisk used as much vintage drilling equipment as possible to re-create Taft’s looming structure. Afternoon high winds over 30 miles per hour stopped production at times.
Fisk had visited Taft while its new derrick was under construction. He returned about four more times, once more with Anderson in 2006, just before they started work on the film.
“I remember the first time I went, there were just piles of wood sitting outside,” he said. “They came back half a year later and there was a derrick.”
Fisk wanted to come as a visitor.
“You never want to say too much, you never know if a film is gonna go,” he said.
Re-creating the crude oil drilling equipment gave him a greater appreciation for this rough line of work.
“I know those oil rigs, they were working 12-hour shifts,” he said. “We were lucky because we had hydraulics to help us. They were doing stuff with horsepower and human power.”
Their structure stood 80 feet tall, 90 feet when placed on a deck. Fisk and his team blew it to bits with dynamite. That scene was saved for the very end of production in Texas.
He’s not broken-hearted that his work went up in flames.
“It’s real enjoyable because it’s all recorded on film,” he said. “The hard thing is you can’t move it around, but recording on film, you can have it forever.”
Anderson fully rehearsed and planned the shot of the burning derrick, filmed in real time with eight cameras. Not knowing precisely where it would fall, the cast and crew ad-libbed it.
“The hardest part about shooting the derrick and flames is you just wanted to sit and watch it,” Fisk said. “We ran around like crazy to make sure it works.”