When Joel Wachs received a message that Paul Thomas Anderson had reached out to ask permission to use his name, he didn’t understand what was going on. Since 2001, Wachs has lived in New York, where he serves as the president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, so he assumed that must be the name Anderson wanted to use. “I got back in touch with him,” Wachs tells GQ. “He said, ‘No, your name.’ I said, ‘Well, what does my name have to do with it?’ And then he began to tell me what this was about and I asked him to send me the script.”
That’s when it all clicked into place. This all had something to do with Wachs’ former life as a Los Angeles city councilman, a job he held for 30 years, starting in 1971. Wachs was known as an early supporter of gay rights (he didn’t come out until 1999), recycling and rent control; in the film, he brims with youthful charm and a genuinely idealistic mission to preserve and protect the Valley. Like much of Licorice Pizza, the scenes in which he appears as a character were drawn from the life of Gary Goetzman, the former child star-turned-producer whose teenage adventures as a waterbed entrepreneur and pinball parlor owner provide the basis for a story of coming-of-age in early 1970s California. “I couldn’t imagine why this is going to be a big movie,” Wachs recalls thinking after reading the script. “But I knew why I was in it. In 1973, a young kid came into my campaign office to volunteer. It was the real Gary Goetzman.”
The film diverges from real life in some significant respects, but Wachs does see his younger self in the performance of the actor who plays him: Benny Safdie. Though best known for his work behind the camera on the films he directs with his brother Joshua, like Good Time and Uncut Gems, Benny Safdie (like Joshua) has a parallel acting career. (He will next be seen in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+ and Christopher Nolan’s 2023 film Oppenheimer.) Safdie brings a tremendous amount of charisma and sympathy to his role, even when the fictional Wachs makes some hard and not always flattering choices.
Shortly before the wide release of Licorice Pizza, GQ convened a Zoom conversation between Safdie and the real Joel Wachs to talk about the film, bygone California, and the difficulties facing gay politicians in an era in which no one in politics stepped out of the closet.
Joel, what was your impression of the script when you read it?
Wachs: I obviously had some problems with it. Some of it was very real and some of it was fictionalized. But, to his credit, [Anderson] said, “We could use your name or not.” And I thought, “The reality is, there’s only one person who was a city councilman in Studio City in 1973 running for mayor and it was me.” And it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to figure out that it’s me. So, I chose to really have discussions with Paul on things in the script. And he was amenable to some of the changes I suggested for accuracy. And then others were his artistic creation as a writer. We went back and forth with recommended changes in the script and when I saw the movie, the script had changed beyond that.
Benny, this is the first time you’ve played a character based on a real person. Did you work with Joel in preparing for this?
Safdie: I hadn’t met Joel until we watched the film together in New York. But I was given, by Paul, a bunch of articles and there was a speech that you gave at UCLA, Joel, that I listened to where you were on stage with all the other people running for mayor. And I remember listening to that and just hearing the idealism and just… I wasn’t really trying to portray Joel, specifically. I was just trying to play a character who had similar aspirations and similar drive. Here is this young guy trying to make it in a big city like that. To me, that’s what was so interesting, having such an insane drive and then also coming up against such an insane ceiling that you had to fight again.
It’s not really in the film, but I remember there were certain times when we were shooting the campaign ad on the hill, afterwards I would always say, “Let me do that again because I want to include this bit about changing the world this way.” There is this intense idealism that I think was very inspiring and I think that’s what Alana [Haim, whose character Alana Kane joins Wachs’ campaign in one of the film’s departures from real life] sees in Wachs. She’s drawn to somebody who wants to make big changes outside of just their circle. I was more looking towards his feelings and emotions, not necessarily trying to copy his way of speaking.
Wachs: And ironically, that ad up on the hill there, that was real. Gary Goetzman came into the-
Safdie: Yes! He filmed that.
Wachs: Yes. We had no money. I had only been on the city council for a year. I was running for mayor at that time against all the heavyweights, primarily to have a platform to really talk about my values and the things I thought were important. Gary was attracted to that because Gary actually came into the campaign and said, “Let’s do a commercial.” Well, we didn’t have any money for a commercial, but he got it all together. This kid, he was, I don’t know, 15 or something and we went up there in the Santa Monica mountains where developers, who had all the political influence by payoffs in City Hall, were trying to just tear down a good part of the Santa Monica mountains for this development. And we went up there to fight it and to try to preserve the Santa Monica mountains, a portion of which I was representing. So that part was actually very real. We never had money to actually show the ad on TV, though. I think it was on some public access channel or something like that.
Safdie: I remember Paul was trying to find the campaign ad, but he couldn’t find the original. He said the moment you left office, he saw a very distinct change in everything, that you were like a wall pushing back against all of that for a very long time.
Wachs: Well, if you know Studio City, I lived in Studio City as well as representing it and [despite] all the physical changes that go on in a big city over time, that community was preserved. I don’t know what it’s like now. I’ve [been] gone 20 years. But we really preserved the quality of life there. We preserved the physical aspect of it all up and down Ventura Boulevard, in my part of it. The mountains were a particular interest to me. For the first 15 years, I was representing that. And then the next 15 years, I was out in the Verdugos in the San Gabriels, the far north part of the Valley with horse keeping country and we fought the same thing there.
I’m sure it’s not the most comfortable thing to revisit, but how accurate is the film at depicting what it was like to be a closeted politician at that point in California history?
Wachs: Well, that’s really, to me, the most interesting thing. This movie is supposed to be about Paul’s magic with nostalgia and I look back and, “Oh God, the Tail O’ The Cock. That was great. I remember that.” But some things were not good. Some things are not things we want to go back to. One has to understand, most people today don’t know what it was like in 1973. That’s 48 years ago. But in 1973, not a single person, not one person in the history of the United States ever had been elected as an openly gay politician at any level of government.
The first, I think, was a couple years later, a woman running for the school board in Ann Arbor. Then in the mid-’70s, Elaine Noble in Boston got elected to the Massachusetts legislature. Five years later in ’77, Harvey Milk got elected. But when I ran in 1973, not a single person had ever been elected as an openly gay candidate. So you didn’t run as an openly gay candidate. The reason was that, A, nobody ever won who was, and, B, the whole context. That was a time, if you’re teaching school in California or in a lot of states at that time, and you’re outed as being gay, in many of the school districts, you can’t teach there anymore. If you’re in the military and you’re outed, you’re kicked out of the military. If you’re a young lawyer in a law firm, working their way up from law school to become a partner and they find out, you’re never going to be a partner.
This is true at almost all occupations for the gay community. You couldn’t be out or you couldn’t advance. That’s why, of all my friends at the time, most people made their living owning small businesses. You owned a beauty shop. You owned an antique store. You owned a design business. You bought real estate and you fixed it up and flipped it. You didn’t have bosses.
Now, there were gay politicians, but they got married and tried to live a public life so that nobody would think that they were gay. I would never do that. I never did that and I never said I wasn’t gay. If someone would ask me, I’d just say, “It’s none of your business.” I would never say, “No,” because that wasn’t honest and honesty was important to me.. And most people who would be impacted by that kind of a disclosure were really living in fear of cops trying to out you, opponents trying to out you, people trying to get some advantage on you. You always lived in that environment, but I would always just say, “You know, it’s really none of your business,” because, in those days, it really wasn’t anyone’s business if you didn’t want it to be.
And it also didn’t stop a whole lot of us from fighting over the years to really bring about the kind of great change in the LBGTQ community that we’ve seen. And today, we went from no one ever getting elected in ’73 to Pete Buttigieg, married to Chasten, who won the Iowa Primary and I hope one day will be President of the United States and it’s a realistic possibility. So that change is fantastic. That did occur and that’s why none of us want to go back to ’73 in this area, whereas I’d love to go back and have a drink at the Tail O’ The Cock.
Benny, you’re from New York and of a different generation. What did you do to immerse yourself in understanding what Joel’s experience was like?
Safdie: It’s a heavy weight that’s on you. When I would think about it, it made me so uncomfortable and so anxious. Like Joel was saying, people are constantly trying to out you and as a tool of harassment, that would weigh on your head so much. And I remember Paul and I talking about how just going through the day of shaking people’s hands and saying “hello” and just politicking, that to have to put all that away and pretend like it’s not bothering you and to just go through your life like that would be very hard and uncomfortable.
That’s why, in the scene with Matthew [in which Wachs recruits Alana Kane to serve as a beard to escort his boyfriend out of a restaurant and away from the press]… Who I know there’s no real character in real life like that. But I think, for the purposes of the movie, it shows an unencumbered Joel. This is what you would like to have happen, but isn’t allowed and then when the [reporter] is following him, even that personal moment isn’t allowed in this society. Everybody’s always watching. When all his boyfriend wants is just to have him there, present, Joel is like, “I can’t do that because I want to achieve something else.” And to have to put something like that behind you in search of something greater… That was what I took away as the power of what Joel did. It was a sacrifice that he made to change things.
And for me, that made me so upset with the boyfriend sitting across from me. Because here I am doing all of this work, trying to make such change and it’s like, “How can you not understand how that makes me feel?” To me that scene is the most powerful scene for the character, because you’re getting at, for the movie version of Joel at least, this idea of his idealism mixed with real-world possibilities.
Wachs: It’s funny: that’s a very real sense, in some ways, of what it’s like, although you find ways to deal with that. In those days, we went to gay restaurants. They had those. But ironically, 48 years later, there’s one thing that has never been resolved in my mind. I never had a boyfriend at that time. That boyfriend is fictional. Actually, I still don’t have a boyfriend. But I wonder if I had one at the time, would I have still gone that way, or would I have said, “Screw this job, it isn’t worth it. I’m going to stick with you”? I don’t know how I would’ve ever responded, because I never had the opportunity to make a choice between a relationship versus my career.
Safdie: And then just to add onto that, just some of the things that you were able to pass, Joel, in the ’80s with regards to fair housing, it made me think, “Okay. So there is this sacrifice that you were making. Even if you were just not conscious or what, you were trying to do something for a greater good and that required a lot of sacrifice.”
Wachs: That was very real. In the late ’70s, when [singer turned anti-gay rights activist] Anita Bryant was expressing her vitriolic hate, we passed the most comprehensive law in the country prohibiting discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or their sexual preference in housing, in business, in finance and public accommodations and everything. And then three or four years later, when AIDS came, we passed the first law in the United States, of any jurisdiction, prohibiting discrimination against anybody who was with AIDS or was HIV positive. Because in those days, if you were in an apartment building, they didn’t want you in the swimming pool because they thought you would get it. If you worked in a restaurant, they thought you would contaminate the salad bowl. There was all that fear. I always fought those battles because I knew that that’s what I had the power as a legislator to be able to do.
Joel, you left L.A. and politics in 2001. Do you miss it?
Wachs: I loved L.A. I spent 50 years of my life there and I spent 30 years in office, which one does voluntarily. You’re not forced to be in office and go through all that. I was elected eight times, eight four-year terms. The only reason I say, “No,” is because I moved to New York and I love New York. I’ve been here for 20 years and I think this is a fantastic place to live, especially for someone like me. I used to think, well, one day, if I retire, I’d go back to L.A. and now I think, “Well, Manhattan is the world’s greatest retirement home.” The park’s across the street. I walk to the theater, I walk to the museums. My doctor’s two blocks away, the dentist… Whereas when my mother was my age, she was in a big house up in Mulholland Drive, like a shut-in up there. I love New York. And do I miss politics? No, because I have a fantastic job. I left in the middle of my eighth four-year term to take a job that means a lot to me.
Benny, you and your brother have a habit of casting non-professional actors in your films. Is there a part for Joel?
Safdie: Joel, I can imagine, would be a very good actor. What we do is if we meet people who have interesting personalities, and the key is just this idea of somebody who’s not capable of being someone other than who they are. I think Joel definitely is Joel. It’s all the time.