Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the first of two interviews with Mr. Paul Williams. If you know who the man is you won’t be surprised that after completing the below chat with him and director Stephen Kessler about their documentary that I asked Mr. Williams if he’d be willing to do an AICN Legends discussion with me as well.
He consented immediately and I have a great hour-long talk with him about his life and art that’ll post sometime next week. Even though that one’s coming up, we still talk a little about his film work in this interview, most notably Phantom of the Paradise, Bugsy Malone and Ishtar.
Williams is joined by his director in the below chat and it’s a lively one. The documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive, is a great little film that delivers a real insight into Williams as a personality, his ups and downs and where he is today.
Both Kessler and Williams are very open in this chat… note the bit where they’re discussing Williams’ addiction to drugs and alcohol and how that effected his artistic output for a prime example of that openness.
Just like in the film, you can tell that Kessler and Williams like each other, but aren’t afraid to push each others’ buttons a bit. It’s a fun chat, for sure.
The film is slowly expanding across the country. It is open in New York and it just opened in LA at the Nuart this Friday (get tickets here).
Enjoy the chat!
QUINT: But yeah, no I’ve been a big fan of yours since forever.
PAUL WILLIAMS: Since 1927, when I began making movies.
QUINT: (Laughs) Yeah, retroactively I’ve been a fan. Of course I grew up with the Muppets and Bugsy Malone and all of that stuff, but it was when I saw Phantom of the Paradise in my teen years that everything kind of clicked for me. I’m a huge De Palma fan and so I have to ask a couple of things about Phantom if you wouldn’t mind.
PAUL WILLIAMS: Sure, not at all.
QUINT: Because that movie is so unique and specific to that time and place that I don’t know, there’s just this amazing energy to it. There’s just nothing like it. There really isn’t and nobody is doing that kind of thing today.
STEPHEN KESSLER: Yeah, no one will give you money to that now.
QUINT: And people seem to try to manufacture that kind of energy and that cult success today. I went to the very first screening of Repo: The Genetic Opera here in Austin and there were already people in costume who hadn’t seen the film or the play. They just seemed to want to be a part of it before they even knew if they liked it… It just felt inauthentic to me, a manufactured cult classic.
PAUL WILLIAMS: You know what I think that’s going to happen with is Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. I think it’s a great film. I don’t know how large the success was, but I don’t remember reading great reviews for it or whatever. I’m a huge Edgar Wright fan and I mean Shaun of the Dead is one of most killer films of all time, but I think that as the years go by, I think that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is going to have a monstrous, monstrous following.
QUINT: I think you’re right. It had the support of the geeks, but the mainstream didn’t get it.
PAUL WILLIAMS: It was so inventive. I mean it was a great film. I think that Phantom was… First of all what was great for me is to step outside of writing from the center of my chest for all of these what I call “Ouch, Mommy” songs, you know the stuff for The Carpenters of Three Dog Night or whatever, but because I love movies, I started out as an actor, it was a chance to do something with a really edgy film director, the brilliant Brian De Palma, but also to satirize all of these different kinds of music that I love.
I mean I’m a big Beach Boys fan. Tony Asher who wrote “God Only Knows” was a former writing partner of Roger Nichols, my writing partner. They’re just stunning. I mean you listen to those melodies with “Little Surfer Girl” or “God Only Knows.” I mean please! But to kind of go from the ‘50s sound, the Beach Boys, and then to try to invent what was kind of a glam rock thing with The Undead and with Beef was a real challenge, you know? It was great fun.
QUINT: Well one of the things I love about the movie so much, especially with your participation, is that not only do you have your music, but you got to play a great, iconic villain.
PAUL WILLIAMS: I loved that. What a great character to play, the devil. I mean you get to play the Devil.
QUINT: I very much liked the film, Paul Williams Still Alive. I was talking a little bit with Stephen about this earlier, but I’m not usually a fan of documentaries where the documentarian steps in front of the camera and not because I don’t think it’s a viable option, but because nine times out of ten they are doing it for the wrong reasons. They are dong it because they want to be the focus, they want to be the subject.
PAUL WILLIAMS: This was a very different energy, I think. The thing is his being in it begins with me saying “I’m sorry I can’t. This feels like such bullshit.” I can play to the camera as an entertainer. I can ignore it as an actor, but for me to be like ‘Do I not look at the camera while I’m answering questions and I’m not looking at you?’ What usually winds up on the cutting room floor for most documentaries became an important part of the body of this film, I think.
So this film, I think is much about the process of the filmmaker and the subject evolving through the filmmaking process as it is about anything else.
STEPHEN KESSLER: We started talking about it yesterday, because Eric said usually he hates movies where the filmmaker is in the movie and you know there are film festivals that at first my film didn’t get into, because there are people who have a very pure view of what documentaries are. Very unintentionally I kind of now have this side mission to talk about what documentaries should become and if a documentary is going to be honest, that filmmakers aren’t obligated to make a movie the way the Maysles Brothers made it any more than a great narrative storyteller is obligated to tell a story the way Truffaut told stories in the sixties.
Because equipment has changed and because what everybody’s relationship with cameras has become, like to act like Paul is over there and I’m over here and we don’t have any relationship emerging is kind of dishonest. Not in every story, but in a story like mine it does a disservice to telling this story and ultimately I realized that the most honest way I could tell the story of who he is right now is to show what his relationship was with me and how it was changing and documentaries are supposed to be honest and that was the most honest thing I could do.
I was always super sensitive to how I came off in this movie and that the movie was never about me, that any time I was in the movie it was only to illuminate who Paul was.
QUINT: Yeah, but in an odd way it kind of became a hook for me, because as a fan of Paul’s I can relate to that approach. Because you open it pretty much saying “Here I am. This is my life. This is what I grew up with. The guys on the TV were my friends.” It becomes kind of like this parallel story of not only catching up with you, Paul, and finding out a little bit more about you life and your struggles and your successes and your family, it also becomes clear that there’s a B story of Stephen getting to know one of your idols. The two storylines don’t conflict with each other and that’s something that impresses me about the documentary as a whole.
PAUL WILLIAMS: It’s rare, isn’t it?
PAUL WILLIAMS: I love the thing you put in the beginning about showing where you lived. It really frames where your life was then.
STEPHEN KESSLER: Yeah, in a real short hand and it took a long time… There was one version of this movie that I made that opened with me. It was five minutes about me and really it came from watching the beginning of ROGER AND ME, because ROGER AND ME… He does it so brilliantly and he had the films to support it, but ultimately those films also told you the story of everybody who grew up in Flint and I realized for me with this film it didn’t need that much of me, it just needed a two second picture to see who I was and a picture of my apartment and you got it.
PAUL WILLIAMS: It’s a great short hand.
STEPHEN KESSLER: Yeah, it worked really effectively.
QUINT: One of the more touching parts of the doc for me was Paul talking that you weren’t trying for popularity so you could be better than everybody else, you were just trying to reach for normalcy.
PAUL WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think there’s a place in the film where I say that it’s an interesting leap to go from feeling different to feeling special and feeling different is a difficult feeling, feeling special is addictive and it became one of my two key addictions. Obviously it’s still an addiction. You look at TMZ and watching what everybody is doing, it’s addictive for not only the entertainer or the subject, but it’s addictive for the audience. But the difference for me is I had two addictions. I had the addiction to the drugs and alcohol. I had the addiction to the camera being on me and drugs and alcohol won, you know? They just outrun the other one.
QUINT: To me, the fascinating thing of it is watching Paul kind of agree to doing this documentary and then realizing how invasive it is and how you, Stephen, have to keep pushing it and sometimes be the dick that’s always in his face with the camera. I’m sure that happens in almost every doc, but you never see that part of it.
STEPHEN KESSLER: At some point he talked about “Time and Tide” and Paul says “That was in the movie” and I said “Lifeguard” and he looked at me when I said that like “Oh, actually maybe he knows my work and maybe it’s okay a little bit.” I think there were little cues that he started saying “Okay, well maybe this guy isn’t here to ruin my life.”
Also at the beginning I said, “If there’s anything in the movie you don’t like, I will take it out.” I mean that’s been really extraordinary between us, the trust we’ve developed between each other has been extraordinary and you see the whole relationship on film. You see how we are. You see when he gets mad at me, you know? And you see when we are really affected by each other, so I think that’s what people are connecting to in the film.
PAUL WILLIAMS: I think that’s what is interesting with that opening, just to interrupt, he did make that statement “I’ll take anything out” and then at the time he didn’t know about what he was going to be showing me, but he lived by it and if I had said “That has to go” it would have gone.
QUINT: But you let the scene when Stephen shows you the footage of yourself out of your mind on drugs.
PAUL WILLIAMS: The stuff that was so hard to watch, but I think it also says something about the kind of filmmaker he is that when I saw it in context, when I saw it cut into the film, there’s no way it could not be in there, you know?
STEPHEN KESSLER: You know, Paul was in the The Loved One. Paul talks about Truffaut. I know that Paul is very serious about the filmmaking. He’s made films himself. I had a feeling that he would really like what I had in my head. When he gave me all of that old footage and he didn’t know what was in there and I saw that think of him in his bathroom with the lighter filming, you get the idea that he is high. You don’t see him doing any drugs, but you get the idea that he is high. I was like “What? There’s no way he could possibly know that he has this.” Did you know that you had that?
PAUL WILLIAMS: Oh, I knew about it. I spent an evening filming it! I was probably in there filming a rug, doing like…
STEPHEN KESSLER: Oh no, that wasn’t in there. That would be in the movie!
PAUL WILLIAMS: It’s great, because I would start shooting a pattern in the rug, tilt up as a I rack focus to the daylight beginning to come through a window, past that and up to a chandelier and I was just playing with the technique of focus. “What happens when you rack?” You get caught up on the flame and racking focus to the mirror, but you don’t think about what somebody is going to think when they find this shit later! It was like “For the first time in my life I’ve got a video camera in my hand and I own it.”
STEPHEN KESSLER: I think also, and this had nothing to do with me trying to get Paul’s approval or not, but I did one cut of the film that in a sense was very judgmental about the drug use and about showing Paul like “Look, he’s high on TV here and he’s drunk on TV here” and then as I did more research I started going like “Oh look, Johnny Carson might be a little high here and Burt Reynolds might be a little drunk there and here’s George Peppard who’s fucked up over here…”
PAUL WILLIAMS: I’m surprised you didn’t put the Peppard scene in the movie.
STEPHEN KESSLER: It was too long a story to tell, that’s why I could never get it in. He’s talking about this… My iconic Tonight Show, it’s burned in my head from when I was ten years old, is Paul is on the Tonight Show with George Peppard and they are both drunk and they almost get into a fistfight. I remember it so well. When I watched it as an adult I still remember it perfectly, but it was too long a story to get into a movie and it doesn’t have the same meaning for other people that it did for me.
Anyway, what I was saying is when I saw that everybody was high on TV at that time, I realized that it wasn’t right to make a judgment about Paul being high on TV.
QUINT: It also doesn’t feel like it fits into the tone of the rest of the story, at least from what ended up on the screen. It feels like so much more of a buddy movie. One of my favorite little moments and its something, a testament to you as a filmmaker that you would leave it in there is when you ask Paul the question where he reacts in such a way that he’s like “I’ve never seen this side of you, it feels like you’re digging at me.”
PAUL WILLIAMS: “Dirty.”
QUINT: You thought it was dirty, yeah.
STEPHEN KESSLER: And actually you know what? That day you said that to me, that was the last thing I filmed for the film.
STEPHEN KESSLER: Yeah. I actually filmed that after he gave me all of the boxes of the tapes. I had done a full cut of the movie where that interview that goes throughout the movie now, that’s the key to the movie, wasn’t even in the movie.
STEPHEN KESSLER: A 90 minute cut of the film and my producer, Jim Czarnecki who did FAHRENHEIT 9/11, he looked at it and goes “This movie is missing a comprehensive interview.” Then it was editor, David Zieff, who looked at the interview and said “All these times when you’re fighting, that’s what we need.”
But that day when Paul said that to me, which wasn’t even that long ago, I was so surprised that he felt so hurt by my saying that to him. When I look back at it, so many people have said to me “That was a really insensitive thing you said to him.” I’m always surprised that things could still wound you so deeply when it comes to talking about that part of your life, but thank God they do, because that’s why we have a great movie. (laughs) I’m saying that as a joke, but really for other people who are in recovery and other people who have had their lives affected by alcoholism and addiction it’s meaningful to see that where you’re at, because everybody has those feelings, right? Everybody has them.
PAUL WILLIAMS: I don’t know if everybody has that feeling, but that specific stuff about “You’re off doing The Gong Show” and I’m not sure if I talk about it in the film or not, but I think I talk about the fact that becoming bitter and showing off… my craft suffered. My writing suffered.
One of the elements of the alcohol and cocaine is this kind of grandiosity of “Well now I’m going to move up into the very intellectual place to approach my writing and it’s going to be soooo interesting.” Well it loses its authenticity in that, so the connection with the listener is gone, because the ego is doing the writing instead of the heart. It’s not even the head is doing the writing instead of the heart, it’s that fear-based ego.
But yeah, you know looking back a part of me goes “Geez, I would have loved to…” I knew a lot of the Saturday Night Live guys. I mean I tried to smack Belushi once and Peter Boyle picked me up and carried me away and said, “He’s not worth it.” I was around those guys and was around it a bit and all, but was never asked to do it. I would have loved to have done it. I would have loved to have written “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.”
STEPHEN KESSLER: Yeah, I mean there are a lot of things we all would love to do, but we can’t.
PAUL WILLIAMS: But the question was pretty interesting the way you posed it. It’s like you had found your way into the maze of cinematic prick and it showed. (laughs)
STEPHEN KESSLER: I think what I meant to ask….
PAUL WILLIAMS: And I love him for it. He’s examining.
STEPHEN KESSLER: I think what I meant to ask was “Do you have an awareness when your creativity is sliding?”
PAUL WILLIAMS: “Do you have an awareness of how shallow you had become?”
STEPHEN KESSLER: That’s certainly how it sounded. You can see it’s still a sore point! Of course you don’t have an awareness. I don’t know when my work is getting better and worse, you know? I’m fucking getting nominated for an Academy Award and then I’m doing Vegas Vacation and now I’m doing this.
PAUL WILLIAMS: In the midst of it, in the midst of the 80’s I wrote “Telling the truth can be dangerous business. Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand. If you admit that you can play the accordion, no one will hire you in a rock and roll band.” (Quint note, if you don’t recognize the lyric it’s from Ishtar) Maybe as good of writing as I have ever done where I as an actor became these two mismatched writers. There are places in the midst of this blizzard of cocaine and alcohol where I did work that meaningful.
STEPHEN KESSLER: But the answer that you give and the thing that you actually say that’s so great is that even when you were just high and doing The Match Game, that brought a lot of joy to people, right? Including me. Including me as a little kid or seeing you on The Mike Douglas Show. I might not have the same connection with you intuitively if you didn’t do that stuff also.
QUINT: I’m a big fan of The Match Game, actually.
PAUL WILLIAMS: It was great fun.
STEPHEN KESSLER: I mean I love that Bob Dylan wrote “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d stick my head in the guillotine,” but I wouldn’t want to go hang out with Bob Dylan. I wouldn’t want to go follow him around for a couple of years. I could care less about what Bob Dylan does all day.
PAUL WILLIAMS: And the other side of it is that I would have loved to have seen into Leonard Cohen’s life that much. I mean, I would like to see what the guy that wrote “Dance Me to the End of Love” is like on The Hollywood Squares, you know? (laughs)
And that’s it for round 1 with Paul Williams! Check back next week for my lengthy AICN Legends interview with Paul! It’s really wonderful. We talk about everything from The Loved One to Marlon Brando to his time in the Apes universe to his one regret about Bugsy Malone to which of his songs is his favorite (it’s one of mine, too). Don’t miss it!
In the meantime, if Paul Williams Still Alive comes anywhere near you, do yourself a favor and give it a watch. It’s a fun flick. In fact, Chicago folk have a chance to catch it this Saturday, June 30th, at the Gene Siskel Film Center where Williams will be interviewed on stage by some gangster sounding jackass named Capone.