Paul Williams Interview

Actor, writer, singer, lyricist, musician, Oscar winner and survivor – for more than five decades Paul Williams has been all this and more. As an actor he’s appeared in everything from Battle for the Planet of the Apes to Smokey and the Bandit and Baby Driver. As a songwriter he penned hits for The Carpenters, Three Dog Night and Hellen Reddy, as well as the Monkees and Daft Punk. He wrote the lyrics to the Love Boat theme, played in Bugsy Malone both on stage and screen, and wrote scores and songs for dozens of films. He’s even the head of ASCAP, the organization for maintaining copyright for songwriters. He’s currently in the early stages of adapting Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth as a musical.

Yet for all his accomplishments, Williams is also one of the most generous, kind humans you’re likely to encounter. He practically exudes humanity, presenting a warmth and ease of affection that’s downright humbling. It’s easy to be swayed in his presence, somewhat cynical that no one can be this kind, yet in speaking with him the feeling deepens even further. We met to talk about a role that for some is his most iconic – Swan in Brian DePalma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise. Williams was originally tasked with the musical duties (a set of songs he wrote in his hotel after gigs while in Lake Tahoe opening for Liza Minnelli), but DePalma soon realized he found his Spector-like spectre for his film. The film was a major flop in most markets, but by a quirk of fate the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba embraced the film, and Williams in turn, as a classic.

Decades later, love for Phantom still abounds by a generation raised on the raucous movie, and Williams helps tell the story in Malcolm Ingram and Sean Stanley’s affectionate documentary Phantom of Winnipeg. Attending the world premiere of the doc at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, Williams took some time to speak about his music, his career, and some of his more remarkable collaborations. His enthusiasm tended to lead him into many directions, seemingly all at once, but to have the man give a private concert of many of his songs to demonstrate how they worked with a given project is one of those remarkable experiences I won’t soon forget.

Here, exclusively for /Film, is a conversation with the legendary Paul Williams.

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Famously you wrote about an affection for “Old Fashioned Love Songs”, yet with Phantom you were tasked to write music of the future. Could you talk about the challenge of stepping in and writing both lyrics and music where the guideline from Brian de Palma is these have to be songs that are not only terrific but immortal?

I don’t know if I approached them as truly immortal. I think the one thing I did, and have done from the beginning, is approach writing songs for a film not by trying to write a hit song but to advance the story and really expose the character. One of the great accidents, in my life – no, it is a gift – is that when I don’t get something I want I get something that’s better. I started out as an actor and I couldn’t make a living at it. One of the first things that I ever wrote in my life singing “Bubba Bubba Bubba”, sitting on the step of a dressing room, and Robert Duvall heard me. He walked me over to the director Arthur Penn, I showed him the song and he said “light him up!” They shot it, it’s in the film. It’s like the universe was saying, “Pay attention! Music will take you into the movies!”

We look at our own personal histories and sometimes we get a little over the top about whether somebody’s whispering to us. I take it absolutely as fact. I was being led to exactly what I needed to do.

Looking back, how do you feel the music of Phantom of the Paradise has held up? Lyrically, it’s in keeping with the storyline, but musically, I’ve always found it a challenge, like a costume that never quite fit.

I think from the very beginning I wrote really good lyrics. I don’t know if it’s past life stuff or whatever, but I write good lyrics, and part of it because they’re simple. I would love to be Leonard Cohen, but it was already taken. Dance me to the end of love”, give me a fucking break! You don’t get any better than that. 

Well, your humility aside, I’ll give you an example of greatness, a lyric that took me decades to fully understand. “Why are there so many song about rainbows?” Well, I know one other song about a rainbow, one that you also loved sung by Judy Garland in that Kansas-set flick. But it always escaped me that’s not the full line – The full lyric is “why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side?” It’s a deeper metaphor about us searching for beauty beyond what we’re seeing in front of us, not just appreciating the vista. 

Kenny Ascher I wrote ourselves into this horrible fucking corner. [Sings] Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side? | Rainbows are visions, they’re only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide. Jesus, now what have we done? 

What we did, we gave ourselves a chance to take Kermit off of the stage from behind the lectern and put him in the audience. [Sings] So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it, I know they’re wrong, wait and see. Kermit posed the question, which is the soul deflating question, came out and said I don’t know the answer to it, but someday we’ll find it. 

We didn’t plan that. 

I don’t know if you’re a fan of the 1976 Streisand Star is Born, but my favourite song in the picture is “One More Look at You”. I had dinner with James Mason [star of the 1954 version] and I said, “you know, I wrote a song in the new Star is Born based on your line ‘I just wanted to take another look at you’” He said, “Oh, I don’t believe that, I haven’t seen that in years.” His wife said, “Oh, James, that’s bullshit – I caught you watching it about two weeks ago!”

We write a song to open A Star is Born for Kris Kristofferson, [Sings] Watch closely, now your eyes are like fingers, they’re touching my brain. Then we go to the end when she finds the song that he was working on, with One more look at you | I could learn to change the stars and change our fortunes too | Have the constellations paint your portrait too | So all the world might share that wondrous side | The world could end each night with one more look at you | With one more look at you | I want one more look at you | are you watching me now… 

We went, fuck you, wait a minute! We didn’t plan that! That’s a gift, of course you know what I’m saying?

Getting back to Phantom, one of my struggles with the film was that your music feels like it’s trying to posit something and I’m not sure it quite reaches. We want to celebrate this flop that has now found its fans, but that might in turn overlook its flaws. What are your own struggles of coming to terms with working on Phantom of the Paradise?

I think there are songs where the melodies, which the fans seem to love, that I think I’d take another pass at. I would do something different musically. “Somebody Super Like You” is a little by the numbers to me; It’s a little generic. I think that the quality of the lyric writing is strong, and I think that the songs generally work, there are a couple of places where I go, jeez, I’d love to take another pass. 

I will tell you what I think is some of the best writing in the film is: The Hell of It

That’s the one you still perform live, and which you sing at the close of the film.

The interesting thing about it is while it’s the ending of the film, it was written for a funeral scene that never was shot. Do you know about this funeral scene?

No. I’m not from Winnipeg.

My favourite line in Phantom is “An assassination? Live on coast to coast television? That’s entertainment!” That’s where we were at that point. We were watching the war in Vietnam while we were eating our TV dinners. So the line between entertainment and horror is disappearing. But there was supposed to be a scene where after Beef dies, you’re in this graveyard, snow on the ground or whatever, with an open grave and a casket above it. There are microphones and you follow the lines back to a hearse, and inside the hearse recording for the Death Records is my character Swan. At the very end, there’s a thing where the little girls, I walk aroundthe people in a circle, holding hands and a little girl runs forward and she starts tap dancing on the casket. What I wrote was so Nino Rota, so I’m really proud of that.

This bookends with the underappreciated work you did with Elaine May. Ishtar is all the more magnificent because what you’re writing is stuff that the movie tells us is supposed to be bad, but it’s spectacularly good. The challenge in Phantom is we are told it is excellent and we’re immediately judgmental, measuring whether the music lives up to be the masterpiece we’re narratively informed it is. Do you feel the same contrast and tension yourself looking back?

Oh, I totally do, and I appreciate that. 

With Elaine May I wrote fifty songs. If there was two lines of the song in the movie, she wanted me to write the whole piece, and then teach it to Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. She let them sing it, because she said when I sang it, it sounded like a record. I kept writing songs, and she’d go, no, that’s not it, yet she wouldn’t tell me what she wanted. Same thing with actors, she would do another take, she’d say, “I’ll know it when I see it.” She just let you go and go, and finally I wrote, That Lawnmower Can Do All That, and that got her. 

Which, of course, is lyrically insane.

And the best part of it is the bridge, which a lot of people never got to hear, but it’s Saturday morning, the sound of a lawnmower touches my soul | Brings back the memory of first summer love, of Willa and me | That a lawnmower can do all that, it’s amazing | I can see her standing in the backyard of my mind | She cracks her knuckles and the scab that’s on her knee won’t go away | I can see the woman waiting in her eyes and I can see the love | But I can’t see the Brooklyn Dodgers in L.A. | That a lawnmower can do all that, It’s amazing. Elaine said “that’s what I’m looking for!” and all of a sudden I was off and running. 

In Ishtar they’re two songwriters who were poorly matched, and that’s the heart of why they’re bad. I as an actor became these two [writing the songs]. Telling the truth can be dangerous business | Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand is a great opening line, and then they screw it up. If you admit that you can play the accordion | No one will hire you in a rock and roll band

In 1989, nobody would hire an accordion player. Now, of course, it’s key. Any instrument, get it in there! We’ve gotten better. 

This is the critical point for me for your work – In Ishtar, the ambivalence, the self-doubt comes across. With Phantom of the Paradise it’s all about blind ambition at any cost. For me, this feels like two sides of the same coin, the two competing and contrasting aspects of your remarkable career.

What is most interesting that nobody’s ever said to me is what you just said about the music and you’re right, you’re absolutely right. 

Finally, let’s dive more into Rainbow Connection. What was it like bringing that album to life, to take seriously a felt frog?

Kermit is the most powerful character I’ve ever worked with. 

Jim Henson and I co-produced the album. Kenny and I had written the song and we went into record. Jim is there singing in the vocal booth with the headphones on and we’re playing back the track to record and something’s missing. I think I was the one that said, “Why don’t you get Kermit?” So we got the muppet, and I basically was watching as Kermit sang. It was one take. Done. Magical. 

If you had ever had a conversation with Frank Oz and Piggy and Jim and Kermit, there were five of us in the conversation. It’s the most spectacular, healthy split-personalities I’ve ever seen in my life. The great blessing from Jim Henson was, “Don’t think about your discipline, don’t think about your craft, just play at this.” Get thinking about the craft out of the way, and the rest will come to the surface. 

The longer I do this, the more I feel that.

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