Interview: Legendary Songwriter/Actor Paul Williams
June 8, 2012
When director Stephen Kessler set out to make a movie about Oscar-winning songwriter and omni-present '70s celebrity Paul Williams, he probably was hoping to make a very different movie than what became Paul Williams Still Alive. As a lifelong fan of Williams, Kessler wondered what had happened to him, and he was given an unprecedented chance to tail Williams with his camera crew and see how different his life today is than it was at the height of fame in the '70s.
While most younger audiences probably won't know the name--if you saw last year's The Muppets, you already know Williams' work since he wrote a little song called "The Rainbow Connection"--there's a generation that remembers Williams as a guy who was literally everywhere.
What Kessler learned while making the movie was that Williams was not going to be the easiest subject matter to get to open up on camera, and what makes Paul Williams Still Alive unique as a documentary is that he actually left all of the difficulties he had with Williams in the film, which actually makes it quite a bit funnier and more entertaining. Even so, it's still quite a poignant and inspirational story to see how one can ride fame to the top, sabotage their career with drugs and alcohol, but then find redemption in sobriety and create a new life for themselves.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Williams and Kessler earlier this week, beginning our interview with Williams alone then joined by the director midway through.
ComingSoon.net: So we can talk about Steve while he's gone.
Paul Williams: Yeah, ask me anything. I'll tell you the horror story of working with him… the horror story…
CS: Right, for two whole years.
Williams: Actually, probably closer to five. It was shot about three years, and then post-production for a couple of years, so yeah, it's been a long run.
CS: In the movie, Steve kind of explains that he's a fan of yours and why he wanted to make a movie. I don't think we ever find out why you let Steve make this movie.
Williams: First of all, I'm not really good with saying "no." I've been really terrible at saying "no." When he wrote and he wanted to get together and do a documentary, I always thought, "There's nothing more pathetic than some little old man going, 'Please, sir, may I have another cup of fame?'" I hate that. At this point, I'm 22 years sober; at the time, I was like, 17 years sober. I loved my life, loved the balance in my life. That whole period of when I was on all the time was kind of that life, not this life, and I didn't really want to do it. Basically, I didn't answer his email for a long time. Finally I thought, "You know what? We're going to go up and do Phantompalooza Maybe it'd be good for the Phantompalooza for him to come up and shoot that." I kind of agreed to do that, then he showed up in San Francisco at a gig. All of a sudden we're in the middle of it. You know, he's a really likeable guy, but I just hated that camera in my face. I kept thinking, "I don't want to poke the bear." I don't want to sit down and have somebody go, "What is relevant about this? Why would we want to waste our time with this?" I have to tell you that looking at some of the footage he put in there, there's a point where I look at me in my most vapid, arrogant, grandiose on "The Merv Griffith Show," and I'm doing the same thing. It shocks me that that's who I became and I had no sense of it. So why do we want to show that to the rest of the world? That's horrific. That's not who I am. I don't want to go back to that. But once I saw a rough cut of the movie and you get the arc of recovery and the way my life has turned out. The two things I'm really passionate about are recovery and music creator's rights, and the fact that I can now do the work I'm doing at ASCAP, it just seemed like a natural to roll into this.
CS: I was really excited when I first heard about this movie at Toronto, and I thought, "Why hasn't anybody made a movie about Paul Williams before?" I was surprised by that.
Williams: Yeah, nobody had ever asked. That's interesting, because people said to me, "Haven't others asked?" and I said, "I don't think so. No, nobody ever did." I just thought the idea of a "where are they now?" VH1 special about.... It was just not something I wanted to do. I think Steve would've been thrilled to find me living in a trailer behind the junkyard working at a Red Lion Inn with a sock puppet of Kermit singing "Rainbow Connection," you know, but that wasn't the life I had. I never hit a financial bottom. I loved what happened to me, I loved the attention that I got, I loved the fact that the songs continue and all, but there's a part of me that's just as happy watching golf in my underwear as being out in front of the camera, in fact, happier. It was an interesting challenge to go, "Do I want to do this again?" At this point, I'm glad I did, I'm glad I did Did you enjoy the film?
CS: I did and I'm glad it wasn't a PBS making-of documentary that just goes through your history.
Williams: I love that he does that in the middle of the film. "We could have done this…" which is very funny.
CS: Yeah, it's actually a very funny and entertaining movie…
Williams: And the stuff that is the heart of the film is the stuff that on other documentaries probably winds up on the cutting room floor. Like him interrupting stories… I mean, I'm telling this meaningful story about my dad, and he just barges in and asks me questions about talent shows. I go, "Are you joking? Put that in your goddamn movie!" And he did.
CS: You're right because most documentary filmmakers would gloss over the difficult moments and make it look like it was much easier to get their subjects to talk.
Williams: Exactly, but he was willing to pull his covers on himself and really show that, and I loved that. I think that he was as brave about showing that side of himself as hopefully I was by allowing him to put some of the really messy footage of me really, really loaded, really messed up.
CS: It's interesting that you started out as an actor but then got into songwriting, so how did that happen?
Williams: I was an out of work actor. I'd done a couple of movies two years apart, and you can't make a living doing that. I always joked that I looked like a kid when you put me next to a real kid. I looked like a kid with a hangover. On "The Chase," I started playing guitar. I started noodling with a guitar, and it's actually in the movie. I kind of made up a song about Robert Redford's character, singing this jokey song, and Robert Duvall was walking by and he heard it and he went, "What is that?" I said, "I just made it up." He said, "Come here." He walked me over to the director, Arthur Penn. He said, "Show him." I showed him. He said, "Stand here above the fence with the plains behind you." He shot it, and he put it in the movie, and that's before I was even a songwriter. They all kind of interwove. I think that I was one of those kids who loved movies, so once I got any kind of impact as a songwriter, I wanted to get back into film. So I wrote "Nice to be Around" and the song for "Cinderella Liberty" with John Williams as my first kind of nomination, "Bugsy Malone," "Phantom of the Paradise," "The Muppet Movie," and all those things were part of it was based on my love of film. I love film, and we're talking about doing something more together at this point. Now that we have this trust and this kind of creative connection, so now what do we do with it? Now let's do something fun.
CS: Are you going to get back into acting? Do you still do any kind of acting?
Williams: I just did a thing in a movie called "The Ghastly Love of Johnny X," a little low budget film. I was in "Rules of Attraction," the Roger Avery film, a small thing. But the phone doesn't ring and I'm not pursuing it. I don't have an agent. The film has a press agent; I don't have a press agent. I have a fulltime job at ASCAP. I have 450,000 members that need to have their rights protected, and that's my gig. In the meantime, I'm still writing, and I just don't really need to be in the public eye. I don't. That's not something I need. If the phone rings and it's something interesting… but there was a time that I was just a media whore. I mean, if you'd send me anything, I'd say yes, you know? At this point, as I say, I've got a nice balance in my life, and I've got a really full plate. This is a different time. 20 years ago, I could've been President of ASCAP and stayed really, really busy with everything else I was doing. Right now, we're fighting to make sure that the young guys starting out can make a viable living with their songwriting. It's a really interesting time, but the interesting thing, too, is that there's more music being played more often on more amazing devices than ever before in the history of music. So that's growing. We're licensing all this music for Spotify, the rates are going to go up and we'll take care of our writers.
CS: What do you find is the benefit of making a movie like this?
Williams: Well, there are two things I'm really passionate about - one is recovery. I speak probably 20 times a year around the country about recovery, and I'm passionate about music creator's rights. One of the benefits of it is I get to sit here and talk to you about those two things while we're talking about the film, but also I didn't know what my kids were going to think. My daughter's 27, she has her masters in social work for science. She looked at the film and she walked up to Stephen and she went, "Thank you. What a wonderful archive of my dad's life and what a tribute to the kind of man he is now." What Steve says is he started out to make a movie about who I was, and wound up making a movie about who I am. My kids, they just love the film, so that's a gift to me right there.
CS: It's certainly very inspirational in terms of looking forward rather than looking back.
Williams: One of the nice things that's happened to it is that the Creative Coalition has picked up the film. They put their stamp on it. They did that with "Precious," they pick few films a year. It was started by Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin—a bunch of people started it.
(At this point, director Stephen Kessler joins us.)
CS: We already talked all about you, so I know all your dirty secrets already. One of the things we discussed was that you left a lot of things in the film that most filmmakers would cut out and I was curious about why you decided to do that.
Stephen Kessler: Well, a long time ago I did this ad campaign for Snapple, Wendy the Snapple Lady, for this ad agency, Kirshenbaum and Bond. I was a very documentary ad campaign, and I made it look very rough, and I'd leave in things that other people would get rid of. I didn't think about doing that in this film, but my editor, David Zieff would say to me sometimes, "Look at this. Look at him fighting with you here, or look at this person and this." It reminded me of what I used to do, like someone re-teaching themselves how to walk. When I started putting in the things that everybody thinks you're supposed to take out of a movie, that's when I started having a movie, so it was really a process. When I tried to make a documentary that was like other documentaries I'd seen, I didn't have anything, but when I started going, "You know what? I'd better stop doing what I think I'm supposed to do and do what seems interesting," that's when it got better.
CS: What about working with Paul? He let you follow him around with the camera but did you want to talk to other people like his family?
Kessler: In the very beginning, I had this idea about making this very traditional documentary. When I went to Winnipeg and I started talking to some of the fans--normally they were what you might call crazed fans, but really they were just like me. I saw how passionate they were about Paul's work, and I started thinking, "The people that were really affected by Paul's work were just regular people, people that were sitting alone in their rooms and maybe not the most popular or not the ones asked out on Friday night and not the captain of the football team." I was like, "You know what? Those are the people that I want to talk to." I know what Kris Kristofferson is going to say--I've seen that documentary. Great documentaries have been made about other musicians, but I've seen them, and I don't want to put that in. That's how I started doing that. With his family, I interviewed his daughter Sarah, and I realized also that wasn't the film that I was making, the kind of film where your kids talk about you.
CS: I was going to ask you this before, Paul, but having an admitted fan making a movie about you, is it worrisome that they'd gloss over stuff and make you look too good and ignore some of the bad stuff?
Williams: No, I think from the very beginning the film kind of revealed itself to us. I mean, it felt like that to me, and obviously it had a lot more direction from me, but I wasn't worried about it. I was a little annoyed the camera was in my face while I'm trying to eat food, and there's more footage of me eating than there's ever been. It's like, "Get that goddamn camera away." Kessler: This was a film made by a fan, but it wasn't a film made by a blind fan, and it wasn't meant to be a hagiography about how great this guy was that I loved. He wasn't someone that I was looking through with the eyes of a 12-year-old fan. It was something that I was looking at as a filmmaker and seeing who he was. What I saw was that the guy who was standing in front of me now was a more interesting guy to make a film about than that guy that I loved who was funny on "Mike Douglas" and "The Tonight Show" and whatever. Williams: I think one of the questions that brought him to the whole process was "You had all that and you walked away from it. What does it feel like?" I don't know if you knew that I walked away from it or they just quit calling or whatever it was, but like, how can you be happier now than you were then? Because fame is what we're all chasing. I think that in a lot of ways, the film has a lot to say about the true veneer or value to fame where if I need the camera on me to be happy, to the guys that are the hottest right now, the Gags or whatever of the world that are at the peak of their fame, if that's what's going to make you happy, there's very possibly going to come a time in your life, probably sooner than you know, where that's going to change and then what are you faced with? I think that there was a part of Stephen that wondered, "How can you enjoy watching golf in your underwear more than getting an Academy Award?" The fact is that they were both important to me, that I loved being introduced as an Oscar winner, but I also loved watching Tiger (Woods) yesterday, and that's who I am today.
CS: It's almost like now you're getting to experience the life most people live after having all that fame when you were younger, which is the opposite of most people.
Williams: Sure, and I got to live my actor fantasies. He talks about the little boy watching me on the tube and wanting to be me. For me to walk on a set with the cables and the camera and the lights and all of a sudden "God, there's John Gielgud," that was pure fantasy for me. Talk about living your Omaha fantasies, walking onto a set was that for me, and I lived that. I did it when I was impossible to cast, and I still got cast in movies, and then when I built my career as an actor and then as a recording artist and personality, I took it back to where I was able to get back on a set and live those fantasies again. There's a certain point. You know you're an alcoholic when you misplace decade. The '80s was an exhausting, downhill ride with the drugs and alcohol of me just shutting all that off. What I found when I got sober was a connectedness to people I'd never experienced before. Instead of just going, "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine." I went, "You know what? I'm in a lot of trouble and I need help." I reached out my hand, and somebody reached back and said, "We've been there and we can help you." I felt a connection to people, not through my music, but through what I was struggling with as a man. It was what I had never experienced before. I found a level of trust and being cared for and fitting in that I'd never felt before. So, then when somebody comes and says, "I want to put a camera on you. Let's go back to that other world." I wasn't sure I wanted to do it.
CS: I really like the rapport and friendship between the two of you and how it's depicted in the film. I talk to a lot of doc filmmakers and it's always a question about how much of yourself you should put into a movie and how when you do so affects the story you're trying to tell. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Kessler: Yeah, I can talk about it in detail because even though I myself am someone that on the surface doesn't like filmmakers that put themselves in movies, it really pisses me off when people who say they're quote "serious" about documentary say that filmmakers shouldn't put themselves in the film. Williams: I invited him in, incidentally. That was my idea. Kessler: I can defend myself. First of all, I only put myself in as a means to illuminate who Paul was. There's not a shot of me in the film that isn't put there to illuminate who he is. Second of all, when filmmakers who I worship, like the Maysles, made films in the '60s, and they were on this side of the camera, and the documentary subject was on the other side of the camera, people hadn't been filmed that much. It was a very odd thing to be filmed. So, it wasn't dishonest. That was the honest way to do it then, but in a world where everyone has an iPhone and everyone gets videotaped every day, it's more dishonest to act like the subject is over here and over here is not there. It's more honest to say, "Hey, there's a crew here and a sound guy here, and by the way, this guy's wearing a microphone." Because Paul's music is so honest, I wanted to try and make a documentary that was as honest as any documentary that was made, so I had to put myself in. The idea that there are people that call themselves serious about documentary that don't understand that, it's astounding.
CS: Well, it does make for a better movie. I'm a big fan of Morgan Spurlock and I think he realizes that he can make a more entertaining movie with himself as a subject.
Kessler: Yeah, I mean, and if you hit it right as a filmmaker, you know when you belong in there, and you know you don't belong in there.
CS: I just wanted to ask about the closing credits song, because I loved that. Did you write that specifically for this movie?
Williams: "Still Alive," I wrote for the movie, yeah. I wrote it about a week before the film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. When he said he wanted to call the film "Paul Williams Still Alive," I was like, "Oh man. Let's just kick that ego around like I really disappeared that completely," then all of a sudden I realized that it's a really interesting parallel to the fact that I'm more alive now than I've ever been in my life. It's a line in the chorus of the song, "Someone asked me once, where do we go when we arrive. If you're lucky when it's over, the dreamer's still alive. A blessed mystery, for sweeter souls did not survive." In that song, I'm talking about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse and people that have died from the disease that almost took my life as well. So I was happy to write that song, and I feel like it's as good a song as I've ever written. Kessler: Also, I just gotta say, first he said to me about the title, "No, no, no, but then he said, "If I could write a song with the words 'still alive' in it, it'll be okay." I was excited he'd write a song for the film because I was like, "Fine, whatever he says…" But when he sent me the lyrics and the first third was, "I don't know you with those clothes… I don't know you with…" Williams: "I don't know you with those clothes, I don't know you with that hair…" Kessler: It just blew my mind. I was like, "This is what blows me away about this guy, that he's that in touch with his feelings that he can put them out that honestly," and yeah, I'm very proud of that song.
CS: It's a great song. Hopefully people will see the movie to hear that you still have it.
Williams: Thank you. It's funny. The AARP article today, the guy said, "If the Academy is listening…" You are really nice people.
Paul Williams Still Alive opens in theaters in New York at the Angelika Cinemas on Friday, June 8 and in Los Angeles on June 22.