Event Report: Paul Williams and Phantom of the Paradise at Museum of the Moving Image
On January 25th the Museum of the Moving Image held a special screening of Phantom of the Paradise with Paul Williams in attendance, and we have for you here all the highlights of the Q&A.
Last year the documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive championed the cold hard fact that Paul Williams was, indeed, not dead. You know, Paul Williams. He wrote songs for The Carpenters and The Muppets (even Muppet Otters). He co-starred alongside Jackie Gleason in all the Smokey and the Bandit movies. He was a staple on Carson’s couch during the 70’s.
With his diminutive height, blond pageboy and glasses, he looked like an unlikely star. And by "star" I mean huge—Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar winning and a sex symbol to boot. But we horror folks remember him best from Brian De Palma’s 1974 box office failure-cum-cult classic Phantom of the Paradise. Not only did Williams write the film’s songs and score, he also played Faustian music executive Swan.
Queens, New York, was lucky enough to have Williams on hand at last month's screening of Phantom at the Museum of the Moving Image. This selection was the first in a series celebrating Williams (next came The Muppet Movie followed by Ishtar), inspired in part by the release of Still Alive. During his introduction, David Schwartz, the Museum's Chief Curator and MC, remarked on Phantom’s struggle to find an audience save for in Winnipeg, Canada, and in El Salvador, where it was beloved for some reason and ran for a long time.
First up was Bibbe Hansen, a staple of the Warhol scene and mother to musician Beck. She thanked the cast and noted her “small” part in the film as a background performer, which she shot for over two months in Dallas, Texas. Though her part was going to be bigger, she is seen for a short while wearing “a really bad perm; it was the 70s.”
Then Susan Finley spoke (wife of the late William Finley—The Phantom), who can be seen at the end of the film donning the Phantom’s mask. She spoke about the shock the filmmakers and actors had when it came out as a “stillborn baby.” In retrospect she said, “My son once told me when Columbus’ ships showed up on the horizon, the natives didn’t recognize them because they had no frame of reference. And I feel that way about Phantom. It did not fit a genre; no one knew what to make of it. No one knew whom it was speaking to or what it was about. The marketers and promoters didn’t know where to put it. And that’s because it is a very original film that has a lot of say about a lot of things.” Lastly she noted it would have made [her husband] Bill very happy to see everyone in attendance that evening.
The DCP (Digital Cinema Package) print was flawless, enhanced by the museum’s stellar sound system. The film itself works as a 70’s time capsule when directors could get a budget to do something original, even weird, and take risks—a situation that changed due to a series of box office failures like Michael Cimino's Heaven’s Gate and Elaine May's Ishtar.
For those who may not be familiar with the Phantom, it is the story of a composer, Winslow Leach (Finley), whose music is stolen by Swan, head music mogul of the Death Music record label, to open The Paradise, a most beautiful and ornate concert hall. Leach loses his teeth, part of his face and then his voice in the process of trying to wrench back authorship. These tragedies lead him to become our Phantom in stunning silver and black. He even sells his soul to Swan so the music is produced just right to The Phantom’s standards, quite a turn of events because our hero has been penning a contemporary version of Faust. A piece that only his muse, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a chorus girl he found during rehearsals, is allowed to sing; and he will stop at nothing to guarantee that happens. For The Phantom watches over the The Paradise and will kill any musician that gets in the way of Phoenix’s rising star and right to sing Faust. Swan tries to double-cross the Phantom, which only leads to more blood and glitter on the stage of The Paradise.
The screening was then followed by a discussion with Paul Williams. He was funny and self-deprecating as he went into the casting of Swan. “Brian talked about this weird little guy up in the rafters who was a fan of me, who was throwing things at people, and said, ‘Well, you do that.’ And I said, ‘I can’t do that, I’m not scary.’” Williams felt he did not want to play someone whose music was stolen, “‘Ah, he thinks his music’s stolen, and he’s getting back at the record industry.’ I said, ‘Let me play the guy who steals the music. I don’t know who said it first, but he said, ‘Play Swan,’ and I said, ‘Yeah’…”
Williams was then asked about the many styles he worked in for Phantom, “The fact is I was known for the kind of work, the hallmark card lyrics, The Carpenters and Three Dog Night, you know, it was so very different from this; but my favorite band ever was the original Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, and I loved just all kinds of music, but what came out of me was this sort of balance. I’ve been writing co-dependent anthems my entire life.” He noted that the original idea for what became Phantom of the Paradise was Phantom of the Fillmore and it was more or less a straight take on Phantom of the Opera, but De Palma was open to new ideas. “It was a time with the Vietnam War, and we were sitting and watching the war news, eating our TV dinners and it was like this horror story was becoming entertainment. Watching the news like it was the evening’s entertainment, with the footage of Vietnam. That started to move its way into the story.”
He mentioned his favorite line from Phantom was “An assassination, coast-to-coast? On live television? Now, that’s entertainment!” And how it signified for Williams what the film “warped” into, but he does not recall his part in the evolution as so crystal clear, “I wish I had a copy of the original script so I could tell you how far it really changed. I find that the longer I live with it, I probably had less to do with the changes to the script than I thought I did. I think that as you mature, and you look at somebody’s genius, you kind of get a larger, global view of what happened. I look back on the experience with just extreme gratitude for working with Brian and the brilliance of the cast.”
As for finding Jessica Harper during rehearsals, De Palma and Williams had all the women sing Leon Russell’s song "Superstar" (with the famous lyric, “Long ago and oh so far away, I fell in love with you before this second show.”) He walked up to Harper while she was practicing the tune, and upon hearing her soft lovely voice, much like Winslow did in the film: “…I was like, ‘Yeah!’ I mean, Jessica has a beautiful voice. And then she came in to audition, for Brian and she sang… and I was like, ‘No, no, sing it to yourself like you did before.’ And I think that’s where that moment in the film came from, she was just stunning.”
As for Phantom’s lukewarm reception and rise to cult status, Williams felt it was the very dismissal of it that gave fans a sense of ownership. So much so Winnipeg has created Phantompalooza, a celebration of all things Phantom. He also believed it was his look that hooked the female fans. “I think because I was so much of a non-threatening… I think a lot of the people who fell in love with the film in Winnipeg were young girls of a certain age, and the archetypical, intense drama of this particular story was new to a lot of them, these elements that are old stories are new to them.”
As for the various music style Williams composed; he enjoyed creating the Beach Boys-inspired band The Beach Bums (formerly The Juicy Fruits) for the film. “Well you know I loved… I’m a huge Beach Boys fan, so it was great to take Faust, whatever the initial song was, and warp it into a Beach Boys sounding ‘carburetors, man, that’s what life is all about.’ And the lines,‘of all life’s mysteries, the greatest one I’ve seen tell me why my short runs better when it’s clean?’”
He does have one regret though. “…every now and again, in the middle of the night, I go, ‘You put somebody else’s voice in Jodie Foster’s mouth’ (in Bugsy Malone), and I go, ‘My God, I should have let Jodie Foster sing her own songs... and when I listen to Ray Kennedy [whose voice you hear for Beef, the film’s foppish-Franken-metal star], when I listen to Gerrit [Graham, the actor who plays Beef] in the shower, that’s Gerrit’s own voice, and it’s so close. I always said, ‘You should have let him do his own vocal on ”Life at Last",’ but it’s too late to change…”
Williams then took questions from the audience, including one about bringing Phantom to the stage. “So many times, before I die, now I’m not hoping that I’ll know how many years I’ll be able to tag onto my time right now, but I would like to think that before I hit room temperature, I’ll get to see this on stage.” He even wrote additional songs in the 80’s. “…the late Eighties were an interesting time for me because of the 'Ishtar years',” Williams quipped.
Then a hand rose from the right aisle. A man from Winnipeg who had the soundtrack as a boy, though he never got to see the film projected during its first run. He asked about the costumes and William’s appearance on "The Brady Bunch" singing "The Hell of It." “Because I was such a media whore by then, all you would have to do was ask me and I’d show up, which is really what the movie Paul Williams: Still Alive is about, because I would, after Phantom and you know, I was all of a sudden doing ‘The Tonight Show’ all the time, it was almost a once-a-month thing, I did the ‘The Tonight Show’ 48 times— I remember six— is the only way to describe it.” William’ singing on "The Brady Bunch" did nothing to get folks to see Phantom. As for his wardrobe, “I’m sitting with Tracy Jackson, who is my writing partner, and we’re writing a self-help book about recovery, and the only thing, it was a mild distraction from the movies at that time, and she would go with me, and she would say ‘Sure you want to wear that shirt?’ Sat there while she made fun of everything that I wore.”
Then a question came about De Palma and his influences. Williams stated of course Hitchcock and mentioned the recreation of the Psycho shower scene where The Phantom threatens Beef. He also revealed his admiration for Graham’s performance as Beef and the fact that Graham was very ill during the shoot. “During the all-night concert footage and the shower scene, Garrit ran like a 104-degree temperature. He was so sick he could hardly walk… He was just so ill. He would go back in his dressing room and just lay there near death, and then get up and do that amazing performance.” He continued, “I think Brian had a real love affair with Hitchcock. He had a great sense of moving camera; there’s a shot in there, I don’t know if you know the one I’m talking about, the shot where The Phantom gets his costume, that’s Ronnie Taylor, the camera operator, who later became a cinematographer, and won the Oscar for Ghandi. It was him carrying a camera on his shoulder because there was no Steadicam yet, going up and down those stairs, again and again to get a shot, so it would end up… it’s just brilliant camerawork. It would be a great question for Brian, and I should have said at the beginning of this long answer, ‘I don’t know, you should ask Brian.’”
Another fan asked about his sinister performance as Swan. “My favorite scene, as far as my performance in the film, I’m really proud of the bathtub scene because you see Swan before he became Swan, you know, inhabited by the Big Ugly, the Downstairs Guy. I think that, my thought was that if Swan is, in fact, an incarnation of the Devil, that he would have to be so charming, so slick, you know? And I think the performance really begins for me with Swan’s reaction to when he finally has the knife to his throat, as he comes out and there’s Winslow, and he’s like, immediately, ‘We’ve been looking for you everywhere.’ You know, he’s just so slick and charming and so evil. Wonderfully, beautifully evil. It was great to play him.”
He then relayed a little story about speaking to De Palma about a crane shot and directorial style. “I don’t remember Brian giving any of us a lot of direction. I think that his amazing work is in creating a story and a script and an environment. You have to understand that I had and have such a massive ego that’s a little out of balance. I was in the middle of my ‘what I really want to do is direct’ period, I remember walking up to Brian, and we were shooting at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, and he’s moving the camera up to shoot footage of me up in the balcony, and then he moves the camera down and shoots something there and going back up… and I remember jumping up and saying ‘Any idiot would know that you put a Chapman crane on the stage and swing the arm back and forth!’ and Brian was lining up his shot, he didn’t even look away from lining up the shot, and said ‘Stage won’t support a Chapman crane.’ And, umm… OK. Went back into my little dressing room, sat down, and was like, ‘I think I’ll keep my mouth shut. He knows what he’s doing.’ I think that he had a relationship with Bill Finley and the other actors and all that was possibly… there were moments where you watch a director like him or some of the guys that I’ve worked with over the years, the best ones will take an actor, and it’s a private moment between the two of them, so he never said from the back of the room, ‘Jessica, you need to be that,’ If he said anything, I think he probably took her or me aside and said quietly, ‘This is getting a little big, maybe you want to tone it down a bit.’ Or every director has his own way of saying two words, ‘Louder’ and ‘Faster.’”
The last question of the evening lead to a discussion of Williams’ current job, elected President and Chairman of the Board of ASCAP. “I’m passionate about creators’ rights, music creators’ rights, film creators’ rights, as we move into the digital age… I want all the people who are downloading music or streaming music, all the kids that are sitting and looking at this world through that little rectangle of their computers, I want them to know that we don’t want to shut any of that music off… What we want to do is what was done in radio, which made such amazing sense. It was that radio gave you the music free, and then they sold advertising, and the songwriters and the publishers and the composers got a little tiny percentage of that advertising income… We want there to be enough of an income in it to make it a viable living for the songwriters, composers, and please God, for the filmmakers… So it’s wonderful to be able to, when somebody sits down in front of me and puts a microphone in my hand, I will always take an opportunity to say, 'Have a sense of what is fair to the songwriter and the filmmakers and the creators.'”
And with that the crowd applauded, and the night ended. Muppets, they said, were in order for tomorrow and maybe some live Muppet songs by Williams. A piano, it was said, would be in attendance.
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