We had the absolute pleasure of speaking with singer/songwriter/composer/actor (and gent) Paul Williams at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival. Music fans will no doubt remember Paul Williams from his own recording career, his work with The Muppets, and his collaborations with Daft Punk on their 2016 album Random Access Memories. But horror fans will always remember him as Swan, the sadistic and manipulative villain of Brian de Palma’s cult classic The Phantom of The Paradise for which he also wrote the music and lyrics.

The 2019 Fantasia Film Festival was not only home to a special 45th-anniversary screening of The Phantom of The Paradise, coinciding with producer Edward R. Pressman’s lifetime achievement award, the festival also celebrated the world premiere of Sean Stanley & Malcolm Ingrim’s documentary The Phantom of Winnipeg. In 1974, The Phantom of The Paradise was a critical and commercial failure in nearly every market it was released, except a small area in France and Winnipeg, Canada. And as Paul Williams sees it, it was that obsession and deep love for The Phantom of The Paradise that has led not only to the film’s legendary cult status but also the work he is doing today. Daft Punk themselves met at a screening of the film, and Guillermo del Toro, who is currently working with Wiliams to adapt Pan’s Labyrinth for broadway, is a self-reported Phantom of The Paradise Phanatic. The film’s impact on those that have seen it is undeniable and having only recently discovered it ourselves, we could not wait to chat and thank him for our own newfound obsession.

 

Phantom has been a gift to me in ways that I couldn’t even begin to express. It was just a pure labor of love.”

 

Paul Williams: So I’m told you guys pay a lot of attention to classic films.

Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Especially here too, at Fantasia. It seems like every year there’s a lot of restoration screenings. And occasionally just like digging movies out of out of the ground, really. Severin’s playing something called Satan’s Slaves, that no one’s seen.

PW: Oh, I love it.

Kimberley Elizabeth: Yeah, and they have a booth downstairs where they sell them, which is really cool. Where you can buy all of the old films and restorations.

PW: I’m going to fix my hearing aids – I have host some high tech hearing aids that I can actually improve it. I’ll be able to hear you better. You know, when I was a kid, when I was in my 20s, and drinking and using, I had huge monitor speakers, and I’d lie down between them and and listen to the Revolver album or whatever, at 11. And I’m paying for it these days.

NOFS: I’ll have to take that as advice. Sounds like a great afternoon, unfortunately.

PW: Yeah, exactly. Well, especially when you’re a little high. You know, it was fantastic.

 

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KE: That’s very cool that you can do it right on your phone.

PW: It is, you know, and it’s- I’m very heavily involved with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. When I got involved with them, I didn’t need hearing aids. They said, “you need hearing aids,” and I said, “No, I don’t need hearing aids. I do not need hearing aids. That’s for old guys”. They said – “You’re an old guy! You need hearing aids!” They were right.

NOFS: Well a lifetime of writing loud music and music that should be played loud.. It’s almost your badge of honor to have to wear a hearing aid, right?

 

PW: There’s something about mixing a record when it’s like, at 11. And you’re sitting in that studio and you play it loud enough, you sound great. Oh, it’s fantastic. And then you’re you go out and people are going to listen to it on a speaker that big in their car. Herb Alpert used to mix on a tiny, tiny little speaker and you can barely hear it. Cut a ‘dub’, in those days you cut an acetate and run it over to one of the radio stations and play it. And he goes sit in, his engineer owned an old truck with a little beat up speaker in the truck and they’d sit there and listen to it. And if it sounded good in that truck, they were done.

NOFS: That’s actually a genius move.

PW: Yes. Very smart.

NOFS: You’re paying attention to how your audience is going to listen to it.

PW: Yeah. So I wound up back in the same studio with Daft Punk working on Random Access Memories and and I said “You know what? Herb Alpert cut all these hits in here and all”. I told them story. But we still want to hear everything at 11, of course.

 

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NOFS: I hear those guys are incredibly meticulous, like they’ll spend like a month just trying to figure out one bass drum sound.

PW: It’s amazing because they gave me the music that I wrote the two songs for, and then they asked me to sing one. And all I ever heard was just basically a minimal track. You know, piano, a little bit of drums, maybe bass. And they went away, and then several months later came back, we went to listen to the album and I went “Oh my god”.

NOFS: So I know you sang on Touch. What was the other song that you’re on?

PW: Beyond. I wrote Beyond. [sings] “Dream Beyond Dream”.

NOFS: Oh, no way! That’s a good track. We were actually listening to the album this morning.

PW: Yeah, really? Was it because we had this meeting?

NOFS: We actually, we bought an RV recently- Actually, this is a perfect segue. We bought an RV recently and we only have a few CDs that we keep in it. Random Access Memories is one of them. But from streaming from our phone, the very first song we listened to in it when we were driving it back from Calgary was Life at Last [from Phantom of The Paradise].

PW: Oh, wonderful!

NOFS: Yeah, we we actually only saw Phantom of the Paradise for the first time, like over the Christmas Holiday.

PW: Oh, so it’s new to you then!

NOFS: Very new to us. We’ve never seen it on the big screen.

 

PW: Unusual, isn’t it?

NOFS: It’s amazing!

KE: Instantly obsessed. Instantly.

PW: Oh my gosh. See, I love that!

 

“…the life lesson in Phantom of the Paradise is that you don’t label something as a failure too quickly. There’s something about this whole growth cycle of Phantom, and the awareness of it, is, you’ve just gotta hand it to the fans.”

 

NOFS: We have a record, a vinyl of the soundtrack that we got from a thrift store.

KE: Just found it. It was perfect.

NOFS: It’s in terrible shape, but we’re wearing it out.

PW: Oh my god. Wow. You know what, it’s interesting because I always thought it was an odd choice to be hired to do the music. I mean, I was having hits with Three Dog Night and The Carpenters and you know, a lot of kind of ‘easy listening’. More middle of the road – I mean, I shouldn’t call Three Dog Night “middle of the road” because they were a rock and roll band. “Old Fashioned Love Song” is not exactly the music of The Spheres. But, the beginnings of my relationship with Brian, were as composer, songwriter, writing words in music to all those songs. And what was great is that, while I’m writing for The Carpenters, my favorite band probably that I ever saw on stage was a group called The Original Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. It had Leon Russell, at one point Eric Clapton was in there as well. You should try to find an album called Accept no Substitutes by the original Delaney and Bonnie and friends. It’s very kind of gospel rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s just brilliant.

So I loved all these different kinds of music, but that’s not what I was writing for. Or, you know, that’s not what was coming out of my heart. I say that I wrote, you know, codependent anthems. They were basically “ouch mommy” songs, you know, “pick me up and love me”, “I’ve got to find the one” and I did. I found the one and when she left I realized that the two of us made one healthy person, it was her. When she was gone. So that’s kind of what I’ve always written. But Phantom was a chance to really satirize all these different kinds of music. And, you know, it was just a great opportunity. So while we’re working on it, Brian is watching me and going “There’s something that you project while you’re working that is kind of Phil Spector-ish”. I think he was talking about confidence or, or you know, or focus, whatever, But he decided that was Swan. And I got an acting job. I started out as an actor, couldn’t make a living at it started writing songs, and then full circle. At this point. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but I’m a regular on a show called Goliath with Billy Bob Thorton.

 

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NOFS: Oh! That must be great.

PW: Yeah. On Amazon Prime. Pick it up at the second season.

NOFS: Is that where you come in?

PW: That’s where I come in. [Laughter] The first season is, I mean, it’s all good. Billy Bob. It’s like an acting lesson just to be working with him.

NOFS: That’s awesome. I guess the first time I got introduced to your stuff would have been the Muppet Movie. But, I was always more aware of you as like a character actor just in like little appearances here and there. Which is odd. I think I just recognized your face, like, you’re incredible as that sardonic doctor in The Rules of Attraction. Which do you prefer – What do you like to do more? Acting more or writing music?

PW: Acting is you know, it’s funny, because so much of the acting was kind of cartoon acting. Smokey and the Bandit stuff. But first of all, as far as just to live your dreams – a kid from the Midwest to walk onto a movie set is just it’s really, it’s the ultimate collaborative art form, In a way. I love acting. Most of the roles I mostly improvised, just sort of, you know, throw it out there and all. There’s other things that people have never really seen. I did a movie called the Headless Body in a Topless Bar. You ever see it?

NOFS: No, but it sounds good.

KE: That’s a great title.

 

“…the longer I’m alive, the more I feel like in our unconscious we have a partner writing that is spectacular.”

 

PW: It actually comes off a headline from the New York Post was based on something that actually happened. I play a guy in a wheelchair named Carl. I dyed my hair black and shaved and did a comb-over. You almost can’t recognize me in it. I’ve never looked worse. Just to get to dive into a character, it’s just as good as it gets. They say ‘dance with who you came with’ and I’m a songwriter. And so that’s, that’s what I am right now.. I’m working on Pan’s Labyrinth [The Stage Production].

NOFS: How’s that going?

PW: Well, where the point right now, we’re looking for – I say “we’re looking for a director”. Guillermo [del Toro] is looking for a director that he feels is right for it. But, it’s one of the most emotional things I’ve ever worked on. Gustavo Santaolalla’s music is just- He won the Oscar two years in a row. He won it for Brokeback Mountain. And then the next one was a Babel. Just a brilliant composer, and from Argentina. And it’s just, I mean, we’re both criers. [Fake sobbing] When we’re both crying we know a song’s done.

But Yeah, I just love it. The first thing I ever did with the Hanson’s was Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas. That was kind of the “is this going to work with us?” And it was so easy. Then they asked me to do The Muppet Movie. The one thing I wanted to do is bring in Kenny Ascher, who wrote beautiful melodies. Kenny writes, basically music. I write the lyrics, we kind of go back and forth on both.. And we talked to Jim and go, “how’s it open?” Jerry Juhl, the writer, “how does this thing start?” We find Kermit in the swamp. I said, “What’s he doing?” He’s playing a banjo. “Okay, all right.” That kind of set a feel for that. And it’s his “I am” song. He’s got water. He’s got a light, he’s got refracted… he’s got rainbows. And it was a really interesting challenge to write a song that would show his inner life, show his soul. Kermit thought witty things, and all.

What Kenny and I did was basically, write ourselves into a tight corner. Think about it. ‘Why are there so many songs about rainbows? And what’s on the other side? Rainbows are visions, only illusions, rainbows have nothing to hide’.. Jesus, Wait a minute. We now have to totally make the case for the other side. And then we went, ‘So we’ve been told, and some choose to believe it’. At that moment, what we do is we take Kermitt, where he’s no longer the mentor- lecturing, he’s part of the audience. So we take Kermitt, that presence on screen, to one of the audience members going ‘this is what they’ve been telling us’. But we know that someday we’ll find it, you know. You couldn’t plan that. We never sat down and said “let’s write something that starts out just the absolute opposite of what we’re going to try to project from this character”.

And the longer I’m alive, the more I feel like in our unconscious we have a partner writing that is spectacular. But also it’s like, I wonder- is Harry Nilsson up there? Is Harry there? Are all those great songwriters of the past going “Why don’t you do this?” You know, “Idiot. Look, it’s over there!” I get very Jiminy Cricket about the whole thing.

 

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NOFS: So, 45 years ago, when you were sitting down to write for Phantom, did you think that you’d be here sitting in a room still talking about?

PW: No. It’s funny, because the life lesson in Phantom of the Paradise is that you don’t label something as a failure too quickly. There’s something about this whole growth cycle of Phantom, and the awareness of it, is, you’ve just gotta hand it to the fans. I don’t know if there were any really great reviews of Phantom. I think we’ve got a decent one on the New York Times. And to hear, that you just were exposed to it. And you have that kind of response is just, it’s heartwarming, it’s like, “wow”. It’s a tribute to Brian, it’s certainly a tribute to the fans who have kept it alive. And the people that I’ve been working with – Daft Punk, Guillermo.. when Guillermo was about 16 or 17, he showed up in Mexico with a with a record of the soundtrack. When he and I are talking about doing Pan’s Labyrinth together, he’s a huge fan of Phantom. He said “I actually had you sign an album”, and I went, “Oh my god, I remember that”. He said, “I was wearing my dad’s suit. I took the car with a buddy. We came, we saw your concert, we got the album signed”. The car broke down on the way home and they pushed it. In the outskirts of Mexico City. How wonderful is that?

KE: That’s a great story.

PW: So Phantom has been a gift to me in ways that I couldn’t even begin to express. It was just a pure labor of love. And the other great relationship with Jim Henson. And the Henson family. The last thing I did for them was called Letters to Santa, Love at Christmas. I wrote the story and the songs. Like a one hour special, but just through the years Muppet Christmas, Carol… Just a great relationship.

 

“…art and life just find a way.”

 

NOFS: Yeah. I do love the songs from the Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s fantastic. Especially that opening.

PW: Thank you. It’s interesting because I’m going through a spiritual awakening, newly sober, writing songs about a guy going through a spiritual awakening. Who we see ‘get sober’ at the end of the movie. Variety said when Muppet Christmas Carol came out, they said that the songs were pedestrian.

 

NOFS: Awfully nice of them. And I guess one last question. Did you have a favorite song back in 1974? from Phantom? And, do you have a different favorite song now?

PW: Well, the one just kills me watch- Jessica sing Old Souls. Old Souls is it’s interesting because you know, nobody ever re-recorded it. It’s hasn’t had much of a life outside of the movie, which is great. To watch her sing it and to hear her sing it. Just a quick story about Jessica’s audition. We were auditioning women for actors for Phoenix. And then in New York, I walked by her and she was doing ‘Long ago and so far away. I fell in love with you before the second show’. Wonderful song, Leon Russell. She was singing it to herself. And she came in to audition for Brian. {Exaggerated} “Long ago..” And I went “No, no, no, sing it to yourself”. And she sang it to herself again. Her voice is stunning. And I don’t know if that was before I must have been before Brian wrote the audition scene. But you know, art and life just find a way.

 

We had the pleasure of speaking with Paul Williams at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival where Sean Stanley & Malcolm Ingrim’s documentary The Phantom of Winnipeg celebrated its world premiere. The Fantasia Film Festival runs until August 1, 2019 in beautiful Montreal, Canada. Click HERE to check out all of our continued coverage of the festival, and be sure to follow us on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook to see silly photos, immediate film reactions, and the occasional photo of lunch.

 

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