Fantasia 2019: A Chat With The Legendary Paul Williams

From Muppets to De Palma, Paul Williams has been leaving his mark on the screen for over 50 years.

Looking back, it would be hard to imagine what today’s world would look like without Paul Williams. The man is practically a real life Forrest Gump of pop culture. He wrote the music, and was nominated for an Oscar for The Muppet Movie. He has shared the screen with both Fozzie and Marlon Brando. He wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun” and won a Grammy for working with Daft Punk in 2014. His work on Brian De Palma’s 1974 flop Phantom of The Paradise might have been largely forgotten, were it not for the mega fans of that film, who all seemed to live in Winnipeg. Williams was at the Fantasia International Film Festival last week to discuss the documentary on those dedicated Winnipeggers (Phantom of Winnipeg), his history with the Muppets, and how he got into writing music for movies.

How has your life interacted with Phantom of the Paradise since it came out?

I think there is a huge life lesson in Phantom, and hopefully for other people as well. I think if it had been a moderate hit or even a big hit when it came out in 1974, it would be gone. There is a tendency to write something off as a failure and move on. It is interesting to have something that is really important to me. I got to act. I got to write the songs. I accepted the response as, “one little city seemed to like it.” Then I watched what real advocacy, born of love, could do. The life lesson for me is that I don’t discard things really quickly anymore. I really try to understand that some things have a life of their own. The love that was deposited into those screenings by the people who loved it, the people who dragged other people in to see it, there is a lot to be learned about how to build a community. Which emotion is the strongest in the long run? Clearly love is at the top of the chart.

I think that is an important message now. Especially with the shape of the world and with the shape of the United States government right now.

How did your career evolve to embrace both film and music?

I started out as an actor. I was an odd little guy. I kind of looked like a kid until you put me next to a real kid. I always said I looked like a kid with a hangover. I was in this movie, The Chase, with Marlon Brando. Before that I did The Loved One, which was an odd little film. I played a boy genius. I played a 14-year-old when I was probably 23. In The Chase I played a 16-year-old, and I was probably 25. There was no place I could really go to make a living as an actor at that time, I was too weird to cast. But on The Chase I shared a dressing room with a kid named Marc Seaton, who had a beautiful guitar. I picked it up, but he told me not to, so I went out and bought my own. I couldn’t play other people’s songs, so I just doodled. We were shooting a scene in The Chase where these teenagers have set fire to a junkyard, where Robert Redford’s character is hiding. His name is Bubber, in the movie. Just sitting on the step of our trailer, I started to sing, “Bubber bubber bubber, come out wherever you are/ or we are going to come in and get you.” Robert Duvall was walking by, and he asked “What is that?” I said, “A guitar.” I thought I was in trouble, but he asked me to go with him. He took me over to Arthur Penn, a huge director, and asked me to show him the song. He then got me to stand in front of the barbed wire, lit me, and got me to do the song. And now it is in the movie.

Sometimes we get billboards in life. Sometimes something will happen and you need to pay attention. It felt like the universe was saying, Do this. The way to all your dreams is through this gate.” I started writing songs. Codependent anthems. All of a sudden I was home. I quit fighting. I now say, “lead me where you need me.” That’s my morning prayer.

Again and again in my life, “no” is a gift. I didn’t get the acting career that I wanted at that time. “No” opened me up to a whole new world.

Are there any films you wish you had a chance to work on?

E.T.. Close Encounters. I’m really attracted to that sort of thing. Who is out there? Are they physical? Are they ethereal?

My favorite character ever in a movie or in a book is Atticus Finch. The best bumper sticker I ever saw was, “What Would Atticus Do?”

Why do you like him so much?

I’m 29 years sober. My dad was a drunk. Both my brothers are drunks. My dad died in a car wreck when I was 13. I think there is something in me that responds to parenting in that film. That’s class-A parenting. That’s morality, and it looks like Gregory Peck. It touched me and spoke to my heart.

I have a son and a daughter. My daughter is a licensed clinical social worker, she married her partner four years ago. I have a beautiful granddaughter. My son was an actor. I look at the kind of parent I was, and I was mainly an absentee father. I broke up with their mother when they were small. She’s a good friend now. I think the unconscious instruction of a father like Atticus, in a film, is something you carry with you. It finds its way into your behavior, hopefully. I have a great relationship with my kids today.

What was the first film that you loved?

Pinocchio, that’s for sure. When Kenny Ascher and I sat down to write the songs for The Muppet Movie, the first thing we approached was ‘Rainbow Connection.” The first thing we talked about was that amazing scene in Pinocchio, when Jiminy Cricket jumps up into the window. He takes off his hat, looks up, and sings “When You Wish Upon A Star.” That was huge.

Also, How Green Was My Valley, with Roddy McDowall as a little boy and Walter Pidgeon. Again, there is a certain morality and family in that picture. It is about a bunch of coal miners, trying to bring a union to the coal mine. The dad there, Donald Crisp, will not have his sons talking about the union at the dinner table, so they take off. After a moment or two little Roddy clears his throat. Without looking up the dad says, “Yes, my son, I know you are there.” There are moments like that in pictures, they cling to your heart.

We wound up shooting this [shows me his phone’s lock screen], which is me on The Tonight Show, coming directly from filming Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Where we shot Battle for the Planet of the Apes was where they shot How Green Was My Valley. To be out there, with Roddy, was something. It was important enough to me, that when A&M Records asked me to release an album called “Classics”, I was embarrassed by the name, so I dedicated the album to Roddy McDowall, Walter Pidgeon, and the cast and crew of How Green Was My Valley. That film is a classic, and this was a tip of my hat.

Why were you embarrassed by the word “classic”?

I never saved anything. People ask me about my archive. I might as well have written my songs on an Etch-a-Sketch. I finish it up and throw it away, once they get recorded.

I wrote a book called Gratitude and Trust with my friend Tracey Jackson. Her husband is Glenn Horowitz, who is one of the best known archivists in the country. He did Dylan’s archives. I look at what he puts together and I wonder what’s wrong with me. It is probably the healthier side of my ego that did that.

Is there anything you love as much as fans love Phantom of the Paradise?

Like anyone else, around Christmastime, I love It’s A Wonderful Life. It is about this spiritual experience that Jimmy Stewart goes through. He begins to appreciate his life in ways that he never had before.

When I first got sober, about a year later, I was asked to write the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol. Think about the way that the universe lined things up. I’m newly sober, and the program is basically about spiritual awakening. I’m having an awakening, and I’m comfortable in my own skin in a way that I hadn’t been before. Eyes wide open, in love with the world around me. And I’m writing about a man who has had a spiritual awakening.

I begin to use the process of recovery to write songs. I sat down in a meadow to write the first song about Scrooge. I was thinking about all of these little creatures that become colder when Scrooge walks by. “When a cold wind blows it chills you/ Chills you to the bone/ But there's nothing in nature that freezes your heart/ Like years of being alone.” Wow, that’s really good. It just rolled out of me. I couldn’t write it down fast enough.

My thinking is that we are more powerful than we know. That our unconscious is probably the greatest tool we have. If you have something you need to write, instead of attacking it immediately, set it aside. A friend of mine says, “You think that you are procrastinating, but you are percolating.” While I’m not thinking about it, clearly my unconscious is rolling through the index cards up there. When it came out of me, I had been working on it without realizing it for a week.