One of the biggest highlights for this writer came last weekend when I had the chance to attend the special screening of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise during Beyond Fest 2017, where composer and co-star Paul Williams was in attendance for a lively Q&A that followed the film.
Williams, the man behind so many brilliant songs including “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie or “We’ve Only Just Begun” from The Carpenters, as well as numerous scores including Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Bugsy Malone, and, of course, Phantom of the Paradise, Williams is one of the most unique talents in Hollywood, with his presence being felt in both his songs and his on-screen performances as well.
Even though he’s been working for more than five decades, Williams shows no signs of slowing down any time soon (he collaborated with Daft Punk in 2013, and crafted the score for Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver earlier this year), and it’s apparent that even though his indelible work has made a huge impact on his fans, their support has made an even bigger impact on him.
Because Williams’ Q&A was an absolute delight, I thought I’d share some highlights from last weekend's events, where he discussed everything from the evolution of Phantom of the Paradise to discovering Jessica Harper to his current collaboration with Guillermo del Toro on an upcoming Pan’s Labyrinth musical.
Williams discussed his initial involvement with Phantom and the joys of playing Swan:
"Brian De Palma initially asked me to write a song for it. A&M Records had a gentleman named Michael Arciaga who was working, trying to develop to get more of the writers at ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] involved in film. But I had started out as an actor. I loved movies. I wanted to be in moving pictures. At a certain point Brian said, "You know what? You should be The Phantom. You'd be crawling up in the rafters and all, like sneaky and giggly and weird." I said, "I'm not scary. I'm just sorry. I don't see that I'm scary."
But when he started talking about the idea of playing Swan... oh man. I mean, the joy of playing Swan to me is not in the scenes where things are so over the top. But the bathtub scene. The bathtub scene is, you see two characters. You see my little guy who's just sort of ego maniacal, loaded on drugs, and all—basically me in my 30s and 40s. And then you see this over-the-top evil character who is so charming and all. So to be able to play those two characters, that's my favorite thing. For me to sit and watch the film, that's one of the great joys of watching the picture is for me to see that.
And the other thing is, I have to say I got here in time to see the scene where I was kissing Jessica [Harper] and I'm sitting next to my beautiful wife, Mariana, so here it is forty years later, and I'm still kissing a really beautiful woman, right here."
Williams on the evolution of Phantom of the Paradise and Beef’s original fate:
"This started out as Phantom of the Fillmore and a lot of changes happened as we were working on it. Basically, Brian would have a great idea and it should be written that way, and then I would tell people it was my idea. It had this way of working, you know.
As we were working on the script, as I started working on the songs and all, it evolved into the Faustian legend, which felt like a natural way to go, but also the Dorian Gray thing, where he doesn't even age? It just opened up a lot of doors. And I think that where we were just culturally at the time, it was in the middle of the Vietnam War, so we were watching daily footage from Vietnam while we were sitting with our TV dinners. And that line between entertainment and news began to dissolve, and news began to become our entertainment.
I think that was a part of what was happening that brought about this big change. What originally was supposed to happen was that the scene of Beef in the shower, Beef was killed. There was a funeral for Beef, and at the funeral I'm seen recording the song “The Hell Of It.” It never made it into the movie, but wound up at the end of the picture.
I think that the idea of Beef being killed on stage and the audience thinking it was part of the show is brilliant. That had to come straight from Brian. But the fact that the theatrical violence that the audience is seeing first is so obviously theatrical violence. That's why you see in the head, you see the screw sticking out from underneath a piece of wood and all. It's clearly theatrical violence. And yet, when Beef is murdered on stage they just think it was part of the show. It's just a really good story."
Williams on how Jessica Harper landed the role of Phoenix:
"We auditioned singers in New York. Jessica came in and there's a scene in this movie that replicates what happened with Jessica. I was waiting outside the room, and as I walked by Jessica, she was singing to herself, "Long ago and oh so far away, I fell in love with you before the second show." I thought, "Yeah, that's fabulous." Then she came in to sing for Brian and I and she sang it normally. I knew that wasn’t right, so I went, "No. Sing it to yourself like you did out there."
And she sang to herself and Brian melted like I had melted, and she was just this spectacular blend of innocence and sensuality. She's Jessica Harper. She's brilliant. I wish she was here at this screening today."
Williams discussed the legacy of Phantom of the Paradise and its longtime fans, including Guillermo del Toro and Daft Punk:
"The reason the film is a success is that if it had been even a moderate success when it was released, it would have disappeared. But because it was so totally ignored, this handful of people went, you know, "I love this picture. This is great. You gotta watch this. This is great. You gotta watch this." And out of all the people who watched it, they were forced to watch it by their friends and family, and it just kept going. And all these good things that are really wonderful about my life right now and exciting about my creative life right now, I give right back to you. It’s all because of Phantom.
Right now I'm writing a musical based on Pan's Labyrinth with Guillermo del Toro currently, and the music is by Gustavo Santaolalla, who is one brilliant, brilliant composer. He’s won the Oscar twice for Brokeback Mountain and for Babel. The way that came to be is because Guillermo del Toro loved Phantom of the Paradise. When he was about 17 years old from Mexico, he came and brought the album to song night and I remembered that when he called me about Pan's Labyrinth.
Daft Punk met me at a theater where Phantom of the Paradise was showing. Then, they called me and asked if I would work on an album with them, and Phantom is the reason that I wound up working on Random Access Memories with those guys—because they are fans.
But you guys have stayed with this picture from the time when it was basically ignored, and I will be eternally and forever grateful that you gave me the opportunities that I have had up until today, based on the way you all embraced Phantom and continued to support it."
Photos by Heather Wixson / Daily Dead: