After watching Paul Williams Still Alive by director Stephen Kessler, I had to count myself as a new fan of the entertainer. However, perhaps more fascinating than the subject is Williams’ sheer reluctance to be filmed. Kessler was a lifelong fan, and his perseverance results in a quirky documentary where we see him slowly win over Williams. I was lucky enough to catch up with Kessler and Williams at SXSW earlier this year for a lengthy chat and with the film now arriving on VOD, it’s time to share.
Topics included how Williams views death differently than everyone else, his iconic sunglasses, whether they tried the squid in Austin, why Williams frequently collaborates on The Muppets series, whether Kessler has ever used Williams music in any of his projects, a warm hearted apology from Williams to Kessler, and much more. Check it out below
The Film Stage: Well, first off, the most pressing question is: have you tried the squid here?
Paul Williams: [Laughs] You know, I haven’t had any squid here. That’s interesting.
Stephen Kessler: No, neither have I. I don’t think of it as a big squid tentpole.
Williams: I tell you what I did have. I had crab nachos at a restaurant called Manuel’s. We loved the crab. We love the nachos. We don’t think they go together.
Williams: They’re entertaining at first, but then they had to go their own ways.
Kessler: I’d like to have some kind of Gulf seafood while I’m here. I just had the white fish.
So, there’s this very potent story in the middle of the documentary about how your band leader, you basically kicked him to the side when he approached you and confronted you about your issues. At what point did you accept him back and did he have any hesitation or was he…
Williams: It’s funny because we used to joke about me firing him. “You’re fired. You’re rehired.” But that time I really fired him. It’s because someone was asking me to look at my behavior long before I was ready to. So it was a horrific thing to do to him. Part of the process of rebuilding your life in sobriety is to deal with the wreckage of your past. There’s an interesting little slot right between sleep and awake, which is like a mail slot for me where I will almost be asleep—and I’ve been sober 22 years—but for the first five years especially, I’d almost be asleep and, BOOM, a memory would come sliding into you. You’d go, “Oh my God, I forgot I did that. I need to go fix that. I need to go make amends. I need to straighten that out.” So very early on in my sobriety I went to Mr. Kasswell and I said, “I really need to straighten this up with you. Because I was totally unacceptable.” And apologized. We’ve been friends and worked together with a brief little episode in the middle there since 1976. He’s a wonderful guy. And I loved the way he handled Steve’s questions in the film.
You obviously had to be pressing issues here and there. Was it just to get answers for you, personally, or were you trying to figure this guy out and trying to get that on film? To try and get his story out there?
Kessler: Well, it was more for the film than for me. I feel like everybody knows what it’s like to go through shitty times in their life. Everybody’s got their own problems. In a way, I wasn’t there to cough up all this guy’s problems. I was there because I loved his music and I loved him on TV when I was a kid. But as i edited the film and people watched it, a lot of other people wanted answers to those questions. So I realized the only way this was going to be just a movie movie was I had to go and talk to him about all this stuff. Some of the stuff he wanted to talk about and some of the stuff he didn’t. When he didn’t I had to press him more.
A lot of stars have a very iconic look. For a very long time, you had the sunglasses. Why did you go away from those? Was it just getting rid of that persona?
Williams: It wasn’t a persona. It was just the glasses I picked out and wore those days. They were dark because as you walked out into the blinding sunlight of Akron, Ohio or Pittsburgh, to get on the plane to go to the next gig. It wasn’t about hangovers, because I didn’t get hangovers. It wasn’t a persona, it was just about protection from the sun. As far as those clothes… It’s funny because I actually, the opening lines of the title song, [sings] “I don’t know you in those clothes. I don’t know you with that hair. A two-dimensional reflection. Unforgiving, unaware.” That’s what jumps out at me off the screen so much. Not as much as what I was wearing but how unaware I was of who I was at the time. Who I had become. This is one of the rare cases where the answer to the question, “Whatever happened to Paul Williams” is a really wonderfully powerful answer about healing and regeneration. The reclamation of a new life. It’s a lot more fun than that.
[Laughs] When he approached you, did you consult friends or family or did you just consult yourself and just go with your gut feeling about whether to allow this man into your life and follow you around?
Williams: I think we talked online for how long?
Kessler: I wrote to him and for a few months he didn’t respond at all. When he finally responded…
Did you write hand letters or just emails?
Kessler: Well, the very first thing I wrote was a hand letter with a package. When he finally responded he said, “OK, you can film for one day.”
Williams: Was it Phantompalooza?
Kessler: Yea, it was Phantompalooza. Then he kept saying, “I want to watch the footage.” But something told me he didn’t really want to watch the footage. We got together for a lunch in Hollywood. Do you remember that? We got together for lunch across from Gary Marshall’s Theatre.
Williams: Oh, yeah.
Kessler: We had the fried calamari there. And at the time—and I don’t know if you want this, Paul, for retribution—but you said to me after an hour of talking, “My career’s really dead. I’d be OK with you coming to my shows and filming.” At the time he was doing a musical version of Happy Days. We went back to the office he was working out of. We looked at… maybe a minute or two of what I shot in Canada and he said, “OK, I like it. That’s enough.” Which really, my experience with actors in all the films I’ve done: actors have always… they want to see their dailies but they don’t want to see their dailies. Like you said Warren Beatty would watch all of his dailies, right?
Kessler: But very few actors do want it.
Williams: Warren has a background as a producer, too.
Yea, I think some of the writer/directors have that feeling.
Williams: I think it’s important to say that the last thing I was looking for from this film, then or now, is that it would revive my career in any fashion. I don’t think the life that I was living… and this was before I was president of ASCAP, I think I had been on the board for five years or something. But there was never that element of, “Yea, this will put it back.” The idea of poking this bear and dealing with the press and dealing with the public and all of this. It’s something I was a little hesitant to jump into.
This has to have spurned a new audience. A new love for your music and your writing. How have you reacted to that?
Williams: Two years ago, while we were filming this, I was nominated for an Emmy. I wrote the story, the songs, and co-wrote the teleplay for a Muppet one hour special [A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa]. I went to the Emmys and Tommy Hanks came over and went, “My God, you’re still alive!” I bring that up because there’s not an on/off switch of “I have a career” or “I don’t have a career.” What had gone away was the fame. The way of the street recognition of the 20-year-old walking down the street. I mean, if a kid walks up to me and taps me on the shoulder, “Wow, Mr. Williams, it’s nice to meet you.” You know he’s probably in the music business or he’s a cinephile or whatever. But for the most part, that thing where everywhere I went everyone knew who I was was gone. It was kind of happily gone. But this amount of wonderful, wonderful response… I get that now as a benefit but I think it’s a response to the film. I get a higher visibility because of it, but it’s a direct response to Steve Kessler’s film. So I don’t take it straight on. I take it as a response to the film.
You obviously come to this film from the point of view of the fan. But have you used any of his music in any of your movies or commercials?
Williams: Yeah! Good question.
Kessler: No, I haven’t used it in any of my films. It wasn’t appropriate. In commercials, I don’t really make those choices. But when I was able to use Time and Tide, which is a song that I love, when I was able to play out almost the whole song in this film, for me that was a big victory for me. I love that I was able to use this song that was in his other movie in my movie in a way that I thought spoke more to the song than was used originally.
Williams: For a songwriter, I had one of those wonderful phone calls from Coke a couple of years ago. For two years in a row they had use, [sings] “You give a little love. And it all comes back to you.” That’s always a cool thing. “Coke? YEA!”
[Laughs] You’ve gone through a long career and the ups and downs. But I’m curious, because one thing that’s always been a staple is The Muppets. What the hell is it about The Muppets that gets you going and makes you want to write songs about these characters?
Williams: [Deadpans] It’s the phone call.
Williams: They keep coming back to me. The last one they talked to me about being involved in, it didn’t work out for a couple of reasons. But they wanted to use Rainbow Connection as the big finale song. I thought they did a wonderful job with the music. The last thing I did with them was actually a phone call from me. I called and sort of got an idea for a story. The head of Muppet World said to come and pitch it. He pitched it to Disney who pitched it to NBC and they went for it. So that was something I instigated. Wrote the story, the teleplay, and the songs. This other one was something that we just couldn’t start the deal. I looked at the script and thought it was an interesting take. For the guys from Flight of the Conchords to move into that was a perfect marriage. And incidentally, Flight of the Conchords is an amazing series.
Yes it is. It’s very unfortunate that it ended but yea.
Williams: You know, for the guy that wrote the songs for Ishtar, you’ve got to know that I’m critical of that kind of writing, but it was really good. Really, really good. So they were a perfect match for this. For the song, Pictures in my Head. Did you see the movie?
Yes. Loved it.
Williams: The song, Pictures in my Head, I thought was terrific. I thought the Man or Muppet was great. And it was so great he won the Academy Award. He made a reference in the press room and wound up on the cover of the LA Times: something about how his song wouldn’t hold a candle to Rainbow Connection. Well, thank you very much but you just won the Academy Award. Enjoy it! But how gracious? it was the best, most playful, wonderful working situation in my life was working with Jim.
What kind of trepidations did you have once you started following Paul around and filming him? Y’all go through some ups and downs throughout the film, but it seems like you were always very confident about, “I’m going to be here. I’m going to be here. He doesn’t like it, but I’m going to be here.” Did you ever, halfway through, decide, “Fine, I give up”?
Kessler: Yea, I did before I went to the Philippines. It had been maybe four months since I had shot him. I just started to feel like that even though I had called Paul and he’d go, “Hey, call me anytime.” It just sounded like one of those things where I was like, “I really don’t know if this guy wants me here. He kind of does and he kind of doesn’t. What am I knocking my head against the wall for if he doesn’t want me here?” When we got to Houston and he said goodbye and he closed the door on me, I was like, “He’s got to be fucking kidding me. Doesn’t he see that I have a crew here?” But I knew he saw that but also I got that he was really struggling with… I knew he was complimented but I knew he was struggling with, “Do I just want to put myself out there? I don’t need it for myself.” He didn’t need the affirmation from other people to feel okay about himself. And actually, ironically, once I saw that, I was like, “That’s a story. That’s a really interesting story.” So then I had to keep pushing him. I had a big talk with his manager Nancy before the Phillipines and Nancy was like, “No, he really wants you to go to the Philippines.” I go, “Are you sure, Nancy? If he doesn’t want me to go I’m not going to go. Because I don’t really want to go.”
Yea, you don’t want to go. [Laughs]
Kessler: “Will he wear a microphone everyday?” “Yes, he’ll wear a microphone everyday.”
Williams: And I did.
Kessler: And you did. And that was really the first time you started wearing the microphone with any regularity.
Williams: A lot of my behavior as far as that was an unconscious response to something of that old world connection of a camera being on me. But the interesting thing is that when I see the film, I realized—and I really haven’t addressed this with Steve—but in watching the film, in a sense there’s an amends I need to make to him because I cost him some money and if you look at San Francisco, he’s got a crew waiting out there and I’m up hiding in my room, trying to find my voice. On some level I need to make amends to him about that because—
Williams: —No no no. Let me finish my thought. This is important. What I can learn from the film is that even in this highly evolved, spiritual, triumphant recovery period of my life, I put him in a situation where I could have been a lot more cooperative. The interesting thing is that if I had, we would have lost a lot of the content of the film. [Laughs]
Kessler: Yea, we wouldn’t have had an interesting film.
Williams: Which is really interesting. But on a personal level, I see that now. I really do. And a part of me wants to look at him and say, “Man, I’m sorry about that.” But there’s another part of me that goes, “But thank God I did because look what we got.”
Kessler: Yeah. Thank you.
Williams: You’re welcome. I love you.
Kessler: Love you too.
Williams: Always have and I always will. Well, no, not always have. But I always will.
There’s this very interesting moment in the Philippines—and I’m glad you brought that up—where you’re about to travel into a jungle. He’s [looks at Kessler] obviously scared. He’s talking to the camera, saying as much. And [Williams] is somewhere else. I think at that point you were worried about your underwear.
So, did you know about this? Did you do any research? Were you told about this?
So what were you feeling?
Williams: I guarantee you if I hadn’t I would have been seriously reminded at every turn. Steve had real, honest concerns about it. I operate on two rails: gratitude and trust. I have a very different relationship to the universe today than a lot of the world does. This sort of second life gift that I’m experiencing. This sort of raised from the dead attitude. For some reason, certain things about death don’t scare me. And never have. The real, honest answer is that I don’t know why I wasn’t scared.
Kessler: There is this showbusiness attitude like, “North Korea? When’s the gig?”
Kessler: “Iraq? When’s the gig?”
“Cuba? Sure!” Yea, yea.
Kessler: There’s this, “When’s the gig” attitude that Paul definitely has. And a lot of musicians have that. I would talk to him on the phone and would be like, “Don’t you know it’s on the U.S. government’s ‘Do Not Travel’ list? There’s Al Qaeda there.” And he said to me, “Well, I’m going to go.”
[Kessler and Williams laugh]
Kessler: I mean, I remember where I was. I remember the phone. I remember the phone booth. “Well, I’m going to go.”
So there’s this beautiful moment when that whole situation concludes where you basically say, “My experience did not match up to what I was expecting.”
Kessler: To the Philippines. Yeah, that it was life-changing for me.
So, in your travels since then, and I don’t know how long it’s been since the film was cut and edited, have you gone out anywhere interesting?
Kessler: Well, yeah, we’re trying to get into a film festival in North Korea, actually.
Williams: We were in Amsterdam for the IDFA. The film festival there. And while we were there, he said, “Want to go to Poland?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got to be back in New York and D.C. for ASCAP. He said, “Well, I think I’m going to go.” And I said, “Well, alright.”
Kessler: Yeah, I went to a film festival in Poland [called the Plus Camerimage festival] and the festival was in a small city called Bydgoszcz, which is tough to spell. About five hours from the Warsaw airport. After the festival ended to get from Bydgoszcz back to Warsaw, I had to drive, to make a 6AM plane, like all night in a taxi through farmland. Dead area through Poland. With a taxi driver who spoke only Polish and German. I definitely had these moments of total panic but also I had these moments where I said to myself, “You should just take in the beauty of where you are.” And I really got that out of our trip to the Philippines.
Williams: It’s like when we stopped to get gas, you were like, “Why are we stopping?”
Kessler: Oh, yeah. Everything was like a panic to me. You get the phone call. In my head it always went to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Kessler: It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous where I go in my head.
Obviously the film was shot over a very specific time period. After you got done, I can only assume that your brain is moving at a thousand miles an hour, daily.
Do you ever catch yourself and say, “Damn I wish I got that on tape”? Just in modern life or things like that. Or do you like that disconnect where…
Kessler: There was one thing that I blew. Which never wound up in the film. It’s really this one moment comes to my head. Actually, first of all, my big answer is I am surprised about the thousand times that something critical happened that we got it in focus. Like in the third act when he finally sees some shows from when he was younger and he has a very strong reaction to it. It blows my mind that that’s in focus.
Williams: Without a tripod.
Kessler: He sat down and my cinematographer, Vern Nobles would laugh, because of course that’s what he does. He gets things in focus. He’s a remarkable cinematographer. But there was one time in Las Vegas where Paul was judging a talent show with Jerry Lewis and Jerry Lewis had wanted to vote to have an old lady who told very dirty jokes in the talent show, and the audience erupted in what was almost a riot.
Williams: They were going to string us up!
Kessler: So I got outside with my camera. I was alone that day. The grandmother of the father/son team who sang Opera that everyone wanted to win, was outside—
Williams: Including me. I mean, I voted for them.
Kessler: —Yea, and she was cursing Jerry Lewis. It was crazy. I filmed the whole thing and then when I was done I realized when I was hitting Play, I was actually hitting Stop. And when I was hitting Stop I was actually hitting Play. And I got none of it. But luckily I did get it when I was in the Philippines and in a panic and he said to me the thing about “I can’t find my underwear.” There’s a zillion times in the film that I got it. I got it when he said, “I don’t like the way this is feeling, Steve.” I got it when he was on stage in Canada and he was so moved by the audience seeing him and remembering him. So we got a lot of it.
Has your golf improved?
Kessler: No, I am not a golfer.
Williams: [Laughs] You know that if I had a decent shot, there’s no way it was going to wind up in this picture.
Kessler: At one time I had thought about using golf as an analogy because Paul’s golf teacher had talked about how Paul’s not the greatest golfer but he keeps improving because he doesn’t quit. He keeps trying to improve. And I thought that was an incredible analogy for real life. But in the end I was going to end the film on this incredible golf shot that he hit, but in the end it just didn’t seem big enough for the film. You have to make creative choices so things like that tend to get away.
Williams: The end of the film is still very emotional for me.
Kessler: Yeah, people love it.
Williams: When he’s walking off with the box of films and he makes that statement to me, “Do you have the film?” “Yea, Paul, I found it.” It’s so emotional, the connection I have with that moment.
Kessler: To end a personal film with something so personal. I felt like I had to lift my game for you.
Williams: Yeah, well, you did. Wonderfully.
Paul Williams Still Alive is now on VOD.
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