Before The Rocky Horror Picture show earned a cult following for its blend of sex, horror, and rock and roll, writer/director Brian De Palma gave fans Phantom of the Paradise, which blended narrative elements of The Portrait of Dorian Grey, Faust, and The Phantom of the Opera and added a contemporary spin. Audiences were given the story of an evil record producer who stole the music from a burgeoning musician to use for the opening of his latest nightclub, the Paradise, only for that musician to stalk the club's shadows seeking revenge. Paul Williams secured the job of not only writing the film's music, but also playing the evil record producer Swan.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Williams had already become an accomplished songwriter, with The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, and David Bowie all recording versions of his music. De Palma had recently given audiences the horror film Sisters, which earned him acclaim, before he moved on to develop Phantom of the Paradise. While it might have seemed like an unlikely partnership, the success of the project has earned the film a passionate cult following, with filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro being some of its biggest champions. While some of Williams' fans might know him for his contributions to the Muppet films, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, or Bugsy Malone, others will always see him as Swan.
In honor of the film's 45th anniversary, ComicBook.com spoke with Williams to discuss his involvement in the project, audience reactions, and its possible future.
ComicBook.com: Since you weren't only starring in the movie, but also were writing the music, you were an integral part of the filmmaking process. How did you first get involved in the project?
Paul Williams: Basically, at that point in my life, it was like 1974, 1973, I think is when it first came to me. I was a contracted writer at A&M Records. And A&M Records decided they had some wonderful acts that were doing really well as a small though successful independent record label, but they really wanted to get involved more in film. They hired this guy who Michael Arciaga to investigate possibilities of getting A&M records music in movies.
He had an appointment of some sort with Brian De Palma who had a picture called "Phantom of the Filmore" he was gonna make. He had already talked about me being involved in that film as one of the many guests that would come through and perform songs.
I don't think I was the obvious choice of who would write the songs for Phantom of the Paradise then, based on the suggestions I had at that point, after I'd had a lot of The Carpenters' stuff and Three Dog Night, and hardly any rock and roll, so it was an odd choice. I don't know why, but Brian just felt like I would be the right guy to do the job. And so I joined, at first, solely as the songwriter, and the first time I read the script, I loved it. I loved the idea, but my first thought was I'd love to have the same band all the way through and use my road band. It just made a huge difference for me to be able to use my guys to go on and record the stuff and then have the same back up singers, rebrand them as The Juicy Fruits or The Undead or whatever. So that was the beginning.
And once you signed on for the project, what was the collaborative process between you and De Palma? Were you allowed to craft the music completely on your own or was he involved in that process?
There wasn't a lot of talk about the songs. I remember watching Sisters right before I went to work on them and it just scared the hell out of me and it was like, "Oh my God." It was the opposite of my kind of sentimental journey of a songwriter. I always joked that I write codependent anthems, but the fact is that as we rolled through the project a little bit, Brian seemed to love the sentimentality of certain moments and what I was writing and how it fit in the script. His favorite expression was, "Oh my God, not a dry eye in the house, not a dry eye in the house."
And I kept going. I should have adopted certain elements of his psyche perhaps, because I kept suggesting, "We really need a close-up of that. Why can't he be shot? Let's have a shot of the bullet hitting him as he's going into the water," or whatever. This was our psyche, as far as the things we were celebrating and enjoying. And it was a very fluid process. The script, there were elements in the script that were changing while we were working on it. They just, to me, made it more and more interesting and Brian's fascination with theatrical violence and the effects of it, I think are the key to the brilliance of the film.
You go back to, in our society, we were, as Americans, sitting and watching the footage from Vietnam. There were cameras following the fighting. We're sitting there with our TV dinners watching the war in Vietnam. And, at some point, it felt like something really evolved at this point. But the news was becoming entertainment. And the line between the two, between the news and entertainment, our reality began to blur. And so when that amazing moment in the movie, when Beef was killed on stage and the kids think it's part of the show, I think that's a really pivotal moment, because it takes us to my favorite line in the entire film.
I think the heart of the film is in the line when Philbin asked me why I want to kill somebody during the wedding. And I say, "An assassination, live, on coast to coast television? That's entertainment!" And it just feels like that was basically the heart of the picture. Swan's immoral compass is set on success at any price. And it was a great thing to write songs for. I was able to satirize some of the music that I loved and I was certainly not known for writing like the Beach Boys or '50s music.
More and more there was an element of reflection of what was happening to the country. We had no idea it was going to get to the point where it is now, with reality television to the extreme and all, but in the original script, Beef was killed in the shower and that adjustment of Brian's saying, "No, let's not kill him in the shower, let's kill him on stage," opened up that amazing box of opportunities to really send the message out.
The film's finale almost feels more relevant than ever, as there's the moment where a member of the audience takes a weapon, kills one of the celebrities, and then wields that weapon in a triumphant way, as if they have now become the famous one. The current lines between fan and celebrity are incredibly blurred, and that can, at times, include violent acts earning someone celebrity.
Exactly. And is that not a reflection of what's going on with the horrific multiple shootings?
I love that you point out that moment with the grabbing of the weapon. That's just such a wonderful moment when he takes the head gear off the girl, looks at the crow's beak and the sharpness of it and you see it happen. It's almost the acoustic version of somebody going out and buying an AR-15 and getting a bunch of clips.
What makes the film's accomplishments so impressive is that, as you mention, the script was being rewritten as you were shooting, but all these small, improvised decisions led to the film still being effective 45 years later.
I think the amalgamation, this hybrid of these iconic stories, these are classic stories from The Portrait of Dorian Gray to Faust to The Phantom of the Opera, there's so much there. I think part of the impact on the kids who saw it, because most of the support for it, which started out in Winnipeg and also in Paris, it was a lot of preteens or teenagers. There was this beginning of this sexual awakening, as Swan is this very androgynous ... as threatening as his character was and as horrific and cruel and evil as he was, there's part of it that was totally nonthreatening, just in my own physical presence. So it was the kids who were watching that could totally give themselves to the story.
I actually remember some kids coming up to me, and it might've been somewhere in Canada, asking me, "Wow. Sold his soul to the devil? Did you make that up?" "Yeah, exactly. I did." Yeah, nope.
It's interesting that, at a certain point, you wonder about the muse and the collective muse and the way that things evolve to the point which looks as if it had such intense purpose to do exactly that, back at the time of the creativity. But so much of it, I think, is born of our unconscious, and we decide things and see things in our unconscious before we may even have a real conscious awareness of that thought.
There are elements in the song, "Old Souls," that are deeper than I was at the time. "A kiss when I must go, No tears, In time we kiss ... hello." You start thinking about the fact that this is a song that speaks to unending love because of reincarnation, essentially. I don't know that I really thought that intensely about reincarnation while I was writing it. It just seemed to be the right thing to say at that moment in the song.
How do you feel about the film's music, looking back at the ways you've changed as a musician over the years?
First of all, I'm really pleased with all the songs and what they do and there are moments that felt like, really rock and roll triumphs for a middle of the road writer. With "Life at Last," I had a really good band and I think we caught a lot of that energy very accurately musically as well. But for example, the lyric, "We need a man that can stand as a symbol," if I were doing that today, I think that it might've been a little more interesting musically.
I think there are elements and a simplicity in the music which will allow you to totally experience the lyrics more. I don't know that I need to defend what I wrote, but it was 1974 and so now, 40 years later you look at it and you go, "Wait a minute." It works with the music that was written and the music was produced by somebody who was all of about five years before getting an office at A&M records with a piano in it. I didn't know how to play the piano, but I wrote numbers on the keys. I didn't know that a D was a D or a C, I didn't know this C was a middle C. But I wrote a "1" on the key. The next black key after that was a "2," but you couldn't see it. Then the D was a "3" and just wrote up the numbers on the piano. It allowed me to remember the inversions and everything that I was writing, but I didn't know what you called them. So that's how I would remember them.
I'd show them to somebody and, to this very day, I'll write words and music in my head, and I go to my music directors. Chris Caswell played piano for me since the '70s, and I'll show him the chords to what I've written, which is the hardest part, finding those chords, even to this day. And I'll be passing a chord that I can hear in my head that, I hear it, and I absolutely cannot find it. And I'll walk in and show the song to Cas, I'll go, "There's a passing chord there that I cannot find." He'd go, "This?" and he'd play it. "Fuck you. How dare you go to that so quickly. I looked for that until one in the morning trying to find that chord."
You are clearly still passionate about the project, so have you ever looked back at the film and been inspired to create new music in the spirit of the story?
Well we've talked about doing it on onstage, which has been a really exciting thing. And I wrote additional songs. I hope that it happens before I hit room temperature. I think it has real life on stage. If there was going to be a remake of Phantom of the Paradise, I think that the songs are keen.
For example, A Star is Born, when Kenny Ascher and I, and Barbara Streisand as well, we all wrote the songs for A Star is Born in 1976. It was something that had been done with amazing music from Judy Garland and James Mason back in the '50s. So when A Star is Born was remade, the last thing I ever expected was for them to use any of the songs that we'd written for the 1976 version.
And I love the [2018 A Star Is Born remake]. I think that our film in '76 was very intensely romantic and reflective of the times. And what you got out of Lady Gaga and this Sony version was so real, so raw. And I thought the songs were perfect for it, so if there was a remake of Phantom of the Paradise, the one thing I would want to is to just see the songs stay, the original songs, make some additions, some adjustments. But, that's down the line. Who knows what's going to happen with that and all, but it's remarkable to see that we're sitting here talking about the film from 1974. A week after it came out, it was like, "Well that was interesting, but time to move on," because America just sort of went, "Uh-uh."
When the film wasn't a financial success, did you take the disappointment hard or just focus on other projects?
To this very day, one of the things that people that work with me talk about is the fact that you just don't look back. I had a bunch of songs I needed to organize for a new administrative deal or whatever, and I needed to go through a lot of old songs and pick up the ones that I want them to consider. I don't want to do that. I just feel like I want it to happen and be done, but what I want to work on is the next thing. So I think that, at the time, I don't recall feeling defeated.
I thought we'd done a great job. And it's like, "Okay, well, there you go." The other thing is that there was this monstrous response in Canada from, what turned out to be just Winnepeg, essentially. And I think that was nice to see. There was one little place in one country where it was headed towards becoming a gold album very quickly. And it was doing well. Turns out it was basically Winnipeg, but it's the gift that keeps on giving. Sometimes, if you have something that a few people really, really love that the rest of the world seems to have just not even heard of, what you have is a lifetime commitment of a press machine that just says, "You gotta see this film. You gotta see this film," to the point of making their friends crazy.
You wind up today, where it's just coming up on social media here and there. I think the things that I'm just overwhelmed with, as far as the response and the number of posts and tweets and whatever, for sure, is Phantom of the Paradise. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, every year it gets bigger and bigger and it's more wonderful. The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Bugsy Malone. I mean, in England, it's what Grease is here. It's just phenomenal to see the way that something that started out with modest beginnings will grow.
Beyond that, all of a sudden, the people that loved it come to me, like Edgar Wright, and say, "I want to do something with you. Would you come and play The Butcher in Baby Driver?" Or have Guillermo del Toro, who I signed a Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack for him when he was a teenager in Mexico City, and have him show up later and say, "I want you to write the lyrics for Pan's Labyrinth onstage." There were the gifts of Phantom of the Paradise, which led to more work opportunities for me and in my life today.
Passionate fans seem to tell everyone they know about the movie, and of all those people, there might only be a few that really enjoy it, but then they start spreading the passion for it.
It's an absolute pyramid scheme that is a pure gift to Brian, to me, to all of us who were lucky enough to work on the project.
And what a gift to all. And you know the other thing that interesting is that, I think even Gerrit [Graham] joked, "Paul got to play Swan because he made a deal. You can have the music if I can play Swan," which is nonsense. With Brian watching me in the studio, he said to me, "You could actually play the Phantom." I said, "I couldn't play the Phantom. I'm not scary. You'd have this weird little guy crawling around in the rafters, throwing things down on people." What William Finley did in that role, I don't know that you could find enough of a genius of an actor to, with one eye visible, to convey that range of emotion.
Swan is pretty much a cartoon villain. His emotional range is like three or four very, very obvious emotions, from taking delight in somebody else's suffering to lusting after somebody else. But it was interesting that Brian, it's funny that at one point he said, "There's something kind of Phil Spector-y. You know, you can play Swan." I said, "I would love to play Swan." Villains are the most fun.
Not only was your music effective in the film, but so was your performance as Swan. How do you look back on your acting experience on the film?
For somebody who was an out of work actor, couldn't make a living as an actor, I was trying to write new songs for my own amusement. Suddenly I was absolutely home. As soon as I started writing songs, I knew what I was supposed to be doing and I was doing it. I would've been thrilled to be any character actor out of the past that I worshiped. Those guys who were just blue collar actors who were always working. There's nothing that is more exciting to me, to this day, than walking on a movie set. I'm a regular on Goliath now, with Billy Bob Thornton. And they're wonderful. I joined the second season and we just finished shooting the third season.
But to walk on that set, it's my little teenage dream to wake up to. We're talking about somebody that, 60 years ago or 70 years ago, that I wanted to be an actor. So that total immersion, as a songwriter and as an actor in Phantom of the Paradise, is just something that was a total amalgamation of all of the things that I love about the art forms that have attracted me. It was the first fulfilled opportunity to just do both things in the same film and be a part of the creative process that helps the film evolve. To walk around, suggesting things to Brian De Palma that he wasn't doing because they couldn't be done.
I mean, there was a classic moment, we were shooting on the stage at The Majestic, and we'd go off to shoot a scene with me up in my little balcony watching the auditions. And then we'd be back on the stage and the back of the balcony at the back of the stage. And Brian was looking at the lights through his little lens. And I walked up to him, I said, "It's obvious to me that if you brought a Chapman crane in here, to roll it out on this stage, you can lift a crane up and can be shooting something. You will save hours and hours and money and money." And, without even looking at me, he said, "The stage won't hold the weight of a crane." And I sort of went, "Oh, okay, well I'll be..." You know, it's like, "Oh fuck, I apologize. Keep your mouth shut." And I've always been a huge fan of the cinema tops and I got to work with Larry Pizer, John Alonzo, and some other guys through the years that I've followed around like a puppy, just watching what they do. So I'm a lucky man. I'm grateful. And I love the life I have today.
You mentioned that you contributed music to the stage production that is being developed, do you want the original to remain a time capsule of a specific time and place in cinema or would you fully support a new generation reinventing it for their own perspectives?
Oh, absolutely, I especially want to see it on the stage. I think it's natural for a musical. I think it can be a very immersive experience. I think it's going to be even more terrifying and it can be even more accurate. Well, let me back off, I'm trying to say something more than I actually need to say. I just think that there are elements in the film, which are impossible to ignore, that would make it a wonderful musical. And I mean, the little adjustments that ... first of all, you don't compare a musical with film, and sitting there talking for two pages in the opening [won't work]. You start a musical with a big number that is nasty and sexual and in bad taste and as extreme as you want to go and then you have Philbin walk down the aisle going, "No, no, no, that's crap. Swan will hate that stuff." And you're into the story.
So I would love to see it made as a stage musical. I would love to be hands-on in that, as well. I would have to be, but I think that it would be a great annuity. One of the great treats of Bugsy Malone is the kids do it all the time. Edgar Wright did Bugsy Malone at school when he was a kid.
Every kid growing up in England basically does Bugsy Malone at some point. It's always done by schools. Now there's a West End production of it going back to London. But what's really rewarding is, and over here as well, I get all these little videos sent to me of some little kid doing, "My name is Tallulah, my first rule of thumb." And it's so wonderful to see these first theatrical experiences for these kids being Bugsy Malone. And it's really something I'd like to see happen with Phantom as well.
You also voiced the Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series back in the '90s. Is that a role you'd ever see yourself returning to?
I did it for one or two seasons, I think. I thought that it was a great project. It was great fun and all. Villains are great to play. I don't know if you ever saw the TV movie that was made, Wild Wild West Revisited, which I wound up playing Miguelito Loveless's son, Miguelito Loveless, Jr. and it's just this broad cartoon version of a villain, it was just so much fun to play. So if there's going to be an opportunity to play, to step in front of a camera, or step on stage, or help put together something again with any of these things, I'm loving it and I'm staying busy.1comments
You can catch Williams in the upcoming season of Goliath on Amazon Prime.