TIFF Q&A: Stephen Kessler and Paul Williams
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TIFF Q&A: Stephen Kessler and Paul Williams

We speak with the director of the doc Paul Williams: Still Alive and the subject of that doc, Paul Williams. Obviously.

Paul Williams (front) and Stephen Kessler.

Paul Williams: Still Alive
Directed by Stephen Kessler (USA, Real to Reel)

September 11, 7:30 p.m. AMC 6 (10 Dundas Street East)

September 14, 5:30 p.m. Jackman Hall (317 Dundas Street West)

September 18, 4 p.m. AMC 7 (10 Dundas Street East)

“You know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade,” says Paul Williams, seated in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel on Front Street. “Reagan was president? You’re kidding me. I was gone.” A prominent figure in American culture in the 1970s and ’80s, and a songwriter whose tunes were performed by the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”), Barbra Streisand (“Evergreen,” for which he won an Oscar), and Kermit the Frog (“Rainbow Connection,” from The Muppet Movie), Williams dropped off the map in the mid-’80s.

Addled by coke and alcohol and starved for fame (he once sky-dived out of a plane, just to get on TV), Williams receded into the ether, the songs outgrowing and overshadowing their slight, five-feet-and-change creator. Clean and sober for more than two decades, Williams still tours, playing nightclubs and casino ballrooms, even making appearances at gatherings dedicated to Brian DePalma’s cult classic rock opera, Phantom of the Paradise, in which Williams stars (he also wrote the music).

It was at one of these shindigs, in far-off Winnipeg, where filmmaker Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation, The Independent) found his childhood icon. And, eventually, Kessler got Williams to consent to being in a film documenting his life, post-superstardom. The result, Paul Williams: Still Alive, is an endearing, highly entertaining document not just of Williams, but of the awkward, at times uneasy friendship that formed between documentarian and subject. It’s kind of like  what Roger & Me might have been if Michael Moore had been head-over-heels in love with General Motors.

We spoke with Kessler and Williams about the film, their relationship, and the wages of getting more than your due 15 minutes of fame.

Torontoist: One of the great things about the film is how closely knit you guys are.

Paul Williams: He went from stalker to brother. It’s an interesting arc.

So a genuine friendship has formed between you two?

PW: No, but we really give a good impression of that. [laughs] I have my handlers remove him after we do the interview. No, but I love him. He’s got a lifetime sleepover permit.

Stephen Kessler: It’s very weird, that’s the only way I can describe it, to have someone that you loved as a kid… But I don’t even see “that guy” anymore.

Paul, at the beginning of the film, you seem resistant to being profiled.

PW: Deeply resistant.

Why is that? Is it from being out of the limelight for so long?

PW: How can I best put it? Celebrity was an addiction. In the same way that cocaine or vodka was. I was better at showing off than showing up. All of a sudden I’m not doing my work, and there’s a separation between my craft and my arc. I was just filling up this glass of light entertainment. And drugs and alcohol was a huge part of that. When I got sober—I’m 21 years sober—it was the first time that I asked someone for help, and just said, “I really fucking need some help.” That fellowship you feel, when you do that, that became another world and a bigger world. Bless Steve’s heart, when he set out I don’t think he ever wanted to make a “Whatever Happened To?” or anything that shallow. But I really didn’t know what film he wanted to make.

And at the time was the idea just to keep the cameras running and see what develops? Did you even conceive of it coming together as a documentary, Stephen?

SK: Well, first of all, I kind of just thought it’d be, not a traditional VH1 documentary, but I wanted it to be something positive about Paul. Because I love his work. But I never expected it to be this film. I even cut the film without me in it. But then a friend of mine who saw the footage said, “You realize the most interesting part of the story is that you keep following this guy around and he doesn’t want you there.” So then I started to say, “Okay, I have to put myself in it.” In the end, that was the right choice for telling the story.

PW: Did you think that as well, watching the film?

I did, yeah. Because you see a lot of films where it’s obvious that the filmmaker is very enthusiastic about the subject he’s tailing around, but you rarely see ones which are so candid about it. I’d call it “fanboyish.” But not as a knock against it. It has this exuberant love of Paul.

SK: No, no, I get totally what you’re saying. “Fanboyish” is a compliment.

PW: But credit to Steve. Because there are moments in the film where, just as I’m being really honest, he is too. I love when I’m talking about my father when he interrupts me to ask about a talent show, and I tell him to put that in the movie and he put it in the movie! But there’s this bullshit place that’s so inauthentic where you’re trying to ignore the camera, and I didn’t want that. I wanted him in it with me.

It seems like you almost have an anxiety, especially in the first act, about being on camera, because when you were on camera so much back in the day it was very self destructive for you.

PW: Well, there wasn’t that core of reality in the experience. As soon as it’s Steve and me on camera, and there’s a relationship developing, the film starts revealing itself.

Stephen, you seem very eager throughout the film to get to Paul’s house and confront him with this footage of him from his heyday and also have a sleepover. Why was this something that you felt like you had to do?

SK: I never understood that showing him this old footage would be confrontational or cathartic for him. I just didn’t know. Because I had these memories of him and when I started looking at this old footage, there was stuff that I remembered from when I was a kid. I never knew it’d struck this terribly painful place inside of him. I never would have done it. I am interested in the most mundane parts of life. That’s why I wanted to stay at his house. I didn’t know it would become a pivotal part of the film.

One of the great things to come out of this film is your new song, Paul, “Still Alive.” It’s a very personal piece of music. Was it something you could have written without the process of making this film?

PW: I wrote a song about his movie, that happened to be about my life. Dentists work in reverse, through a mirror, a lot. I’m looking at a piece of art about my life. I don’t know if I can even explain it. But I felt like I was writing at a level of intimacy and openness about my life that I couldn’t have done unless I had something to inspire it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written […] They say when you die your life flashes before your eyes. My life flashed before my ears.