PAUL WILLIAMS: "WE WERE WATCHING THE WAR NEWS LIKE IT WAS THE EVENING'S ENTERTAINMENT"
Dread Central's Heather Buckley has done us all a great service by posting a detailed report from last month's screening of Brian De Palma's Phantom Of The Paradise at New York's Museum Of The Moving Image. The screening was part of a weekend-long series in tribute to Paul Williams, who attended each film. Buckley writes that following a brief introduction, Bibbe Hansen, "a staple of the Warhol scene and mother to musician Beck," spoke to the audience, "and noted her 'small' part in the film as a background performer, which she shot for over two months in Dallas, Texas. Though her part was going to be bigger, she is seen for a short while wearing 'a really bad perm; it was the 70s.'”
"Then Susan Finley spoke (wife of the late William Finley—The Phantom), who can be seen at the end of the film donning the Phantom’s mask. She spoke about the shock the filmmakers and actors had when it came out as a 'stillborn baby.' In retrospect she said, 'My son once told me when Columbus’ ships showed up on the horizon, the natives didn’t recognize them because they had no frame of reference. And I feel that way about Phantom. It did not fit a genre; no one knew what to make of it. No one knew whom it was speaking to or what it was about. The marketers and promoters didn’t know where to put it. And that’s because it is a very original film that has a lot of say about a lot of things.' Lastly she noted it would have made [her husband] Bill very happy to see everyone in attendance that evening."
After a description of the film (and the 35mm print, which she says was flawless), Buckley provides a long transcript of Paul Williams' post-screening Q&A, which is full of great highlights:
Williams on elements that went into the story: "It was a time with the Vietnam War, and we were sitting and watching the war news, eating our TV dinners and it was like this horror story was becoming entertainment. Watching the news like it was the evening’s entertainment, with the footage of Vietnam. That started to move its way into the story.”
Buckley: "As for finding Jessica Harper during rehearsals, De Palma and Williams had all the women sing Leon Russell’s song Superstar (with the famous lyric, 'Long ago and oh so far away, I fell in love with you before this second show.') He walked up to Harper while she was practicing the tune, and upon hearing her soft lovely voice, much like Winslow did in the film: '…I was like, "Yeah!" I mean, Jessica has a beautiful voice. And then she came in to audition, for Brian and she sang… and I was like, "No, no, sing it to yourself like you did before." And I think that’s where that moment in the film came from, she was just stunning.'”
Williams says he regrets not having Gerrit Graham sing his own songs on the soundtrack.
Williams on bringing Phantom to the stage: "So many times, before I die, now I’m not hoping that I’ll know how many years I’ll be able to tag onto my time right now, but I would like to think that before I hit room temperature, I’ll get to see this on stage."
Williams: "I think Brian had a real love affair with Hitchcock. He had a great sense of moving camera; there’s a shot in there, I don’t know if you know the one I’m talking about, the shot where The Phantom gets his costume, that’s Ronnie Taylor, the camera operator, who later became a cinematographer, and won the Oscar for Ghandi. It was him carrying a camera on his shoulder because there was no Steadicam yet, going up and down those stairs, again and again to get a shot, so it would end up… it’s just brilliant camerawork."
Williams: "I don’t remember Brian giving any of us a lot of direction. I think that his amazing work is in creating a story and a script and an environment. You have to understand that I had and have such a massive ego that’s a little out of balance. I was in the middle of my ‘what I really want to do is direct’ period, I remember walking up to Brian, and we were shooting at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, and he’s moving the camera up to shoot footage of me up in the balcony, and then he moves the camera down and shoots something there and going back up… and I remember jumping up and saying ‘Any idiot would know that you put a Chapman crane on the stage and swing the arm back and forth!’ and Brian was lining up his shot, he didn’t even look away from lining up the shot, and said ‘Stage won’t support a Chapman crane.’ And, umm… OK. Went back into my little dressing room, sat down, and was like, ‘I think I’ll keep my mouth shut. He knows what he’s doing.’ I think that he had a relationship with Bill Finley and the other actors and all that was possibly… there were moments where you watch a director like him or some of the guys that I’ve worked with over the years, the best ones will take an actor, and it’s a private moment between the two of them, so he never said from the back of the room, ‘Jessica, you need to be that,’ If he said anything, I think he probably took her or me aside and said quietly, ‘This is getting a little big, maybe you want to tone it down a bit.’ Or every director has his own way of saying two words, ‘Louder’ and ‘Faster.’”