SELECTED HIGHLIGHTS FROM 'PHANTOM' PANEL
GERRIT GRAHAM, PAUL HIRSCH, PAUL WILLIAMS
Here are a couple of excerpts from the on-stage panel discussion at last week's 40th anniversary screening
of Phantom Of The Paradise
at the Arclight in Hollywood:
Edgar Wright [to Gerrit Graham]: And you worked with Brian twice before this—Greetings and Hi, Mom.
Gerrit Graham: Right. I was a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City. I then made general manager of the Columbia Players, basically because nobody else wanted the gig, and it was the extracurricular theater group. And one day I was down in the Players office, during a non-production period, which was extremely unusual that I was down there at all, and the phone rang, and it was this guy saying, "I was in the Players years ago, for old-times’ sake, you guys might be willing to help me with..." he wanted extras, and I could make wardrobe stuff. "Sure, sure, sure." And he said, "I would also be happy if you could find me a couple or three actors, experienced actors, particularly with comedic experience. People in the fine arts program there, or Minor Latham Playhouse, across the street… And if you find people like that, will you send them down to see me?" And I said, "I sure will. And what is that address again, Mr. De Palma?"
And you must guess by now that I never sent another soul down there. I went to see him myself, and ended up in the living room with a producer, who happens to be the brother of our editor, and improvised with… well, there was another guy named Bob who was there all the time, and a third guy sort of rotated in and out. And we just improvised on various suggestions that Brian made, and ultimately ended up with Bob De Niro, and me, and a third guy named Jonathan Warden. And Brian had a scenario without a script. And he had certain ideas that he wanted to make sure made it in. But we improvised the entire thing. And same thing with the sequel, the following year, a sort-of sequel called Hi, Mom! And by the time we got to Phantom, he just called and asked me if I wanted to play the part. And interestingly, the part he initially offered me was Swan. [Looking at Paul Williams] I don’t know if you knew that.
Paul Williams: Oh, I did know. And at one point he asked me about playing, my initial offer was Winslow. And I went, "I’m too little to be scary. You know, you picture this little guy throwing things down and…" [laughter]. What Bill Finley did with one eye, I don’t know another actor could do what he did [applause].
Wright: I don’t know anybody else that could pull off Beef.
Graham: Well, I was young dumb and full of cum [laughter]. I don’t have a really clear picture of what I was doing. Brian asked me to come out and audition musically, I think it was, for him [points to Williams], and for Paul, and [looking at Williams] I don’t know if you remember this: "Well, that was good… can you make it a little more, uh, sort of, uh, bigger? More…" And finally the word they settled on was "flamboyant." [Laughter] "Would you make it a little more flamboyant?" Which was, of course, code at the time for "gay," and I said, [puts hand on hip] "What do you mean, like this?" [Pointing] "Bingo! That’s it!"
Williams: Brian said, "Yes!"
Graham: And to me it was just cheap schtick, you know? But it turned out to be an actual character. It was just something in me [poimts to his own brain]. I don’t know what that says about my sick brain, but it’s just the character that came out fully-formed. Because of the earlier films I’d done with Brian, and that relationship, I trusted him and he trusted me that we would be able to satisfy each other’s aims and intentions. So I had a great deal of freedom. A great deal of freedom to do whatever I wanted. And one of those lines in the scenes with George Memmoli—and I must say here at this point, those scenes are funny because there were two people involved, one was me and the other was George Memmoli, and those scenes would not have worked without George [applause]. It was what you might call a double-act. But lines that are among peoples’ favorites, like "Dry-up, Tubbo," [Jessica Harper tells him to say it again, in character] "Dry up tubbo." [Laughter] For my lines, they were improvised, it didn’t strike me at the time as interesting or difficult or anything.
PAUL HIRSCH'S FIRST LOVE WAS MUSIC; PAUL WILLIAMS FEELS THE RHYTHM OF 'PHANTOM'
Wright [to Paul Hirsch]: After you had already done Sisters with Brian De Palma, you would go on to have much bigger hits with Brian, and some of the biggest hits of all time, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, but this really, when you were making it, you must have been aware, you know, you were pushing the boundaries, you kind of… in terms of the producers and the studio, were they even aware of what they were gonna get, with the finished product?
Paul Hirsch: Well, I don’t know that we had that kind of perspective on what we were doing, we were just doing it. We weren’t outside ourselves looking at ourselves doing it. And it has to be pointed out that this was not a studio production. This was an independent production that was picked up by 20th Century Fox. The picture would never get made today, and probably wouldn’t have gotten made then, if not for having been an independent production.
But, it was a thrill for me, because I had been a music student in high school. I took music and art in New York. And I played the drums, and music is my first love. And I’m not really a great musician. I’m a music lover more than a musician. And to edit a musical was for me… it used all my musical ability for whatever it is, and it was extremely fun. And it’s interesting watching it. I haven’t seen this picture in forty years. I remember the montage at the end, where we highlight the members of the cast, we had this song that had not been used in the film, and we wanted to use, this wonderful song, and upbeat—ironically upbeat, but upbeat nonetheless—and we felt that the ending of the picture was kind of very depressing, and we wanted to remind the audience of what a wonderful time they had during the first hour and a half. So, we added this montage at the end to lighten the mood.
Paul Williams: Two things I wanted to say: one is, if you watch a movie that was made forty years ago, you’ll notice a difference in the rhythm of the way a film was cut. Things are cut so much quicker now. So if I see pictures that I really love from thirty or forty years ago, sometimes the cut is too slow for me. That never happens in this. [Speaking to Hirsch] Watching your editing of Phantom Of The Paradise, I don’t think there’s a spot in there where I feel anything close to a lag. [Snapping his fingers with rhythm] It’s the timing of it, and it relates to the music, as well. I mean, there’s something in that.
And what was the other thing I was going to say, because it was really great, too [laughter]. Oh, I know what I was going to say. Originally, the song—one of the great tragic moments for me was when we didn’t get to shoot the scene The Hell Of It was written for. Because originally there was a graveyard scene where, you know, a big funeral scene for Beef’s funeral, and [looking toward Hirsch] I don’t know why we never shot it, I don’t know if we didn’t have any money, (nodding) was it finances? Didn’t have enough money to shoot it.
But what I wanted to do was kind of take off on Nina Rota, you know, and do that kind of 8 1/2 ending, with everybody dancing around in a little circle around the grave, and if you follow all the cables, you go back to a hearse, [smiling] where Swan is recording the funeral, and at the very end a little girl jumps on the casket that’s being lowered into the grave and starts tap dancing, auditioning for Swan [laughter], and that’s what that sound is [mimics piano playing]. But thank God, instead of it getting tossed out [gesturing toward Hirsch], you grabbed it, cut the end credits to it, and it’s one of my favorite things that’s in there at the end. [Applause as Hirsch tells him, “Thank you.”]