Talking with Songwriter Paul Williams and Director Stephen Kessler

Slate's Culture Blog
June 6 2012 1:52 PM

Still Alive: A Conversation with Paul Williams and Stephen Kessler

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Paul Williams and Stephen Kessler

Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images

“I always thought he died too young,” Stephen Kessler says early in his documentary about singer-songwriter Paul Williams. But as the title of that movie announces, Williams is not dead: Paul Williams Still Alive catches up with the former celebrity years after he wrote award-winning songs, appeared on film and television, and struggled with drugs and alcohol abuse. 

You’ve heard Paul Williams’s songs: “We’ve Only Just begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays,” which he co-wrote, were made famous by The Carpenters; in 1976, he won an Oscar with Barbara Streisand for “Evergreen,” the theme from A Star is Born. Three years later he co-wrote the “The Rainbow Connection,” also nominated for an Academy Award.

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Williams, who is 5 foot 2 and hilarious, became a fixture on 1970s television. He made appearances on Hollywood Squares, The Odd Couple, and Hawaii Five-O, and was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show—where he was often visibly high. By the early ’80s, slowed by substance abuse, William’s career faded.

Kessler,  a Paul Williams fan since childhood, approached him several years ago about documenting his new life. Williams reluctantly agreed, and Kessler started filming—at first directing his camera crew from off screen, then joining the movie at William’s insistence.

The result is a documentary buddy film, which not only traces the happy life of a sobered-up, formerly famous songwriter, but the close friendship that develops between a filmmaker and his subject over the course of making the movie. Brow Beat sat down with both men in New York, where the movie opens on Friday.

Slate: Paul, you seemed reluctant to participate in Stephen’s movie. Why?

Paul Williams: I think I kind of jumped to the end: OK, so we make a picture and the picture comes out. And then the media looks at the documentary and they say, what’s relevant about this guy? Why should we care? There are few things as pathetic as a little old man saying, “Please sir, may I have another cup of fame—just another minute in the camera.” That’s not who I am. At the time that Steve got in touch with me, I loved where my life was. I love anonymity. I still had my work. I still had my income from my songs. I was passionate about what I was doing. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back and deal with all that.

Slate: Stephen, when you pitched the idea of the film to Paul, did you tell him that you thought he was dead?

Stephen Kessler: By the time I got to the title Paul had seen a rough cut of the film that opened with the “I always thought he died too young” line. At first, he didn’t see the power in it.

Williams: I hated the title.

Kessler: He told me the title would be embarrassing, and I told him that I thought it was empowering, because not everybody is still alive.

Williams: Stephen asked me to write a title song. And I sat down to write the title song and all of a sudden, Still Alive was a really important title to me. Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse—these are people that are brilliant and talented and didn’t get what I got. All of a sudden the title, for me, became my favorite part of the film. I love calling it Paul Williams Still Alive. But you have to kind of accept that idea: Did I disappear that much that people thought I was dead? Tom Hanks came up to me at the Emmys and said, “Paul! God! You’re still alive. What happened to you?” And I said, “I got drunk.”

Kessler:  I was thinking about this yesterday: If someone asked me if I wanted to do a movie called Steve Kessler Still Alive would I be able to say, “That’s fine, go ahead!” I think that really took guts for Paul to accept the title.

Williams: Thank you Stevie.

Slate: How long did Stephen follow you around for?

Williams: Off and on for five years.

Kessler: I filmed him for about three-and-a-half years. The last year and a half of filming takes up only a minute in the movie. As far as the story went, the story was over. And that year and a half could be summed up by the fact that I couldn’t stop filming.

Williams: [Laughing] Because we were in love by then.

Slate: Did you ever get tired of it?

Williams: I did, and my wife did especially. There’s one point in the film where I’m talking about going to a golf tournament and Steve wants to come. And my wife says to Steve, “Wouldn’t you like to be with your own family on Labor Day?” But now Steve has a permanent invitation to sleep over.

Kessler: From the very first time I met Paul I said, “I want to stay at your house.” And Paul said: “What do you want to do at my house?” And I said: “I want to see you go to the drug store. That’s really interesting to me. You were so famous and now you just go to the drug store. I just want to see you living your life.”

Williams: I told Stephen he could follow me around when I performed and when I played golf. But every time I picked up a fork there was a camera on me.

Kessler: I didn’t know that all the stuff that’s in the movie was going to become the movie. I thought that’s all the stuff that you leave out of a movie. But, as it turned out, that was the stuff that I needed to show what kind of a guy Paul is.

Slate: Paul, at one point near the start of the film, you invite Stephen into the shot to be part of his documentary. Why’d you do this?

Williams: Part of recover is rigorous honesty. The reason I was successful on all the talk shows, despite the fact that I was high, was because I was still myself. I was authentic. If I thought something I’d say it—whether it was appropriate or not. As an actor I can ignore the camera. I’m playing a part and I can ignore the camera. In a documentary, there’s this weird kind of bullshit, where I’m trying to pretend that the camera’s not there. It felt really inauthentic to me. Stephen asks me a question and I’m supposed to answer the question in a way that incorporates the answer as if I’m just talking—it felt like a lie. I said to Stephen, come in front of the camera with me. We’ll make it The Paulie and Stevie Show. And then I felt more comfortable.

Kessler: I thought I was supposed to stay behind the camera. But I realized in time that the way documentary used to be done, where the filmmaker acts like he’s not there and invisible, is actually very false. I think Paul was incredibly intuitive about that.

Williams: The traditional “where-are-they-now” documentary filmmaking—I just didn’t feel like I wanted to be a part of that. But if we can turn it into a conversation—not that we were going to have a Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley conversation—at least I’d be comfortable. At least I won’t be lying and pretending.

Slate: At one point in the movie Stephen follows you on tour in the Philippines, and is freaked out the whole time that the tour will be attacked by terrorists. Your friendship seemed to take off after this trip.  What happened?  

Williams: The funny thing is, despite the way I treat him on camera, I liked Steve from the very beginning. He’s very likeable and loved everything I did, and that’s a prerequisite to becoming really good friends.

Kessler: Paul liked me but he wasn’t that happy to see me. I think he would have liked me more if I didn’t have the camera.

Williams: In the Philippines, that’s where I saw him the most vulnerable: Stephen was in my dressing room and he didn’t care that I was there. He’s hungry, he’s scared, he thinks al Qaeda is coming to get us—he didn’t even care that Paul Williams was there. And I looked at Stephen, and I realized all the trouble he’d gone to and the expense, following a guy around with a camera for years, and all of a sudden I got it. I was like, I think I kind of love this guy. And then everything changed. My behavior towards him changed.

Slate: Did you ask Stephen to cut anything from the movie?

Williams: There’s stuff in the film that’s really hard for me to watch. But from the very beginning Stephen said, if you hate something and you want it out, I’ll take it out. There’s this footage of me watching myself on Merv Griffin where I’m the most grandiose shallow little asshole, and I think, “Why would you ever want to make a film about that guy?” But then I saw a cut of the film, with the story arc, and it had to be in there. That feels like one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. In the end, I didn’t ask him to take out a frame. And some of the footage is unattractive. He’s up my nostrils. But I understand why he did it. It’s intrusive to the point of being really honest.

Kessler: I had a feeling that the only kind of movie Paul would want was a really honest movie. And that’s why I thought it would be OK to tell him that I would take stuff out if he asked. I didn’t know what kind of movie I would make but I knew it would be honest.

Slate: Near the end of the film, Paul, you say to Stephen—and I’m paraphrasing— “My life is pretty interesting right now. The last couple of years have really fucked up the end of your movie. And I love that.” Do you not miss any of your former fame?

Williams: Not at all. I did 48 Tonight Show’s. I joke that I remember six. Stephen asked me, “What happens when the phone stops ringing?” But at some point you enjoy watching golf in your underwear more than winning an Oscar. And that’s the truth. I’m proud of what I did and I’m proud of the songs. I still write. I’m still passionate about my writing. But I just don’t need it. I’m 71 and I feel like a really tired 37. And I just don’t need that attention. What I need is a rest.

Slate: How long have you been sober?

Williams: 22 years. March 15, 1990. I was 49 years old when I got sober. I didn’t have the best childhood, but I had the longest. I like this a lot better.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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