There is a point in the inspiring documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive” where you really understand that Stephen Kessler is not a hands-on kind of filmmaker. The Oscar nominee (for his 1991 short “Birch Street Gym”), who went on to helm “Vegas Vacation,” is mostly nowadays a director of commercials who presumably works with large cushy crews. It’s not apparent for most of this new film, a rare successful ‘stalk-umentary,’ that Kessler is not doing any of the shooting. Typically with a small documentary like this the documentarian would, I think.
Then comes the instant where Kessler, who’s never done a nonfiction feature before, is finally working solo and his camerawork could be considered too shaky even for “The Blair Witch Project.” That’s part of the reason I thought of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” while watching this doc, because it starts with a filmmaker who doesn’t really know what he’s doing and then is kind of turned around and helped big time by his subject. In that film, though, the subject completely takes over and claims full directorial credit. Here, it’s still officially Kessler at the helm throughout, with Paul Williams always the main focus.
But I kind of jokingly asked during my interview with the two if Williams ought to get a co-director credit, for steering the project for some of its turns. The songwriter/actor chimed in with his thoughts on this, some of which also involved his inexperience with docs, but then Kessler answered with two interesting views on documentary filmmaking that I haven’t heard before, a perspective that seems only could have come from a filmmaker not accustomed to the form whatsoever yet has interesting insight. He said:
Every documentarian and their subject have some kind of a dance going on that they’re doing, right? And the thing is, Paul does have these great creative instincts. And I had never really made a documentary, I didn’t know what the f—k I was doing. So when he would say these things, I would always try to listen. Like they tell you in acting class: listen and the listening will do the acting. Here the listening was doing the filmmaking.
It’s especially funny because Kessler seems to interrupt Williams often onscreen. Regardless, his statement has stuck with me, and I hope it can function as advice to other documentarians. In addition to Williams’ note that documentarians need a good heart. To read that and the rest of my interview with the director and subject of “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” head over to Documentary Channel Blog.