In the documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” filmmaker Stephen Kessler tracks down Academy Award-winning composer (and actor) Paul Williams to find out whatever happened to his idol. The results may surprise you. The film premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and opens in select theaters this Friday, June 8. Below Kessler shares one of his favorite scenes from the film.
What It’s About
Maybe you never heard of him, but to me, Paul Williams was everything when I was a kid — an actor, singer, and songwriter who wrote songs like “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Out in the Country,” and “The Rainbow Connection.” And he was always on TV shows like “The Tonight Show,” “Hollywood Squares” and “The Odd Couple” — everywhere I wished I could be. For a long time, I thought he was dead. When I found out that he was still alive, I immediately thought he’d be a great subject for a documentary, even though I had never made a documentary. The only problem: he wasn’t interested in being filmed.
That didn’t stop me. I talked him into letting me film him one day, then another, then another—eventually filming him for almost three years. And most of that time, he wasn’t too hot on the idea of having me around. And that’s part of what “Paul Williams: Still Alive” is about.
The “Squid” scene is important in the movie. I was going to a thai restaurant with Paul that day for lunch, to do an interview. I filmed him for over an hour talking about his life and work, blah, blah, blah. I really didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when it came to interviewing (although I had shot a zillion commercials and made the films” Vegas Vacation” and “The Independent”). And then, we ordered lunch. And everything changed.
I had started out to make a conventional music doc about a guy I loved when I was a kid, but as I hung out with him, I saw that the man standing in front of me today was a much more worthy and compelling subject. And the best way to show who he was, was to show how he was with me.
In writing class, they tell you that the scene is never about what it’s about —that what the characters are saying isn’t what’s important—it’s what they’re feeling. And years later, when my editor David Zieff and I looked at the footage from the thai restaurant, we realized that the whole interview wasn’t worth much, but the part where we were ordering lunch, that might be a very revealing event to cut a scene around. To this day, whenever I eat a plate of any kind of squid, I take a picture and send it to my friend Paul.