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Paradise by the documentary light

Filmmaker learned lessons about friendship, happiness while spending time with the star of Winnipeg's favourite cult film

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/3/2013 (1615 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For many Winnipeggers, Phantompalooza II, a celebration of Brian De Palma's cult film Phantom of the Paradise, was a life-changing experience. Held in April 2006, the event featured all the significant stars of the 1974 cult film, including Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, the late William Finley and the three actors -- Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Harold Oblong -- who made up the film's miscellaneous bands.

Most importantly, it featured a concert by the film's star, songwriter Paul Williams, who credited the film's rabid Winnipeg fanbase for the soundtrack album going gold in Canada, a reflection of the movie's microcosmic appeal. (It bombed everywhere else in North America except Winnipeg.)

Filmmaker learned lessons about friendship, happiness while spending time with the star of Winnipeg’s favourite cult film.

Filmmaker learned lessons about friendship, happiness while spending time with the star of Winnipeg’s favourite cult film.

It's safe to say the fan convention changed the life of Stephen Kessler, a New York-born American filmmaker (Vegas Vacation, The Independent) who, sparked by a wistful nostalgia for Williams' work (which includes such hits as We've Only Just Begun, Evergreen and Rainbow Connection), flew to Winnipeg to document the proceedings. Enchanted, Kessler found himself living in the 72-year-old Williams' diminutive shadow off and on for the next few years.

The result of that obsession is Paul Williams Still Alive, a documentary portrait of the Oscar-winning songwriter that is by turns hilarious, moving, inspiring and cringe-inducing.

The Free Press spoke to Stephen Kessler in Los Angeles by phone.

FP: Given that Phantompalooza was this film's jumping-off point, can you say what the city and that event meant for you?

SK: I had never been to Winnipeg before. I spent a lot of time in Canada filming commercials and different things, so I came to Winnipeg by chance, and I had such a great time there. First of all, I felt such a real connection to all the people who really loved Paul Williams.

In the film, I interview a lot of people in Winnipeg and interviewing the people there, it was the first day I had ever shot on the film. At that point, I didn't know if it was going to be a film or... nothing.

But talking to people about this connection to Paul really convinced me that this could be a film and it also convinced me that I didn't need to interview famous people about what Paul Williams meant to them, like they do in other documentaries. I realized that Paul's real connection was just with regular people. So I got all of that out of Winnipeg.

In fact, I had hoped to open the film in Winnipeg. I had always dreamed that if I finished the film, then I would be bringing it back to Winnipeg with great fanfare. But given the financial realities of making documentaries, that really wasn't in the cards for us. But it means everything to me for the film to be playing in Winnipeg.




FP: In other hands, Phantompalooza was the kind of event that could have easily been mocked, but you didn't go there.

SK: I think anyone who would mock what happened at Phantompalooza, it would be their loss, because it was really beautiful, what happened there. People coming out just to show love for the film, and the cast, and that part of their lives they spent in a theatre watching Phantom, I honestly felt the experience to be very moving.


FP: When you ask an insensitively phrased question or you make a bad judgment call during an interview, Williams will call you on it. You actually include those moments in the film when it would have been easy to edit them out. Why?

SK: My desire was to make a very honest film. Although many people in the documentary community disagree, I feel that everyone knows there are microphones and cameras, and everyone knows there are people behind the scenes, and it was my desire to not hide any of that.

In addition, I felt that the best way to understand the relationship between me and Paul was not to sugarcoat it and not to hide things about it, but to show when he got ticked off at me, because I think it said a lot about how we came to trust each other.

Also, looking at the footage with my editor David Zieff, he started saying to me, "Look at how he's angry at you here. Look at how you two are fighting here. This stuff is the best stuff we have." So that's how a lot of that came to be in the movie.


FP: It is a movie that is almost as much about you as it is about Williams. Your relationship goes through various iterations: pop star/fan, master/pupil and finally friendship. How would you define the relationship now?

SK: When I started the film, I had no expectations of what Paul was going to be or what he was going to be like. I've worked with a lot of celebrities and sometimes it's thrilling and sometimes it's a huge disappointment. But when I met Paul, I saw something in him that connected me to the guy I saw on television. I saw a humility and an honesty in him. So I observed that about him and that's why I wanted to keep filming.

Now, we're friends with all the complexity of a friendship. Sometimes we get along great and sometimes we want to kill each other. And I have to say that's a real accomplishment.

The film is about Paul, but it's just as much about happiness and understanding what you need to make you happy in life, versus what you think you need to make you happy in life. To me, that's what it's about.


Stephen Kessler will participate in a Q&A via Skype after the screening of Paul Williams Still Alive on Saturday, March 23.

Read more by Randall King.


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