Q&A: Paul Williams

Although the documentary Paul Williams Still Alive didn’t make the Academy’s short list this week, there’s an original song by the Oscar-winning composer wrote for the doc, aptly titled “Still Alive,” that remains in contention. Williams, who at first resented director Stephen Kessler’s attempts to document his childhood idol, now calls the doc “a gift” that has allowed him to gain a new appreciation for his songwriting work. While the doc doesn’t discuss much of Williams’ current activities, he’s been working behind the scenes as chairman and president of ASCAP since 2009, something he calls an honor, quickly joking, “I’ve got a black belt in back slapping.” With several new songwriting projects in the works, including a musical version of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Williams is still very much alive and still busy. He recently spoke with AwardsLine about his reticence to participate in the doc and reflected on his Oscar win in 1977.

AWARDSLINE: What made you finally decide that you were going to agree to participate in the documentary? It’s pretty clear that you weren’t thrilled initially.

PAUL WILLIAMS: There was a time in my life when I became much better at showing off that showing up. If you put down a couch and a camera, Paul Williams would appear on that couch. You know, to feel like you’re really different is difficult. To feel like your special, in my case, it was addicting. Eventually my addiction to alcohol and cocaine outran all other addictions—I think I ignored songwriting; my craft kind of fell off. For me, to revisit this with Steve… He started by sending me an email. For some reason, I just backed off immediately about the idea of somebody following me around, and didn’t want to participate in another VH1: Where Are They Now?. I didn’t know if he wanted to make fun of me, (but) he seemed to really know my music and be a real fan. I found that every time he would hang a microphone on me, there was a little place that kind of tightened up, and it just was like, “I don’t like this.” I have a lovely balance to my life right now. I have a great relationship with my wife and my kids, and I’m working just about as much as I want to. There was a lot going on that didn’t make it into the film. While we were filming, I went to Disney and pitched an idea for the Muppets: I wrote the songs, I cowrote the story and cowrote the teleplay for a one-hour TV special for the Muppets (A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa). I got nominated for an Emmy (for the song “I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus”). That’s not in the movie, though. I think that if Steve Kessler had found me living in a trailer behind a junkyard playing at the Red Lion Inn and singing to a sock puppet he would have been thrilled, like, “Look how far he’s fallen.” That really wasn’t the case, but he eliminated things to tell the story in the best way.

AWARDSLINE: It also reflects the view that a lot of people have about fame: If people don’t hear about you anymore then you must not be doing anything.

WILLIAMS: You cease to exist, yeah.

Paul Williams MupptesAWARDSLINE: What has been the response since the film’s release?

WILLIAMS: First of all, I had no idea it would get the kind of response it had. I wrote the title song about three weeks before we went into Toronto, and the response to the film and song was just amazing. What Steve did that was a real gift to me was his willingness to put all of his ineptness at certain moments back into the film. Those things where I challenged him and said, “You’re interrupting a meaningful story about my dad taking me to the ballgame so you can ask some silly-ass questions about a talent show. Put that in the movie,” and he did. Moments where he’d ask me questions that, frankly, just felt like a dig. God bless him, he put them in the film.  So you wind up with a film where you observe a relationship begin to take place with us, which I think is funny and interesting. I think part of the journey for Steve was he went into the process thinking that fame equals happiness, relevance. And then in the midst of it, in 2009, I was elected president and chairman of the board of ASCAP with 150,000 people that are fighting to make a viable living through music. For the first time in my life, I felt really, really connected to the world around me. And that’s what I was afraid of giving up if we shot this film.

AWARDSLINE: The original song you wrote for the documentary, “Still Alive,” is getting some Oscar attention, which has to be fun for an awards-season veteran like you.

WILLIAMS: I’ve been nominated six times, and the fact is, the nomination comes from your peers—just from the music branch—so the huge event is being nominated. When I really look at it, I see that it’s the win to be nominated. (But), obviously, it’s amazing to walk up on the stage. You know, they play my acceptance speech (for “Evergreen” with Barbra Streisand) every now and then because I looked at the audience and said, “I was going to thank all the little people, and then I remembered I am the little people.” I remember walking out, andNeil Diamond gave us the award, and I hugged Barbra and I looked at the audience: It’s like, there’s Kirk Douglas, there’s Gregory Peck, there’s Elizabeth Taylor. You see me backstage in the green room having a conversation with Bette Davis and Cary Grant, and you go, “Oh, my God, how did he get here?” Now if I look at it, I would say that what I did to get there was a small part of it. (It was) immense good fortune and the people that I met along the way.

Listen to Williams’ original song for the documentary: Still Alive

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