The movie Hollywood wants you to forget...
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winning songwriter Paul Williams is recognized as one of America's most prolific and gifted lyricists and composers. His standards have been recorded by such diverse musical icons as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Mathis, The Carpenters, Luther Vandross, REM, Mel Torme and Diana Ross. His songs have also found favor with Country legends including Chet Atkins, Garth Brooks, Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Pride, Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray, Lynn Anderson, The Oak Ridge Boys, Diamond Rio and Neil McCoy.
A captivating performer in his own right, Paul has released dozens of his own albums, scored films, and has appeared in many more movies and TV shows. Paul considers his humanitarian work (a few of which are listed on the www.savemeadream.com website...
) and family his biggest personal achievements.
pleasure, we present this exclusive interview with Paul, and thank him greatly for his time and, of course, his contributions to Ishtar.
ISHTAR THE MOVIE.COM: What motivated you the most to write and perform?
PW: I started out acting and couldn't make a living at it. I started writing for my own amusement. Picked up a guitar on the set of "The Chase" in the mid sixties and started doodling. The first reward for writing... the first payment is the beginning of understanding yourself... the writing became a kind of musical therapy... the next step was playing it for someone who related to the feelings... Bingo! Welcome to the family of man. Shared emotions. Shared experiences. Not to mention the magic of a young lady looking at a chubby little blond songwriter with something new in her eyes. That does a lot for ones discipline.
The performing came as a way to support the albums when I started recording. It became a bit of an addiction. I think I became better at showing off than showing up. Doing game shows instead of working on building my craft as a songwriter. But, I love performing once in a while. It offers a chance to meet people who've been touched by the music. That's 'heart payment' for a songwriter. Hearing how someone was married to 'We've Only Just Begun", "Evergreen" or one of my other songs... That the first song they played as a child was "The Rainbow Connection" or something from "Bugsy Malone"... or to hear that their mom was a single mom that found meaning in "You and Me Against the World". That's as good as it gets for a songwriter.
ITM.COM: What instrument would you most like to learn to play?
PW: The Piano... I write on piano but I don't really play at all. If it was a fight they'd stop it. I wish I'd taken lessons... but, I don't think they would have helped.
ITM.COM: Where was your first gig?
PW: Chicago. Opening for B.J.Thomas. I was supposed to do 40 minutes... I was so nervous I was finished in 25...
ITM.COM: How did you react the first time you heard a song of yours on the radio?
PW: Big big grin... It was pretty strange though... The first song I heard was "Fill Your Heart" by Tiny Tim...
ITM.COM: What was your biggest career break?
PW: Failure. "No" is a gift... When my acting career began to fail I started writing. One door closed forcing me to open another. The right one!
ITM.COM: Have you ever lived in New York City?
PW: No. The longest I've ever stayed in the city was several months working on... Ishtar
ITM.COM: How did you come to be involved with Ishtar?
PW: Warren Beatty had called me about writing a title song to "Heaven Can Wait"... I looked at the picture and told him it didn't need a song. He liked that. He had several other writers take a stab at it and none of the songs worked. He said I was right... and he thought I might be the right guy for Ishtar. I met a bunch of times with Warren and Elaine... It took forever to get him to tell me I had the job.
ITM.COM: What was your reaction to the offer?
PW: I approached the gig like an acting job. I became the voice of Chuck and Lyle... two very mismatched writers. One country boy and one city slicker... I wanted to write authentically bad songs. Believably bad songs... Not just funny, but realistically rotten. I couldn't seem to get an angle on what Elaine wanted... and she couldn't really voice what she was looking for. It all began to click when I wrote "That a Lawnmower Can Do All That"... She loved it... so did Warren... I had the job at last!
ITM.COM: Did you have a script or story outline to work with?
PW: A script. A really really funny script!
ITM.COM: Where did you write the songs?
PW: In Los Angeles, New York at the Waldorf Towers and in Morocco
ITM.COM: What inspiration did you draw on while writing?
PW: Stolichnaya. And a variety of chemicals. Frankly, I was pretty much a mess the many months I worked on Ishtar. I'm almost 20 years sober. Sober since 1990... but the 80's were pretty out of control for me. My drinking and using had escalated to a point where I had long ago crossed the line from use to abuse to addiction.
ITM.COM: Any part of the film's plot strike you as being too close for comfort?
PW: I'm not sure I know what you mean.
ITM.COM: How did you approach bridging the gap between naivety and sincerity with the lyrics?
PW: I tried to stay true to the heart of the characters, and let their naivety paint the funny... Their combined lack of sophistication was the boat and funny was the wake! I'd spent a lot of years chasing songs in collaborative frenzy like the ones we created for Chuck and Lyle... I tried to make authenticity job one!
ITM.COM: Did you play any instruments on the recordings?
PW: No... Doug Walter... a great musician, arranger and a very patient man played everything. Incidentally there's a full-blown rock and roll version of the score with great players that's in a vault somewhere. Originally the film was going to end with Chuck and Lyle's greatest hits album being played over the end credits. Michael James Jackson and I produced the album with great musicians backing Warren and Dustin. It was never released.
ITM.COM: Is it easy being both songwriter and producer?
PW: No. But, the real production work was done by Michael James Jackson. The style, direction and the content of the songs was mine... Michael James Jackson brought a great new vision to the project... he's brilliant. On my own I'd still be trying to get vocals from Dustin!
ITM.COM: Any particular anecdotes of the writing or recording sessions?
PW: I spent two nights alone in the desert to write the songs where Dustin and Warren think they're dying... Came out of the desert overwhelmed with emotion... with the beauty of the desert at night. Face it... I was nuts!!! I had an accident at a nightclub the night I finished work on the songs. We were in Morocco and I was backing away from a belly dancer that I'd just tipped... when I slipped on the tile and fell backwards into a fountain with a statue of Neptune holding a trident. The water in the fountain was full of turtles. I hit my head on the trident... and fell into the water unconscious... I was out for 45 minutes and came to being sewn up by a German nurse... I carry my Ishtar scar hidden by my hair.
ITM.COM: Did you meet the actors or visit the film sets?
PW: Elaine May didn't want me to sing the songs to her... She wanted to hear Dustin and Warren sing them... so for every song in the picture even if they're was only need of a couple of lines. I had to write the complete song and then teach it to the guys to sing. So I spent months with the actors, and with the amazing Ms May. It's one of the greatest gigs imaginable... A collaborative process... I'm very proud of the work.
ITM.COM: What did you like most about your involvement with the movie?
PW: The people. Warren's brilliant and stood his ground with the studio... giving Elaine May the reins and allowing her to make the film she wanted to make. It couldn't have been easy. Elaine May's amazing. Iconic comedy brilliance. I touched the hem and loved being there. Although there were times I thought I'd kill somebody if they didn't give me some specific direction. Fact is... she let it bubble up and out of me... and when it was right she said ''That's it!!! Now give me more of the same."
Dustin... He put me on the phone with Arthur Miller... That doesn't happen to you every day! They'd just done a TV version of 'Death of a Salesman"... I was raving about the production and the writing and Dustin said... "here, tell him!!!"
ITM.COM: Do you have a favorite line of dialogue?
PW: The blind camel kills me... the buzzards on spec... 'those are breasts'... Lyrically, 'I'm leaving some love in my will... because you'll have a big void to fill' has a certain... hmm... let me think about it!
ROBERT DAYTON: A friend of mine has been looking for years for the Ishtar movie soundtrack and he can't find it.
PAUL WILLIAMS: It was never released.
RD: But it says at the end of the movie, "Soundtrack available..."
PW: I know. And at the end of the movie you were supposed to hear fully produced rock 'n' roll tracks of those songs with great musicians but Warren as producer and the entire Columbia team has never allowed it to be released because they were overwhelmed by the negative response to the picture. At least that's how I remember things playing out. Be great to get it out now...I think 'Chuck and Lyle' (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman's characters) deserve their shot...even if it's twenty years overdue.
RD: Those are great songs!
PW: If somebody loves those songs, if they mention Ishtar, it's a guarantee that they are a songwriter or a musician because they get it, they get the humor.
RD: They are great songs that are supposed to be bad songs but are actually great songs.
PW: It would be very easy to write obviously bad songs but to write believable bad songs where they actually sound like they actually were trying to be good was the hard part and that's what I had a great time doing.
SONGTALK: What was it like to write those intentionally bad songs for Ishtar?
PAUL WILLIAMS: I became possessed with my absolute belief that Chuck & Lyle were two real guys, the characters that Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty played. I worked months on that project. Oddly enough, a lot of underground bands are starting to do those songs. So maybe Chuck & Lyle will have their day yet. I enjoyed that. It was like therapy, finding out who those guys were. And I crawled into their heads. It was a safe place to go, because I was busy loosing myself, & I wasn't comfortable in my own head, so I climbed into Chuck & Lyle's. I wrote like fifty songs for this. Everyone had to like the songs: Dustin, Warren, Elaine [May, the director] & I had to like them, & they had to be bad. No wonder they took a long time. I was surprised the critics panned it to the extent they did. They were gunning for Warren. They didn't review the movie, they reviewed the budget. I thought it was pretty good.
MIKE SMITH: Even though they were intended to be lousy, your songs for the film "ISHTAR" were one of the few highlights. Was it hard writing songs that weren't meant to be good?
PAUL WILLIAMS: It was one of the toughest jobs I've ever had in my life, because anybody can sit down and write bad songs. But to write believable bad songs, to where you see them just go the wrong way.......like "Dangerous Business." It starts out pretty good: (sings) "Telling the truth can be dangerous business, honest and popular don't go hand in hand. If you admit you can play the accordion, no one will hire you in a rock and roll band." The first couple lines are brilliant, the next are like, "wait a minute." The real task was to write songs that were believably bad. It was one of the best jobs I've ever had in my life. I've never had more fun on a picture, but I've never worked harder.
MS: I thought the film wasn't as bad as history has painted it.
PW: Most musicians do. Most musicians and song writers do. (HEY, DID YOU HEAR THAT? PAUL WILLIAMS CALLED ME A SONG WRITER!) They are the ones that seem to get it.
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