Brian De Palma’s misunderstood cult musical, Phantom of the Paradise, has long been relegated to the rep cinemas and high school film clubs of the world. But at this year’s Fantasia Fest the Phantom was center stage at a 45 year celebration of the marvelous movie that counts directors Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright amongst its ever-growing fanbase. During the Montreal-based festival, we sat down with the composer and star of Phantom, Paul Williams, and chatted on the phone with producer Ed Pressman as well as the makers of a new documentary about the Phantom fandom. Together, we revisited the history of how the strange, surreal, and unique film came to be and how its legacy has transcended the original lackluster response almost five decades later.
Phantom of the Paradise is unlike any other film. Sprawling and strange, the epic musical masterpiece is uncannily prescient, predicting the nostalgia craze, glam rock, and multiple other musical trends. The project came about after Phantom of the Opera became one of two options that Pressman and De Palma picked up after the lauded director became disillusioned with big studio movies. “I first met Brian De Palma in New York. He’d done a film called Greetings, a low budget independent film with some political undertones, and we became friends and he went on to start directing for the studios. He did a film for Warner’s called Get to Know Your Rabbit and he was very unhappy with the experience and called me from Toronto, I think. There was a producer taking options on Phantom and Sisters, and Brian said, ‘Get me out of here. You can get the rights so we can make it the way I want to.’ So we did that,” Pressman told us.
Though the producer preferred the strange vision De Palma had for the unexpected mashup of classic literary tales Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and Dorian Gray, the pair settled on adapting Sisters first, with a cast made up of De Palma’s housemates. “We had a decision to make about which film we wanted to do first. From the beginning, Phantom was the most exciting out of the two projects in my mind but Sisters was more practical. At the time, Brian was living in a house in Malibu that was owned by Waldo Salt who wrote Midnight Cowboy. He’d left it to his daughter Jennifer and she invited Brian and Margot Kidder and Paul Schrader, a whole bunch of people. So the easiest thing was to keep it close to this group. So Margot Kidder would play one role and Jennifer the other lead, and it was a simpler form to make. It turned out that Sisters did really well, especially in the drive-ins.”
“I don’t know why Brian responded to my music because it was so different.” – Paul Williams
After the success of their first collaboration, Pressman and De Palma began their passion project, Phantom of the Filmore. The reimagining centers on a young singer-songwriter, Winslow Leach, who’s overheard by a maniacal music producer known as Swan who steals the young man’s music. De Palma brought in composer Paul Williams to write the many songs in the film. “I was a staff writer at A&M Records, writing for The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, and a lot of great but kind of middle of the road music, you know, certainly not the Music of the Spheres,” Williams explained. “They opened a film department to try and get more of the music coming out of A&M Records into movies, and a guy there knew that Brian was doing Phantom of the Paradise, which at the time was called Phantom of the Filmore. I don’t know why Brian responded to my music because it was so different. I was known for writing what I call co-dependent anthems but for some reason, he really responded. So I came to it first as a composer and lyricist.”
That might surprise fans of the film who know Williams best as the evil, Faustian producer who steals Winslow’s songs and later tries to trap him into becoming the voice and mind behind his new music venue, the titular Paradise. “The first song, Brian wanted Sha Na Na to perform and I said, ‘You know what, I’ve got this band I’ve been working with, these guys have been with me for years, they’re my road band. I’d like these guys to be the band.’ I think this may have been the beginning of when he started going, ‘Ah, there’s Swan.’ They eventually became the Juicy Fruits in the film and the bands that they evolve into throughout.”
De Palma originally suggested that Williams play the Phantom and hero of the story himself, Winslow Leech, but the songwriter wasn’t sold on the idea. “I told him, ‘I could not, are you kidding??? I’m too little.’ And he said, ‘But you could be this creepy guy up in the rafters throwing things at people,'” Williams laughed. “For me, the idea of trying to perform with one eye through a mask…Bill Finley did things with that, there was just this essence to the character, something in the reading of Winslow that was so beautifully innocent, so touching. He was an amazing actor and it worked out because I got to play Swan!”
Filming Phantom was off the cuff and collaborative, a process that saw input from those around cast and crew, as Williams recalls. “The first thing we shot was the contract scene. Yeah, my manager actually came up with a line that’s in the contract that I love. The concept for where the line came from is: if God signed a contract to create the universe, what would the contract say? ‘All articles which are excluded shall be deemed included.’ You know, it’s perfect. So that wound up in there.”
“We shot all day, and then I went directly from the set to the studio, recorded vocals until almost dawn, and then went right back to the set.” – Paul Williams
Like most low budget films, the making of Phantom of the Paradise was incredibly intense. For the songwriter, there was no time to congratulate himself on his first acting gig. “There wasn’t a lot of time to really celebrate. I remember shooting all day and there was one scene that we had to reshoot the scene when I pull the knife from Winslow’s chest on the roof. We shot all day, and then I went directly from the set to the studio, recorded vocals until almost dawn, and then went right back to the set. They took my makeup off, put new makeup on, and then I shot the scene. I was so tired, I couldn’t understand me. And we were all like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s terrible.’ So we ended up reshooting it in New York.”
For Pressman, Phantom was the kind of film he had always dreamed of making. “It was unique and original, closer to a kind of Cocteau fantasy that I’m drawn too. Sisters was more of a conventional thriller; I mean, Brian turned it into more than that, but on the page, Phantom was just far more expansive. The idea of Paul Williams doing the score was just this far more ambitious and exciting project.” Though the creative team was passionate, they were unsure of how the film would be received once they’d finished making it. “I don’t think we had an idea of the impact it would have. I think we were really happy with the film and we were happy that Fox picked it up when it finished, which was unusual in those days. They were doing less independent films and studios were not in the business of picking up other movies. They paid–today it would sound like peanuts–but I think they paid $2 million for the rights, and that was a big deal then.”
“It was unique and original, closer to a kind of Cocteau fantasy.” – Ed Pressman
Though the ambitious and audacious film was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Song Score and Adaptation, and a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score: Motion Picture, it was a financial flop that failed to make money in almost every market except for Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s not totally surprising as the film was ahead of its time in almost every sense. From showcasing an overtly queer character in the form of Paradise star Beef to a story centered on male toxicity and the abusive nature of the record industry the film pushed boundaries and didn’t seem to be playing to any kind of mainstream audience.
The disappointing box office of the film would seed the passionate fandom that elevated Phantom of the Paradise from B-movie flop to every cult filmmaker’s favorite cult film. That’s not just a turn of phrase; two of the film’s biggest advocates have spent years trying to spotlight the underappreciated gem. Edgar Wright has spoken often about his love for the rock opera and even included it in his recent mini film festival at London’s Genesis Cinema. Guillermo del Toro loved the film so much that he bought a 35mm print and donated it to Los Angeles’ very own New Beverly Cinema so he could share his love with other cult cinema fans. He’s also currently collaborating with Paul Williams on the upcoming Pan’s Labyrinth musical.
Documentarians Sean Stanley and Malcolm Ingram recently debuted a documentary about the strange phenomenon of the Phantom’s popularity in Winnipeg. Made up of talking-head interviews with the fandom known affectionately as “Peggers,” the doc showcases the love and dedication of the hardcore fans who have kept the film in the spotlight for over four decades. The creative team first discovered the strange success story in an article. “I came across an article written by Doug Carlson, who was one of the original guys who brought Phantom to Winnipeg. He basically went through the experience and he was so affected that he just wanted to write about it. That was like sending a beacon out because one day I found it and was like, ‘Phantom is huge in Winnipeg, what?'” Ingram laughed.
“If Phantom had been even a mild success, it would probably be gone by now.” – Paul Williams
It was a story that would engage both the creators and with a little push from Ingram’s friend Kevin Smith who told him “that’s fucking genius,” the Phantom of Winnipeg was born. It helped that Stanley was already a huge fan of the rock opera. “I discovered Phantom in Toronto. There used to be this channel that showed late, great movies and city TV. And they would show movies on Friday at 11 o’clock. It would be like Black Christmas, stuff like that, and one of the movies they showed was Phantom. And the first time I saw it, it just fucked me up.”
Though Winnipeg was the film’s biggest (and only) box office success on release, the film also became hugely popular in Paris. That slow-burn success has taught Williams a lot, as well as introducing him to some unexpected fans. “I think the eye-opener for me is that if Phantom had been even a mild success, it would probably be gone by now. The big lesson is don’t discard something as a failure. Give the universe a chance. Give people a chance to communicate with each other. What’s remarkable is these people that love this film, this isolated little community. But the same thing happened in Paris as well where it ran forever. The guys from Daft Punk met at a screening of Phantom, so I wound up with writing the lyrics to ‘Beyond’ and ‘Touch’ and singing on ‘Touch’ on the ‘Random Access Memories’ album because these guys saw Phantom 20 times together.”
One of the things that stands out years later is the searing satire of the film. It’s a harsh analog for the brutal side of fame that eerily predicted the rise of reality tv in all of its extremes. Williams is passionate about the message of the movie which he feels is more relevant than ever in 2019. In an age of reality TV and stars who will do anything for fame, there’s a couple of moments from Phantom that particularly resonate. “In the original script, Beef died in the shower. But then we put it on stage and made it a part of a theatrical bit where the kids watched. That’s the heart of the movie to me; it’s the fact that these kids have seen so much theatrical violence that when they see the real thing they can’t recognize it. And that connects to my favorite line in the movie which is when Swan says, ‘Assassination live on coast to coast TV. That’s entertainment.’ That’s the dark heart and message of the movie to me.”
As for the future of the groundbreaking film, Williams thinks it belongs on the stage, with someone like Lady Gaga at the heart of the story, bringing a new and updated vision of the parable to a whole new generation. He even teased that he’s written new songs for the potential production. Pressman revealed that a remake had been on the cards with del Toro attached but had never gotten off the ground. Still, the producer is hopeful about the potential of the Phantom returning once again in the near future, especially as the film’s legend and mythos continue to grow.