There’s a decent chance you’re familiar with Paul Williams, but there’s no chance you don’t know his work. From pop staples like “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” to movie anthems like “Rainbow Connection” and the Oscar-winning (and Billboard Hot 100-topping) “Evergreen,” his work as a songwriter is absurdly ubiquitous and helped earn him the job of ASCAP president. But it’s not just Williams’ music that pops up all over pop culture — he’s made innumerable film and television appearances as well, probably most famously as the Mephistophelean Swan in The Phantom of the Paradise and big-hatted, Coors-drinking Little Enos in the Smokey and the Bandit movies.
Williams’ latest acting gig is in Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s action-heist-comedy-jukebox musical that hits theaters today (June 28). Williams and the Shaun of the Dead director have been friends and mutual admirers for years but this is the first time the two of them have worked together professionally. So we decided to have the master of movie music and the master of music movies get together to chat about three of their favorite things: Music, movies, and each other.
Edgar Wright: Hey, Paul! How’s it going? It’s Edgar.
Paul Williams: Edgar! Did you get my email yesterday?
EW: I did, I was traveling in Spain for the movie, but I got it.
PW: I wish I was a critic so I could do it justice. There’s one review I’d like to write in my life and it’s this.
EW: I think you can do it. I think people would appreciate it.
PW: The picture’s so good, I forgot I was in it while I was watching it. It must be incredible with my ego for that to happen.
EW: That’s amazing.
Billboard: How did you guys make Paul’s cameo happen? I know you’ve known each other for a number of years.
EW: Paul would always say to me when we met up over the years, in jest or not I don’t know, “If we ever get the chance to do something let me know.” And then finally I had the part.
PW: The Butcher. It’s great to have anything to do with that. Working for ASCAP I probably get more mileage out of Smokey and the Bandit than anything else. I’ve always referred to them as my art films, Smokey and the Bandits 1, 2, and Even Worse. But this is similar, I think. It’s going to be big on release, I think, but it’s also going to have that thing where it lasts for years and years. It’s going to have the same staying audience that Smokey and the Bandit has that’ll never let it go away. If it has the same effect on teenagers driving away from the movie that it had on me, pray to God it’ll only be fender-benders. I drive a fully tuned 2003 Audi TT — it’s like driving a go-kart — and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to the soundtrack while in the car. From [Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s] “Bellbottoms” on, it’s the most adrenaline-filled soundtrack I’ve ever heard.
EW: What’s funny is that my kind of fandom of Paul is mostly centered around Bugsy Malone and The Phantom of the Paradise. It’s kind of how we first met, when I programmed a double-bill at the New Beverly. But what’s funny is that this movie was originally written for L.A., but when we moved to Atlanta to make the movie it seemed like a complete no-brainer to offer it to Paul because I thought, “This is really encroaching on Little Enos territory.” I swear to God, Paul, some of the people who didn’t know you were in it and were most impressed were the stunt guys in the movie, all the gearheads on the movie. All the drivers and stunt coordinators were all big Smokey and the Bandit fans and they were all awed and wowed that you were there, back in Atlanta again.
PW: I just want to keep saying, the story in this movie is fantastic. I don’t want to talk about the specifics, but the way it develops with Baby and his relationship to his mother and father… the heart in that. I got teary in the picture two or three times and the ending just slayed me. I loved it. And you combine that with Jon Hamm and one of the most frightening transformations since Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear. He takes it to a place that’s hauntingly terrifying. I told you wanted to write a review!
EW: You can do it within this interview!
Billboard: Cut it and print. You two both have careers that exist at the intersection of music and film. Paul, with the songs you’ve written for Bugsy Malone, Ishtar and The Muppet Movie, to name a few, and Edgar, with the prominent use of music in your films. What is that intersection for you? When does the combination work best?
PW: My comment would be that this is the most innovative use of song score ever, and it does something that probably won’t get pointed out: As much as the music is out front, as much as it’s blasting at you and integral, there is a level of involvement in the story where the music becomes unconscious. This is so in your face and so loud and so constant that it’s like a slow drip of adrenaline, but it’s remarkable that at that level, you feel the score, but it doesn’t take you out. I’m not going “Oh there’s ‘Radar Love’.” I think the only song where I did that, where it felt a little out of place, was “Easy” by the Commodores, but then there’s a place in the story where you get a sense of how important the song is and it makes sense. But the greatest fact was that all of these songs were cleared before filming, which as president of ASCAP makes me want to take off my hat if I had one on.
EW: I have to give a shout-out to Kirsten Lane, who was our clearance person who had the Herculean task of clearing all the songs in the movie before we started filming. As you know, it’s a pretty foolhardy idea to start shooting scenes where you’re using songs without getting them cleared. One thing I’ll say is that, not to take away from the editing, but the thing is we choreographed the scenes to the music so a lot of time with the sequences we were actually playing them on set and choreographing the action to the music as it was happening.
PW: There was one place, during the big shootout, all of a sudden I was like, “Oh my God, the gunshots!” One of the things I wondered about, did you cut ahead of or just after the beat? You get the impact and the cut, or the cut and the impact?
EW: It’s all timed in with the drum solo, so in some cases you’re cutting to the beat but in those particular shots it’s the gunshots themselves on the beat.
PW: That’s what I picked up on, you cutting just a hair after the beat. How observant of me.
Billboard: If I remember correctly, you did something similar with the “Don’t Stop Me Now” scene in Shaun of the Dead.
EW: Sequences like that were like a dry run for this. I had so much fun doing that sequence for Shaun of the Dead, it was probably the first time I worked with a dance choreographer and a stunt coordinator at the same time. When I would try to explain the movie to people originally, I’d say, “You know the Queen scene in Shaun of the Dead? Well, imagine that for the whole movie.”
Billboard: Okay, Paul has gushed about you and Baby Driver, Edgar, I want to give you a chance to reciprocate. Where did you first encounter Paul’s work?
EW: It’s got to be Bugsy Malone. I think my first experience with Paul is probably thinking, “What is this grown man’s voice coming out of this little kid’s mouth?” If you come to the U.S., Bugsy Malone is much more of a cult film, but it’s much more of a well-known thing in Britain. It’s more like A Christmas Story for us. Schools put it on all the time so almost everyone is familiar with the songs because a lot of us have to sing them growing up. Actually, I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I did too. I was in a production of Bugsy Malone when I was young.
PW: No kidding, you were?
EW: In a school production, I played a member of Fat Sam’s crew. I sang “Bad Guys” and I had on an oversized suit and everything.
PW: I never knew that! That’s incredible. You know, you work on these movies — I wrote the songs for Bugsy Malone and did The Phantom of the Paradise in the ’70s and then the movie comes out and it does what it does and it is what it is, but you don’t expect years later to hear from someone like Edgar Wright, “Oh Bugsy Malone was important to me.” Or to be able to work with Daft Punk [on Random Access Memories] because of what I did on The Phantom of the Paradise.
EW: Speaking of which, I just had lunch with one of your favorite robots. You know, I always have to correct people when they say that we have two Oscar winners in the film with Kevin [Spacey] and Jamie [Foxx]. I’m like, “What are you talking about? We have three!” They’re forgetting about Oscar-winner Paul Williams!
Billboard: Edgar, I read an interview where you said that you’d want “So You Wanna Be a Boxer” to play at your funeral.
EW: I think it might have been “You Give a Little Love.”
Billboard: I’ve always wanted “When the River Meets the Sea” from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas to play at mine, which was also Paul’s.
PW: I must be really good at writing funeral songs.
Billboard: Probably wouldn’t be good to go with “We’ve Only Just Begun,” though.
EW: Or “The Hell of It.”