We wondered what the two men thought the documentary would turn out to be at the beginning of the process, versus what it ended up being upon completion, since part of the fun of watching the film is the kind of evolutionary twists and turns it takes. (In a way, “Paul Williams: Still Alive” is very much a companion piece to this summer’s other buzzy, totally brilliant music doc “Searching for Sugar Man.”) Williams thought it would go down a familiar track.
Kessler initially had a very different approach to the subject matter, as well, with a kind of “VH1 Storytellers” framework in place. “What I thought originally was that since Paul is such a great singer/songwriter and a lot of his songs have these lush seventies arrangements, and I would have loved to have Paul record his songs with stripped down vocals and maybe make a movie that’s following Paul around through airports and buying toothpaste,” Kessler explained. “But as I started shooting the movie and hanging out with him and I started to see that this guy who I started hanging out with was way more interesting than the guy who I loved as a kid.”
What’s so fascinating about the doc is that it becomes a kind of buddy movie, as Kessler and his incessant crew end up warming Williams’ heart, and he lets them him in on some very personal moments and stories (and, hilariously, inviting Kesller to spend the night at his house, which he greets with the enthusiasm of a sleepover-bound child). Williams put it beautifully when he told us, “I think what’s nice about the movie is that the journey of the filmmaker and the subject kind of became the movie, and what usually winds up on the cutting room floor, became the heart of the movie.” And, indeed, Kessler tried to do a version of the film where he omitted himself. “I edited a version of the movie with a long hunk of it – about an hour – with me not in [it],” Kessler. “It wasn’t getting through who Paul was [or] how Paul acted towards me and how that changed.”