As Jessica Harper looked out onto the full house that had gathered at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles for the 40th anniversary of “Phantom of the Paradise,” she couldn’t help but comment on how things had changed since the Brian DePalma rock opera was released.
“It’s certainly different than the first time I saw it,” said the actress, who recalled sitting in just an audience of three for the opening night of her big screen debut, a mashup of “Faust” and “Phantom of the Opera” with a touch of “Dorian Gray” thrown in, set in the music business about a songwriter named Winslow (William Finley), who is driven to madness after a megalomaniacal record producer named Swan (Paul Williams) steals his music and vows revenge by wreaking havoc on his dance hall The Paradise after being disfigured by one of his record presses.
When the evening’s moderator Edgar Wright asked who from the crowd had seen the film during its initial run at the Dome, there were the lonely claps of three or four people, followed by many more who were younger than the film applauding once he asked who was seeing it for the first time. Yet on the eve of a new deluxe Blu-ray edition of the musical being released by Scream Factory, the film made a triumphant return to Hollywood, its legacy still being rewritten by a growing legion of fans, both famous, such as Wright and Guillermo Del Toro (who recorded a video introduction for the film – an avid collector, it remains the only 35mm film print he owns), and from Winnipeg, the only place on earth where the film was a hit.
In fact, the 40th anniversary screening in L.A. was partially an outgrowth of Phantompalooza, the event organized by Rod Warkentin, Gloria Dignazio and Ari Kahan in the Manitoba province in 2005 to celebrate the film’s 18-week run there and everything that’s followed. Having attracted the late William Finley and Gerrit Graham up north for the first year’s festivities, the second Phantompalooza included a concert with most of the original cast there, paving the way for a collaboration with the Burbank-based fantasy emporium Creature Features on an event in Los Angeles. Between the exhaustive archives on the Swan Archives and the new Blu-ray, much of the film’s history has already been chronicled, but still a few hidden highlights emerged from the 40th anniversary, which featured a panel that included Harper, Williams, Gerrit Graham, Peter Elbling, Jeffrey Comanor and editor Paul Hirsch, detailed below.
The night belonged to William Finley. According to his wife Susan, who attended the screening with their son Dashiell, Finley’s spirit lingered in the Dome, just the same as his character Winslow did at the Paradise. Williams, who played Swan, said of Finley, whose performance was largely achieved from behind a mask, “What William Finley could do with one eye, I don’t know another actor that could do what he did.”
Peter Elbling, who played one of the members of the Beach Boys-esque band in the film, The Juicy Fruits, credited his involvement in the film to Finley after the two took an improv class together in New York and became friends, leading Finley to recommend him to DePalma. Jessica Harper then fought back tears as she remembered how Finley, who passed away in April 2012, made her comfortable on the set of her first film, saying, “The first day of shooting, the first thing I had to do was to be sexually assaulted by a 350-lb man in the form of George Memmoli [who played Swan’s henchman Philbin], wearing turquoise boxer shorts and a purple velour sweatshirt… I didn’t know anything about shooting a movie. When they said ‘hit your mark,’ I thought they meant to find somebody named Mark and punch him in the nose, so I was very nervous and very short on confidence until this presence appeared on the set in the form of William Finley, who was just very reassuring. He made me feel like I could do it, not by saying a whole lot, but just by being there and being essentially kind and attentive.”
Later in the evening when Susan Finley took to the stage, she spoke of how much it meant for Bill to see the film appreciated before he passed away and presented Wright with a giclee print of one of his mixed media art projects based on Phillip K. Dick’s “The Divine Invasion.” She also gleefully called Wright out on taking some influence from “Phantom,” saying her son introduced his films to she and her husband and “when Dashiell told us about your films and said there was some nod to Phantom in them, the look on Bill’s face — that very innocent, excited and happy look — [occurred] just watching your movies and by the time we got to ‘Scott Pilgrim,’ we were sitting next to each other, going “‘Phantom!’ It’s ‘Phantom!'”
The first day of shooting was a harbinger of things to come. When someone from the audience asked whether the film was shot in sequence, editor Paul Hirsch recalled, that it wasn’t, but went no to say “[The first scene] was in the recording studio where Swan is creating the Phantom’s voice. I loved when he gets the filtering exactly right and Paul says ‘Perfect.’ On the first day of shooting, a fire broke out in the air conditioning duct and everybody was saying, ‘Don’t mess with the devil.'”
Jessica Harper almost sang herself out of playing Phoenix. While Wright worked hard to pay Harper compliments on a career of cult classics, a pretty remarkable run for the selective actress that includes “Suspiria,” “My Favorite Year,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Safe,” Harper insisted it was a string of “pretty consistent bombs,” through she thanked the audience for “keeping my bombs alive.” However, “Phantom” almost wasn’t the first of them. When the actress went to audition for Williams and De Palma in New York, Williams was certain he had found his Phoenix, the Phantom’s object of affection and protection, when he quietly crept up behind her to listen in as she gently sang the opening bars of The Carpenters’ “Superstar” to herself before walking into the room. (Williams actually snuck in a reference to this in the film.) But once Harper actually was in front of the director, she belted out the song, leading Williams to stop the audition and urge her to sing it as she did in the hall.
Ultimately, it was good enough for her to receive what she described as “the Katherine Hepburn screen test experiences,” where she was flown out to LA to stay at the Chateau Marmont. Though she didn’t think she had a chance against the other woman vying for the part, Linda Ronstadt, she got a better idea once she went out to dinner with DePalma and Martin Scorsese, among others, and was pulled away in the middle of it. “This was kind of a dead giveaway — the costume designer came to our dinner table at Musso and Frank’s and dragged me into the bathroom and measured me. I thought maybe that was indicative.” Williams would go on to tell Harper, “your performance of “Old Souls” is one of the most treasured things in my life,” to which she thanked Williams by saying, “It was such a gift getting that song.”
“The Hell of It” nearly ended up on the depths of the cutting room floor. Paul Williams had originally composed the rabble-rousing song that plays over the closing credits for what was supposed to be the funeral of Beef, Graham’s indomitable pop star, his death coming earlier the film after he’s zapped in the shower. Said Williams, “One of the great tragic moments for me was not getting to shoot the scene “The Hell of It” was written for because originally there was a graveyard scene for Beef’s funeral and we probably didn’t have enough money to shoot it. But what I wanted to do was kind of a takeoff on Nino Rota and that “8 1/2″ ending with everybody dancing around in a circle over an open grave and if you follow all the cables and you go back to a hearse where Swan is recording the funeral and at the very end, a little girl jumps on the casket as it’s being lowered into the grave and starts tap-dancing on it for Swan.”
Fans who read the novelization of the “Phantom of the Paradise” have long known about the scene, and while editor Paul Hirsch could work wonders, he couldn’t resurrect something that wasn’t shot. Still, he did the next best thing by creating a curtain call for the cast at the end of the film to “lighten the mood.” Said Hirsch, “[“The Hell of It”] was a wonderful song and ironically upbeat. We felt the end of the picture was very depressing and we wanted to remind the audience of what a wonderful time they had had in the first hour and a half, so we created this montage.”
Hirsch was as deft with his cuts in the editing room as the Phantom was with his at the Paradise. Hirsch was genuinely taken aback by the response at the Los Angeles screening, the first time he had seen “Phantom” in 40 years. Though he went on to win an Oscar for editing “Star Wars” and since worked on such films as “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the film remained close to his heart since he went to school for music and considers it his first love. Said Hirsch, “I’m a music lover more than a musician and to edit a musical used all my musical ability for what it is.”
Perhaps that’s why he had the inspired idea to make Beef’s big musical number “Life at Last” subconsciously even crazier by reshuffling the frames to create the unnatural gesticulations during his electrocution. “I had this idea if you took each pair of frames and reversed them, two at a time (2, 1, 4, 3, 6, 5, 8, 7, 10, 9), so it’s happening in real time and all the frames are there, but they’re in the wrong order,” said Hirsch. “There’s nothing added to the image, but I actually did the splicing one frame at a time.”
However, given director DePalma’s penchant for long tracking shots (some of which Hirsch lamented had to hit the cutting room floor), sometimes the editor had his work taken care of for him, such as the Phantom’s first attack on Swan’s production of “Faust,” a harrowing split-screen scene told from two perspectives that Gerrit Graham revealed was shot simultaneously. Said Graham, “It might look as though the two sides were shot at separate times, but in fact, it was two cameras filming at the same time, choreographed so they just missed each other as they came around a corner. And when you see Philbin put the guys and the girls in that phony car and push them out there on the other side of the screen, that’s the same car.” (Jeffrey Comanor, who played one of the Juicy Fruits, the band rehearsing on stage in the scene, also remembered that it well. He recalled how the film’s overzealous stunt coordinator packed a little too much real explosive material into the fake bomb that was placed in the back of the car, a nod to “Touch of Evil”‘s opening sequence, which inspired the scene. “There was so much more explosion than any of us were ready for and we were sitting there in our skivvies practically and we ran through that stuff and we all got burned,” said Comanor, who could smile about it now.)
Paul Williams is no longer the devil. Wright couldn’t help but note the irony in seeing Williams, who played the devil incarnate as a music mogul, now serving as the music industry’s number one advocate for musicians’ rights as the president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). “Swan’s version of fair play was pretty unfair,” Williams agreed, though he went on to mention how “Phantom of the Paradise” actually led to two other recent gigs – his work with Guillermo Del Toro on a musical adaptation of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and his collaboration with Daft Punk on “Random Access Memories” for which he recently won a Grammy. “At my age, to stand up there and accept an award for album of the year, [I thought] ‘This is so Swan, it’s amazing.'”