Brian DePalma’s film Phantom of the Paradise, a rock fueled take on the Faustian myth, opened to near global disinterest in the winter of 1974/75. Throughout the world, few moviegoers gave a damn about the film that was scored by Paul Williams and starred a motley group of players. It hardly registered at the box office, but, somewhat implausibly, the film found great success in Winnipeg. Phantom of the Paradise played for months and months in the cold heart of Manitoba and created a generation of youngsters obsessed with the film.
Decades on, the film still has a pull on a disparate group of fans, all connected through a shared love of Death Records, Beef’s caterwauling, and the Phantom’s arch performance in the horror/musical. Veteran indie director Malcom Ingram (Continental) has collaborated with Sean Stanley on a new doc, The Phantom of Winnipeg, which gives the cult hit an appreciation it deserves. The film is a warm look at fandom and obsession that finds in this misfit pack of ‘Peggers a genuine and un-ironic love for De Palma’s strange and surreal film.
Anchored with key interviews with Phantom’s producer Edward Pressman, long-time fan Kevin Smith and the iconic Paul Williams who starred in and scored the original film, Ingram and Stanley’s focus remains fixed on the fans and their unabashed, unwavering admiration for a slice of pop culture ignored by the vast majority of the world. The end result is a highly infectious documentary that reminds audiences that whatever one chooses to fall in love with, one should love it hard, deeply, and without regard to whatever anyone thinks about what makes the heart sing.
POV spoke to the directors following their world premiere of The Phantom of Winnipeg at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival.
MI: Malcolm Ingram
SS: Sean Stanley
POV: Jason Gorber
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. [Ed. –Reader discretion is advised!]
POV: What was your own relationship to Phantom of the Paradise?
SS: I came to Phantom through the director. Through the late 1990s, early 2000s, I worked at Flicks Video Store in London, Ontario, and had access to every Brian De Palma film—basically devoured every single one I could. I came across Phantom of the Paradise and as soon as the Goodbye Eddie song hit, I was hooked. For the next six months, everybody came to my house to check out this film. After that, I downloaded the soundtrack on Napster – now I have it on vinyl and CD!
POV: Which film got you into De Palma?
SS: Blow Out.
MI: He stole my answer!
POV: What led you there first as well?
MI: Grease led me there because of John Travolta as I loved Saturday Night Fever. I remember how I rode my bike downtown to the Oakville Playhouse Theatre to see this new Travolta film called Blow Out.
SS: I rented it from a place called Cinema City when Tarantino said it had “the best performance by John Travolta of all time.”
POV: Malcolm, what’s your connection to Phantom?
MI: Late Great Movies on City TV. The first time I saw it, I remember two things. First, Paul Williams’ performance as Swan was ultra-creepy and I loved it. But I was terrified by the whole record plant scene. I just remember that really fucked me up—the movie just felt really sinister. When you’re a kid, you’re really sensitive to that kind of stuff. The two things that freaked me out when I was a kid were Phantom of the Paradise and Yellow Submarine.
POV: What were the documentaries that encouraged you to make your ode to Phantom?
SS: I watch a lot of films for inspiration and for this Phantom doc, I only watched one movie and that was American Movie.
POV: In some ways, American Movie is about filmmakers who don’t realize how bad their film is.
MI: [Groans] That’s the negative was of seeing it. That is not what I got out of American Movie at all. It’s about the passion. It’s about the relentless drive to create!
SS: With American Movie, I think the characters are great. I was hoping that with Phantom of Winnipeg with a little luck we’ll have some characters that are this great. I hope it fits right in there with Fubar and Anvil! – great Canadian, quirky “hoser” films.
MI: Another obvious influence was Searching for Sugarman, yet think ours is more authentic.
POV: The whole dynamic of Sugarman is that Rodriguez wasn’t “lost” anywhere, but was a hit in South Africa. With Phantom of the Paradise, for the rest of the world, nobody gave a damn, except in small pockets like Winnipeg.
MI: The one fear I had about our movie was that we’d fly to Winnipeg and it’s going there’d only be three people who love that film.
POV: So the film asks “Why Winnipeg?” and doesn’t necessarily doesn’t come up with a satisfying answer, but it comes up with many suggestions.
SS: It gives you a lot to pick from.
POV: What is it that you think they saw in Phantom?
SS: It’s the right age, right place, right time, and they love their fucking rock and roll.
MI: Winnipeg loves their rock and roll, man. Winnipeg’s a real rock and roll town, and Phantom’s a rock and roll movie. They really had a kind of community, but the weird thing is, a lot of these people didn’t know each other when they were kids. They were all in the same theatre, but they’re only now meeting as adults.
POV: They weren’t tweeting to each other.
SS: If I was in the theatre every week, I’d be like, “Oh, there’s that kid! Oh, there’s that kid!” I’d be like, “I’m going to talk to that kid” and be like, “You obviously love this movie as much as I do.” It did blow my mind that none of them somehow ran into each other. They all had different experiences and a lot of them keep saying they thought they were the only one.
POV: What your film demonstrates is that they weren’t loving this because nobody else loved it. They were just loving it. There was no triumph of them loving this film to be Winnipeg because those in Toronto or Montreal didn’t get it and they were being contrarian.
MI: It wasn’t hipster.
POV: This wasn’t The Room. This wasn’t people getting together to love it because it’s bad.
MI: It’s not a celebration of specialness. They love this movie because it’s good.
SS: It’s girls falling in love with Swan and thinking like, “This is the Brad Pitt of my generation!”
MI: One of my favourite scenes in our movie is when Tracey’s talking about Paul Williams and she’s literally reflecting back on her younger self. She’s a pretty girl, and she just wanted to marry Paul Williams.
POV: Your film took a while to make.
MI: It was a real “hurry up and wait” thing. It was four years between conception and release.
POV: Is that simply a matter of trying to get the financing together and the structure together? What is the period between when you had the footage and actually had the final film?
MI: We had the footage four years ago. I financed it myself pretty much. This is a real credit card thing. We did a failed campaign, a social media, Indiegogo thing. We made some money there, but not enough.
POV: I guess there are not enough rich people in Winnipeg any longer.
SS: There was a big fight trying to explain the idea to people. When my mom finally saw the trailer, she said “Oh, this makes so much more sense to me now!” Fucking hell.
MI: Phantom of the Paradise is in a different place now than it was four years ago, with people like Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright openly talking about it now, calling it one of their favourite works. The profile is definitely up.
POV: How much of an influence did Guy Maddin have on the making of the film?
MI: Zero. I mean, I like the guy…
SS: I love him!
MI: We asked him to be in it. We’re in his playground, and I absolutely admire Guy Maddin.
POV: Is De Palma on record at all about the Winnipeg phenomenon?
MI: Isn’t there an outtake in that documentary he did or something?
SS: He mentions Paris, but he doesn’t mention Winnipeg!
POV: It’s not his story, but it’s a notable absence.
SS: If Brian doesn’t want to come in and talk about a movie that bombed…
MI: …That it’s not something we pursued that hard because he had no connection. Edward Pressman came in as the producer to talk about the failure of the film, but essentially, De Palma had no connection to the Winnipeg thing.
SS: Ed financed it. He felt the impact of the financial failure. But Brian doesn’t talk about it.
MI: And I know it sounds like we’re dancing around, but it wasn’t something we pursued. I needed Paul Williams to tell this story. If Paul Williams was not going to be interviewed, I wouldn’t have made the movie. There is no movie without him.
POV: Williams comfortably talks about this “failure” and how this island of fans kept it alive.
SS: Paul is the first one to say what Winnipeg’s done for that film and what the film has subsequently done for his career. He’s floored by it. He loves it.
MI: Paul Williams is so plugged into the zeitgeist as a human being. Just think of the touchstones that guy has: Bugsy Malone, Evergreen from A Star Is Born . That dude wrote songs for The Carpenters! The man’s a genius, and when you have that kind of genius, he learns to appreciate things. He appreciates the small gesture of the Winnipeg thing, that these people get his art. I think that it was wonderful, and they had a reciprocal relationship that continued through decades.
SS: Winnipeg is not a failure for him.
POV: The first time I learned about the Winnipeg connection was with the 2011 documentary Paul Williams Still Alive by Stephen Kessler. How did that film affect your own project?
MI: I was originally talking about doing this movie in 2008. I first reached out to Doug Carlson, the production consultant who’s in the film. He’s one of the fans and had written an article about the phenomenon. We were talking about it, and then he admitted that there there’s already film crew there. I waited until that movie came out, and I saw there’s room. I didn’t want to step on any toes, but I saw I could totally tell this story.
POV: What’s it like making a documentary in this country? What kind of support did you guys get?
MI: I didn’t get any support from this country.
SS: A lot of the movie was made between 12am and 7am, because I’d go make money elsewhere and then I’d stay up late.
POV: What’s your other gig?
SS: Video production, this and that, music videos.
POV: And then at night you’re cutting this.
SS: For this project, yeah, that’s how it worked for a good year.
POV: And yourself, Malcolm?
MI: This was the first time I applied for a grant because it’s the first time I made something fundamentally Canadian. They turned us down. I don’t know, man.
SS: It felt like a very big struggle in the beginning to get people interested.
MI: This is my seventh documentary, I think. It’s all just been privately funded. Telefilm doesn’t support me.
SS: It’s very hard. We make movies. But, if it ain’t payin’ I gotta go pick up some work. I gotta pay bills.
POV: So here’s the hardest question of all: Why?
MI: Why make them? Because you have to.
SS: It’s compulsion. There’s no why.
MI: I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, but if anybody asks me about my job, if you can find anything else that will give you fulfillment, do that. This job will break your heart, break your brain, leave you broke. Literally, it’s a bad relationship.
SS: But for this film right now, amazing.
MI: ’Cause sometimes you get a good blow job and you’re like, “I’ll just stick around.” That’s kind of like the movie business. It’s shit, but ultimately, that one time, you’re like, “Ah, that’s worth sticking around for!”
POV: If heroin wasn’t good, nobody would do it.
MI: That’s the thing, that’s one of the funniest jokes. What did cocaine make you feel like? Like having another line.
POV: Clearly, you’re doing this out of a mixture of lunacy and passion.
MI: Sure. Madness.
SS: I’d say that’s very fair.
The Phantom of Winnipeg premiered at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.