Woody Allen and Paul Leslie; Photo: thepaulleslie.com
Are you still nervous before doing an interview?
I don’t normally get nervous. Every now and then I do, but for the most part, I don’t. I realized it doesn’t matter how brilliant someone is, they are not immune from any of the feelings that I have ever had. Everyone has felt the same things and anyone who tries to be arrogant or tries to act like they’re something extremely special in this world is wrong, because we all started as two cells. So it’s ridiculous to worship someone. I have respect for people, but I don’t get nervous so much anymore. It’s like Larry King told me, everyone puts on their pants one leg at a time, everyone is going to have moments when they feel insecure, everyone has had moments when they were embarrassed, so what’s the big deal? But yes, there are a few people that I respect so much that I know I would get nervous speaking to them.
Who are those people?
I would get very nervous to speak to Paul Simon, because I think he is one of the most brilliant songwriters who has ever lived. I think he is years beyond almost everybody. I also think Billy Joel is one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived and I would be nervous around him, but I would be less nervous, because I feel he writes all of his songs from such an everyman perspective.
Did you ever get the chance to meet these people?
Paul Simon walked right by me a few weeks ago. He performed a couple of songs in Atlanta, but it was mostly him talking about the songwriting process. This great genius of world music walked right by me, and for a second I got kind of nervous, which is a rare feeling for me, but I am so in awe of his work because he’s so brilliant. I realized what an incredible influence he has made and how positive his music has been for all of us. There are a few people like that that I feel just a tiny bit of nervousness. Maybe Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, obviously Paul McCartney. The great songwriters. But then again, I don’t think I would be as nervous as I was years ago, when I was first starting.
Who was the first celebrity you interviewed?
The first interview that I did with a celebrity was Jeff Bridges. And I was a little nervous then, because it was the first one, but he disarmed all that. He is a genuine person. So there is no reason to be nervous. At the end of the day, a person with fame has the same insecurities that anyone else has, if not more.
Were you nervous when you interviewed Larry King?
No, I was more excited than anything. He is somebody who has interviewed 50,000 people. Just about everyone in world culture that has done anything. We didn’t talk that long, but I feel that in the short amount of time that we talked, we were able to communicate some meaningful things. I still have hope that I will speak to him again one day.
What about when you met Woody Allen?
First of all, my favorite director is Woody Allen. I think he has the ability to make almost any kind of movie. If something challenged him to make a film outside of the genre he normally makes, he would come up with something that is entertaining.
I knew I was going to interview Woody Allen the moment I got it in my mind. From the moment I thought about Woody Allen as an interviewee, I had 100 % confidence that I would speak to him. I don’t know why, I just did. And when I spoke to him, I had this feeling that he was being somewhat dismissive and that he didn’t appreciate my questions. We talked for about a half hour and when the interview was over, I walked away from it and I felt like he wasn’t that impressed. Then I got to speak to his musical director – because Woody Allen is in the New Orleans Jazz Band that he performs every Monday – and Eddy Davis, the musical director, said: Woody was very impressed with your questions. He is so used to answering these vacuous and sometimes asinine questions, and you asked him about things he hadn’t really had the chance to talk about. That was a compliment, although I didn’t get it first hand from Woody Allen.
I spoke to Woody Allen mostly about his love of music. I figured we had that in common, and anyone who watches Woody Allen movies knows that the music is just perfect. We both have an affection for really old music. I’m a huge fan of music from the ‘20s and the ‘30s and I wanted to talk to him about something he was really interested. He has done a hundred interviews about his movies, but I spoke to him mostly about music.
Woody Allen was definitely one of the best interviews I ever did in terms of how much it meant to me, because like I said, he’s my favorite director. Woody and Peter Bogdanovich, with whom I’ll be doing an interview soon.
Everything you dream about is a possibility. I’m sure that when I started watching Woody Allen movies, it never occurred to me that I would speak to the man himself in such great detail. Fate has been kind to me.
If I ask you to make a top 3 of people you would love to interview, who would they be?
That’s so hard, because there are so many that I would love to talk to! One that really means a lot to me is David Letterman. I believe he is one of the reasons that I interview people. Letterman has an incredible ability as an interviewer. He is overlooked frequently, because he takes a comedic approach to it, but watch The Late Show with David Letterman and be amazed how in five minutes he is able to get something really interesting or thought-provoking or really funny out of just about anybody. I absolutely love The Late Show. It has driven me to the point where I have interviewed almost everyone who appears on the stage with him night after night. And it’s interesting how things are connected: the guy who films the majority of my interviews now was a David Letterman scholarship winner at Ball State University.
I think number 2 would probably be Bruce Sussman. He is a lyricist who wrote many songs with Barry Manilow. He also wrote the book and lyrics for a musical called “Harmony” that recently played at the Alliance Theater here in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve spoken to all of the lyricists that write with Barry Manilow, except for Bruce. He has always eluded me. I had the chance, very briefly, to shake his hand. I recognized him at a Barry Manilow concert this year, here in Atlanta. It was a very brief encounter, but he has always eluded me as an interviewee and I have to accept the fact that I will probably never have the opportunity to speak to him. I have to respect that, but I believe that if he will ever decide to communicate with me, something meaningful would result from it.
I have been told that number 3 will happen at some point. I know well enough that not everything you’re told will happen actually happens, but I’ve been told I will get the chance to speak to Joni Mitchell. She is one of the greatest songwriters who has ever lived. I’m in awe of her ability to create. She is one of those people who just oozes with artistic expression. You listen to the songs that she wrote and it’s not possible to not have your heart affected by them.
What other artists do you most like to interview, except songwriters?
I talk to an increasing number of actors and I’m definitely a huge movie fan. Anytime that I need to do something, if I go to the movies or if I watch a movie, it will give me some idea. By the time the movie is over, something will plant itself in my mind. I will see the situation differently. A lot of times I use movies as a way to explain what is going on in life.
There are a lot of actors that I’ve always wanted to speak with. One of them would be Bill Murray. He is a guy who doesn’t have a manager, an agent or a publicist. He is free to be himself and you know that anything he does is a result of wanting truly to do it. It’s something that speaks within him. I view him as a true artist, because he’s doing things for the right reasons. I’ve never met Bill Murray, so I could be way off, but that’s the feeling I get.
I think actors and directors are probably my second favorite group to talk to. But any kind of art has the ability to affect me. And anyone who affects my heart is someone I want to talk to. There have been painters that I’ve spoken to, authors – when I spoke with the actor Gene Wilder, the number one thing we talked about was his books. He is still affecting people’s heart, he has just changed his canvas. I don’t make any difference in terms of creative expressions. I am interested in talking to creative people.
Why do you think art is so important in our daily lives?
A movie or a book aren’t things that are a daily need, like food or shelter. We don’t need a movie or albums to survive, but would living life be worth it without those things? I don’t think it would. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world without music; I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world without stories, without art of any kind. I guess my preoccupation with those things is a result of the fact that I realized that this is what life is made of. It can be a 4 minute song, but that 4 minute song can affect everything you feel, it can change your outlook on the day, it can change the way you respond to another person. I’ve done some pretty interesting things as a result of what I’ve heard in a song.
What did interviewing teach you about yourself?
I think it has taught me how intensely interested I am in others. I’ve told you about how interested I am in talking to creative people, but I am very concerned with the people around me. There are people that work at coffee shops, that are waiters, the person who work at the front desk at the hotel that are my heroes. All of these people have a story.
Interviewing has taught me that we all have a story and that’s what makes us human beings. And as far as what it has taught me about myself, it has taught me there is almost nobody that I can’t communicate with effectively, if I am willing to adapt to the way that they communicate. Maybe that sounds a little arrogant, but it’s absolutely true – if an interview goes badly, it’s my fault, because I didn’t adapt to the way that they speak.
Are you sure about that?
Yes. I think anytime something goes bad in life, the first thing that you need to think about is: What role did I play in this? That’s hard for a lot of people to do and it’s hard for me to do, but it’s good to ask yourself. I haven’t had many interviews that have gone badly, since I’ve adapted that mindset that if it goes wrong, it’s probably going to be my fault.
I think it’s also taught me how sincere and how intense my love for songwriters is. Many songwriters aren’t necessarily names that you would recognize. I can think of one interview that I did with the artist who wrote the song “From A Distance,” Julie Gold. I’ve learned to realize how much I adore and how much I appreciate the creative minds of this song. Everyone wants to praise Bette Midler, and she absolutely deserves adulation for her talents, but I’m in awe especially of the woman who wrote that song. What kind of mind came up with that? So I don’t care how many people will listen to this interview, I’m doing it because I believe that person deserves the praise. They deserve it. I’ve learned how strong within me that desire is to give these persons the recognition that they deserve.
My mom is someone who really likes music. And I remember a couple of times in my life talking about lyrics and her asking me: What do you think that that means? Maybe that has made a bigger influence on me than I think. She asked me a lot of things about lyrics and I’ve never lost that desire to know. It’s intensely interesting to me to know what inspires songs.
What interesting things have happened to you as a result of doing interviews?
There have been some interesting things. I remember one time when after I had interviewed Fats Domino, I was at his house in Louisiana, and we were sitting on this big pink convertible couch and we were drinking beer. And I started to sing the song “Walking to New Orleans” and he joined me, so we sang some of the song together. It was a special moment to me, because that song inspired me to walk 300 + miles from north Florida to New Orleans.
I was backstage at a Harry Connick, Jr. concert. And he kind of knew a little bit of who I was because I had interviewed his father, Harry Connick, Sr. Then, after his concert, there were all these people around and I don’t know exactly how it happened, but we were backstage and he was laying on the ground with me and we were like wrestling and he was trying to get me to overpower him. I remember people were thinking that was such a bizarre thing and they were taking pictures of it.
I also think the fact that we’re doing this interview is really interesting. In essence, the reason that we’re talking is Elliot Mintz. I followed my inner instincts that Elliot was someone I was supposed to talk to in this lifetime. I went out to Los Angeles and it was a very meaningful exchange. He gave me a lot of encouragement and he made me believe in myself more. I’ve always felt like that interview is really special.
What can people expect on your website, thepaulleslie.com?
I have never had a central location where every interview I’ve done is available for someone to listen to, watch or read. That is why I’ve been undertaking the building of this website. There is 10 years of interviews that is going to go up there. It’s going to be a location where people could pull up any of them. No matter how they choose how to experience that interview, they will be able to do it. If they’re more audibly influenced, they can listen to it. But if they just want to read it, that’s available too. I will have the transcripts. Then, every time I do an interview, it will be posted up there and I will allow people to discuss it on the website. I want to use the website as a continuous source where people can experience them. I want to create the kind of community where people are experiencing these interviews and providing feedback, asking me questions that I could ask other people. So I believe thepaulleslie.com is going to be a tremendous resource. I want to encourage people to listen to the stuff that I have there and maybe try to learn about people they don’t know. Because there are artists with stories that are not known; those are the most exciting for me.
I must thank ROBH, my creative collaborator for building the site with me. I also must thank writers FRANK REDDY, KYLE PRATER and DANIEL BUCKNER for contributing their writing work to the site. It would not be possible without the transcribers who perhaps have worked harder than anyone. The top three being GAYLE BRAZDA, ROSALIND WINTON and LORI DOMINGO. I have nothing, but love for them.
Do you know exactly how many people you have interviewed?
It’s a few hundred now, but I don’t have an exact number. When the site gets started, it will probably be a fourth of those, but I’m going to be adding as we go on. Eventually all of them will be on there.
Will there be two separate sections for The Paul Leslie Hour and Paul Leslie Presents?
Paul Leslie Presents is what I call my filmed interviews. The video is the next thing that I’m trying to get into. We’re living in an audio-visual age. It’s harder because it takes a lot of work to edit video, but whenever possible, I want to do the interviews on camera. It just keeps you more engaged. First of all, because you get to see the facial expressions of the person. There are certain things we do with our voice, with our face and with our hands that are so primal and so basic, that no human being is immune from them. There are certain things that we do and that we say that no matter how smart we are, no matter how cunning, people are going to react to certain words and facial expressions. Communication at its most basic is very, very simple, it doesn’t necessarily involve big words. You communicate something from the moment the door opens and you walk in. You communicate with your eyes, with the way you’re standing, with the inflection of your voice, with the way you touch your hair. Nobody is in complete control of their communication and their emotions. You can take the most seemingly strong person and in a moment, something that you say or do can completely unravel them.
We need to communicate. We need to be listened and to be understood, we need to listen to someone else, it’s good for us to listen and it’s good for us to talk. It’s fascinating that people like you and me, like Elliot, Larry King, Charlie Rose – we are able to take something as simple as communication – which maybe isn’t so simple after all – and make it a consuming lifelong passion. I feel very fortunate to be able to allow other people to be understood.
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