Many know of the movie “Ishtar” more by reputation than of ever having seen it. When released, it received overwhelmingly negative reviews (songwriter Paul Williams described them as a “tsunami of hate”) and “Ishtar” soon became one of the biggest box office bombs of all time; grossing $14 million against a budget of $55 million.
Years later however, “Ishtar” has gained a strong cult following and many see it as a truly hilarious movie. Quentin Tarantino has called it one of his favorite movies and even owns a 35mm print of it. Much of the humor found in this unfairly maligned film comes from Williams’ songs, and he was at Cinefamily in Los Angeles on June 16, 2012 to talk about writing them and working with director Elaine May and stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
The emcee at Cinefamily asked Williams how he could write songs that were “so close to terrible and yet somehow believable,” and he commented that there was “a pure joy in their badness.” Williams said he took a “method approach” to writing for these characters who were essentially “mismatched writers.” Lyle Rogers (played by Beatty) has “this country background,” and Chuck Clarke (played by Hoffman) is a “slick city guy full of himself.”
Going even further with this approach, to write songs where the characters are crawling around in the desert, Williams said he spent “two nights in the desert alone” to get a feel of what it would be like. Looking back he did say that there were “chemicals involved,” but that it was mostly alcohol as “Ishtar” was being filmed in Morocco.
In working with director May, Williams said she “couldn’t tell him what she wanted” for the music but that she would know it when she heard it. Williams quoted May in telling how they would work together:
“There’ll be a couple of lines of a song that are going to be slotted in.”
“So I’ll write a couple of lines of the song,” Williams said.
“No,” said May. “I won’t know which lines are the right ones. You’re gonna have to write the whole song and you can’t sing it. I want you to teach it to Dustin and Warren to play and sing.”
From there Williams said that “for every little bit of two lines, I wrote fifty songs for ‘Ishtar’ and I taught them to Warren and Dustin.” This whole process ended up taking 18 months to complete.
The first song Williams played for May which he wrote for “Ishtar” was “Carol,” and it had such ridiculous lyrics like:
“When you can taste the pride in Dallas and lose your taste for malice… That’s when the morning is going to change your name to Carol.”
After that, Beatty immediately said to Williams “you’re hired!” May however went “yeah, but I’m still not sure…” So then Williams played her a song called “That a Lawnmower Can Do All That,” and she went “done!”
After that the emcee played a number of clips from “Ishtar” where Beatty and Hoffman performed Williams’ songs, and the audience laughed at them uncontrollably. For a movie so critically eviscerated, “Ishtar” looks far better than its reputation would suggest. Hopefully Columbia Pictures will take the time to finally release the movie on DVD as it hasn’t to date. A new generation of moviegoers have embraced “Ishtar” shamelessly, and they have given this box office turkey a new lease on life.