If you’ve spent any part of your life convincing friends of family members that comic books (or strips for that matter) are art, For No Good Reason is the perfect movie for you. The story of Ralph Steadman, who teamed with Hunter S. Thompson for Fear and Loathing (and lots of other projects) while cultivating a repertoire full of provocative, sophisticated and yet decidedly anarchic work, Charlie Paul’s documentary pays tribute to the iconoclasts of the art world, the people who took populist expression and made it personal, and more than that, profound.
Paul spoke with Spinoff Online at the recent Los Angeles press day for For No Good Reason, where he was in exceptional spirits as he recalled the 15-year experience of bringing the documentary to life. In addition to talking about his own earliest moments of discovery with Steadman, Paul revealed how he earned the artist’s trust, and then reflected on the process of showcasing the sophistication and true artistry of Steadman’s irreverent, intuitive approach to his work.
Spinoff Online: What was the work or piece of art that hooked you on Ralph Steadman’s work?
Charlie Paul: I would say my first awareness of Ralph would’ve been a book – I think Alice in Wonderland was the first time I saw someone approach a subject so traditionally and yet so differently. Ralph’s drawings for Alice in Wonderland are so precise graphically and yet they’re so kind of loose in that sense. So I just knew that as an artist who was not only in full control of his art but also was able to experiment and be rough and loose. And I just thought as an art student I came out of art college unhappy with my work because it was always static and it was always trying to fall over somewhere. I grew up on Marvel comics, which are full of movement, you know, everything’s on the way somewhere. I actually wanted to be a comic book artist. That was my plan in life. It didn’t quite work out. I didn’t work hard enough to be good enough. So the idea of art being on the verge of going somewhere was something I left college being fascinated by, and it’s something that Ralph supplied me with in buckets, because that’s how his art works.
I overheard you saying that you feel like he understood you as an artist enough to trust you. But what was the initial process of earning that trust? Was it a matter of showing him your work?
Quite the opposite, actually. I think if I showed Ralph my work he could have suddenly went, like, whoa, [and said no] like that. No, the thing that happened between Ralph and I was we instantly kind of hit it off. And when Ralph trusts someone or he accepts something, he does it with no bars. So when I first went down to Ralph’s, he gave me this big box of tapes and said, “Review these.” And that was the moment that I knew that Ralph had entrusted me with his life, in a sense. And it was never questioned after that. It came a point where our relationship actually created new work. So I’d go down to the studio, Ralph wouldn’t know what he’s doing that day and he’d go, “What should we do?” And I’d go, “oh” and I’d pull a book out and go, “Let’s do this.” And he go, “Oh, let’s do …” so there was definitely a period throughout where Ralph enjoyed my company, and I obviously loved watching Ralph work.
And there were also stages where, for example, where Hunter shot himself and Ralph was very depressed about the whole thing and I’d get phone calls from his wife saying come down – Ralph’s been really glum for the last two weeks. And I’d go down, and between two of us we’d all cheer each other up. So it kind of came to a point where we both enjoy the process of making the film, so much so the film took 15 years to complete because actually neither of us were in a hurry to part company. And we haven’t, since so I still go down there regularly and he’s coming up to New York next week. So we’re in a fantastic place where I’ve made a lifelong friend.
It sounds to me like the process of making this film was not unlike him making one of his pieces of art where you were not necessarily sure where this was going to end when you started.
Absolutely. Exactly like his art, as you can see from the film.
At what point did you feel like a structure emerged? Was it a matter of assembling the material, or did you get five years into this process and go, oh, I think I know vaguely what I want to do with this as a film?
The process I used as I went down – if you say to Ralph do this, he’ll do that. You can’t direct Ralph. So what I did at first, I took his publications and I started working on each publication, be it Fear and Loathing or be it, like, Kentucky Derby. And we’d pick these subjects up and drop them as per Ralph’s interests. And over the first five years these little balls of stories, kind of snowballs kind of gathered. And I ended up with a whole bunch of these kind of individual stories, some being publications, some being photographs and that kind of stuff, that started to hold weight. So at that stage I had all these balls but there’s no kind of structure. And I had about a three and a quarter hour edit that I kind of was pleased with, but it was a bit kind of crazy; it was all over, a bit like Ralph’s art. And my wife, producer Lucy, producer of the film, said, “OK, enough of this; this can go on forever. I’m going to get an editor involved.”
So we obviously met a lot of editors and eventually I met a fantastic editor called Joby Gee who had just won all the BAFTAs in the U.K. for The Fallen, a fantastic documentary. And Joby and I got together, I showed him all these bits of film I’d made and he just went, wow. He’d never seen some of the proprietary material prior to an edit; he was like mad. So we’d edit for a while, maybe three or four months and then Joby would go away for six months and I’d shoot stuff that reinforced the bits that we decided that were going to hold weight. And that’s how the process went. I keep adding to stuff. And in the end we had a whole bunch of these very kind of complete lumps, and then and there was a eureka moment to where we finally decided we were going to have it work chronologically. So in fact all the chapters in the film are all about publications or bodies of work and they all work chronologically throughout the film. There’s only one or two bits that we actually go back to his childhood and so on. So in that sense of the edit then threw a lot of material out because we had so much material, so many publications that weren’t going to make it. And even to a point where a lot of people ask why I didn’t cover Ralph’s arts school days and why he was an artist. Well, we made a whole massive segment beautifully made, really lovely with his old art teacher and all Ralph’s original drawings. But the film was very boring starting about somebody you didn’t even know about and is art wasn’t even formed. So that whole segment made the DVD. So the nice thing about DVDs and that kind of stuff is you don’t lose that material forever. So I was quite happy to know that certain things weren’t going to be lost but I was lucky enough to have an editor who I trusted enough who took stuff out and made a cohesive movie that you feel is a journey that you can pull through without kind of losing the thread. So that was about five years ago that process started. And about a year ago in fact we kind of finished the edit. And for about a year we’ve kind of sat on it now and we looked at it for a long time and made sure everything stuck. And at the end we printed it and that’s where the film is now.
One of the ways he sort of characterizes his sort of politically minded art is he calls it almost kind of self-righteous to be speaking truth to power. What to you was the best way to characterize that, without actually seeming self-righteous in the film? Does what he says eliminate that as a possibility, or did you have to do something sort of structurally or editorially to ensure that what he was saying was provocative and thoughtful without him being self-righteous?
I think the thing about the film it does portray Ralph correctly. Ralph is faultless in his honesty and his outlook. Ralph never came across – he’s worried that he’d seem self-righteous but it’s never the case. Ralph talks genuinely and very cleverly; he’s a very intellectual man and very knowledgeable. So his knowledge of American politics is unbelievable. But he’ll never talk about it. It’s an early on question. So in that sense Ralph’s honesty and his integrity always allowed the camera to not feel or the filming to feel as if it was genuine, honest. And to be perfectly honest there was very little — I don’t think I ever removed something I thought, God, Ralph won’t want to see that back. Because it sounds like I’m just beefing up Ralph and so on, but in the film that’s the genuine man. He is 100-percent articulate and honest and concerned, all those things. And I think through years and years of him being kind of unrelentlessly kind of pursuing that goal has meant that Ralph genuinely talks honestly and it doesn’t come across as anything but his concern. Ralph is deeply concerned for all of us all the time. I mean that’s the problem Ralph has in life. He wakes up and he really worries for your kids or for my family, for my dog, whatever it may be, and that I captured but I could never have escaped that. I mean that is Ralph. He’s a genuine artist.
He seems to have a very clear understanding of what he does, but at the same time seems resistant to the idea of clarifying a process or through line. Was there anything that over the course of making this that you feel like you may have taught him about his own work?
Let me think … No. I think what I managed to bring to Ralph was the idea not to give up. One of Ralph’s favorite sayings is, “I set out to change the world and I succeeded. The world is a worse place now than it ever was.” Ralph, no, it’s not. And what I hope to instill in Ralph is he lives in a void and he doesn’t feel like he’s made a difference. He doesn’t feel like he’s changed the world in the slightest, and yet I forever have said to Ralph even his influence on me and me making a film and therefore my film affecting the next generation, there is a heritage to his work, which is successful. He has, and I’ll argue with him till the cows come home, he has made a difference, however much he doesn’t think the world has seen it, and I hope that’s the one thing I’ve done for Ralph is I’ve made him realize that it wasn’t all wasted time. That he has actually profoundly affected my life and all the people that I hope to affect through showing my film.
His art has such an anarchic quality, but the movie itself is very polished. How deliberate was that as a counterpoint to what he was doing, and how much did you want the style of filmmaking to complement his art or contrast with it?
My job as a director was to contain his art. I mean, Ralph – people don’t think Ralph can draw, for example. People think that Ralph does these kind of like crazy scratchy things or splats he has no control over. And I wanted to put some amount of control in the film so you actually understood it was actually a meant thing. The film could have been a whole mess of crazy – we did a Q&A with Ralph yesterday at Pixar, and had a great day at Pixar. Oh ,my God, that place. We had a Q&A with Ralph and Skyped it from his studio and we watched the film for an hour and a half and loved it and all that stuff and then we had a half-an-hour Q&A in his studio. It was fucking crazy. There was paint going everywhere and pictures were hitting the floor and his art was getting messy. And that’s Ralph. So in a way my job as director and the reason I employed such precise filming techniques was to bring this craziness into an acceptable level for people. And I made the film to reach as many people as possible. My job as a filmmaker is not for money, it’s for the message. And for me success of the movie is if it reaches many people that message will. So therefore I made the film to be as reachable to the outside what is possible, hence Johnny Depp being in the film and hence Ralph’s art being controlled like that. And so I hope that my process has allowed Ralph to be more acceptable and more mainstream. And that’s what I shot it that way. I come from a whole career in advertising. I’ve shot adverts for 25 years and adverts are all about precision. You’ve got 30 seconds and there’s not a single frame that hasn’t been accounted for. And so I brought that kind of like discipline to the art world, which is of traditionally very messy and very kind of unregistered border wise. So I hope the two opposites, the same way as Hunter and Ralph, there was Hunter who’s like a complete opposite of Ralph but the two together make the perfect package. And I hope that my kind of filmmaking has complemented Ralph’s crazy art to a point where it’s a same kind of like combination in a sense.
He’s obviously in so many ways an iconoclast. But you mentioned you were sort of raised on comic books. Are there comic book artists that you feel like deserve this same kind of whether it’s canonization or just examination?
Oh, my God. Well, Buscema and the guys from early Marvel. I kind of lost interest in comics about 15 years ago, when I felt that a lot of the craft was lost. But early comics; I have an amazing collection of early Marvels. I have number ones of Thors all the way through to I have all the Silver Surfers, all the original ones. All my life I’ve collected comics, but all those collections all kind of like run out in 1980-something. And I would say that whole Marvel stable at the front end. I never read DC. I was like, that’s rubbish, whereas the Marvel stuff I was always fascinated by. So all those art I thought they were pioneers of what is commercial art now. So early Spider-Mans, you know, Fantastic Fours, Thor, Sub-Mariner, all that kind of stuff is all the stuff that I’ve collected and I’ve passed that collection onto my son, who’s a big boy now, and I think he sold them all to someone else now. But that to me was the legacy that Marvel brought to me. And again, the fact that every frame in the superhero comic books are all about movement and all about juxtaposition of images. And I found that being kind of the inspiration for that’s why my paintings never stood still. My paints were always forever kind of like “pow!”-ing something else or kind of heading off. But as I said I never had the discipline, I never had the talent, the physical talent to do kind of bodies and like the physicality of space and all the discipline and kind of like perspective that those artist did. So Sal and …
Yeah, God – I mean, Kirby. I would buy a comic for the artist, not for the subjects. And sadly in those days sometimes the cover art was done by Kirby, and you’d open it up and you buy it and, Jesus, who threw this stuff inside? So there was always that, it was the art that I followed not the characters. And quite often the artist with a particular subject made me love the subject. That’s kind of how I started.
For No Good Reason is playing now in limited release.