For No Good Reason takes audiences on a fascinating journey of discovery into the life and works of Ralph Steadman, one of the most important radical British artists of modern times and the last of the original Gonzo visionaries. Fifteen years in the making, the documentary directed by Charlie Paul reflects the culmination of his roots as a punk, art student, photographer and filmmaker. The multi-layered narrative features contributions from Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam, and Richard E. Grant, among others, and is a study in honesty, friendship and the ambition that drives an artist. Opening April 25th, the film is produced by Lucy Paul.
In an exclusive interview, the husband-wife filmmaking team talked about the appeal of doing a documentary about Steadman, gaining his trust, how the archive footage Steadman provided from his years with Thompson inspired their approach, the variety of formats they used to reveal Steadman’s artistic process and bring his illustrations to life, how key friends and collaborators who were part of Steadman’s life were brought into the story to draw an intriguing portrait, the musical contributions by Slash, Ed Harcourt, and Jason Mraz, and the cool projects their production company is currently working on including a new documentary directed by Asif Kapadia on late singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. Check out the interview after the jump.
CHARLIE PAUL: I was aware of Ralph’s work as an art student. He was very much an underground artist that everyone knew about but very little was known about him. When I came out of Art College, I was really interested in the process of capturing art as film, and I’d heard that Ralph was playing with cameras in his studio through a third party and filming his work. So, I sent him a letter and I said, “Dear Ralph, Can I come down? I’m very interested in filming art and I hear you do. Can I come down and show you my work?” He said, “Dear boy, I don’t think filming works with the kind of thing I do, but come down and meet me anyway.” I went down to his house in Old Loose Court in Maidstone and we hit it off. I showed Ralph some of my work. He instantly trusted me in a way and gave me a whole box of archive footage from his years with Hunter that he’d filmed personally and said, “Take this away and have a look at this.” So I went back to my studio.
LUCY PAUL: It’s amazing for a first exchange. I always wondered what happened during that first exchange.
CHARLIE PAUL: I don’t know. He was very trusting.
He obviously trusted you.
CHARLIE PAUL: Oh immediately. We bonded straightaway. And so, I took his footage home. I started looking through it and my jaw dropped. It was like having someone’s personal life opened up to you. Even though I wasn’t able to use a lot of his footage in my film because it was filmed on equipment that was not up to cinema standards like DV cameras and so on, it certainly gave me all the clues I needed as to how to approach Ralph in my filmmaking.
What was it about Ralph that appealed to you and made you want to make a documentary about him?
CHARLIE PAUL: His art actually. His art was the thing.
LUCY PAUL: And the message in his art.
CHARLIE PAUL: I was amazed that someone was saying these things at that time. Ralph was unashamedly pointing the finger at all the bad things he could draw about, and I thought he was a very brave and incredibly astute artist of our times.
LUCY PAUL: I would say it was a combination of three things. Partly Ralph is one of your artistic heroes. Partly also the message held really strong resonance for you, the subjects that Ralph’s art spoke about. Also thirdly, at the time you were already stop-framing lots of different artists. Charlie was very interested in the process of art, what happens behind how you arrive at the final image. You’d been working for a number of years in different artists’ studios stop-framing their work on 35mm film from blank canvas to finished artwork. Initially, that’s what you’d intended to do with Ralph, wasn’t it? That was your first visit.
CHARLIE PAUL: My preoccupation when I came out of Art College was I really wanted to represent art on film without having to tell the viewer what they’re looking at. When I grew up, art films were usually people panning cameras over a piece of art and telling you what you should be looking at or how they thought the picture was talking to the audience, and I always found that wrong. I could never believe that the artist could be reinterpreted by a third party and that became how we saw the painting. In that sense, I was fascinated with the process of art being as pure as possible.
LUCY PAUL: And also accessible. I remember us talking about your feeling that the art world was very cliquey and not accessible to your average person. In a way, that’s not the case so much these days, but certainly in those early years I remember us talking a lot about that, and actually the art world struggled really to accept your process, didn’t they? The artists found it really fascinating, but their galleries struggled because they only have ownership or split of the final product. They don’t have a split of process along the way.
CHARLIE PAUL: Having Ralph as a kind of canvas to be able to experiment with this idea of making art and putting music on it often to give the art space but not to inform us about the art became our fascination. Ralph was a fantastic subject to experiment and to develop this plan. I hope For No Good Reason does that. It’s a very open film to watch. You can interpret the art any way you want, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a privilege for the viewer.
It was fascinating to watch him reveal his creative process and to have the opportunity to see how he arrives at the final image or work of art.
CHARLIE PAUL: I love that. I think that process is as much a part of the art process as the finished canvas. And that is certainly [the case] for the artist. Their engagement in the first place is as much the art, as far as I’m concerned, as what they end up as.
Ralph was involved with some very interesting people who you were able to bring into the story, such as Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson. How did you balance their involvement without overshadowing Ralph?
CHARLIE PAUL: Well, the film primarily and most importantly is about Ralph. So we knew all along that everyone had to be kept in their place in that sense. Johnny first came about because I had seen pictures of Ralph and Johnny for many years before I started making the film hanging out at Owl Farm with Hunter S. Thompson. Johnny was a friend of Ralph’s and a friend of Hunter’s, and when Ralph would turn up at Hunter’s place, Johnny would be there. I knew there was a connection between the two so it was just a matter of finding a way of getting those two back together again. Johnny’s job all along was to be the frame to the painting. Ralph is the art, and Johnny’s job was to go to the studio and to create an inert frame to be able to view the ages of the art from. Johnny got that straightaway. He realized that this film was about Ralph and not about him.
LUCY PAUL: That actually came as much from Johnny as it did from our side. He was very conscious of the impact that he has on screen in a lovely way and he’s a fan of Ralph’s, so he was very conscious of minimizing his impact. He was.
CHARLIE PAUL: The same is for Hunter. Hunter is such an enormous character on screen. It was never going to be the Ralph and Hunter show either. It was very difficult to keep everything in the right place. Luckily, I had a fantastic editor, Joby Gee, who helped me keep all these things in place and allowed Ralph to be the centerpiece of the film. It worked out that way. I’m very pleased that we contained the world around Ralph and allowed Ralph to be the focus of the film and I think it still is that way.
How did Terry Gilliam and Richard E. Grant become involved?
LUCY PAUL: They’re all people that Ralph has worked with over the years.
CHARLIE PAUL: The reason I came across Terry was in Ralph’s studio there’s a picture of Terry’s from Monty Python and written below was “Thank you, Ralph. You’re more important to me than you could ever imagine.” When I interviewed him, it was because Terry was saying, and it’s in the DVD extras, that when he came to London first of all he tried to be like Ralph. He tried to copy Ralph in his art. Ralph was a major influence. It was the same with Richard E. Grant. Richard E. Grant told us a story that he was a very nervous first-time actor in a big role in Withnail & I, and Ralph turned up on set invited down by (director) Bruce Robinson. Richard was very nervous, and Ralph turned to Richard and said, “You’re the man. You are the man.” Richard said that from then on he knew he was the right man in the role. All these people have a debt to Ralph over the years. They wanted to show that and repay in a sense. All our contributors wanted to be in the film and wanted to tell Ralph how important he was to their lives.
Can you talk a little about the different formats you used to reveal this fascinating artist and also the contributions of your creative team?
CHARLIE PAUL: The formats are mine. I’m very interested in that. The film is all about film and tactile paper and ink and so on, so the formats are things I’ve developed through my career in advertising, making videos for bands and that kind of stuff, and having the freedom to be able to experiment with mediums. Luckily, my beautiful wife and producer here was brilliant at bringing on board some fantastic talent. My editor, Joby Gee, was an amazing asset to the film as far as being able to control the stuff I was bringing to the table. Sacha Skarbek is a fantastic contributor of the music as far as he collected together a lot of the bands that wanted to contribute to the film. All the music is by musicians who again have been lifelong fans of Ralph’s.
LUCY PAUL: We had a really lovely way of doing the music and there were guide tracks when we were editing. Fortunately, Joby has a very wide musical knowledge as does Charlie. What Charlie did was we would take out visual chapters that he thought were just right for certain musicians’ style and genre, and we’d actually send them the visual chapters so they would work to that specific bit of edit, that piece of visual. And so, the music was put together with Sellotape a bit similar to how the visuals were put together. I think that was really important in giving it a good texture throughout the film. And then, what Sacha was brilliant at doing was knitting it altogether and doing all the incidental instrumental bits in between. We had an orchestra in Nashville record all the music that Sacha composed. It was a real combination of music. There were some specifically composed incidental bits, some composed tracks. Some of the tracks were written specifically by musicians like Slash or Ed Harcourt. And then, some of the tracks were existing old tracks like a Tom T. Hall track that Jason Mraz performed for us. It was a real montage of music and it was really good fun to do. Amazingly, I don’t think we had one refusal. Everyone we approached either to contribute, to be interviewed or for the music, seemed to be up for it. Ralph has this way of reaching people that you just wouldn’t expect maybe to have even heard of him. Ed Harcourt, we approached him, and he was like, “Yeah, sure,” and then he turned and he had a huge Gonzo fist tattoo up his back.
CHARLIE PAUL: (Laughs) We knew he was the right man then. You’ve got the job. And then finally, Kevin Richards, our animator, is a lifelong companion of mine, and we’ve worked together on many projects throughout our lives. He was the sole animator, so the idea of having a very small team that was completely dedicated and focused on that one project made the film feel like one piece. Kevin was responsible for the animation, even though I directed it all. Sacha was responsible for the music and Joby for the edit. As a director, having trust in your team for them to contribute and to enhance their work but not to divide it was a real privilege. It made the film a very long process because obviously you can’t…
LUCY PAUL: You’re not doing things quickly.
CHARLIE PAUL: Yes. You can’t put a whole team of animators onto one subject like Ralph or you’d suddenly become a mess of everybody else’s intentions. We were very lucky that everybody could focus their individual talents. It took a long time to produce but I think the end result is it’s a much purer film because of that.
CHARLIE PAUL: Yes, absolutely.
LUCY PAUL: I guess, because it just was us, in many ways we were working in a dark void. There was no exterior influence to dilute the creative vision. It was total creative control which is a real privilege.
What other cool projects do you have coming up next?
CHARLIE PAUL: At the moment, in our studio, another director, a guy called Asif Kapadia, who made Senna, is making a new film about Amy Winehouse which we’re helping create a kind of a way of looking at the pictures in the same way that For No Good Reason explores art. We have meetings in L.A. about another project. I’m actually myself slowly embarking on another uncommissioned film about my life in central London. I’m using a market as a way of discovering the passage of the last forty years from the mid-70’s until now using music and all this eclectic material I like to use to create a vision of where we are now.
LUCY PAUL: It’s a kind of comment. During the period of making For No Good Reason, our kids grew up from 7 to 17 years old. Their approach to life, their understanding because of the technological advances, is so different. Charlie has spent a lot of his youth in Camden. We both grew up in Camden, which is a very Bohemian area of London. In fact, his mom was a key person in starting up the food store there. His stepdad used to run the market. Markets are such a physical exchange between people. They’re so different to people’s experience now with the supermarkets and stuff.
CHARLIE PAUL: The automated check-outs. I find that scary.
LUCY PAUL: It’s so opposing and so different to social media. It’s all about direct physical contact. They’re also just incredible kind of boiling pots of stories from all over the world. The thing about Camden was it started in the ‘70s, and like I said, it’s a very Bohemian place and so it started with people that were traveling all over the world and bringing their goods back to London. It’s a real pot of stories and also obviously all the music. Charlie is an ex-punk and it was The Cleats and Flag and The Clash.
LUCY PAUL: It’s based on that.
CHARLIE PAUL: You can imagine. She’s scared. We run a production company, Itch Film, in London together. I’ve done promos recently for bands.
LUCY PAUL: He just shot a promo for The Marmosets who are with Roadrunner Records and they’ve just released this promo. It’s all shot on 35mm film.
CHARLIE PAUL: Madness. Old techniques and all those things are still things I’m trying to reinvent and bring back into the market. So yes, we’re always busy and having a wife as a producer means we happily toddle on down to the production roots as far as that’s concerned. I do hope to get this film off the ground next and then be working at home from there.
How did Ralph react when he saw the finished the film?
CHARLIE PAUL: Oh, he laughed out loud. It was a drain when he first watched it. Ralph again, for anyone to see themselves so intensely investigated, must be very like, “Whoa!” But he loves it and he’s now seen it four or five times because he’s come to screenings, and he’s now fully understanding of the process. He’s a companion now rather than a subject in that sense.
LUCY PAUL: He’ll come out noticing his cat that darts behind the window.
CHARLIE PAUL: Little moments that even I hadn’t noticed. Ralph will turn to me and go, “Oh, look at that!” So yes, it’s been wonderful, and it’s been so nice as a director to take back to somebody something that I always intended to. I’m really pleased that that’s all working out and it’s settled into the film it is. It’s great.