There's a wonderful documentary beginning to get a wider release in art houses across the country about the defiant, irreverent, subversive artist Ralph Steadman, probably best known by most as the man who provided gonzo images to go along with Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo writing in Rolling Stone magazine and in his own books detailing the uglier side of American culture and politics. The film is called FOR NO GOOD REASON, and it was made by the married filmmaking couple Charlie Paul (director) and Lucy Paul (producer).
The film is many things: a fantastic opportunity to watch Steadman at work, creating on a daily basis; a play for some fantastic archival footage that give us a sense of how ingrained Steadman was in the history he was portraying; a slide show of Steadman's greatest work; and a testimony by many of his closest associates and friends, including Thompson, Terry Gilliam, Richard E. Grant (who starred in WITHNAIL & I, for which Steadman designed the poster), Jann Wenner, and the ever-present Johnny Depp, who acts as the film's social lubricant to get Steadman to open up. There's probably a bit too much Depp in the film, but without him, it wouldn't be as insightful as it is; it's the price we pay, and it's not a steep one.
I had a chance recently to sit down with Charlie and Lucy Paul to discuss the years-in-the-making FOR NO GOOD REASON, and they were quite wonderful and revealing to talk to. Please enjoy…
Charlie Paul: Hi Steve.
Lucy Paul: Hi Steve. Thanks for coming.
Capone: Hi. Good to meet you both.
CP: I take it you’re not a religious man, otherwise you wouldn’t be here today.
Capone: Is today a big-deal holiday? I think that answers your question.
CP: In England, it’s Easter. So you have bunnies and chocolate and all of that kind of stuff.
Capone: We do that on Sunday [this interview took place on the Friday before Easter Sunday].
CP: [Notices my digital recorder] I have one of those. I made half my film on that.
Capone: The audio.
CP: Yeah, yeah. For all of those interviews with Ralph and other individuals, I used one of those. You have to hit the button twice so it’s not flashing [flashing indicates the recorder is on pause]. In fact, I’d be filming away on my Super 8 cam, and I’d be looking over and see that little button flashing away and I thought, “Oh, it’s on pause still. Oh my god.” And so the whole day would be a mute session. But that’s how it works.
Capone: It’s always directors who notice the recording equipment.
CP: It is. I do a lot of videos for bands, and I always take one of those and put it somewhere in the venue, and for some reason you can hear through all that blasts out. It sorts it all out.
Capone: It has a directional microphone. So I guess the most obvious question is how did you get to be the person that Ralph said, “Okay, you get to do this. You get to be the guy who documents my life.”
CP: I was an art student. I was fascinated with the process of art on film. I left art college really interested in art on the edge of going somewhere, moving. Not necessarily animation yet, but just art that I felt was being contained by the frame and should go somewhere. So when I saw Ralph’s art, I was instantly turned on by it. His work is literally itching to go somewhere. So, I had made these short films where I filmed artists frame by frame. They put a canvas on the wall with a camera opposite. They’d do brushstrokes, and I’d record that frame. So I built up a library of short films of pure art.
LP: From blank canvas to finished art.
CP: And I was fascinated with the idea. Being an art student and a painter, I didn’t like the idea of the films I used to see--art documentaries--where a camera would pan over a canvas, and you’d hear someone talking about what they thought you were looking at. And I thought, “This is not right. Artists are being reinterpreted here.” I wanted to find a way of recording art in a way that was pure. So this technique I developed for many years, and I had a few films.
And I heard Ralph through the grapevine also liked to film his work. There’s a rumor out that Ralph liked to play with cameras. So I sent him a few films and a letter--because it was pre-email. It was a lovely penned letter, and I’m dyslexic, so it’s actually a scrappy lette. In fact it’s really funny. We were talking to Bruce Robinson [director of WITHNAIL & I and THE RUM DIARY], who when he ashamedly asked Ralph to do the art for WITHNAIL & I, had written Ralph this embarrassing, stupid letter. He was telling us like, “Dear Ralph, will you make some art for me?” Anyway, us directors are typical at doing bad letters.
So I sent Ralph this letter saying, “Can I come down and show you my films?” And he said, “Dear boy, I don’t think what you do is what I do, but come down anyway, and we can talk about it.” So he invited me down to Old Loose Court. I drove down for the day, and we just had a lovely day talking about stuff, and obviously we bonded because at the end of the day as I was leaving, Ralph came out, and he gave me a large cardboard box of video cassettes and said, “Take these away and take a look at these.” As it turned out, this was Ralph’s document of the last 330 years. It was everything he had shot on all this videos in different formats over the years of him and Hunter at Owl Farm arguing about things.
Capone: So, it’s the whole archives?
CP: Oh my gosh. Ralph’s personal one. He’d stick a camera on his eye, and it was the early days of video photography where people would hit the go button and walk around until it ran out.
LP: Until the red light went off.
CP: Yeah, 'til the battery went down, exactly. So, I had these long, beautiful, personal films that Ralph had made, and I started going through these. The first thing I decided to do was go down and set a digital camera above his desk, and I put a big button there and had the lights turned up. So when he walked into the studio, he hit a light, hit the button, all the lights came up, and the cameras would energize, and he’d paint away. He always paints in the same place. He always draws at the same drawing desk, the same piece of paper, the same way up.
So then what would happen about five days later he would ring me up and say, “Charlie, the camera’s stopped working,” which meant he’d filled the camera up. And you can’t afford to miss a frame of this process. If you miss a bit, the whole painting jumps, and you can’t have it. So I’d have to immediately drive down, change the chip over, and then do a day's filming with him. While I’m down there, I might as well film. So we’d talk about things. And also, I had this amazing thing where these chips I’d take back to my studio, I’d open them up, and there’d be a whole week of amazing work all developing in front of me. So I’d go back to Ralph and say, “This is what you did. What is this?” So I'd show him these short films.
LP: Did you show those films every time then?
CP: Not every time. After a while, I could just ask, “Hey Ralph, last week you did an amazing drawing of Nixon,” or whatever. So, there was a fantastic, ongoing working relationship.
LP: And for an artist, that’s amazing to have someone suddenly so involved in your work on such an intimate level. I always feel that that was the route really. You didn’t go down there and set out to make a film. He was exploring his art, and then through such access, he was able to talk about it intimately, which is quite normally for an artist just working away in a studio on their own, people only ever see the final product. The layers aren’t scrapped away for someone to have had such access.
Capone: Usually that’s the way the artist wants it. They don’t want anyone to see it until it’s done.
CP: Well, you say that but the thing about the process, with all the artists I’ve worked with, Ralph and so on, especially artists who do do a lot of covering over and repairing stuff along the way, the artistd are always the most embracing of it. They actually love to see what they’ve been doing and how it works. It’s usually things like the gallery owners or people who are more interested in preserving the mystery of the art who don't want to see it. Artists are incredibly open people. The perception is that they are very guarded, but generally once you get under the skin of the artist, they embrace making mistakes. And as Ralph always says, “There’s no such thing as a mistake; it’s just an excuse or reason to do something else.” And so therefore, he understood that if the painting didn’t come out, he would push it past that, and he would work with it. But he was never ashamed of something being "not Ralph" in the first place.
Capone: I’m sure once the art is done, and they’re happy with it, they’re happy to go, “Okay, let’s see what happened there.”
LP: Exactly. But really you’re exposing your most vulnerable moments, aren’t you? And I think that’s the key thing is, whenever you’ve worked with these artists, you’ve been very gentile in building that trust before you delve right into the kind of heart of what they do.
Capone: So, at what point did you say to Ralph, “I think we have a film here.” Because at this point, you’re just documenting the process.
CP: Absolutely, absolutely. It was a long time.
LP: About five years in.
CP: Yeah, about five years in, we came to a stage where I decided this was amazing stuff, but it had to start finding it’s home. And I knew it wasn’t going to be a TV documentary. I knew Ralph as an important global artist who has interests all around the world, and whose message is actually worthy of reaching a new audience and younger people. So I really decided I needed to make something that was on a world stage and was worthy of this man who had embraced the world himself and talked about things globally all over the place and was interested in every aspect of human life. So, it was actually the scale of Ralph's work that lead me to realize that the scale of the piece had to live up to that, and therefore it had to be a feature movie that traveled alone around the world.
LP: Beautifully crafted.
CP: Yeah. It had to be premium. It had to be something that had undeniable access.
LP: And gave justice to what you were unfolding.
CP: Yeah. But of course at that stage the whole film was a mess. It was 1,000 paintings and me just asking Ralph what the hell he’s doing. So from then on, it was a lot of having to work out with Ralph what was important. The thing about working with any artist, or anybody, for a long period of time, is when you hear the same story over and over again over many years, you know that story holds resisnance. And so all the stories in the film are stories that Ralph champions over and over again.
Obviously there were publications I had to miss out on, and I couldn’t have covered every topic that Ralph has covered, but I knew from being with Ralph and talking about what was important to him that things like the "Kentucky Derby [Is Decadent and Depraved]" was a seminal first piece for him. "Still Life with Raspberry," his first book, was important because it had all his previous work in, so we could capture all that in one publication. So the film began to write itself. And Ralph is very much the author of this film. Even though I’m the director and the controller, it is very much driven by Ralph, not by me as a director saying, “Ralph, you’re going to talk about this.” If you say to Ralph, “Talk about this,” he’ll talk about that. In fact, he’ll never go back there.
LP: When you point him North, he goes South.
CP: Exactly. To be perfectly honest, Ralph rarely finishes stories off. He’s not distracted, but he’s very happy to actively move from A to B. So a lot of those stories in the film actually were shot over many years; they’re not one interview. If you were to take away all the pictures in front, you’d notice lots of clicks, and Ralph’s hair getting longer and shorter and his clothes changing, because to make a large story, a cohesive story, you have to ask lots of different questions to find different answers. So the film was guided by Ralph's interest’s and by Ralph’s repetition of stories. Ralph always said, “If I say something three times, it’s real.” So you wait for Ralph to re-establish something before you know that you’re going to pursue it.
Capone: To add a layer to this, when I describe the film to people, I try to explain exactly what it is Johnny Depp is doing in the film, because he’s not just an interviewee, like some of the other people are. He’s not just a narrator. He’s almost a facilitator. He has enough of a friendship with Ralph that he’s getting stories out of him that you might not have been able to. Did you recruit him. Did he volunteer? How did he get involved at all in that capacity?
CP: Over the years, I had noticed all around Ralph’s studio photographs of Ralph and Johnny at Owl Farm, and of course Johnny and Hunter go back many years, and Ralph and Hunter go back. So those two forever crossing paths at parties in New York or at Owl Farm and so on. So I knew there was a deep connection there, not only between the two of them but in their love for Hunter. So it was a matter of me asking my producer wife to make it work.
LP: You had been already involved in the film for quite some time before we approached Johnny. And it was just unveiling this footage and these photos. Then I think you got to a point where you realized the film needed a framing, a conduit between Ralph and the audience, and it wasn’t going to be you. Johnny just seemed to be the natural person because he’s Johnny, and because he casts a much wider net, and we want the film to reach a wider net than Ralph’s existing audience. So we put together a 20-minute edit, and we sent it over to [Depp] and say, “We’re making this film. This is what it’s looking like.” And I think he could immediately could see that we had a labor of love project here and phenomenal footage, and we just kept sending them stuff. At one point, they just came back and said, “He wants to get involved,” and then it was a case of scheduling, because his schedule is unbelievable. Because of the process and the way we made the film, that was fine by us. We had been going for so many years, we knew we would be going for another however many years, so that was fine. We just needed to fit it in.
CP: Yeah. But directorially, I’d say I thought Johnny was a frame to this crazy art, which is Ralph.
Capone: The film is almost a portrait of this friendship too, in addition to a portrait of an artist.
CP: When I put those two together, their relationship spoke volumes. All the silences were in fact pregnant things, and I knew between them there was this amazing…no need to have to say things. They literally just admired, or Johnny certainly just admired Ralph’s process, so it was a matter of prompting. Again, by the time Johnny was on board, I knew the things we weren’t going to do. So all I really had to do was remind Johnny what we were talking about in a way, and Johnny then would keep Ralph on track for that. So lucky for me at that stage, when Johnny was at the studio, I knew that Johnny was going to guide Ralph through these subjects that we already knew were important.
Capone: Yeah. Despite the stories we hear about Ralph being a wild man in his earlier years, there are a lot of very big personalities surrounding this fairly quiet man who does isolating work. Did you have to make sure in piecing the film together that he didn’t get lost among those personalities?
CP: I had Johnny Depp, I had Hunter S. Thompson, oh my god. I had Terry Gilliam. I had all these people who could have, at any stage, taken the film into a direction. As you can imagine in the film, I interviewed Terry all day. Bruce Robinson and so on...
LP: Although Bruce isn't actually in the film.
CP: Yeah. I had to use sound bites and moments where it wasn’t about them, it was about Ralph. So yeah, I had to contain some of the biggest personalities on the planet to make sure the film was about Ralph and not about Ralph’s associations with all these famous and fantastic people.
Capone: Some of the visual things that you do and the tone of the film are very active and twisted, and they reflect the work. That’s a deliberate thing. That doesn’t just happen when you’re sitting down and interviewing somebody. You’re putting your own piece of art together. This is not a passive, talking-head documentary. Talk about piecing that aspect of it together.
CP: Yes. Certainly Ralph set the tone for the film. By just looking at his work, you know that Ralph uses montage, he sticks things together with glue and tape. He’ll splatter it with ink after, rub a bit of crayon on. So I knew it was a multi-layered and multi-textured film. So that was my approach. The film is full of things like light flares and film and leader and clapper boards, because those are the pieces of tape that hold the film together. In the same way when you see a piece of real art on the wall, you really appreciate the texture, I was deeply aware and concerned that we are moving out of a world of film into a very sanitized world, and I really wanted to use film to describe all those things that fine art has and film had in a way.
LP: It’s where you come from. This has not being put together in a conventional way. We did have DPs for some of the key interviews and stuff, but actually Charlie’s behind the camera most of the time, with one of those] [points to my recorder. And as a director, he’s technically very knowledgeable. We’ve got our own studio with all our own cameras collected over the years of all formats, you know, including, I don’t know, a Beta cam that you found in the back of a taxi one time, and all 35, 16, 8 mm. We went on our honeymoon with a 16mmr camera.
CP: There are shots of that in the film, actually. There are clips from our honeymoon 25 years ago.
LP: So that’s his roots, really. You weren’t going to do it any other way.
CP: I wanted to make a film that stood on it’s own and had it’s own virtues and values and to make a document. Someone later in life can go back through archives and do a proper A to Z of his life. I wanted to make a collaborative and inventive film that really embraced the process we were going through on a daily basis in Ralph’s studio, which meant going with different formats everyday. Shooting a bit of Super 8, a bit of digital, because I knew that would be the only way we could truly capture the experience of being in Ralph’s studio when he decides to photocopy something and stick it on and then glue it down and cut it out. That was to me the joy in being in Ralph’s studio, and that was the joy I hope I brought my audience who are more into film than art. Therefore it is a filming experience as well as an exploration of art.
Capone: When you’re with something for as long as you were with this--15 years--how do you know when to say, “I need to stop and put this together.”
LP: [both laugh] That would be me. Sorry, darling.
CP: You need to be married to your producer. You need someone who goes, “Hey, I wanna see you this weekend, so maybe we should wrap this thing up.” So I was very lucky. But I’m still filming with Ralph. He still has a camera chip above his desk. He still fills it up. I still go down and empty it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a lifelong project.
LP: We just got to a point where we needed to share it.
CP: Luckily for me, Lucy took it and helped me find the editors and all the people that we actually needed to finish the film. She found the distributers, Sony Pictures Classics, who if it wasn’t for their belief in the film and the amazing pairing between them and Ralph… It’s not just my film; it’s also Ralph and them who have this thing that has made this film what it is. So every director needs to have someone out there who can kind of help them let go in a way.
Capone: Was it tough letting go?
CP: I had to let go.
LP: Yeah, it was tough. It was really tough letting go. It was really tough finding an editor that we could work with. And that was quite a game too in a way.
CP: The editor to me is like me to Ralph, as you can imagine. So for me to have someone who I trusted with this material was as important as Ralph trusting me in that chain.
LP: And the edit process was lengthy and fractured purposefully. Once we found the guy that was going to work with him, I’d book him in for 12 weeks, they’d do 12 weeks, and then they’d have a break for six months. And then we’d book him in again. So it was purposefully designed like that. Partly to give Charlie a bit of reflection and breather space to shoot some more, and also partly to put those stakes in to keep moving the project forward.
Capone: When you get your labor of love out of the way with your first film, how do you follow that up? How do you make another film on something else?
LP: Oh god. Don’t ask him. He’s started.
CP: I have great interest in art and counter culture and music and all the things FOR NO GOOD REASON has. So my next project has all those things as well. It’s actually about a location, a market in London.
LP: Called Camden Lock Market. It started in the early '70s and it’s a really bohemian market where people used to travel off into the world when it wasn’t such a dumb thing, and it’s just full of amazing stories. And his mom, who is an extraordinary woman--five kids, traveled the world--at one point she moved the family to Granada in the Caribbean and opened up a hotel, and then the civil war broke out, so she came back.
CP: Get off my mom’s story. He’s asking about my film Jesus [laughs].
LP: Anyway. That’s when she started the food stall in Camden Lock. She arrived back in the UK with five kids and no job.
CP: The market is full of mavericks, creative, amazing people who have either hidden there because they’re on the run.
LP: Anita Roderick who did The Body Shop, she started there.
CP: And punk was born there. So musically, its heritage is incredible. So yeah, so I’m working on another multi-layered, multi-textured piece.
LP: As you can see it’s messy. We don’t quite know the route yet.
CP: Yeah. But I've started, and what Ralph taught me is you start something, and it’ll take you somewhere. The journey is the process, and buy the ticket, take the ride. I’ve laid my stakes. I’ve learned something from Ralph in making FOR NO GOOD REASON that I’m taking on to further filmmaking generations, and when Ralph says, “I tried to change the world and make it a better place, and it's changed for the worse.” And I say, “Well Ralph, your heritage, what you have done, has informed millions. Through so many people, that torch is being carried now, and you should believe, Ralph, that you have actually profoundly affected people in this world who will then go on and implement those changes.” I truly believe Ralph has changed the world.
Capone: Hopefully with the next film, you'll get it in in under 10 years.
CP: [laughs] Says my wife. Yeah, absolutely. It was really good for you to come down. Thanks, man.