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Interview: For No Good Reason Director Charlie Paul and Producer Lucy Paul

By (May 16, 2014) No Comment

For-No-Good-Reason-poster1Lucy+Paul+No+Good+Reason+Portraits+Toronto+0KixNey0u7xlMost Americans know English artist Ralph Steadman through the splatter-mad satiric illustrations he did for Hunter S. Thompson’s books and articles, most famously 1971′s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

That was certainly the case with me when I attended a Steadman (splatter) signing in London in 1986. But from there I came to love Steadman for his acidic political, social, and artistic radicalism–almost in spite of his place in the HST Gonzo mythos. Here was an artist who kept moving, searching, and changing, all while still poking, prodding, and attacking.

The new Steadman documentary For No Good Reason from husband-and-wife team Charlie (director) and Lucy (producer) Paul naturally explores the expected debauched Thompson tales, but it also focuses on Steadman’s work as a political and social cartoonist-commentator in the ’60s before and the ’90s after the Hunter adventures.

no-good-reason4Best of all, Charlie Paul set up a digital camera above Steadman’s work table a decade ago and collected, frame by frame, stop-action documentation of the artist’s controlled-madness painting and drawing style.

The result is a fascinating look at how Steadman creates intricately layered artistic order and meaning out of what often starts as a wild splash of ink on the page.

For No Good Reason is hosted by Johnny Depp, who has taken on the role–with genuine devotion, it seems–of the Keeper of Hunter’s Gonzo Legacy, and it features interviews with folks like Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, and Richard E. Grant, as well as plenty of archival footage of Steadman and Thompson. But at the documentary’s heart is Steadman’s art–the film not only beautifully captures his process but it lays out his legacy, even in the face of the artist’s own doubts.

I sat down with Charlie and Lucy Paul in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about their film and our shared love of Ralph Steadman’s work.

For No Good Reason opens today in select theaters.

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fornogoodreasonCharlie, what drew you to Ralph’s art in the first place?

Charlie Paul: I went to art college in the UK, and anyone in England who was interested in art knew about Ralph, as a counter culture artist. There was no email or internet in those days, so it was very hard to research people.

Ralph would just appear with a book every year or two and then disappear. Projects would appear in fits and starts, and he’d do signings, and I’d often go get my books signed, and my fascination for his work grew.

When I came across Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I thought it was amazing how literature and art came together in a way that is inseparable—it just knitted so well. I thought I had to meet this guy, so I sent Ralph a letter.

I’d heard he was fascinated with cameras and photography and recording things, and I came out of art college as an animator as well as a fine artist and painter. I loved the idea of art that was always on the edge of going somewhere. You could imagine where it could go next and that fascinated me.

no-good-reason1Ralph’s art fits that agenda perfectly, so I sent him the letter, told him I made films and art, and asked if I could come down and show him what I do.

Ralph replied back that he wasn’t too sure what I did was what he did, but for me to come down anyway and pay him a visit.

So I toodled down to Old Loose Court, an amazing place an hour and a half from London. We spent a lovely day together, just hanging out in his studio and talking about stuff. As I left, Ralph gave me this cardboard box full of video cassettes and told me to have a look at them.

I took them back to my studio, and it was full of VHS tapes and mini dvds in all these different formats. I started going through them, and found amazing footage Ralph had shot over the past 30 years, of him and Hunter at Owl Farm, of conversations, of him just wandering around places with his camera stuck to his face.

The recordings were from the early days of video photography, so no one quite knew about the “off” button. Endless filming, all the time. I thought it was amazing documentation of a relationship between two really brotherly friends. So I had this box of cassettes, all this history, and I could pop down to visit Ralph and ask questions.

784x2048Ralph had often filmed his art. He’d have a glass of wine and go back to his studio at night sometimes and turn the video camera on and get his art out and be puppetering it in front of the camera, doing funny voices with it, like, “Hey, Mr. Nixon!” Hours of this brilliant stuff.

So I went down and installed one of the earliest digital cameras above his work desk, with lights and this big button. So Ralph would go into his studio, press the button, the lights would come on, the camera would power up, and then when he’d have a moment, he’d shoot a frame, and record his art in my absence, as this document of what was happening on his desk.

It sounds like Ralph was already predisposed to having his work filmed.

Lucy Paul: He uses all kinds of media to create. I think it’s important that it was very gentle and collaborative. It was never invasive, and it was never intended to be up for ten years, but it worked and they worked together. It was very observatory.

FOR NO GOOD REASON_5.jpgCharlie: What was lovely for me was that because the digital camera chip could only hold a certain amount  of images, the schedule for me to visit Ralph was dictated by how much work he did in a week. He’d ring me up and say, “Hey, the camera stopped working.” Which meant the chip was full, so I’d head down there with a new one.

In this process, you can’t really afford to miss a beat—you can’t have a recording of a painting that goes from half-finished then jumps ahead to finished. So I’d have to jump in the car, drive down to Ralph’s, change the chip, and we’d spend the day filming, chatting about stuff.

Then I’d go back to my studio in London, look at the images, then I’d have something new to talk about with Ralph the next time I was down there, to show him what he’d been doing and for me to ask questions about it.

Lucy: The process really strengthened Charlie and Ralph’s relationship.

Did you ever feel that filming his process and showing him the results changed that creative process on his part?

Charlie: That was always a danger. I’d done this process many times before with other artists, and I was always shy about showing them the work, because it does sometimes encourage them to perform to the camera. If you want to capture pure art, the idea as a director or recorder is to be invisible. You don’t want to affect it.

For_No_Good_Reason_35420The fantastic thing about Ralph was that he was already so engaged with recording his stuff that it didn’t affect him in the slightest. With the gradual buildup of our relationship, by the time I was fully installed in Ralph’s studio, he didn’t notice me. I was part of the whole scene.

Ralph as artist has always been interested in public display and presentation and interaction, so a film like this does seem like a natural extension of that engagement with his audience.

Lucy: He is so engaged with the world in general, in his interests, in his commentary on what he feels and sees. The process of recording of his art broke down any idea Ralph might have had about someone coming and invading him and his life—it was very much about looking at his art. That’s how Charlie managed to do it.

Charlie: What drew me to Ralph and makes him a great artist is that Ralph will draw and paint in any medium and for any market. Over the years people have put Ralph down as a commercial artist, but when you look at his career as a whole, it all starts joining up and everything is connected and everything is truly Ralph, and you realize what a modern artist he is.

One of the things I like about the film is that naturally it covers the years with Hunter and what a huge part that relationship played in Ralph’s commercial success–at least in America.

will-and-ralph-poseBut it also underscores how much more radical and subversive Ralph was than Thompson. Hunter had all the guns and swagger, but Ralph 1s the true revolutionary.

Charlie: I was a punk when I was a young man, growing up in a culture where anything goes, where dangerous things are good things. And so that was definitely the attraction of Ralph. But I was totally unaware of just how dangerous Ralph is. Ralph will do whatever he wants, often against any instruction or direction, and that’s what makes him a dangerous man out there in the world.

He has a very solid, safe home—his studio is the epicenter, and from there he can say anything he wants without fear. And with art as his tool, he can say a million things with very few lines. He can do a drawing that can be so upsetting, so pointed and dangerous, and yet it’s done with an innocent, flippant strokes and marks. That’s what attracts me to Ralph—he can say the most terrible and revealing and upsetting things without putting you off.

Lucy: On the one hand, he has this amazing ability to present his thoughts and intentions very truthfully in quite aggressive art. On the other hand, a lot of his works are commissions, which he doesn’t do nicely, but in his own way. He captures an essence but with his view.

For_No_Good_Reason_Ralph_Steadman_jpg_695x390_crop_upscale_q100Charlie: A lot of people ask him to do portraits.

Lucy: And they say, “Can you do a nice one?” You’re not gonna control what Ralph does. That’s very much the message off Ralph’s art and what he stands for. It’s not just the visual side that draws you in, it’s Ralph’s strong moral compass, his comment on the world.

And yet, there’s a sense in the film that he looks back on his career with some disappointment and dejection.

Charlie: One of the reasons I made the film was because I really wanted to show Ralph what he had done. Ralph does think that he has failed in his efforts to change the world–he worries about it, and he does get depressed about his place in life now after such a long career, with all the efforts he’s made.

Lucy: His career has been so multi-faceted, and so many people know him from different chapters of his career. So it was important to kind of bring it all together.

Charlie: What’s amazing about Ralph is that he’s lost none of his drive and vitriol and efforts. For all his age and all the physical and mental restrictions on him now because of his stage in life, he still goes to his studio every day and slaps down a piece of paint and pour out that day’s frustrations or whatever it may be.

for-no-good-reason

And I can honestly say his work has never been stronger than it is now. Every day he’s making the most accurate, poignant, and controlled art. His pen has never been sharper.

Age hasn’t dulled the man—that’s the beautiful thing about Ralph, he still has the drive of an artist. I hope the film gets across that fact, that Ralph is true modern artist.

Lucy: The way in which the film was crafted is a reflection of how Ralph creates his art—we made it in a kind of void, which is also how Ralph creates his art. There were no finances, no exec producer—we were just creating this project.

Charlie: The film discovered itself on its journey, and that’s Ralph’s art.