For the last fifteen years artist turned filmmaker Charlie Paul has been working on his documentary For No Good Reason. It’s focus has been Charlie’s artistic influence Ralph Steadman, whose art work accompanied Hunter S. Thompson’s writings. For No Good Reason was screened in LFF’s ‘Documentary Competition’.
How was making a documentary on Ralph Steadman, an artist who has influenced your own work, both changed your perspective of him, and your own professional perspective?
Well I’m predominantly a filmmaker, so what I’ve taken from Ralph, or from working with him, as appeared in my work as a filmmaker; not as an artist. I was an artist when I was at Art College, and I’ve been an artist all my life; but my medium now is filmmaking. My work with Ralph has influenced that, which I’ll get to in a bit. How as my perception of Ralph changed since I started working with him? I would say at first I was rather scared of him, and now after fifteen years I love him like a father. He’s an incredibly warm hearted and generous man. I have never seen a side of Ralph in all the time that I have known him that surprised me, in as far as initially getting to know him. Sometimes he can be sadder than he should be, but he explains in the film his reasons. I would say that the thing that most surprised me in a way, or didn’t surprise me, but informed me is that his work is where we see Ralph. The man behind his work is not a very different man, but a man that doesn’t actually exist within his work. If you are looking for the man that does the drawings, you look inside the drawings. If you are looking for the man who makes the drawings, he is very much the man you see in the film, and the man you meet in the morning in his dressing gown, often doing laps in his swimming pool.
What motivated your change to filmmaking?
I actually went to Art College and into animation, and because the two mediums are very close together, I ended up animating films in paint. From there my career developed through videos for bands, short series’ about artists, and to be perfectly honest I found inch by inch myself moving into film. I’ve always been drawn towards or gravitated towards art films. I love being with artists. They are my favourite type of people to hang around with. So even though I’m a filmmaker, I make films about artists.
You mentioned your animation background. Could you talk about your use of animation in the film?
I didn’t animate the film myself. I had an animator work with me, during the process of the film, animating it, and I directed the animation. I can still do direct animation, but to be perfectly honest the reason we decided to animate in the film, which was a very painful and long process, and wasn’t a decision taken lightly, was because the medium of film needs time based episodes. I am not keen on cameras wandering around art while people talk about it. I’m very interested in the viewer drawing their own conclusions from what they see, rather than them being told what to think about what they are looking at; in the same way that one looks at a painting, and you try to draw your own conclusions. Animation was an ally in allowing the viewer to enter the world of Ralph’s work without being instructed to. It is a very good medium for that. Also Ralph’s work is meant to be animated, which is probably one of the most difficult things we could do. If you have a look at Ralph’s work, you realise that they are all flat drawings, and not model things; they are not things you can create in space so easily. The challenge of creating animation out of Ralph’s work was a delicious challenge that we felt if we could do it properly, would have great rewards. We worked with Ralph, and we showed him everything we did as we went along, and he was our greatest critic as far as if he didn’t recognise it, it wasn’t worth doing. Often we went back to the drawing board, and very often most animation we did, didn’t even make the film because it wasn’t representative of Ralph’s work.
Ralph is associated with Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp. Gilliam was animator for Monty Python. It seems like a nice circle of artists you have associated yourself with to make this documentary. Could you talk a little bit about Terry and Johnny’s participation in the documentary?
I approached Terry, because I knew of his association with Ralph. I spent a lot of time at Ralph’s studio looking around his studio and deciding whether these things were a part of his life. As it happened on Ralph’s studio wall is a picture from Terry Gilliam with an inscription that says, “Thank you for helping me in more ways than you’ll ever know.” I was interested what that meant so I asked Ralph, and Ralph as he is, said a “Whatever…” sort of thing. So I contacted Terry. As it happened that was a painting from Terry to Ralph from his period in Monty Python. So I interviewed Terry in a full day interview, which sadly in the film we only have a snippet of, and in that interview Terry professed a beautiful feature film that is actually on the internet on the Facebook page, where he says that Ralph was a great influence on his art, long before Monty Python. He said himself that when he came to London first of all, and he saw Ralph’s work, he tried to work like Ralph, and he failed terribly. He described his failure as, “Not being able to make his work move like Ralph does, and perhaps it doesn’t have the explosion in the work.” So that was a lovely piece that we sadly couldn’t include. I didn’t want to bog down the film with other people’s interpretations of Ralph. So it was very important not only with Terry but with Johnny Depp, to keep these characters in their place. The film for me was about Ralph, and I was very interested in giving Ralph’s story some flavour with other people, but it was very important that they were not going to dominate it, and send the film in a different direction. We chose in fact the comment from Terry which is about protest, because we felt protest was more about Ralph’s work. With Johnny it was exactly the same situation. We filmed many sessions we couldn’t use because those guys, they are big on camera; much like Hunter. I think in total there is about four and a half minutes of Hunter in the entire film, and about two and half minutes of Johnny. Even though they have tiny appearances they seem to create a large amount of interest, and also they draw the camera to them when you’re there. So we were very aware with Hunter and Johnny to keep them as appendices of Ralph’s life.
You spoke earlier about how to interpret another artist’s work, who is trying to say something in particular. In your film we get to hear from the artist.
Absolutely, and that stems to when I was at Art College, where I found people talking about things that they didn’t know about. I wanted to create work that was free of that interpretation. With the film, the most important thing I feel is that it is words, “From the horse’s mouth.’ So you hear only Ralph talking about his work, and I used the process of stock grain photography to expose the process of art building up, of creating. Again it creates a canvas that is purely up for interpretation by the viewer. There are no spoken words about what Ralph is doing or trying to achieve from these pictures, and so there are many images in the film which have no tag line. If you are interested, I hope that you follow up those images and look into Ralph’s work. I felt that it was important that this film be made to cater for a younger generation, than the people who already know about Ralph. This message is so important that there was no point in preaching or representing it for an older generation; it was for a much younger generation. So I really wanted to bring the film back into a very popularist area, and therefore I felt that I could present in the film far more information than I had to actually describe. Nowadays, if you want to know anything, you go online and you find out about it. For example we touched upon human rights. We only touched upon the first five points within the Human Rights Charter, because if you want to know about it you’ll go and find it. It’s online, you just type it in. To spend valuable time onscreen reiterating this stuff, when in fact my job was to keep moving on, and keep bringing up new points of interest, I felt that shorthand was necessary to allow us to create more opportunities for people to learn about these things. I believe if the film gets one person to love his work, and go and find out more, to buy some of his books, then that is a better use of the film than me just reiterating what I found out about Ralph. These are long answers. If you want short ones, I can do sound bites? They are very interesting questions, so I’m very happy to keep on.
You’ve been working on this film for over fifteen years. How did you decide what you wanted to keep out of all of the footage, and how did the equipment that you used determine what you shot?
At the very beginning, like anything, you needed an artist’s studio, and you’d go down with minimal kit, and you just try and accumulate footage of the area, and find out what’s going on. Fifteen years ago when I was first assisting Ralph, on the off-chance of catching something I… To be perfectly honest there were only film cameras and now video cameras, which were out of time and very difficult to use. Over that period digital photography has come along and made a difference. You can now shoot for hours, record a conversation that you can take clippings out of, and that freed the film up. You can now, even with your sound equipment record endlessly and edit bits out, and that allowed the film to be much more selective during the process. The film was unscripted from day one, so my chore, my job was to film everything, and then try and pull out of those things what was important for the film. Quite often with the process we would touch on something in the first year that I would return to in year five, and only because it kept re-surfacing, and so we’d revisit that. So the change in equipment allowed me to revisit each story, over and over again with Ralph, until we managed to deliver a story which fitted into, almost a sound bite, almost something that was about his art, but sat in this very small portion of the film. Back to my audience, I think that the audiences these days can pick up a lot of information quickly and therefore reduce Ralph’s delivery into small areas of information. Over fifteen years we amassed a vast amount of material, and even when I left Ralph’s for the first time, I walked away with a box full of tapes he had recorded over the previous twenty years. It took me possibly four months just to sort through this. It was mostly Ralph walking around, and not turning your camera off, to be perfectly honest. You have to record everything, you have no idea what’s in there somewhere. So there was a lot of that, and from that we found some footage of Hunter, who never liked cameras. He felt the minute a camera came into a situation; it changed the situation from a natural situation to a forced situation. So the footage we have of Hunter was shot by Ralph, personally, and usually very badly, but very incidentally, and therefore we managed to capture from Ralph unguarded footage, true to how it would be if you were just hanging out with Hunter. So technologies changed, filmmaking’s changed. Sadly the downside is you end up with a lot of footage. People now when they start shooting these things end up with hours and hours of footage, and the hardest thing is editing it. I was very lucky; I had an editor who took what I’d reduced down into important parts, and reduced them even more. Even editors have to visit everything again.
Thinking about the fifteen years, I wonder if that was a good thing, because the documentary has undergone a revolution. They can be more creative now, no longer limited to just talking heads and newsreel footage. Do you think this is a great time for documentaries and documentarian filmmakers?
Yes, a fantastic time. To be honest even though this film took fifteen years, all the hard work was done in the last three to four years, because that’s when the editing process comes in, and that’s when you reshoot stuff. One of the benefits of having shot a film over fifteen years is very much that the footage does recall the time it was made. So you know if you are in old footage, a period gone by. I would say now, as a future filmmaker or documentary filmmaker, that I personally would have to go back through archival footage, though I would shoot entirely with modern equipment. My favourite shot in the film was shot within the last year on digital camera, because these things are impersonal, they are in the background and they run for a long time. You can have a conversation like this, and the camera would still be filming it, and so everyone has forgotten about what you are doing, and that is something that happens only with digital cameras. Before, you had stuff whirling through the camera, and people changing tape, and all that breaks down hopefully what I have captured with Ralph in the studio; that unguarded, personal thing.
And your next project?
Well we are just at the beginning of the festival season with this, so we have some things to do with Ralph; we have to go to America with the film. I am currently embracing technology with my next project, by relentlessly interviewing young people about what they think is happening now. I have young children, well I say young, they are eighteen to twenty-one, and I’m fascinated with what is happening to people at the moment. This fascination came about through the many interviews I have made for this film. I have met some great people, who haven’t sadly; many haven’t appeared in the film, like Bruce Robinson who is an amazing.