With grotesquely exaggerated figures, Ralph Steadman is one of the most iconic artists working today. He started as a cartoonist, but only grew more ambitious as his pen skewered increasingly powerful people. The most important person in his professional life is the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson: in their pieces for Rolling Stone magazine, Ralph and Hunter invented Gonzo journalism, an approach to the story that abandons objectivity altogether. Ralph’s art defines Hunter’s words, and vice versa. Ralph’s gone on to illustrate more literature, write his own books, and produce commercial work for companies like Frederick’s Flying Dog Brewery (who are hosting a preview screening to the movie tonight @ E Street). The upcoming documentary For No Good Reason is the story of Ralph’s art, but not his life. Director Charlie Paul and his producer Lucy eschew typical documentary storytelling for something more immersive and impressionistic. The cumulative effect is to get some sense of the man, but an overwhelming sense of his work. I recently talked to Charlie and Lucy about art, filmmaking, and strong local beer.
How did Ralph react when you approached him about a feature-length documentary?
CP: When I first spoke to Ralph, I didn’t intend to make a feature-length film. I merely wanted to capture his art. I heard Ralph was interested in cameras, filming his art, and I’m interested in the process of making art dynamic. I approached him with material I shot previously – I wrote him a letter, in fact, asking whether I could come down and talk about what I do – and he agreed. So I went to his studio, which is about an hour and half from London, we hit it off the first time we met. We were like-minded about our approach to life, and at the end of the very first day he gave me this big box, telling me to look through it. I open the box when I get back to my studio, and it’s filled with over one hundred video tapes in different sizes and formats. After I start going through these, I realize that Ralph entrusted me with the archive of his life. It was amazing: I found footage of him and Hunter, footage of his travels around the world, and even some of his wine paintings. He’s a multi-faceted artist, and a pioneer with video.
So what he gave you is the basis for the film?
CP: Absolutely. What he gave me was his personal footage of his observations. Sadly, that whole period was difficult to look at: this is from the early days of video, so a lot of is grainy and low-grade. Even though the footage was amazing, there was a lot of preliminary work to update it for a movie.
Even though there’s all this archival footage, the most striking sequence is where we watch Ralph make something from scratch. It seems like a very intimate moment. Was it difficult to establish a rapport with him, or was he gung-ho from the beginning?
CP: That sequence came half-way through the process of me filming, and it only happened after Ralph got comfortable with me. As a director, particularly who films an artist in his studio, the most important thing is to become invisible. It’s distracting if I inspect everything that’s around me, so for the first few years my job was insert myself into the studio and be helpful when I can. The other thing was that I had to learn Ralph’s painting language because you can’t film an artist mid-flow if you don’t know when to refocus the camera or when to move toward the side. A lot of my job was watching Ralph painting, looking for clues such as when he grabbed a certain kind of ink (I knew to stand away then). I became aware of where his hands were going as he painted, so I’d wait there for him without hindering his process. After developing that artistic and directorial relationship, I became unobtrusive and therefore Ralph was able to work freely without worrying about how I captured him.
How long did it take him to compose that particular painting?
CP: Ralph’s work can be unpredictable, but that particular piece of work took two to three days. His process often depends on how long it takes the paint to dry. Even though his work comes across as uncontrollable, it’s actually quite deliberate. He loves splashes and he hates drips, so there a specific timeline in the materials in which he works. It seems chaotic, but he’s precise and controlled. He doesn’t like to be given a hard timeline, so watching him create really became of matter of knowing when and where to look.
LP: Charlie did not just follow Ralph around. In order to capture the rhythm of his creation, Charlie set up a digital camera above Ralph’s work table. It was there that we were recording every single brushstroke from blank canvas to finished artwork. After Charlie installed this camera, he used Ralph’s pace to determine when he’d capture a frame of the work in progress. Between this and footage of Ralph from behind, we were able to capture his process.
The film is not like a traditional documentary: there aren’t many talking heads or interviews. Was that a style you decided upon early, or did it grow organically?
CP: I wanted this approach from the very outset. The film is a reaction against all the films I saw during my time as an art student: I was sicking of seeing the camera pan over the work, with the director telling us what we were looking at. This approach left me cold. I always found that the artist spoke the only words that needed to be spoken, while all these other people got in the way. I wanted to make a film that would leave the art to be judged by the viewer, with plenty of montages and music.
Still, there are certain things that happened that required more explanation. We interviewed Terry Gilliam because I found a painting given to Ralph by Terry: it was a Monty Python picture with the inscription, “To Ralph, I am more to you than you ever imagined.” I knew right away that Terry had a debt to pay, artistically, so I spent a day filming with Terry and superimposed that footage on top of another picture from Ralph’s studio. In a way, I was trying to reinvent all this exterior stuff so it could visually fit into Ralph’s world. We had to have some people reinforcing what there’s in the art, but I tried to keep it down so that these were there as embellishments, not ones who provided biographical details.
There is one point where Ralph explains that he wanted to change the world, then there is all these portraits of Nixon and Kissinger. Is that the evidence that he did it? To what extent should we be questioning his statements, especially when they’re grandiose?
CP: It really depends on your own judgment. Ralph is just there to open a debate; no one is right or wrong about these things. There are million artists, with a million different messages. Ralph’s is just one opinion from one man’s place. I don’t think that Ralph wants his message to be any more than his perception of the world. Ralph will produce work day-in/day-out, and that’s what I find so refreshing about him. He’s never bogged down by a political agenda. He’s anti-war, he’s anti-bullying. He’s just a good person, really. I took cues from him to see whether my moral compass is in the right direction. More than any artist I’ve ever worked with, Ralph’s moral compass is true 99 percent of the time. His commercial work is taken on with an understanding of whom he’s working for, and why. Ralph’s work is there for us to look at, and trigger debate.
Speaking of commercial work, have you had any Flying Dog beer?
CP: Absolutely! Ralph and Flying Dog have had a good relationship for a very long time. It’s very strong beer.
LP: Are you familiar with it then?
Yeah, I have a six pack of their Imperial IPA sitting in my fridge right now.
CP: [laughs] I think that’s about the highest alcohol you can get. It’s a great example of how Ralph will cross over and work with companies he likes. He gets approached by businesses all the time, as I’m sure you can imagine, because they want to use his iconic imagery. He’s selective, and with good reason: he wants to protect his heritage. Flying Dog fits in perfectly: it’s a small, family-run business, that somehow matches Ralph’s sensibilities.
LP: We curated an exhibition of Ralph’s work in Toronto, with about 50 pieces, and Flying Dog very kindly sponsored when it came to New York. There’s a strong bond there.
Do you have a favorite piece of Ralph’s, or one that really resonates with you?
CP: There’s two important qualities to his art: his craft and his message. In terms of message, my favorite is one called “Earth Belly,” in which a starving child’s bloated belly is our planet. It’s an example where I find Ralph says everything he needs with a simple image.
Regarding craft, I love Ralph’s work in written material. The stuff he did for the I, Leonardo book, his take on Treasure Island is terrific because they really showcase his painting skills. Ralph’s a fantastic draftsman who’s careful about what he leaves in and out of his work. Some people would react to the famous pieces he did for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and say the illustrations are fat and ugly, but they’re an expression of his choices. Whether it’s Animal Farm or Alice in Wonderland, Ralph always brought something new and dynamic to classic literature.
I always use the word “illustration” carefully around Ralph because he hates it, and rightfully so. He does not illustrate a piece, he makes it his own. There’s actually a scene in the film where he and Hunter are arguing over whether Hunter would have his success without Ralph’s contributions.
I was surprised by that scene. Did you know their relationship could be adversarial?
CP: Hunter and Ralph always loved each other like brothers. That conversation is what happens when people are so comfortable with each other that they can say anything they want, and it won’t be terminal. We used that clip because it’s a great example of how robust their relationship was. I think they both mean what they say, but it’s funny since they’re both also characters in the other’s life. The words and the art are inseparable, I think, and the two would suffer without the other. Ralph was mortified when Hunter died, and as Ralph said, the loss took away the reason for him to work. It took Ralph a long time to recoup the energy and direction he needed.
How’s his direction now?
CP: Oh, my God. Ralph is currently on fire. He’s done several books, gone to several conventions, and his work is unbelievably on the button. He did a picture the other day of our publicist, and it called back to his early, cutting portraits of politicians and people he’s gone after. At seventy-seven, his controlled splashes are fully mastered.
For No Good Reason opens in DC on Friday, May 2nd.