After 10 years of shooting footage followed by five years in the editing room, filmmaker Charlie Paul had completed his documentary. For him, it was a long, unique experience making “For No Good Reason,” an in-depth look at acclaimed British artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his longtime partnership with American Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. During that time, Paul says, his friendship with Steadman grew into a working relationship.
“After a while, I got to a stage where I had total access to Ralph,” Paul told me during an interview at the SXSW Film Festival where the film made its debut in March. “There were no barriers or guards with him. The end result is that everything in the film is completely honest. It’s as if you were in Ralph’s studio without him noticing you there.”
In “For No Good Reason,” Paul interviews Steadman (and others like actor Johnny Depp and director Terry Gilliam) to create a sense of how important his work is not only as an extension of the controversial words Thompson wrote in books such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” but to illustrators worldwide. He also uses Steadman’s own incredible drawings to show the influence he has made on others both culturally and historically.
“For No Good Reason” was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD on Sept. 2.
Were you surprised no one else had made a film about Ralph before you started shooting this film 15 years ago?
Well, naturally, Ralph wouldn’t let anyone make a film about him. The same thing could be said about Hunter [S. Thompson]. These guys are incredibly personal. Ralph had never seen a need to make a movie. It was only our relationship and the fact that I was a filmmaker that I was able to convince him that this was something we needed to do.
Was it easy to convince him?
Well, if you tell Ralph to go north, Ralph will go south. The idea of actually going in and structuring Ralph to make a film was virtually impossible. I think I would’ve ended up making the opposite film I wanted. So, for me, what I had to do was just follow Ralph. So, I was just there with him all the time. Every week I would go and film a session with him. Each session was guided by him. I shot anything he was doing that day. If I arrived and he was drawing a picture of a bird, that would be what we shot that day.
It must have been incredible just to be in his studio and watch him work. Is his workspace as chaotic as I’m imagining?
You know, I’ll tell you, I was rummaging one day around his studio and found some photos he had taken that he had forgotten about. They were photos he took in New York in 1974. These things were under a pile of rubbish. He would’ve never seen them. So, I took them and scanned them and show them to Ralph and ask, “Hey, Ralph, what do you think of these?” Ralph loved them so much he got them into an exhibition and then decided to make a book out of them. It was good for Ralph and for me to be rummaging around in his space. It was really a marvelous uncovering for him.
Is Ralph, even today, still creating work on a consistent basis?
Oh, yes! Ralph paints every day. Almost every day we would film what he was painting. The work that made it to the film had a purpose. Ralph is constantly creating new work. He still potters down to his studio and gets a brush and makes a splat and, before you know it, he’s created a genius piece of art.
Although Ralph stopped drawing political cartoons a few years ago, he’s now doing it again. Why did he stop in the first place?
It’s because he realized that most of the politicians found [his illustrations] flattering. For all his efforts to show the ugly side of the person, they would actually say, “This is great! Can I have it?” He realized he was helping these people by producing this work. But he’s back in it now. He’s working for the New Yorker. He does politicians all the time, but he’s always very skeptical about beautifying these people or allowing them to think they’ve been immortalized by him. But he’s not out to get people like he was before.
During all the time you spend with Ralph, did he ever tell you anything you remember that sort of encompasses who he was as a person?
He would say something like, “I became an artist to try and change the world, and I did change the world because it’s a worse place now than when I started.” That’s how he feels about life. For all his efforts, he feels like he has done nothing to change the world. Before, the world was moving on in a way he was protesting against. It’s like, however hard you try, the world will carry on without you.
Do you agree with his take on life?
Oh, no. I disagree with him entirely. I always tell him, “Ralph, I was influenced by your work and I am trying to change the world as a mirror to what you do. You’ve influenced so many people around the world.” Bu he doesn’t see that. As far as he’s concerned, he’s only wasted his time. But, again, Ralph really is the reason I do my work. Therefore, he has had an influence. I can tell him a thousand times and he would deny it all the way to his grave.