‘For No Good Reason’ Director Charlie Paul on Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson

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This interview was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2013. It is being reposted now that the film is opening in theaters.

There are a lot of documentaries being made lately about illustrators and animators. But a film about Ralph Steadman titled For No Good Reason is likely to be one of the more popular, in part because it stars Johnny Depp alongside the British cartoonist and in part because the subject himself is something of a cult favorite, especially through his illustrations for the works of Hunter S. Thompson and his political art. It’s not surprising that a major studio like Sony Pictures is distributing this new documentary through its specialty division.

For No Good Reason is currently showing at the Toronto International Film Festival (following a debut last fall at BFI London) and is being accompanied by an exhibit of Steadman’s work at the TIFF Bell Lightbox gallery. I talked to the director, Charlie Paul, on the phone last week about the doc and the very long time it took to finish, as well as the process of bringing Steadman’s drawings to life.

Nonfics: Why a film about Ralph Steadman? And why now?

Charlie Paul: I first met Ralph about 15 years ago when I had been making a series of films about other UK artists and international artists — one of my passions. A series of time-lapse films of artists painting. I had heard Ralph was doing a little bit of this, experimenting with cameras at his house. So, I went down to Loose Court where he lives and his studio is. It’s a fantastic studio full of everything he’s put down and hasn’t moved for maybe 25 years. And all his art, obviously, because he holds on to all his art. He only lets them go when he gets reproductions of things, that kind of stuff. Ralph and I got along very well and had a lovely day, and he imparted with me a whole pile of archive tapes of stuff he’d filmed over the years — overhead, of his table. And just stuff he’s been filming. Ralph films everything. Or did.

I took this archive back and went through it and found it fascinating. I always was a fan of Ralph’s. Ever since my days at art college. He was a massive influence on my work. Obviously having the privilege and the ability to work alongside him was such a marvelous treat that I jumped at the idea and started visiting him on regular weekends. We’d look at things and point cameras at things and talk about stuff, and then these bits started joining up. Slowly but surely I started finding leads in his stories that told the stories I wanted to tell as a director, and I began gathering up a film. The film process hotted up in the last 3–4 years, where I had collected enough information — albeit stuff I’d filmed on different formats and of different events — and started to glue these pieces together with the interviews and motion control and all kinds of other tools I used to weave this story.

Why now? Because it’s the end of Ralph’s career. I think what Ralph has done over the years has been an incredible job of talking about the issues that were important at the time and still are. Never has there been a better time for Ralph’s message to be championed and shown, really. The film is full of all the things we should be paying attention to now in art and in our behavior as such.

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Nonfics: At what point did Johnny Depp become involved?

Paul: It was a long protracted piece of work with Johnny, because Johnny and Ralph have known each other for years. They’ve forever been chatting and meeting up and that sort of stuff. We first brought Johnny aboard two years ago. Obviously because of schedules it took a long time to fruit. Johnny’s been down to Ralph’s a few times, but he came down to film with us on principal photography last year. And we did four or five sessions down at Ralph’s. Within that time we collected material we needed for Johnny to be the glue. Since then, we had voiceovers to be done and all kinds of other bits and pieces, sessions in L.A. and some down at Ralph’s, and that took a long time as well because once Johnny’s off on another project he gets locked down. We finished last year.

Nonfics: It’s neat to see him in this after he was in Alex Gibney’s film on Hunter S. Thompson (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson).

Paul: Johnny’s love for Hunter in the first place comes their birthplace. Both born in the same town. They see eye to eye anyway. And of course Ralph’s connection to Hunter makes Johnny’s love for Ralph very complete. They’ve met many times out at Owl Farm and that kind of stuff. It was natural for Johnny to want to work on this film. Of course he embraced it with that kind of love. It comes across between their relationship in the film.

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Nonfics: Since you started so long ago, before Thompson’s death, did you get to film anything with him?

Paul: I was around with Thompson, but I never actually went to film with him. For many reasons. He shot himself midway through the filming. I’d planned to go see him and work in his life and finish there. I talked about going over with Ralph with a camera. He’d done it before. To be perfectly honest, Hunter changes when he’s in company. And the beauty of what I had for the film already was Ralph’s personal footage of all his visits with Hunter. That was many of the tapes in this first box that Ralph gave me, private conversations between Ralph and Hunter, drunk weekends at Owl Farm. That material I could never have captured if I’d gone over with a crew.

I was very happy from the outset that the material I had of Ralph and Hunter’s relationship was already captured by Ralph. We used it in the footage. There’s a lovely piece at the end of Ralph and Hunter where they’re in a hotel room and they describe their relationship. That wouldn’t have happened if I was there. That’s the end of that really, and god bless him. Hunter plays a large part in the film because of Ralph’s love of him. It was important to include that as well.

Nonfics: Did Ralph wind up providing much input on the film, or did he trust you with full control over telling his story?

Paul: The beauty of the film is that it’s not a scripted film. It is made entirely out of Ralph’s words. So Ralph recognized everything that went into the film, which is a fantastic thing. I’m with Ralph all the time, I’m showing him things that we made together, shot. All along we have worked together. And my relationship with Ralph is a very intense relationship, being with someone possibly every week for ten years. Not all through the week but visits of one or two days per week. Obviously our relationship was very tight. Everything that was filmed was filmed with Ralph’s understanding of what we were doing.

The edit of course was not a surprise, but anybody shown their entire life being condensed into an hour and a half of course is something that… Ralph found it very amusing, I think. More for what we left out than we actually put in. The entire Steadman estate is incredibly happy with the end result. And that’s why Ralph is coming over to Toronto with us and supporting the film. And all of Ralph’s friends who collaborated are extremely happy with it like Richard Grant and Terry Gilliam. As for me, the film was made to reflect Ralph in the true light of the time I spent with him. I succeeded in that, and he recognizes it as a film that represents that time as well.

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Nonfics: How did the animation process go? Did you just take Ralph’s drawings and do what you wanted with them?

Paul: I’ll explain. At first — this is a few years in — I was always talking to Ralph about animation. I come from an animation background. I’ve won many awards animating commercials, and it’s through my love of art from art college and my love of animation that kind of took me to this project in the first place. I always felt that if any of my skills were needed to bring his drawings to the screen, I would possibly be employing my animation skills.

Ralph said early on in our meetings, “I can imagine my art as like the moment a fly hits the windscreen of an oncoming speeding car. And that moment of impact where the thing is splattered across the screen is my drawing. Therefore, that is not animation, that is a static thing. He might put a tiny bit of movement in his last breath, but essentially that is my drawing.” So we decided to take his picture as the last image of the animation sequence, take the essence of his drawings and preempt that moment of impact with the animated sequence. So, what we ended up doing was having an animated sequence that ran into his drawing. The last thing you see on the screen, that last image you’re left with, is Ralph’s drawing — or 99 percent, because sometimes we took it slightly further. But this was the general rule. It meant it stayed true to Ralph’s work.

One thing that was important to me also was you can’t model Ralph’s animation. You can’t draw a 360-degree model of Ralph’s characters. They don’t have the backs of their heads, and their eyeballs don’t actually fit on the side of their head. So if you move them they stop being his drawing. The technicality of animating Ralph’s work was very, very complicated, even though it seems simple in the film. I decided to employ a very small but constant animation department — Kevin Rich was the head of the animation department — and we didn’t pass drawings around. They were literally made by the same animation artist for about eight years of the production process.

There’s a very large film we made called Cherrywood Cannon where we actually animated a whole book of Ralph’s, which actually didn’t make it into the final cut of the film even though it’s an 8-minute, full-up animation sequence. Ralph was very much amused and entertained by our animation and feels they’re very much an intrinsic part of the film. He’s happy.

For No Good Reason screens this evening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.