Artist Ralph Steadman Talks New Documentary 'For No Good Reason'

Johnny Depp, left, and Ralph Steadman
Johnny Depp, left, and Ralph Steadman
 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Artist Ralph Steadman, famed for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson, has picked up a nasty “foreign” bug from flying.

“That’s something they haven’t worked out yet in all the years of flying,” he says to The Hollywood Reporter over the phone his studio in Kent, England, “converting air at 30,000 feet into fresh air.”

It’s a typical Steadmanism, pointing out something that seems so grievously wrong with the world you can’t believe people haven’t risen up against it in an angry mob. Steadman is on the phone to plug a new doc about his working life, For No Good Reason, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday. It features plenty of Steadmanisms.

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The film by first-time director Charlie Paul does two things. First, it monitors Steadman for a period of years in his Kent studio -- punctuated by a visit from a friendly Johnny Depp. Secondly, it documents the artist’s storied career, one forever intertwined with the demented ambassador of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson.

Steadman, of course, is best known for the drug-distorted freaks careening through a desert landscape on the jacket of Thompson’s magnum opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He envisaged Thompson’s most emblematic "gonzo" moments -- tales of madness backdropped by an increasingly paranoid vision of American "normalcy."

Here’s how it would go: Thompson and Steadman would infiltrate the Kentucky Derby or the America’s Cup yacht race or some such equally square event, where they would inevitably cause some havoc and become the story. Then Thompson would bash out a few thousand words about the ordeal, and Steadman would illustrate it, and it would publish in magazines like Scanlan’s or Rolling Stone. Journalism would never be the same again.

In fact, Steadman points out, the film’s title lies in their history. Steadman would ask Thompson, why, exactly, they were setting out to wreak havoc on unsuspecting dolts. “For no good reason, Ralph,” Thompson would say.

“He was probably the best person I could meet in America at that time,” says Steadman about the meeting in 1970 that would spark decades of collaboration. “I went to Kentucky [to work on a story about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s]. We spent three days looking for each other. He was told to look for a weird looking guy; I had a goatee beard with no moustache. He said when we met, ‘They said you were weird, but not that weird.’”

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Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, has a solid legacy. Bill Murray (once) or Johnny Depp (twice) portray him in the three films made about his life or about his articles, spotlighting the man with a cigarette holder and the mumbly demeanor who somehow became the romanticized version of the American anti-hero scribe. Meanwhile, Steadman has mainly remained largely unfamiliar to mainstream audiences. In a way, this movie is a method of giving Steadman a bit of shine. But it’s unclear whether he knew the process of making a doc would take over a decade.

“People do take liberties, don’t they?” Steadman says, chuckling about the lengthy process, which included Paul suspending a camera and lights above Steadman’s workspace in order to capture the artist’s process in stop-motion. “I would operate the [remote control] clicker for the camera sometimes…” He pauses.

“I’m going to cough,” he says. He coughs, and then embellishes a second cough, hacking like a dying leper into the phone -- even in illness, Steadman’s got mischievous sass, something that comes through perfectly in the film.

The resulting stop-motion animations are mesmerizing, allowing an extremely generous glimpse into the complexity of Steadman’s paintings. He often starts with a splotchy stain that has become his signature, and then uses clever tricks like blowing paint through a pipe-like contraption to create an aerosol effect, and using a glaze to protect certain parts that he’s finished with while painting over other parts of the work.

Depp acts as the film’s guide, interviewing Steadman, going over his process, and just hanging out. The two have had a long friendship, having met at Thompson’s Owl Farm, a compound in the wilds near Aspen, Colorado.

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“We’d hang around the kitchen during the day, or go out and take a drink down at Woody Creek Tavern, or anything while waiting for Hunter,” says Steadman. “Hunter wouldn’t get up until three in the afternoon, start with his Bloody Marys, and he’d have four grapefruit on a tray all laid out for him. He had such a habitual way of going about things. You were beholden to the amount of habit. He was very much the son of Kentucky pioneers. In a way, he was very conventional.”

For viewers that aren’t familiar with Steadman’s work post-Fear and Loathing, the film introduces artist projects like his “Paranoids,” Polaroids of notable people like David Hockney or Clint Eastwood that Steadman would draw on the wet film’s emulsion to distort their faces. Or I, Leonardo, Steadman’s fictionalized re-imagining of the life of da Vinci from a first person perspective, which became a coveted artist book. And it also devotes plenty of screen time to Steadman’s vitriolic political cartoons. The cartoons are venomous attacks on the establishment; Steadman won’t stand for the status quo, and he especially reviles oppressors.

If the amusing man on the other end of the phone doesn’t jive with the vision of spiteful anti-government crusader, it’s even more pronounced in the film.

Through the phone, without warning, Steadman launches into a story about living in Liverpool during the Nazi shellings of World War II.

“We had to go down into what they called the Anderson Shelter -- you may have heard of them -- they’re a corrugated steel underground shelter that they covered over with earth, so you have to go into it at night when the blitz warnings came,” he recalls. “And my mother, she’d make sure my sister Barbara and me were settled down, and then she’d knit very gently and carefully and deliberately. I think she was regulating her own nervousness.”

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It’s Steadman’s way of saying he has a genetic ability to channel all the bile through the pen onto the page.

“It keeps him a sane man,” says Charlie Paul, relaxing after a screening the movie theater’s bar after a preview screening in Los Angeles. The director confirms that Steadman is just as easygoing in person.

“I will forever be going down to Ralph’s,” says Paul. “He still has the camera above his desk, and he still rings me up and goes, ‘The [memory] chip’s full,’ and I still go down and take it out as if nothing had ever changed.”

Lucy Paul, Charlie’s partner and the film’s producer, hopes the film can clarify what is a difficult career to track. “His career has been quite fractured, so some people know him for his political cartoons, some people know him for his gonzo work, some people know him for his more literary publications,” she says. “I think if anything, the film has managed to put it all in once place, and show how prolific he is.”

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