The Art of Ralph Steadman’s “Slightly Maniacal” Humor

“When I don’t know what to do, I do that!” announces British cartoonist and artist Ralph Steadman in For No Good Reason, just before he unleashes a signature splat of ink onto a sheet of paper. “It just might lead somewhere.” Ethan Gilsdorf interviews the documentary's director, Charlie Paul

Ralph Steadman’s self-inflicted Rorschach tests, if you want to call them that, might lead to a howling dog with human legs. Or to a whacked-out portrait of a slavering addict shooting up, or a skull smoking a cigarette, or some sick dude attached to an IV drip, or some other half-real, half-dreamed, screaming, bloody grotesquerie.

Steadman’s tormented scribbles and splotches of paint have led him to all these places. But as Charlie Paul’s documentary For No Good Reason makes clear, it was Steadman’s association with Gonzo journalist Hunter. S. Thompson that helped him find this “rawness,” the wildness, the “slightly maniacal” humor he was seeking for his art.

The reason Steadman learned to draw was to make “more than funny pictures, but to change things for the better,” Steadman says in the film, now playing in New York City, Washington D.C. and various California cities, opening in Minneapolis and Boston on May 9, and rolling out to more cities soon after.

At the height of his power and popularity, Ralph Steadman tried to harness the chaos of the early 1970s, Vietnam and Nixon with his pen and “to try to change the world.” His influences wereRembrandt, Picasso, and Francis Bacon, but he wanted to apply his art “as a weapon, almost.” Making the world better meant exposing the hypocrisy and horror of life, in the most graphic way possible through his often explicit political and satirical cartoons.

“I draw things because I am angry,” Steadman complains at one point. “People have been cheated and swindled.” Yet the man behind those words, as Paul’s film reveals, comes off as surprisingly sweet and sedate (and not a blithering drunk or drug burnout, either).

For No Good Reason is, first and foremost, a portrait of the artist Steadman, but director Paul also calls it “the culmination of my roots as a punk, art student, photographer and filmmaker in a multi-layered narrative, spun almost entirely from a single palette: the life and art of Ralph Steadman.” Paul’s camera prowls through Steadman’s studio like a stalker, or parks above his work area to watch one of his cartoons come to life.

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Johnny Depp, who first met Steadman during the shooting of Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, here plays the mysterious interloper in Steadman’s studio. Occasionally, he offers up narration or asks questions, but mostly he hangs out, nodding in appreciation of Steadman’s stories and smoking cigarettes --- and giving Steadman a reason to expound upon his life, artistic aesthetic and adventures. Many of these escapades have centered on Thompson’s writing projects, which Steadman was hired to illustrate. Their partnership began in 1969 when the two covered the subculture of horse racing for a story called “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” The association continued for the books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973) and The Curse of Lono (1983); coverage of Watergate, the Ali-Frazer “Rumble in the Jungle” and other sporting events; and various stories for Rolling Stone. The collaboration became as much about the wild depravity of Thompson and Steadman as it was about the events they were supposed to cover. But Steadman’s friendship with Thompson at times resembled “ill treatment,” and Steadman says his friend “could be a son of a bitch.” (Thompson died, via a self-inflicted gunshot, in 2005.)

Into his documentary, director Charlie Paul injects a head-spinning array of visual textures. For No Good Reason was shot over fifteen years; this included installing a digital above Steadman’s work table for 10 years. Paul liberally mixes films stocks and formats, from 35mm, 16mm, Super 8 to digital HD, color and black and white. He shoots using actual old film stock. Video and film footage from Steadman’s personal archives is thrown into the mix, including antics of Steadman and Thompson “on location” in Kentucky and Las Vegas, and a hilarious episode of William S. Burroughs wielding a pistol and using an original Steadman cartoon for target practice. Newer footage of interviews with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, director Terry Gilliam, and actor Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I) are projected on contact sheets, TVs, old copies of magazines, and more art. Also, in a first, many of Steadman’s drawings come to life as animated cartoons. Slash, All American Rejects, Crystal Castles and other musicians provide the soundtrack.

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The result is a visual and auditory cacophony that smartly mimics the anarchy, passion, and violence of Steadman's art. I recently had the chance to ask Charlie Paul about his film, his and Johnny Depp’s relationship with Steadman, and some of the artistic choices behind the making of For No Good Reason.

Ethan Gilsdorf: I was amazed by the contrast between Steadman's work and Steadman the man. His work is so shocking, his politics so anti-authoritarian, yet he seems a fairly ordinary English gentleman, living on a bucolic, country estate. Were you ever surprised that Ralph and not a wild or crazy or tortured soul?

Charlie Paul: I don't think there is anything ordinary about Ralph, but it did become evident over many years of filming that he channels his anger exorcising his demons into his art, allowing him to be the genial and well natured man he appears to be.

Gilsdorf: The visual style of your film was such a surprise, the way you mixed talking heads, shots of Steadman's work, projected footage, animations, and so forth, as well as your camera constantly in motion through his studio. It strikes me that you were trying to capture the manic energy of his work in the style of your movie. Talk about that, if you can.

Paul: Yes, you are right. Ralph's art informed me as to the anarchic energy I wanted the film to have. Like Ralph's montage approach to his art, I wanted the film to have this same texture.

Gilsdorf: Were you ever tempted to shoot and construct and edit the film more conventionally?

Paul: It was important for me with this film to expand the reach of Ralph's audience and share the message of his art to a younger generation. Conventional treatment of art in film can often have a conservative approach and exclude a younger generation who are used to a more dynamic and fast moving visual diet.

Gilsdorf: Talk about the decision to project a lot of the interview footage on other objects and surfaces --- screens, newspapers, crumpled paper --- as well as the way you recreated the look of old-fashioned 8 or 16 mm film stock.

Paul: I come from a background of experimenting with different formats of film and developing in-camera techniques. Only the stop frame of Ralph's art and the interviews were shot digitally. All other footage was actually filmed on 8mm, 16mm or 35mm film. I also used film stock of different age, so some stock may have been 20 years old. This was a conscious decision to give the film rich texture and genuine feel.

Before working with Ralph I worked with other artists, capturing their art from blank canvas to finished image by using stop frame on 35mm film. For one of these I worked with Scottish artist Peter Howson on a single painting for nine months. I had heard that Ralph had also filmed his work in progress and it was this that prompted me to first contact him. All the interviewees in the film have collaborated with Ralph on projects. I did not want these interviews captured on film to be part of Ralph's space, so early on I decided to represent the interviewees on the materials that initially connected them with Ralph. Jann Wenner is projected onto the “Fear & Loathing” Rolling Stone article he commissioned to Ralph and Hunter. Terry Gilliam, I was introduced to his connection with Ralph when I spotted an artwork of Terry's on the wall in Ralph's studio. The inscription read, “To Ralph, You have influenced me more than you will ever know.” His interview is projected on to this art of Terry's. I hope that using this technique gives the viewer the same feeling I had when unearthing these connections in Ralph's studio.

Gilsdorf: You seem to have uncovered a great trove of archival footage. Were you aware this existed prior to beginning to make the film?

Paul: On my first meeting with Ralph, having written him a letter asking if I could capture on film him creating an artwork, he generously offered for me to come to his studio in Kent. I spent the day looking at his art, and talking about my process with other artists I was working with. We must have connected, because as I left he gave me a cardboard box of VHS and mini DV tapes. When I got back to my studio and started to view these tapes, I realized he had entrusted me with his personal archive of some intimate footage of his life. Ralph is a great recorder of everything he sees around him.   Gilsdorf: Regarding the animated sequence of Steadman's work, how did Ralph feel about that? Did he help you conceptualize that? Did he have a say in how that would look or need to approve what your animator Kevin Richards did to his cartoons?

Paul: The development of the animation took many years. Kevin is a classically trained animator, who really understands capturing body weight and fluidity in his animation. In the early years he was working in pen and paper. We did many tests of moving Ralph’s art and eventually they developed a language with each other that Ralph felt kept the integrity of his art.

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Gilsdorf: Were you aware of the tumultuous friendship between Steadman and Thompson? Was that a surprise to you?

Paul: I was always aware of Hunter and Ralph’s relationship. It’s not unlike many creative partnerships. Looking through all that personal archive of Ralph’s confirmed this.

Gilsdorf: We actually learn very little about Steadman's personal life in your film, other than that he had an unpleasant experience in school in England, and a little about his early years in New York City in the 1970s. Was there a conscious decision not to talk about his life before around 1970 or so, or his wife, or if he has children?

Paul: I felt there was no need for this film to cover all aspects of Ralph’s life. I want the film to be a cinematic experience about the creative process and a trigger for the audience to be inspired to look further. It’s about Ralph and his art and from the outset Ralph did not want his family included.

Gilsdorf: Were there any areas of tension between you and Steadman as you pretty much invaded his studio? Were there things he was unwilling to show you? Were there topics that Ralph was hesitant to talk about?

Paul: The film was such a gentle process. Much like getting to know someone, it evolved and deepened over many years. The vast majority of filming was by me with just Ralph and I in his studio. So over the years we talked about everything.

Gilsdorf: Can you talk a little more about the decision to include Johnny Depp in the film? I'm guessing Depp met Steadman during the shooting of Fear and Loathing, but I did not get the sense they were otherwise close. Did I miss something?

Paul: During the early years in making this film while rummaging around Ralph's studio, I would find photos of Johnny and Ralph in different locations. They first met at Owl Farm, Hunter's place way before the filming process started. I always knew the film would need someone to contain Ralph and be his conduit to the audience. Johnny was the natural person. During the edit we were conscious that Johnny's presence could over-shadow Ralph, so the challenge was to minimize Johnny's screen dominance whilst retaining a constant presence in his studio. Johnny, too, was conscious and collaborative in balancing this.

Gilsdorf: Depp struck me as a fairly laid back guy who was there more to observe than ask questions. Was that always Depp's voice off-screen asking questions and reacting, or is that voice yours from time to time prodding Steadman?

Paul: It was always Johnny's voice asking the questions. During the process of making the film, I would send Johnny clips and short segments of loose edit assembles. He was not available over the fifteen years in making this film, which was a gentle and organic process, but towards the end once I knew which stories the film was covering and we had a structure to the edit, Johnny came to Ralph's studio as his schedule allowed and talked with Ralph about the relevant art and publications.

Unknown-3 Gilsdorf: To me, the huge theme of your film is this idea of the passing of time, and Steadman's uncertainly about his legacy. Steadman mentions his desire to “change the world” several times. But it's a lament, an expression of doubt. “I felt slightly meaningless,” he says by film’s end. Terry Gilliam says pretty much the same thing: We didn’t change the world as much as we’d have liked. By the end of the film, Steadman worries that he’s become a “visual polluter.” He says, “I still haven’t proved I’m an artist. I’m a cartoonist.” He really does seem worried about whether or not he a serious artist, whether his life and work been pointless.

Paul: I think many people of his age quite rightly are reflective of their time on the planet and what they have or have not managed to achieve.

Gilsdorf: What is your sense of Steadman’s life today? He does still make new cartoons, right, and sells them to magazines, or does he pretty much live off of the sales of his older prints?

Paul: Ralph to this day, goes into his studio every day and creates art. I still have a camera installed above his worktable and collect and view his creations regularly.

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Published 6:00 am Thu, May 8, 2014

About the Author

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston GlobeSalon.comBoingBoing.netPsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.

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