Charlie Paul talks about how For No Good Reason – his new doc about Ralph Steadman – was fuelled by his career in advertising.
In the 1970s Ralph Steadman adventured alongside notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Together with his illustrating companion Hunter pioneered a new school of reporting – Gonzo journalism. Ralph’s anarchic style of illustration has been admired ever since, injecting his subjects with a vicious, wild comedy that has gained him devotees worldwide.
Director Charlie Paul is one such devotee. A commercials director working from his North London production company, Itch Film, Charlie has spent over 20 years making ads and music videos. But he also has a great passion for art. And he’s dedicated a lot of time to this passion.
After 15 years of interviewing, shooting and researching Ralph and his work, he’s come out blinking into the light with a feature-length documentary – For No Good Reason. Thanks to Charlie’s in-depth approach over the years, it’s a comfortable and warm-hearted film that tells the story of an artist with real principles. It’s been a long time coming but it was worth the wait.
The film follows Ralph’s rise to success as he tore through the 1970s with his writer companion, who subjected him to the extreme binges that went hand-in-hand with the new Gonzo style. Charlie explores the pair’s relationship, recounting their adventures, from the excesses of the Kentucky Derby to attempting to spray “Fuck the Pope” on the side of a boat and getting caught, and on to Hunter’s dramatic suicide in 2005.
The narrative simultaneously follows Ralph’s artistic progression, weaving his art through the story of his life. Having placed cameras above the artist’s workstations, Charlie allows us to watch the drawings as they develop from random ink splatters into grotesque beings. Some illustrations have even been animated, bringing Ralph’s bizarre creations to life.
Despite its indie-doc credentials, Charlie’s film is star-studded. Just on the virtue of the people Ralph worked with and inspired, Charlie has managed to involve Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam and even Slash in the film, with Johnny Depp starring as the closest thing to an interviewer the film has (he doesn’t need to ask a lot of questions).
With much of it shot on 35mm film (the project started in the pre-digital Stone Age), Charlie has achieved a distinctively rough yet stylised aesthetic that fits his subject matter well. We caught up with Charlie to talk about how his 15-year endeavour shaped up and how the film’s triumphs are a direct result of his long career as an advertising director.
It sounds like the film was a real labour of love.
This film has been nothing but a labour of love. It was never really supposed to be a film. It was just me pursuing anything I wanted to on a long format and lucky for me Ralph is a fantastic subject.
I’ve always been in awe of him. Ever since I was an art student I loved his work. So meeting my hero and then working with him is the perfect canvas for me to experiment.
My life’s ambition has been to make things like this. I’ve been making art films since art college. It is all my ambitions and dreams from advertising applied to one subject over many years.
How was it different from your job as a commercials director?
It was unscripted, which was a fantastic relief to me. We would happily film endlessly with no great objective. So whenever I would find time from commercials I would just go and play at my favourite artist’s studio.
For the first five years it was really just a hobby. And if you are a commercial director you do need other hobbies. You’re entirely immersed in your commercials career. It’s very difficult to progress because you end up being asked to do the same thing over and over again – whatever you’re good at. Whereas with this I was a jack-of-all-trades, which was great, and opened my eyes to lots of areas that I’d never thought of before.
It’s a relief from working. The beautiful thing about advertising is that you don’t work all the time. You’re afforded the opportunity to do something that you would want to do anyway. We have a beautiful motion control studio in King’s Cross and we donated the time that we weren’t doing ads towards the film.
How else did your career in advertising feed into the film?
Being a commercial director means you have certain standards of delivery. You don’t swing cameras around happily because every frame counts. So taking that discipline into the film meant we spent a long time making it, pouring over every shot using motion control and 35mm film and using all the tools of advertising to make it as beautiful as we possibly could. That made it incredibly production-heavy, but very unusual for the same reason.
I really didn’t want a film that was just talking heads. That put horror in my heart. I was determined to make a film that was out of its genre. It was my duty to try and do something different.
I think every shot in the film could pass as a broadcast commercial standard. I’ve applied the same kind of attention to detail to smoking, dirty ashtrays as I would to a prime lump of beef on an M&S commercial. How often do you see a motion control move on a stubbed out cigarette, rollups, spilt liquor everywhere? To even the grottiest moments I’ve applied an advertising standard.
I wanted to leave all the rough edges in because Ralph’s work is really rough. He doesn’t hide the Sellotape. So it was really important to have the mess of filmmaking in there. Often the camera will flare out or you’ll see the clapperboard at the end or often the cuts are ramp-ups or ramp-downs of the camera itself because to me they were the equivalent to Sellotape in film. We didn’t polish the life out of the film. So it’s super-high-end but at the same time it’s full of scrappy edges.
It is a very different and ambitious approach to documentary making. In advertising it’s marvellous to be working in tight constraints. You have delivery dates, a budget, and as a craft it’s the best it gets. I must say I’m an advertiser through and through. That is my first love. I’ve stayed there over 25 years because it’s a fantastic medium. It’s still the best business to be in if you like filmmaking. Every commercial’s different. They only occupy a month or two of your life at most. I love it more since I’ve had this window opened to how messy filmmaking can be.
Despite your background in art films, this isn’t purely about Ralph’s art, is it?
Towards the end it became evident that most importantly the film was a showcase of [Ralph’s] ideas. The reason he’s a hero is that he fights injustices; he doesn’t put up with things; he has a heart of gold with no bad in it. You wouldn’t know that from his work but he is someone worthy of being put on a pedestal and being treated as a good person.
The film is all about human rights, the bad side of consumerism and commercialism. It’s all about being aware of what you’re doing, so in that sense the film is a message.
How do you reconcile that with your advertising career?
I’m very happy. I’ve embraced my career. But you have to address these things. I started working entirely on charity commercials. I’d thought I could work in advertising working entirely for good products and good causes. Over the years you realise there’s not many of those. And they’re not that different from the bad guys anyway.
I have very right-on children that spend their whole time reminding me that I’m not doing anything any good. I’d be better off looking after old ladies than selling food to people who don’t need it.
Ralph finds it funny that I’ve used my wages from McDonalds, Burger King and Iceland commercials to finance my film. He kind of sees it as a victory that he’s managed to screw some money out of those guys in the end. But that’s the case. You spend your hard-earned money trying to address the imbalance. Even commercial directors have consciences. I’ve spent all my money on making this bloody film. And why? So that a few art students will pick up on it, and go “maybe I could do that” and they’ll become the voice of the future.