Getting to know the artist behind Gonzo

For decades, artist Ralph Steadman was author Hunter S. Thompson's main collaborator in the creation of Gonzo journalism, as it appeared in startling drawings in the books "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "The Curse of Lono" and elsewhere. The art took a hilariously dark view of American politics and culture, with sometimes violent scenes with lizards and con men, and wild splashes of ink and red paint spattered everywhere.

Now 77, Steadman doesn't travel nearly as often, but works away in his cottage 90 minutes away from London, sending scans of his work into the world but never parting with original work. He's now the subject of a new documentary, "For No Good Reason," from director Charlie Paul, who spent 15 years filming and talking with Steadman. The film opens May 2.

The documentary features appearances by Gonzo devotee Johnny Depp, who grills the artist on his work and history on-camera, and includes vintage footage of Steadman in action with Thompson. During the course of his 15 years of visits to Steadman, the artist and filmmaker became close friends.

"I wanted Ralph's work to reach a larger audience," Paul says of the motivations behind "For No Good Reason. "I felt he was misunderstood and not out there enough. I thought Ralph would see the world loving him and he'd be a happier man." Paul laughs. "It doesn't quite work like you imagine. Ralph is still grumbling away."

"For No Good Reason" is not a traditional talking heads documentary.

I wanted to make a film about Ralph's art, and Ralph's art is eclectic and there's loads of rough edges. It looks very polished and beautiful, but it's really kind of rough and dirty at the same time. So as a film technique, I wanted to emulate that same idea — all these weird cutout bits and pieces, but beautifully held together as a process of art in Ralph's case, and hopefully in the film. It's all there to reflect how Ralph works.

I also wanted to showcase Ralph's work without commentary. I didn't want to have talking heads saying, "This is what you're looking at, this is what you should think about this." I came from art college, and I was always worried about the way art was represented by intellects who can take these things and redress them according to how they think. I wanted to make something very open without experts.

You show several of his paintings being created over a period of time.

There are a lot of stop-frame animations of Ralph's art building — it's part of a technique I developed to put art on the screen in its purest form. Music was a great help because it helps you to digest what is often hard stuff to look at.

Did you know Ralph before this?

I've known Ralph for 15 years now, and this project started 15 years ago. Up until that point, I've always been a fan of Ralph's. I've known his work since I was an art student. The thing I loved about Ralph's work that really talked to me, it always felt like a piece of art that was about to go somewhere. I felt it was a perfect medium to try to bring it to life through animation.

How did this project begin?

It started when I wrote Ralph a letter: "I'm very interested in moving art. I hear that you have a camera above your desk. This is what I've done. Can I come and see?" Ralph wrote back: "Dear boy, it's nothing like what I do, but you're more than welcome to come down." So I went down and we just hit it off. The first thing I did was put a digital camera above his desk and lights tied to a big button. When he thinks of it, he presses the button and it takes a frame. From then on, every week I'd go down, take the chip out of the camera, put a new chip in.

Ralph would make 10 paintings a week. All these things would be building up. We'd talk about what he did the previous week. Ralph led the way. I ended up with a lot of footage, as you can imagine.

He understood from the beginning that you were making a documentary?

Right, he knew that I was recording his life. Ralph will not make another film. He was not interested in making a film in the first place. He couldn't understand why anyone would want to do that. What happened with me and Ralph is we ended up in a relationship and I helped his process. I went down and we'd work on things. He ended up using me as studio help. It was a beautiful thing for many years — to be part of my hero's process was such a privilege.

In England, is his reputation based so much on the Hunter Thompson books, or for other things?

The Hunter Thompson work is a big flag, but in the UK Ralph was known for making books on other subjects — Leonardo, "Treasure Island" and other things. You know, Ralph never parts with his art.

All the way back?

The only drawings he doesn't have, famously, are the "Fear and Loathing" drawings, which [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner bought for $50 each at the time. When I interviewed Jann for the film, we had a good laugh about it.

Ralph comes off in your film and in person as a very warm person, even though his art can be very dark and even violent.

In film, there is always a temptation to embellish things for the sake of the movie. I wanted to reflect Ralph as he really is. There's no ugly stuff with Ralph in the film because in the 15 years that I've known him, there never was. I've never seen him lose his temper. People think his work is upsetting and he's vindictive, but it's not that. Some of his art is really rude. You can't imagine it coming out of lovely Ralph. But bless him.


Follow Steve Appleford on Twitter: @SteveAppleford.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World