Reasons unknown

Ralph Steadman and Charlie Paul on new documentary For No Good Reason.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paul Shaffer and Ralph Steadman with Hal Willner: "Worlds meeting"
Paul Shaffer and Ralph Steadman with Hal Willner: "Worlds meeting" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

On Tuesday, April 22, Sony Pictures Classics and Jann Wenner hosted a New York special screening of Charlie Paul's For No Good Reason featuring Johnny Depp, Ralph Steadman, Terry Gilliam, Richard E. Grant and Hunter S. Thompson. It was followed by a cocktail reception and preview of Steadman's exhibition at Red Bull Studio.

Among those attending were Ralph Steadman, Sony Pictures Classics' co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, director Charlie Paul, Lucy Paul - producer of For No Good Reason, Tom Wolfe, Griffin Dunne, producer Hal Willner, Paul Shaffer, Tony Shafrazi, Jeremy Kost, designer Danielle Snyder and photographer Bob Gruen.

For No Good Reason premiere Charlie Paul, Tom Bernard, Ralph Steadman, Michael Barker and Lucy Paul in New York
For No Good Reason premiere Charlie Paul, Tom Bernard, Ralph Steadman, Michael Barker and Lucy Paul in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The last time I ran into music director Paul Shaffer was at Peggy Siegal's 20 Feet From Stardom caroling event, when he accompanied Darlene Love in "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the piano, and led the chorus of holiday celebrants as we impersonated background singers. Morgan Neville's documentary went on to win the Academy Award.

Charlie Paul's inquiry into the artistic mind of Ralph Steadman, most famously connected as illustrator to Hunter S. Thompson's writing, begins with beautiful shots of Johnny Depp's arrival at Steadman's rural villa and gardens. A bit of childhood memory super 8 mixed with the eye of a stalker, and we start to get to know a not very careful man. Admirably uncareful, yet never careless.

The artist at work first lets us watch the birth of a drawing called A Surprise Pet. "It's a horrible looking creature, really," he says, "I'd kick it out, if it walked into the room."

Tom Wolfe For No Good Reason with Ralph Steadman
Tom Wolfe For No Good Reason with Ralph Steadman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Steadman says that in the beginning of his career there was "a wildness missing, a rawness missing," which he encountered during his first visit to New York in 1970 when he decided to make a career out of his drawings. Then came the phone call from Hunter S. Thompson to cover the Kentucky Derby experience with him. The rest is history. After the "drunken nightmare" of the Derby with Thompson, he did not want to go back to a "normal cartoon job," whatever that may be.

Johnny Depp asks Steadman the very poignant question of if his non-drug taking affected the relationship to Thompson. "Not being like him was good," is his answer. The many liquids shown in Paul's film frequently shift from alcohol to ink.

Steadman gives his point of view on many artists.

Ralph Steadman's A SURPRISE PET: "I'd kick it out, if it walked into the room."
Ralph Steadman's A SURPRISE PET: "I'd kick it out, if it walked into the room." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Francis Bacon, because his paintings are "always an event." He calls Rembrandt's self portraits the "most un-decorative idea … the most scintillating intellectual exercise that one could imagine." Picasso, whose portrait with bread hands is placed above Steadman's drawing table, is 'biggest influence of all because of his persistent artistic daily life."

The film quotes Leonardo Da Vinci, whose "autobiography" Steadman wrote, that genius was the capacity for taking pains. The inventor of the parachute taught us how to fly. David Hockney becomes one of the paranoid polaroid portraits, together with Bela Lugosi, John Travolta, and William S. Burroughs. Terry Gilliam comments: "I wish I had that ability to explode that Ralph does."

"Authority is the mask of violence," says Steadman and gives an explanation that his violent drawings are an attempt to get back at torturers.

Another artist who deplored authority and used his skills as an illustrator to attack it was Tomi Ungerer, who left New York in 1971, settling in Nova Scotia, Canada. When I spoke last year with director, producer Brad Bernstein and co-producer, editor, motion graphics animator Rick Cikowski on Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, they talked about the "archival footage from the Sixties in New York" on Ungerer.

Director Charlie Paul and his star Ralph Steadman spoke with me For No Good Reason at the premiere.

Terry Gilliam  on Ralph Steadman's Paranoids, William S Burroughs: "I wish I had that ability to explode that Ralph does."
Terry Gilliam on Ralph Steadman's Paranoids, William S Burroughs: "I wish I had that ability to explode that Ralph does." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: Johnny Depp asks some very good questions in the film. Did you know he had a knack for interviewing? Did you always have him in mind?

Charlie Paul: It was always clear that Johnny and Ralph would be together for the film. I had already come across photographs of those two hanging out at the farm, at Steadman's place. They went back many years before I started my film. It was really a matter of me being able to find the space and time for Johnny to come up to London or where Ralph is and partake.

By the time Johnny was there, I was able to steer them in the direction of some of the subjects in the film. But Johnny and Ralph have that thing - they are so connected. I just had to point the camera at this lovely relationship. It's all there. Big silences because the two have a connection - they don't need words. He is a fantastic plane to this crazy piece of art which is Ralph. That was a real treasure.

AKT: There were many good reasons to make this film. Do you ever do something for no good reason?

CP: No, it's all for good reason. Sometimes I doubted if it was all for good reason, but that was just the journey. It all turned out for good reason in the end.

AKT: Why did you choose the title?

CP: It is something that Hunter used to say to Ralph. When Ralph would say "What are we doing this for?" Hunter would say "for no good reason, Ralph." That was a great premise for the title of the movie and for making the movie. When we set out, there was no great reason for making it. We just knew that in the end it would all come clear and there would be a reason.

BAD CRAZINESS! with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, Ralph Steadman and producer Lucy Paul
BAD CRAZINESS! with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, Ralph Steadman and producer Lucy Paul Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

"If you surprise yourself still, you really can have a good trip," Steadman says in the film. He definitely surprised me. I never would have expected to talk about the "charity business" and bird jealousy on the red carpet.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Do you ever do something for no good reason?

Ralph Steadman: For no good reason? There is no reason for anything, really. I mean, we go to war for no good reason. Everything in the world is like that. We learn to fly for no good reason. We were jealous - saw the birds. What a wonderful idea!

AKT: Jealousy of birds is not a good reason?

RS: Ahh, it's an aspirational thing. Not really jealousy, striving optimism. Without rancor, without any form of spite. We've been fighting wars forever - but forever finding ways to be violent. That's bad. So I use violence in my drawings to express the world outside. The more violent the drawing, it's about how to defend war. I have done a crucifixion of one of those children, hungry and thirsty - it was with a sense of the horrible reality. That compassionate thing - it's not a phony thing. I think a lot of people feel it.

Ralph Steadman's For No Good Reason exhibition at Red Bull Studio
Ralph Steadman's For No Good Reason exhibition at Red Bull Studio Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: A lot of people feel what exactly?

RS: Feel a need to help in some way. They want to try and do it without people noticing. I understand, I don't want that either. I don't want to boast about it. It's like those endless adverts now on television. For just three pounds a month you can save a child from dying. No child is born to die, or whatever it's called. It's endless. Why don't they make a united thing and give the money?

AKT: Is it really about the children?

RS: I don't know where the money goes to. I'm sure so many well-meaning people send money in and they don't send it to the right places. There seems to be a bit of a scam going on in the charity business. It is a kind of business now.

Johnny Depp reminds us at the end of the film: "You are an inspiration - for no good reason."

For No Good Reason the exhibition opens at Red Bull Studio, 218 West 18th Street, on April 24.

For No Good Reason the film opens in the US on April 25.

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