British artist Ralph Steadman is best known in the United States for his decades illustrating the work of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, especially in Rolling Stone magazine and the book 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.'
But in other parts of the world, Steadman is recognized as one of the world's greatest satirical artists in his own right. The film, "For No Good Reason," which opens this weekend in Minneapolis, explores Steadman's extraordinary career.
The film reveals how Steadman draws shocking pictures, often of real people. They become raging maniacs engaged in horrible acts. His political cartoons, often lurid, and angry, have appeared in publications around the world.
Steadman's best-selling books on topics as diverse as God, Michelangelo, Scotch whisky, and extinct birds also display his grotesque ink-splattered technique.
Watch the trailer for "For No Good Reason"
Despite his methods, the writer himself is congenial. In a recent phone interview, he admitted he felt a little washed out from his publicity tour, "two bricks short of a load."
The tension between Steadman's genial nature, and the ferocity of his work attracted documentary director Charlie Paul. He said Steadman's drawings have stood out for decades, but are even more important today.
Steadman's angry drawings, Paul said, speak truths rarely expressed nowadays, Paul.
"He'll go out to his studio and attack his piece of paper, and get it all out there, and honestly sometimes I am shocked by what I see appearing in front of me," Paul said. "But I have learned never to judge the man by the art, insomuch as we will then take lunch and we will go off and Ralph will return to his generous and warm and caring kind of manner, and that's Ralph really."
Paul began talking to Steadman about making the film nearly 20 years ago. He shot his first film for the project in 1998, after going through a huge pile of video tapes Steadman had shot over the years on his travels. He also listened to recordings Steadman made of late night drunken conversations with Hunter Thompson.
"And I started to understand the relationship, the private relationship, that those two had, that only Ralph could capture by being alone with Hunter and having these amazing conversations," Paul said.
Steadman's first assignment with Thompson came when Rolling Stone magazine couldn't find a photographer to cover the Kentucky Derby with Thompson. The article is considered the first piece of Gonzo journalism, a no-holds-barred savaging of a topic, which became Thompson trademark. Steadman's illustrations were of people he saw around the track.
"People's faces. That's what I'm looking for, the real faces of Kentucky," he recalled. "And they were all going 'Yeah!' You know, shouting at the horses as they were going down the track, and somebody shouted at me, 'Turn round buddy, you are facing the wrong way!' That sort of thing."
Steadman apparently further irritated race goers by drunkenly presenting them with their portraits. The pair kept this up for three days, fueled by a steady stream of alcohol. Steadman said he got his faces, although not what he'd expected.
"By the end of the week, the real face of Kentucky, if there is one, was us, looking back at each other in the mirror," he said with a chuckle.
The new documentary covers the ups and downs of the Steadman-Thompson relationship. Rolling Stone editor Jan Wenner said while Thompson is often seen as the wild man of the pair, it was Steadman who lacked boundaries.
The documentary also delves into Steadman's other work. The film opens with the artist in his understated way setting a lofty goal.
"I really thought what I would do, if I ever learned to draw properly, is I would try to change the world," he said. Paul argues that Steadman has succeeded. One of the director's documentary techniques was to mount a still camera over Steadman's work table. Steadman himself captured his work as he drew. Paul got such detailed images he was able to animate their development.
Steadman said he worried he's been so prolific that he's become a polluter. But he can't see himself stopping. As long as he remains motivated. He doesn't want to be bored.
After a brief conversation, it's time for him to go.
"Bless your heart, bye-bye," he said.
Then the kindly Ralph Steadman heads off, quite possibly to savage someone else.