TORONTO—Of the founding duo of gonzo journalism, Hunter Thompson was more famous. But in a new documentary about the life and work of Ralph Steadman, we see that in all the ways that matter, the artist-illustrator was—and still is—the braver, weirder, and wilder man by far.
Just as Thompson’s articles eviscerating American culture demanded first-person reportage from the heat of the moment, Steadman’s expressionist caricatures of foreign and domestic despots required him to look at the ugly truth with an unwavering eye. All while he remained relatively sober, which Thompson never, ever was.
“I was always just trying my best to make everything work,” Steadman shrugged during a hotel-room interview last fall in the most un-gonzo of circumstances: the Toronto International Film Festival.
“We’d get an assignment, I’d fly over from England, we’d go somewhere, stuff would happen, and it was my job to make it all hold together,” he recalled. But in For No Good Reason, Charlie Paul’s documentary about Steadman’s life and work (opening Friday [May 16]), Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner recounts that of the two, Thompson was always more careerist, and less willing to go to extremes.
“Whereas Ralph will very happily piss anybody off,” observed filmmaker Paul, joining the conversation with Steadman. “Ralph never considers the repercussions of his drawings when he’s making them. He’s not thinking about who is going to take what the wrong way.”
“I always say I started drawing because I wanted to change the world by changing the news,” said Steadman. “I almost think I’m playing with Plasticine, because I have to be able to stretch and distort the faces. The drawings work because they are caricatures that are real.”
For No Good Reason took 15 years to complete, partly because Paul filmed thousands of hours of footage of Steadman drawing in his studio. Then there’s the rambling style of his recollections. Our conversation in Toronto was fairly free-form and unfocused, with Steadman recounting anecdotes about his time as Thompson’s chaperone, friend, wingman, and confidante.
It was Steadman who helped design Thompson’s grand exit after his death in 2005: a rocket-shaped tower topped with a gonzo fist that shot his cremated remains into the sky with exploding fireworks mortars to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”. He realized when they were building the monument that his friend had spent the better part of his life carefully planning his exit.
“He would say, ‘Ralph, I would feel really trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment’,” recalled Steadman, adding that it also provided a revelation about the fist’s true nature.
“I was with Hunter in L.A. and we went to a place where they do caskets for famous people to get blown away in. So I sketched what we wanted for the guy, and I drew the rocket with the fist on top. And Hunter saw it and said,”—adopting Thompson’s baritone—“ ‘No Ralph, it’s two thumbs.’
“It never occurred to me that this is what he meant,” Steadman continued. “I thought he was always just drawing it badly. All these years I just thought it was a regular fist, but, ‘No, no, it’s two thumbs, Ralph. It’s all thumbs. Now do you get it?’ ”