Last week, in the curious but somewhat apt setting of The Jesus Centre, London, ThisfilmisON sat down with directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas to discuss their cracking new documentray American:The Bill Hicks Story and all things Hicksian.
THISFILMISON: You could have any documentary subject in the world, so why Bill Hicks?
MATT HARLOCK: I think Bill was someone who was seen as, especially in the UK, culturally significant. For some reason there had never been a full length feature about his life. There had been one documentary made just after his death…
TFIO: Just a ride…
MH: Yeah but that was only about 35 minutes long and didn’t include much of who the real Hicks was. It was just clips of him performing and a brief overview of his career, so the attraction to the story was the amazing biographical details of his life. A struggle with drugs and alcohol, getting clean, coming from a religious family, trying to break through, (SPOILER ALERT) getting terminal cancer at the age of 32, seeing how much he achieved. These were all attractive elements deserving of wider cultural recognition, something we felt deserved exploring. Didn’t like his comedy much…(laughter)
TFIO: When did you first discover Bill?
PAUL THOMAS: I discovered him later, working at the BBC’s new comedy unit. Someone showed me a tape and at that time our job was to find the next wave of new talent, new comedians. That initial experience of being blow away, with A- How did I not know about this person? and B- Just how refined the craft was.
TFIO: When watching the documentary I saw Norwich come up on the giglist and thought shit I missed seeing Bill in my hometown. Then I remembered I’d have been 11 and the jokes about Rush Limbaugh being peed on may have been a little over my head. Did you guys ever get to see him live?
MH: Unfortuantely not. I was, like a lot of people in the late 80′s, early 90′s at University aware of him, but he never played where I was (at Reading). When the Relentless performance from Montreal was broadcast on Channel 4 that became a real, while we didn’t have watercoolers, it was one of those, “Did you see that guy?” moments. The VHS was being passed around pretty soon after. So I was aware of him while he was working and probably could have seen him, but never did, unfortunately. Every so often I meet someone who says, “Yeah I saw him at Kent University, didn’t think that much of him…”
TFIO: Why do you think he was taken in so much more in the UK, than in his homeland of the US?
MH: There are two answers to that. One, which is Steve’s (Bill’s brother) answer, he said “Bill felt that in the UK they played him unexpurgated, unedited, full length set, hour and ten minutes, so when people saw him he was able to get his head of steam and people ‘got him’.” Other times he said that people in the UK just had a more evolved attitude in terms of performers. UK audience felt that if you were up on stage you deserved to be there, so they paid attention. Whereas in the US that wasn’t always the case.
PT: British Television Comedy was much more evolved back then. C4 had a remit to break boundaries across all forms of TV, regularly putting on new comedians. At the time there was only four channels as well, so when Bill was on C4 a large selection of the country got to see him.
TFIO: Whereas the US is a minute or two of a set before an advert break…
PT: Yeah and in the UK, maybe not so much now, but television used to reflect society. In the US it’s just off on its own it’s the other way round. Society follows TV. Also the comedy audeince here is more coherent because it’s much smaller. If someone is big in Edinburgh you will here about them in London. Whereas Bill was known only in Houston. He wasn’t on that layer above…
TFIO: …where Carrot Top wins awards instead.
TFIO: A lot of people are calling this definitive, most of all me because I want my name on the poster, but what do you leave out? Was there anything you thought “Crap we can’t go into this in detail”? What comes to mind is the ‘meltdown set’ where Bill yells “Lift me up out of this illusion Lord” and screams “Cunt” in some womans face. It’s in the film…
PT: …but the depth of that moment isn’t. The problem is that in the film you can’t stay on a clip for too long. There are all sorts of restraints brought on by the story. You have to pick a performance from the right time, you have to pick a performance that connects with the story, one that doesn’t go on too long and one that reveals who Bill is as a person. There is, as you say, a vast amount not covered but our job was to portray Bill in 100 minutes. There are also lots of other story threads, like Bill was an amazing musician from a young age, but as you start to reduce it, it holds itself less well than other story threads. The film dictates to you, to a certain extent, what’s gonna stay in and what’s gonna go.
TFIO: His girlfriends Colleen and Laurie, they don’t make the final film. Was that a conscious decision?
PT: We went in asking interviewers about everything but everything is told first hand by people that where there. It was one of the other rules, if you will, that the film dictated back to us. Everything is told first hand. If scenes weren’t working we’d say “Well hold on, that person is telling a second hand story”. Sam Kinoson is a perfect example, we can add some of this to the DVD, but in terms of maintaing the acuity of the fast moving story, some of those things had to fall. Laurie and Colleen are now both married and weren’t happy to take part, other interviewers weren’t happy talking about those events.
TFIO: We talked a little about the soundtrack, it’s all Bill and his band Marblehead Johnson. Were you tempted instead to fill the soundtrack with stuff Bill liked, Jimi, The Stones, etc?
PT: Financially we couldn’t do that.
MH: We’d love to have.
PT: But the music is part of building a sense of that time and place, those tracks are there to convey that mood, the danger would have been that it would have been submerged by using tracks that are too signature. The score is doing a job, even the tracks selected are doing a job, but we don’t draw attention to when Bill is singing and when he’s not.
MH: A good example of that is when Bill is trying to get to the comedy club and they’re wondering “How are we gonna get down there on a schoolnight?” and then there’s a shot of Kevin (Booth) in an RV with a kindof Blues Brothers din-din-der-der-der-der riff that gets a laugh because it’s “Here comes Kevin”. Its a good example of not just using guitar base rock because that’s the music Bill listened too. Instead it does a job in terms of what the narrative needs to do.
PT: There’s a later stage when he returns from the UK and there’s an Underworld-y type track that says, now it’s the 90′s. We’ve broached into the modern era. The music is doing a number of different things in terms of forming the emotion, the time, the place as well as working with drama of what the characters are telling you.
TFIO: Speaking of the modern era, is there anyone in the comedy world today that you think can be compared to Bill? A lot of comics don’t like sny direct comparison…
MH: I don’t know. What do you think?
TFIO: Brendan Burns is the only name that springs to mind but again, he’s very reluctant to be put in that Hicksian category. Even if at one Glastonbury I attended he handed out mushrooms to the audience. An act that if not purely Bill is certainly in keeping with his values.
TP: There are certainly parellels in the authenticity of performers, people whose comedy comes from deep within themselves so a natural comparison emerges. But it’s never that they’re trying to be Bill Hicks, that they’ve studied him extensively. I think it just comes from within. Which is why he’s so timeless. He’s channelled that humanity for all of us. You hear comparison to say, Doug Stanhope, people who are exploring aspects of his material. But that’s for Bill, what the message was, finding the voice within. That’s where your best comedy is gonna come from.
TFIO: From the truth.
MH: Yeah, because there are performers who can do political jokes and those that can do ‘in your face’/'shock jock’ routines, which Bill had in his armoury, but he also had the spiritual side. He was angry at the world because he felt it could be better. He was encouraging people to make the world better, not blow each other up so much.
TFIO: It was done with love.
MH: Yeah love. But you don’t want to use the big L word because it comes across as hippy dippy. Bill wasn’t that. He was able to transcend being labeled a drug comedian, or a new age spiritualist just because of the strength of his own personality and his convictions. I think that’s very powerful for people when they are looking to make sense of modern times. That’s why he still resonates, I think.
TFIO: There’s obviously been talk of a biopic with Mr. Russell Crowe as Bill. Has your film managed to put that onto the back burner? I mean, is there any need for it now?
MH: I think Russell wouldn’t dare go near it now (laughter). There’s been a lot of debate about him actually, people being quite vociferously anti-Russell. He maybe too old now. As we understand it, that project is on hold. But he still owns the life rights.
TFIO: So when you were speaking to his estate, the ball was in Crowe’s court.
PT: Well he owns the life rights, he can change things. That’s what life rights gets you, change what you like and you can’t be sued.
TFIO: The only way I could see it happening is a ‘Bill in heaven looking down’ kind of thing…
PT: Funny you should say that, its one of the ideas we’ve heard…
TFIO: Thanks very much guys. I’ll now get off and market and advertise your film for you.
MH: But of course, then you’d have to kill yourself…
American:The Bill Hicks Story is out May 14th. Watch it!
As a treat here’s a link to Bill’s entire performance at Egham, Oxford. Bill you are missed.