Bill Hicks is one of the most renowned cult figures in the world of comedy, adored across the world for his unique brand of astoundingly filthy yet spell-bindingly poetic satire. But relatively little is known about his personal life, and in the fifteen years since his untimely death, only a smattering of short documentaries and live recordings has kept his memory alive. Well Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have put this glaring injustice to rights with their passionately detailed and evocative feature documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story.
They were granted unprecedented access to the Hicks’ estates mountainous archive of unseen footage and photographs collected by the wild man himself throughout his career. They have been given what may well be the last say on one of America’s most important spokespersons, and they have proved more than worthy of this huge responsibility.
FtF: How did a project like this leapfrog LA, New York, Chicago, etc and end up at your door in London?
MH: Bill is always someone that was thought of as culturally significant in the UK, and for some reason there had never been a full length telling of his story. There was a short documentary made shortly after he died which was just over 35 minute film. But it struck us that Bill had this amazing life which has this wonderful, almost Hollywood, arc to it in terms of his overcoming the drink and drugs and becoming very successful and then getting terminal cancer at the age of 32. It seemed that that story was something that people needed to know about because Bill lead this real life of meaning, and he was also a groundbreaking comedian who changed the way a lot of people saw what comedy could do. So I think that it was something we both believed that, as a story, had a wonderful aspect to it, over and above any personal interest that we have in Bill
PT: And it was one of the great, unmade bio-pics as well so we were fortunate that it came along for us to pitch at channels. Then it’s a case of making something that stands out. This began as part of a series for Channel 4. There had been a few documentaries in previous years, such as The Kid Stays in the Picture, that had used a more basic version of the animation technique; and Touching the Void was also this hugely cinematic documentary that didn’t feel like a generic documentary, so already we knew that the documentary form was evolving at that stage. And it was becoming more cost-effective to do it on computers, you didn’t need to employ Hollywood Studio or the more expensive Post-Production houses here [in Soho], regular animators can now do this. So lots of things all came together at that time to make this possible.
MH: And also, the Hicks family hadn’t spoken for 12 years. They had had offers but I think that they were very wary of going with people whose motives weren’t quite clear, and wanted to make lots of money. So they were quite cautious but I think they also felt that now is the time to put this story down as a historical record. They knew Bill’s story was important and they needed to tell it. So all of these things were coming together at the same time and we were lucky enough to be in the middle of that.
FtF: And you had organised Bill Hicks tribute evenings in London before hadn’t you?
MH: Yes, we had done some live events which involved comedians and then footage of Bill which I had sourced on the internet, but this was back when you bought VHS tapes. The idea of that was just a tribute night, ten years after he died, and that was when we first got in touch with Bill’s family so we had been in touch with them before taking a film idea to them. We just wanted them to know what was going on in the UK, and how their son was still being thought of. And that was our first contact with Bill’s family.
FtF: What was it like sifting through Bill’s enormous archives of footage and photographs? Did you already know what you were about to find or was that a voyage of discovery for you?
PT: We didn’t know at all. The animation side of things developed as we went along, so we just had to start at the beginning and build on it as the story developed. We knew it was going to work as an approach but we didn’t know, scene by scene, what it was going to involve. We didn’t know how much or how little the photographs would relate to the story we were telling; and as the story develops there are more and more constructed scenes that have to be put together to tell the story. All the interviews were conducted right at the beginning, but then you job is to uncover the real story. So you cant go in with preconceptions of what people have said and what you have read. Especially with Bill’s family where there is a very polarised view that has been presented before. The job is to put all of that out of your mind and really find out what the truth is.
MH: In terms of the archive, there was some amazing stuff that we found. We were aware that there would be some unseen footage, and a lot of the material is either Bill’s personal tapes that he had got out of the back of VHS camcorders, some of which were over 30 years old, or stuff that his brother Steve shot, and that’s the sort of shaky Handicam stuff towards the end. But I think the most affecting stuff was some of the voice-recorded tapes that Bill made for himself. He was alone quite a lot, and when he had no one to talk to he quite often spoke to a tape-recorded. And just the idea of that 18-year-old kid in LA scared about whether he is any good at comedy is very touching; and also, in a weird way, we felt that Bill hadn’t made that tape with any specific use in mind, and we were the ones that ended up using it so that was very strange. It actually felt, on some level, like he had actually made that tape for us; and it felt very personal. Obviously are job is to make sure everybody else gets to hear it as well because it gives a lot of insight into who he was as a performer and a person. But that was certainly one of the most interesting bits of archive, that these real little personal messages that Bill had left on little tape recorders, which were lying in boxes in his mum’s spare bedroom.
FtF: What was your experience of working with the Hicks family? Did you get a sense that they were trying to guide your depiction of Bill? Or were they as open as memory would permit?
PT: Well that’s kind of our job as filmmakers… to make sure that nobody ‘guides’ you. We had several days with each person and they were deep and emotional interviews. The family were very open about everything really. They were aware that there had been earlier depictions of Bill’s childhood, and obviously what you have is the mists of time, so you are asking people to remember things from a long time ago. But there was never any sense that they were really trying to portray him differently. But how did that seem to you?
FtF: I got the impression that they were entirely honest in their recollections of Bill; he has a public persona of being quite volatile and corrosive, and so I thought perhaps his friends and family might be overly defensive of his character, but they clearly see no reason to hide elements of his character or try to portray them in an insincere way. He was who he was, and the people who knew him loved him for it and clearly still do.
PT: Well yes, and you also have to remember that they have been portrayed by other people in the past. There certainly were words had in that household and Bill was certainly a fiery teenager, but with only that side of the story being told by friends who saw him shouting with his parents… I mean all teenagers shout with their parents! And this is certainly something that I have been aware of throughout my career, is that there is often a lot of pressure from broadcasters to go for the sensational. I mean everybody cried during these interviews, but we haven’t just pasted that across the screen. Now I know full well that if we had done that in a Sky doc and Sky had seen that footage, they would have insisted that I have everybody crying on screen. So obviously, if you’ve got a few lines about a kid shouting at his parents, that’s what you’re going to put in. But then all you end up doing is distorting the real picture, and your job as a filmmaker is to present an accurate and rounded overall picture, and that’s what we did.
FtF: Was it difficult to track down any of the people from Bill’s past that hadn’t been involved with his family and friends for a long time?
PT: Yes that was certainly an issue at first because we were just two unknown British guys. I suppose a lot of the early work happened with the family. It was a case of winning trust because I think they had a fairly strong idea of who we were and so they were willing to talk. Then it was a case of us building the project and getting broadcasters involved, because the family are approached by people all the time so they want to know that a project is realistic. Mary really helped by letting other people know that the family were getting involved with this project, but it still wasn’t until the last minute that everything really came together; literally the day before we flew a couple of people weren’t decided and it was only when we were on our way that they agreed. But of course what happens then is they meet you and you start doing interviews and you build up a proper bond, and trust gets established when they find out who you really are.
We did the interviews in quite an unusual way because we didn’t take any crew in, it was just the two of us. Because these people aren’t celebrities, and it’s very easy to put people off when you turn up with crew and lights, so instead we went for a very naturalistic set-up, with people sitting at home in their own environments. And we even started recording without the camera, so it’s just pointed at the floor, just to get people talking, and then we introduced the camera more slowly, which is why it comes across so naturalistically, but it is very easy to blow that.
FtF: How much did Bill inform your opinion? Did you look back at his famous routines and find you had a new perspective on them after interviewing his relatives and sifting through his archives of personal footage and pictures?
PT: Well, everything in the film started with the material on stage, and I think it is fairly natural that that informs everything that is happening. One thing we had the benefit of was watching scores more performances than other people have seen. And often it’s the bits between the well-known routines where you really feel Bill, and a lot of those moments have ended up in the film. The essential job is to be true to that person; we obviously had these ten people telling the story, but the job is to convey who this enigmatic character is, and that counts for both the onstage material and the interviews. There is a subtle job being done by everything and so when you leave the theatre you can come out with a very strong idea of who a person is. Showing what Bill’s comedy was about, and who he was as a person, informs most of the storytelling. You start with a much longer version of the story that isn’t as coherent, and as you edit the thing down you cut the bits where Bill’s character isn’t coming across as strongly or the story is wandering of the track of his comedy developing; and the more you cut it down the more distilled a picture you get of this guy.
FtF: Did you ever worry about making a film that would appeal much more to Bill Hicks’ fans than the wider public?
PT: Well that is the advantage of being independent, in that you are free from that sort of pressure. I suppose there was pressure early on to include celebrities, but we knew that wasn’t the right approach because we were going for the people that really knew Bill. But one thing we were aware of from the start is that this film had to work for fans who already love Bill and for the people who have no idea who he is. But that is quite an unconscious thing that happens when you are forming every scene. You are just automatically aware of an audience and you are crafting it for that wider audience. There are things that particularly play to fans or play to the uninitiated; but it’s really just a great archetypal story, and our job is just to tell the story properly so that it will work for both camps.
FtF: Have there been any big surprises in terms of people’s reactions to the film at the North American festivals you have been to?
PT: Well one interesting thing is that we took a pole at the beginning of a screening and about a quarter of the people said they knew Bill quite well, so that means three quarters of the viewers had come along either to find out more or because they had heard it was a good film. And that’s great because our job here is to get Bill known on a much wider map, and the festivals certainly seem to suggest that that is working. I was actually kind of expecting some kind of backlash, because the film received so many good reviews up front I was just expecting there to be a journalistic camp that reacted against that. I mean some people haven’t liked the animation and some people have thought it was too long, but overall it was a great reaction and people have told us they have never seen reviews like that for a documentary… ever!
MH: We have always been quite keen to find out what the audience make up was in each of the screenings and so quite often we’d do a poll and just ask how many people in the audience would consider themselves to be either a fan of Bill’s or someone that knew him quite well. That number has been fairly consistent, between 25 and 35% in the US (at the London Film Festival it was considerably higher), and that is very encouraging because that means people have either seen the reviews or the description of the film and decided it was something they wanted to see, or they have been dragged along by somebody who already knew Bill. And that is one of the stated aims or goals for the film is to try and get his word more popularised, and so that has been very encouraging for us to see the diversity of the audience make up. It’s not just for Bill fans, there is a very wide range of people coming to see the film.
FtF: Everybody talks about Bill’s performance at Just For Laughs in Montreal in 1991 as being a watershed moment for stand-up comedy. What are your memories of that event?
MH: Well I personally was just someone who had seen bits of this guy on TV, and then this full length performance, which really blew everyone away, and I think that it wasn’t just the material he was talking about – specifically the Gulf War, which at the time really made people, and especially English comedians, sit back in amazement – it was also the performance skill was so crafted and so adept. He was able to move between really filthy material and really quite sophisticated political ideas, and he could just seamlessly take you on these wonderful flights of fancy. I don’t think people were really ready for him; it wasn’t as if he had developed and grown in the UK comedy scene. People had no idea who he was when he first came over and he suddenly lit everybody up like a Christmas tree. It really was something that people were talking about. I remember people coming up to me asking if I has seen this guy, and that isn’t something that happens much anymore. People used to always talk about The Play for Today and Cathy Come Home and people would say “don’t you remember when…” about specific moments in television history, and everybody had seen them. And that Montreal performance was certainly one of those moments.
PT: We spoke to Bruce Hills, who runs Just for Laughs festival, and he recounted that at that time they were looking to do these one man shows in Montreal but they didn’t know who was going to do them. And Bruce Hills saw Bill in New York, doing over an hour of material on stage, and it just blew him away. And he made a phone call and said, “Right, I think I’ve got the guy.” And Bruce counts that as his proudest moment in terms of the world of comedy. And then Tiger Aspect were over there doing stuff for Channel 4 and saw Bill and got to know him there. And they then brought him back to the UK.
FtF: Web 2.0, and the rise of Youtube, has facilitated a huge increase in the number of people familiar with Bill’s work as snippets of his more famous shows receive millions of hits online. Was this a consideration for you as you started working on the project?
MH: Well I’m not sure that we thought about it in terms of now being a “good time”. I think this film is something that always needed to be made, because of who Bill was and because of the legacy and work that he left behind, and because of how important he is on a cultural timeline. Obviously it is gratifying for us that his most popular clips are getting 1.7 million hits because it means that more people get a chance to find out about him, but I don’t think we considered that as part of the reason for doing the film. It was something that sort of happened in tandem; the rise of Youtube was happening while the project was being made. But the great thing, as you say, is that it gives people a chance to delve into a bit of Bill in bite-sized chunks. I think that is something that Youtube does very well, if you are looking to try and find ten of fifteen new things and you’ve got an hour and you can watch two or three minutes of lots of different stuff. And I think we are hoping that people who have been intrigued enough to watch a four-minute long clip on marketing and advertising might now come along and find out a bit more about the man that came up with those routines and where he was in his life and what may have inspired him to go and do that.
American: The Bill Hicks Story is released in UK cinemas this Friday (14th May). Read my review of the film here.