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By Christopher Stipp

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Check out my other column, This Week In Trailers, at SlashFilm.com and follow me on TWITTER under the name: Stipp

INTERVIEW - MATT HARLOCK and PAUL THOMAS

american-the-bill-hicks-story-dvd-2009-25234573Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas just had to answer one question for me, just one, when it came to the fame and popularity of Bill Hicks when he was still walking back and forth across the stand-up stages: What made him so popular in the UK?

I could easily understand why jokes, an inherently idiomatic expression of specific cultures and not given to easy translation, wouldn’t fly but what was it about Bill that made audiences in another country embrace this defacto expat? He was revered by a culture who “got it” while American late night comedy consumers didn’t get what was so endearing about the man with a wicked mouth.

The film, which is playing now and is On Demand, explores the nuances of what Bill was really about in a way that is at the same time honest and direct. He was obviously no saint, Bill had to battle his own demons as he rose from relative obscurity to headlining concerts where he was the only one people came to see, but this documentary is the best visual representation that pinpoints what made Bill Hicks such a legendary influence on those who listened to what he had to say.

He had a lot on his mind and he took a route not usually traveled by comedians who were finding success in being outrageous, in wearing heavy leather on stage, and in trading on jokes that would make Bill cringe. He had a lot to say and he wanted to be funny so ditching the usual pleasantries that usually encompassed the relationship between men and women and the jokes that could be mined from that was replaced with tirades about the government, about our broken social systems, and about hunting down and killing Billy Ray Cyrus. He was outrageous only on his terms, not the terms of the audiences he played to. Without question, this is one of the best documentaries on the man and, next to the book written by his childhood friend Kevin Booth, it certainly leaves you satisfied that this the most comprehensive story ever told when it comes to the legend that is Bill Hicks.

UK filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas took some minutes out of their schedule to talk about Bill’s popularity within their country, what they discovered along the way of making the documentary, and shedding some light on the real Bill.

CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Hello, Matt and Paul.

MATT HARLOCK AND PAUL THOMAS: Hello, Chris.

CS: I saw the film a couple of days ago and loved it. One of the most satisfying documentaries on a person’s life that wasn’t overwrought or maudlin. Of course, it being Bill Hicks made it all the more enjoyable.

HARLOCK AND THOMAS: Thanks, thanks a lot.

CS: And that leads me to my first question which is why the UK seemed to have “got it” when it came to Bill while it seems that Americans just missed the chance to embrace the man before it was too late to do so?

HARLOCK AND THOMAS: I think it was all about a combination of Bill’s timing in a small enough country and his need for more time, really.

Whereas in America he was on late night shows where he had five minutes here, five minutes there, he couldn’t really have enough time to engage an audience. However, in the UK, he could have 15, 20 minutes here locally on television and really spend that time engaging the audience with his long form material. He wasn’t a comedian who could spend a couple of minutes on a joke, as he wanted to express big ideas, and when he could on television here where had more he really connected.

bill-hicksHis long form ideas connected because, politically, you have things here in the UK where you have a very oppositional structure where institutions are questioned, regularly. Whereas in America it seems to be about blending into one of two parties and when Bill came over here he was much more well received because we, frankly, are used to questioning those is power.

One of the other things, as well, to note is that we’re now 16 years removed from his death. He was already perfecting the art of the very thing that is only now getting acceptance from people like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and even Michael Moore who get their inspiration from exposing the hypocrisies in the culture. We feel, a documentary like this, is coming out at the right time because the sea change that is happening couldn’t be more perfect.

CS: The amount of research you had to do for this must have been slightly daunting. You had how many performances, Kevin Booth’s already comprehensive book, dozens of people who could have talked about the man. Did you gain any new insight into the man? I assume you did a lot of research, anyway.

HARLOCK AND THOMAS: You’re right. We did a lot of research but what we also wanted to do was to talk to the people who really knew Bill. Those who we wanted to use in this film have never talked altogether at the same time so we really did try to paint a picture of who this guy really was. And I think one of the things that came from that was seeing how much of an influence he was on those people. Those who were left behind.

We all know who he was on the stage but, off of it, he was a quieter man. He wasn’t the life of the party, he was a great listener. Talking with some people who might have only spent one night with him, might have only shared a drink with him, talk about how much of an impression he left. He was also a very orderly man. He kept amazing records of things like reviews, newspaper articles, photos, and so when we started this project we came across this massive trove of material. As well, he had a habit of recording his thoughts into a Dictaphone, a little handheld recorder, and some of things he reveals on the tape show just how introspective he was about who he was as a performer and as a person. All of this was great, mind you, because that’s what we were going for, wanting to know the man behind the performer.

CS: Did you find out whether his personal philosophy that he used to like to talk about on stage was ingrained as a youth or was that as a result of his experience as an adult?

HARLOCK AND THOMAS: He was always questioning existence, no doubt it.

250px-bill_hicks_imageHe was fascinated with his heroes, the Stones, Hendrix, and he could see how they experimented with things to alter their consciousness and he went on a path of wondering what would happen if he did that as well. But, after a while, you could see that it became more like a crutch than it did as something that could tell him something spiritually and you can tell that there was a time when he thought they were useful in exploring who he was and, when they became not so useful, he was lucky enough to know how to stop. He was able to come back from that really dark place and was able to be honest and open about it which just led to the second phase of his career where he became more intimate and more focused than he ever was.

CS: The structure of the documentary. There are only 10 people. Surely, there was lots of temptation use others who could talk about Bill at length. Was that a conscious choice to keep it lean?

HARLOCK AND THOMAS: It began with that intention at its core. As we moved along in the project we felt like we were getting the most intimate, rounded portrait of the man. We didn’t feel the need to augment it. We could have done it with more people but I think it would have lost that intimacy. There might be room for that kind of documentary, a more wide view of what he did, but I think you would lose that intimacy of what Bill so influential.

CS: Did you find that the film stayed in this format or did it alter any as you moved along with the project?

HARLOCK AND THOMAS: The whole process was very fluid, and it always is, but that first version we had was over three hours long. But the trick was to try and distill what is the core ninety minute film within this. And we literally used photos to map out the entire interview track and just think about what each photo needs to do along the way as the animation goes along with the story. Because, the photos give you clues about what it is you’re seeing. For example, when we see Bill at the comedy clubs, the Comedy Annex, people gave us verbal snippets of what that club was like but as you’re watching the film a lot of that is done visually and that’s what that photo animation technique really does. It adds a life to the moments that are now years and years removed from the time when it really happened.

And it puts Bill back into the film, really, it puts him back as the center of this story. If you were to just watch these talking heads talking about him, his absence would be very apparent. But with these photos and the animation it feels very organic. With clips too, they’re doing just as much work as those talking about him. They show the audience what his comedy was like, how he was a performer, and who he was as a real person. We were careful to choose clips that showed glimpses of Bill for who he was in real life, what mattered to him, and it’s all about segueing between what was happening in his life at any given time and what he was doing on stage.

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