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American: The Bill Hicks Story - Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas interview

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MATT Harlock and Paul Thomas talk about making the acclaimed documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, their love of the comedian and what it was like to work with Bill’s family in bringing his story to the screen.

They also reveal why Richard Linklater is among the many fans of the movie…

Q. What made Bill Hicks so special to you?
Paul Thomas: Well, I was making new comedy at the BBC in 1997, so I hadn’t known about Bill when he was alive. But my job was to find the current raft of new comedians back then, so we toured comedy clubs scouting for new talent. Probably a few months into that job someone mentioned Bill… they gave me a tape. It’s the experience a lot of people get where somehow they’ve never heard of him and here’s this full formed comedian who is doing stuff on a level so far above most people. It just blows you away. The question I tended to ask myself was: “How did I not know about this guy?” Whereas Matt knew about him when he was alive.

Q. And Matt?
Matt Harlock: Yeah, there was sort of a big impact that Bill made in the UK in the late ’80s and early ’90s, so I was a student at university who was aware of this guy in Edinburgh, and then we saw the Relentless broadcast, which made a big wave over here. The material was amazing… there weren’t many comedians then talking about the war, for example, as well as some hard-hitting sexual stuff, which was great to hear, because he did it in such a fantastic way. And part of that was not only the material, but also the performance – the skill that he had in drawing an audience in and then sucker punching them.

Also, just taking people on these flights of fancy and different ways of seeing the world, which I think really sort of shook people up over here. So, that was something that I think a lot of people were aware of since 1991 and I followed him since then. After becoming a graphic designer, I then went into doing bits of film and TV and ended up meeting Paul, which is where the project sort of started.

Q. Was that three years ago?
Matt Harlock: More than that! It was five and a half years ago probably. We’d had initial contact with Bill’s family, so we were aware that a lot of people had been pitching Bill Hicks projects. But we had some contact with the family through some events that I’d been doing [tribute nights] and so we came at them with a pre-introduction. But that period of time took a year and a half to two years, while we were talking to family and broadcasters and gaining their trust.

Q. How emotional was it for you speaking to members of Bill’s family, especially his mum?
Paul Thomas: It was draining… when you’re doing an interview your job is to really bring the story out of someone. But afterwards we were just so drained, because you’ve lived through person after person the life and then death of either their son or their brother or their best friend. And then you have to go and do it again. But you really are with them in the moment, but you also have to keep asking quite probing questions in order to expand the story. So, it’s difficult because obviously your instinct is to say ‘it’s alright’ and then to stop.

But you have to keep on going. It’s knowing that you’re not being intrusive because you’re also going to be careful with the material once you’ve got it, in the way it’s edited. So, the film deals with that in a quite sophisticated way in that you know what Bill’s going through, but you’re not having to relive it in brutal detail. But that’s quite a tricky line to have to tread and you’ve obviously got a lot of trust in there. A lot of TV channels can over-sensationalise their stuff and it becomes all about these people weeping on-screen; they all did cry [for us] but it goes back to this experience of how to tell a story – you don’t always have to be right up front in order for it to be most powerful.

Q. I guess Bill’s family can’t fail to be impressed with the film that’s resulted. Have you had feedback from them?
Matt Harlock: Yeah, the family have been to at least four festivals now. They came over for the London world premiere in October last year, which was great. They find it difficult to watch the film, because it’s obviously reliving their son and brother’s life and death… which is hard. But at the same time, Mary – in particular – has said a few times that she’s glad that Bill seems to be getting towards the recognition that he sought while he was alive. That’s not “look at me” recognition, that’s because he felt that he had something to say. They didn’t know how hard it was going to be [to make the film] but at the same time I think they felt it was worth it because Bill’s story is important because what he achieved was significant and they needed to be the ones to help tell that to the world.

Paul Thomas: What they’ve seen as well is how audiences react to this. At every festival, they come to every screening, so they’ve seen it again and again. But I think it was a surprise the first time in terms of the scale of what we’d done… which was to take footage from old television documentaries and turn it into something that could fill an auditorium and work on a big screen. But also the effect that it has on audiences. It’s the same when Bill died… they didn’t know what was going to happen, whether his memory would just fade away. But it didn’t. It was helped by things like the Internet and the amazing performances he left behind. So, now they truly recognise that he’s not going to go away and that his status is only going to increase, and – in turn – how the film works in the context of that.

Q. Was there a sense when travelling around America and talking to people of regret… that people didn’t appreciate him in his own lifetime? That they’re having to play catch-up?
Paul Thomas: You see that in reviews as well in terms of people saying how much he still amazes and realising what America had lost. There was one great review that described him as “the gift America forgot to open”. There are certain well placed commentators who are noticing that this [the documentary] is important for America. One of our jobs was to put him back firmly on the historical timeline where he belongs, because he is a very important American cultural figure. So, that was one of the things we set out to do to really establish that and nail it home. But obviously not enough of America has yet to discover him.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Q. Americans aren’t renowned for being too self-critical though, are they? Or do you think that’s beginning to change as well?
Matt Harlock: Well, I think that the political and social criticism landscape has changed in the last 15 years since Bill was performing, so now you have Steven Colbert and Bill Maher and Jon Stewart who are on TV drawing audiences nightly with fairly sort of scathing criticism of the president and the administration and the way that America conducts itself. I think that’s healthy because you want people to be asking questions about how we, as one of the world’s super powers, are going about things. That was obviously one of the things for us… we didn’t know what the audience reaction was going to be like because it’s a lot easier to look at what’s wrong with America when you’re in England. So, obviously when we took the film back to the States in Austin particularly, that was a big moment because we wanted to see that people came to it with an open mind and open arms… and they did, which was fantastic for us to see.

Q. Will you be working together again?
Matt Harlock: We’ve got an amazing DVD we’re putting together… obviously one of the things that Bill’s followers are always keen for is new material, so we’ll have some of that. But the DVD is going to have a lot more as well as a huge amount of extra material from other interviews that we shot. There will be features on Bill’s music and the comedy scene, so there’s lots of DVD work still to do. There’s a potential book that’s sometimes on and sometimes off the cards [laughs]! But that’s something else. And we also have the job to do of making sure the film gets out in the States, and we’re still working on that at the moment. We’ve had some fantastic conversations with people in America and we’re off to Toronto tomorrow to go and pursue those further. So, we still have a big job to do in terms of getting the film out in America.

Q. What’s the most pleasing or surprising reaction you’ve had to the film so far from people who have seen it?
Paul Thomas: I think it’s from the people like yourself that didn’t know Bill, who come up to us afterwards in equal numbers… there was a woman after the London screening who came up in tears. She’d been brought along by a friend and couldn’t believe that she didn’t know this person and that he’d gone and that no one had come along to take his place. She said that as soon as her son turned 13 she was going to give him this DVD. But just the power of that reaction… someone’s gone through it in 100 minutes and have learned about his life. So, that’s the most rewarding thing. Obviously, we had a job to do for fans as well. But our job was to reach out and tell more people about this person. But when you meet someone face to face you know you’ve really connected with them and that’s amazing.

Q. And Matt?
Matt Harlock: We also had a nice reaction from Richard Linklater when we were in Austin [Texas]. He was a contemporary of Bill’s, whose older brother by two years went to the same school as Bill and knew some of his friends. Richard Linklater also came from a Southern Baptist background and lived in Houston through that period of time. So, he came to the screening and had a wonderful chat with Mary [Hicks] afterwards, saying he was so proud that he had found out that Bill really liked Dazed & Confused and that as a contemporary he just felt a real resonance of Bill’s story.

But he also said… and [bearing in mind that] this is the guy who made Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, he also said that he thought the animation in American: The Bill Hicks Story had been taken further than he’d ever seen before. So, that was very nice to hear because he’s someone who has had a very eclectic and wonderful career, but whose animation features have been groundbreaking. And obviously our animation is something that we want to encourage people to come and see because it’s something that’s not really been done before in that way.

Read our review of American: The Bill Hicks Story