Bill Hicks: Outlaw Comic
Like your first kiss, date, or viewing of The Spy Who Loved Me (remember when you didn’t know about the parachute or the submarine Lotus?), your first experience of Bill Hicks is one of life’s big eye-openers, almost akin to the kind of spiritual, transcendental mushroom experiences he often described in his sets. How was it, then for Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, directors of an excellent new documentary on the life of the great rebel rabble-rouser, American: The Bill Hicks Story? “I was working in BBC New Comedy,” Thomas says, “starting in 1988, and I didn’t know about him until I got to the Beeb. Everybody was going on about this guy. Then I watched him, but our job then was to find new comedians from across the UK, when there was this legend that people just didn’t know about!” For Harlock, it was a little more conventional: “University I guess, a lot of people passing Bill Hicks tapes around – VHS tapes of course, this was back in the day, about 89/90 – and I think I may have been aware that he was playing in the UK and I didn’t go to the gig: obviously you’re assuming that “well, he’s going to be around”. So that was it, there was just the real sense in the student community in the UK at the time that this was the guy for us.”
A hilarious, moving and visually exciting take on the comedian’s life and work, American had humble beginnings betraying its makers' televisual roots. As Thomas explains, “It started at Channel 4 as a series called Outlaw Comics, developed with the comedy department but then the head of entertainment vetoed it. So when we took it to the BBC it was great, because where normally you’ve got two pages we had a whole series worked out. We had three 90 minute films: Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman. We started with Bill Hicks because that was the one that mattered”.
There have been documentary profiles of Hicks in the past, so the filmmakers knew they needed a fresh angle. “I’ve done a lot of pitching and I know that you really have to promise something different." says Thomas. "I knew they’d be getting Bill Hicks at least once a month from somebody.” Having acquired a huge photo archive, the directors decided to adopt an unusual but striking animation technique, drawn from stills old and new (think of Errol Morris in a frivolous mood, and you’re halfway there).
“It had been used in a few places like The Kid Stays In The Picture (a 2002 profile of film producer Robert Evans), but it had been much flatter and simpler, and we realised it could go much further. So we went into this huge photo archive, did some small animation tests, it just all clicked”.
“Also,” Harlock interjects, “there were the specifics of the places that we needed, so for example the thing where he’s escaping from his house, the technique allows you to create and recreate the excitement of fourteen year old boys going out to perform comedy for the first time, so that was one of the bonuses that the technique threw up, it wasn’t just a case of only using the photographs that we had from the archives – we could create and re-create things”.
This reconstructive approach was of course helped by the 120 hours of interview material the duo compiled. “You’re like a detective,” Thomas tells me. “First of all it’s your job to uncover the story, and then get the essence of the story down to 90 minutes of film”. What dictates that? “It has a lot to do with what people tell you, what they remember and what they feel is important, and once you start you have to follow the route that they’re taking you on”.
And what of the interviewees? The film features illuminating thoughts and anecdotes from Hicks’ friends and family. Did they ever display any trepidation about getting involved? Say Harlock, “I think that they realised that when we showed up we’d also managed to get other people involved who maybe hadn’t spoken at the same time, so this was their chance as a family – and his friends said the same – to put the historical record down and make sure that it was captured. So they were reticent but they also threw themselves into the process and they didn’t hold anything back. They didn’t try and sugar coat things, because they knew Bill wouldn’t have wanted that.”
Though conceived as a television project, American is an undeniably cinematic experience, but not just for its dazzling visual technique, as Thomas explains. “Seeing it on the big screen, where you can see his face 3 storeys high and you can see every flicker and the contortions on his face, you really appreciate how skilled he was. And we’ve sat through it hundreds of times and we still laugh every time.” Harlock adds “What’s also important is the group experience: most people before they’ve seen the film have seen Bill at home on the sofa with a couple of friends, so seeing it with 400 people, all getting into it at exactly the same time all around you, is a very warming experience”.
It has been 16 years since Bill Hicks died, so why does his spirit still enrapture new generations? As far as Harlock is concerned, “He seemed to have the last word on quite a few subject matters, which were the big ones: sex, love, drugs and politics and where we’re going as a species, and those subject areas are not going to change or go away. Then there’s the passion and the charisma of the performances, and I think what you sometimes forget is that he was actually a really excellent technician, of how to craft jokes, how to craft routines, he was just a very gifted technical performer”.
Cinemagoers, die-hard fans and newcomers get to experience the allure of Hicks from 14 May when American: The Bill Hicks Story comes to the big screen.