Bigger in the grave than he ever was onstage, comedian Bill Hicks is the subject of a striking new documentary, American. Paul Byrne talks to its creators Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas.

Bill Hicks would have loved the name of Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ documentary on him – American: The Bill Hicks Story.

Here’s a Georgian comedian who forever struggled to find mainstream recognition in his home country, but found himself being treated like a rock’n’roll star whenever he toured on this side of the water.

Hicks would go from playing to a crowd of 900 cheering fans in Belfast to 25 indifferent individuals in Idaho, inspiring him to dub one of his seemingly endless and hopeless treks around the US his Flying Saucer Tour. Concentrating largely on America’s Southern states, Hicks quipped, “I too have been appearing in front of handfuls of hillbillies and doubting my own existence”.

Success in the US was always just out of reach for Bill Hicks, despite his many TV appearances, relentless touring, and much critical acclaim. Five months before his death on February 26th, 1994, from pancreatic cancer, Hicks saw his entire performance on The David Letterman Show pulled, Letterman and his producers stating that they were nervous about the religious content. It was typical of Hicks’ struggle with the mainstream, Letterman inviting the comedian’s mother, Mary, onto the show on January 30th last year to play the segment in full, and offer his apologies.

America feels different about Bill Hicks now. They realise that many of his diatribes about foreign policies, advertising, the media and the country he loved weren’t so crazy after all. And they certainly shouldn’t have been censored.

It’s sixteen years since comedian Bill Hicks passed away, and he’s now bigger than ever. There have been countless magazine articles, TV specials, biographies, tributes (including Chas Early’s impression of Hicks had he lived in his 2005 Slight Return show) and now, Harlock and Thomas’ fine documentary.

PAUL BYRNE: Given just how much has been written and said about Hicks now, did you feel you had some new light to throw on this old, dark story?

MATT HARLOCK: Although Bill’s story had been covered in books, and briefly in an earlier documentary, it hadn’t been done full justice on screen, partly because the family had been so cautious about granting access to material…

PAUL THOMAS: We knew that hundreds of photos existed of Bill and that there was the potential to tell his complex story in a very rich and visual new way and, by making it cinematic and engaging, that his material could reach a much wider audience.

Did you meet any reluctance from his mother, Mary, or Bill’s siblings, Steve and Lynn, or any of his close friends? They’ve all been down this path before…

PT: It took two years of development to reach the stage of getting full access, and some of Bill’s friends didn’t agree to take part until the very last minute – literally the day before we were flying. It was basically Bill’s mum who phoned around and told everyone “right, this is the one we’re doing”. Once people had taken this decision to commit, then they all gave it everything in the interviews, both with the vividness of their recollections and their openness in talking honestly and frankly about all aspects of Bill’s live. There was a real sense of people knowing that this was the one and only chance to capture this ensemble telling of his story.

Amidst all the people you got to talk about Bill, couldn’t you have gotten Denis Leary as well, to apologise for ripping him off?

MH: The film is narrated through the ten people who knew Bill best and every scene is actually a first-hand witness account from the people who were there at the time. This emerged quite quickly when we began assembling the scenes from the interviews and the film dictated it’s own rules to us.

We had the option of including celebrity interviewees and cultural commentators but this would have shattered the narrative feel of those scenes to a more second-hand feel.

Going from 900 in Belfast to 24 in Idaho – if Bill had lived, do you think America would have finally caught up with him?

MH: We’ve seen great comments from Americans that “Bill was so ahead of his time and we’re still so far behind ours”, and a comment about our film and Bill being the “gift that America forgot to open”. What we have found from the US festival audiences, despite the initially daunting feeling of sitting with those crowds, is that a large proportion of America’s population is actually very smart and very inquisitive about current issues and also about the wider world beyond US soil.

PT: So there still seems to be some hope! The film played 3 times in Austin so Bill is filling 1200 seater theatres day after day in Texas in 2010!

Many artists have struggled with the thirsty muse, but the introduction of alcohol into Bill Hicks system was like pouring gasoline on the raging fire within – and his true voice emerged. But he was a complex guy – a UFO nut, a lover of ferrets… The Bill Hicks Foundation For Wildlife doesn’t get a mention…

PT: The drunk years took up a sizable proportion of the interviews, but we told the story pretty much as the interviewees told it to us. What’s missing is the repetitive nature of those years where Bill would call people drunk, night after night, and would also repeatedly try and quit the booze, but one of the limits of squeezing a whole life into just over an hour on screen is that you can’t have scenes that begin to repeat themselves. The multiple near-death experiences and attempts to quit become condensed into one arc where Bill descends more rapidly to the bottom of the addiction curve, before tearing himself away from that world and escaping to New York in a final and successful bid to go sober.
 

Any regrets here? One review reckoned you should have captioned people’s identities more, that you should have explained the significance of landing a spot at Rodney Dangerfield’s club, and that you should have explored the girlfriend situation. Colleen McGarr was a big part of Bill’s life…

MH: Bill’s girlfriends are now married with other lives and none would take part, and Pamela who helped Bill back to sobriety died shortly after Bill died. Therefore, without any first hand story accounts of those things and with other interviewees not feeling comfortable to make suppositions on their behalf, it became impossible to tell that aspect of Bill’s life in any kind of satisfactory way. We tried other ways of doing those scenes and even spent several months trying to animate them, but in the end the film dictates to you what will and won’t work and ultimately we cut the scenes out because they just didn’t do the job of giving you much useful insight.

PT: The story always comes back to Bill’s comedy and what drove it, and the girlfriends didn’t play a big part in generating Bill’s on stage material. Captioning is a actually a television device and if you think about it, most Hollywood films don’t actually dwell on characters’ names very much at all. Only Sight & Sound have ever mentioned it. The Dangerfield scene was in the film, and again we took months to animate it, but it then had to go because the footage cost too much.

Interesting approach, having no talking heads on screen until the very end, relying instead on old video footage and animating many of the 1,300 still used…

MH: Documentaries have been developing narratively in the last decade from Touching The Void to Man On Wire and we wanted to take this narrative approach which is fundamentally different to watching talking heads and reassembling the story in your own mind. The photo approach means that Bill is once again present in those scenes and not the absent missing person among interviewees.

Hicks was always keen to demystify the cult of celebrity, and yet, here he is, iconic, with a good-looking corpse, and an ever-growing fanbase. Do you think Bill would be happy with all this posthumous success, or would he just laugh?

PT: He wouldn’t give a shit as long as people were thinking for themselves. That’s the job of the film, to wake up a few more people.

Finally, there’s talk of Ron Howard directing a Bill Hicks biopic, with Russell Crowe rumoured to headline. If Ron should contact you for research purposes, can you try and convince him to ditch Crowe? He’s box-office poison.

MH: No they didn’t contact us, their project has gone a bit quiet…

Words – Paul Byrne

American: The Bill Hicks Story hits Irish cinemas May 14th