Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas Talk American: The Bill Hicks Story

The directing duo takes us behind-the-scenes of this groundbreaking new documentary, in theaters now

Utilizing an array of animation, archival photographs, and a stockpile of never-before-scene video footage, directors Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock have crafted one of the most intriguing documentaries of the year with American: The Bill Hicks Story. Thicker than any biography could ever hope to be, we get a true sense of this groundbreaking comedian in ways we've never heard or seen before.

Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock track Bill Hicks from his meager beginnings, to his drug addiction and alcoholism, through his second coming as a clean comedian, and into his untimely death at the age of 33. This is a must-see documentary for anyone interested in the art of stand-up comedy, or the history of American originals.

We caught up with Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock as American: The Bill Hicks Story opens throughout the country. It has already debuted in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland too much acclaim. This week, the film hits Austin, Houston, and Dallas, with engagements in Maine, Chicago, Arizona, and Nashville all on the horizon.

Here is our conversation.

American is a great movie, in that it finds a fine balance between giving fans what they want, while also delivering a powerful story for those who don't know Bill Hicks at all.

Paul Thomas: There is such a wide spectrum of people. You have the hardcore fans that have watched absolutely everything you could watch on Youtube, and they've listened to every piece of audio. Then you have this other group of people who have never heard of Bill Hicks. Then you have people who fall everywhere in-between. Some people have him on their to-do list, but they don't really know who he is. Then there are people who have seen his main shows, but they haven't seen the lesser-known stuff. The film has to go the whole way. While you are making the film, you always have to check to make sure it is working on all of those various levels. That doesn't define the overall approach. The overall approach was to tell the guy's story through the people who knew him. But within every shot, you are working on that. You are always asking this question: Is this enough for the fans? And is it giving people who don't know Bill Hicks enough information?

Matt Harlock: One of the things that has a practical effect, is that we have been asked quite a few times if we considered approaching famous comedians who knew Bill, to get them to talk about that. But for people who don't know Bill Hicks, having a famous person saying how great he is can be quite distancing. You are telling them and not showing them. What we tried to do was make you understand every point in the story. Where Bill was coming from. That means his background and his childhood. So you could see where he came from, and how he was coming towards comedy. To understand that reasoning through him. I think that is one of the things we wanted to do. We wanted to make sure the biographical elements were in place, so that anyone could come to the story and understand, and see this kid who was born in the Suburban Eastern, who thinks there is more to the world...And this is how he goes about approaching it.

This very much feels like a visual book. We see the true story unfolding as it happened, as opposed to talking heads...

Matt Harlock: We could have very easily done that. It would have taken us three months instead of six and a half years. The animation is a very intensive process, and obviously, that is where a lot of the biographical stuff comes into the storytelling. We are trying to make sure the audience is there with Bill and his friends, and family, during each of those narrative moments. That is how we defined who he was. We had choices to make in terms of the style of this project, and that was one of them. We thought about famous people we could go and see, but would that shine a light on who Bill was? Or would they just say, "You should like him because I do." We felt that, for people who didn't know who Bill was, this gave an introduction into his story. It gave an insight into who he was. It was that important.

There are a lot of moments in the film where we just see Bill on stage, doing his act. How did you find that perfect timing? To know when you were showing just enough of this aspect of him? Because its hard not to get sucked into these routines. It would be easy to forget we're watching a documentary on the man, but you never let the stage material dominate, everything is always kept on track.

Paul Thomas: It's a really fine line, isn't it? And the clips changed with every scene. We had to have that connection before doing the final animation. The clips changed as much as that. It's tough with Bill, because a lot of his good stuff goes on for three or four minutes. The problem becomes the fact that you are now watching that show, and it is hard to get back to the story. It is a very fine balancing act of not staying in those too long. We had to find the right material, that would deliver that punch quickly. And that showed who Bill is. It needed to give a real sense of where Bill is in his life. It was something that was constantly changing. It was the ripple effect. When you change one clip. It changes all of the other clips around it. Maybe there is a slight similarity in there. The biggest point is the one you pointed out. If you are watching him for too long, you start to get sucked into that show. Then, there have been reviews where they say, "I wanted to see more comedy." But if we had kicked the balance slightly in that direction, the story would have not held its own.

Matt Harlock: One of the things we struggled with is something that Bill struggled with throughout his whole career. That is, doing six minutes of clean material on David Letterman, as opposed to doing an hour and a half with an audience who is willing to go along with you, with wide ears. Whether you are using profanity, or if you are pushing a hot topic button. We had to be aware of what each clip was doing in order to get the whole shape of the work thorough. The difficulties come when you decided to show Bill's career chronologically. That means you can't stay on one performance, his most well known or most shown performances. You have to take every single routine from him. We had to make some really hard decisions. But, hopefully, what we've done is allow people who don't know Bill to see some of his best stuff. And those who do know him, we get to show them a lot of his rare stuff. It's that combination that has been grabbing audiences.

Paul Thomas: The other thing that happens is that, though you are seeing just a minute or two from each performance, you are getting this feeling of an overall arc. Through each performance, he is changing and evolving, and the material is as well. But through the film, you are getting that experience of what his show may have been like, had you sat through one single show.

There is a very interesting dichotomy that arises throughout the film in terms of Bill's drug and alcohol abuse. At one turn, he is a drug advocator, and it seems fun and intelligent. The thing to do. Then he gets sober, and that angle is presented as a great downfall for him. Suddenly, drugs are bad! Again, how did you find that fine balance in telling this aspect through the narrative?

Matt Harlock: Some people know Bill's reputation as bit of a Hell raiser. Obviously, while he was drinking and drugging, that is quite true. To get more of that in was quite difficult. We knew that was a difficult period in Bill's life, yet it was very important to his comedy. It was one of the things that Bill really used to connect with people. This searing openness and honesty about what he does in his life. One of those things was getting clean. He admitted he was a complete fuck up. When he was drinking and drugging, he wasn't pleasant to be around. That honesty, and openness is something that still draws people to him. We wanted to make sure that it was shown. There are a couple of instances there, and they give a flavor of that time. We saw some of the ideas around it. Bill started out, as you say, using the drugs to open doors and explore, like many of his own heroes had done. Then, after awhile, he realized that it was getting in the way. In terms of his evolution as a performer, this became incredibly important. We knew these aspects had to be in there. We didn't necessarily need to show the nitty-gritty specifics. That gets boring. You can't say he fell down. And then he fell down again. And then he fell down another staircase. Its about making sure you have a true sense of what happened, getting thar across. But not dwelling on it openly.

You are both obviously huge admires of his life's work. Here, you have a lot of never-before-seen footage. What was it like for you guys on a personal level, to see some of this stuff that hasn't ever been seen before?

Matt Harlock: The amazing thing about people like Bill, who tend to believe that their life is being lived in a meaningful way, is that they tend to be self-recordists and diarists, and people who collect and keep, and record everything. Bill had a huge collection of material. Not only video material, which quite often came from a club's VHS camcorder, if you can remember back that far, but single shots from way back stage. His brother actually recorded a lot of his later shows. Finding that stuff was just amazing. The most jaw-dropping stuff was the material that we'd known for years. We knew the audio. But we'd never seen the images that went with it. That was amazing from a fan standpoint. From the filmmaking side, some of the most amazing material Bill gave us was from handheld Dictaphones, which he used to talk about his inner thoughts and his innermost feelings. There is one where he is eighteen years old, on his own in Los Angeles. And he is admitting that he is really scared about whether or not he is funny. I think those are some of the gems that the archives allowed us to unearth. The family was very open about us having access to that stuff. It was a real treasure trove.

The Hicks family had been approached over the years, many times, about turning Bill's story into a movie. Was it the style and approach that you guys are utilizing that made them open up and share this wealth of material?

Matt Harlock: Well, the truth is, they had been approached many times. They had also been made cautious, because a lot of those approaches had been made blatantly commercial. What we had to do was a two year process, from first getting in touch with Bill's family. To getting to a point where we were all happy to move forward. That was all about building trust with them, and making sure they felt comfortable. It was something we had to work quite hard at, to make sure we maintained our own editorial integrity, but at the same time, make them feel comfortable enough to go with us. And to open up. We were very luck to be the guys that got to do that. We know of many other teams who approached them and tried to do the same kind of thing. It wasn't an instantaneous thing. It took some time.

Do you guys personally consider this an animated film?

Paul Thomas: That is funny. IMDB does consider this to be an animated film. Obviously it is animation, as it involves a certain amount of effort, as all animation does, and it creates a certain suspension of disbelief. But really, our job was to retell Bill's story the best way we could. We started this around 2005. And documentaries have been taking a more narrative approach for the last couple of years. The first distinct one I remember is Touching the Void, where I saw it in the theater, and the theater was packed. Watching that film, you were back on that mountainside as he breaks his leg, and the other guy half-dies trying to get down. There is The Kid Stays In The Picture, which uses a similar technique to what we are doing, but it was much more of a cinematic slideshow. What it did allow us to do is see into Robert Evans' world. You still weren't really inside the scenes. Our animation crystallized once we'd done our interviews. The audio that we came back with was so good. You could listen to it without any pictures at all. It was just fantastic storytelling. So that elevated the job we had to do with the animation. We had to bring it up to the level of the stories we were being told. Our technique was something that evolved. It didn't come readily, or simply. And there are things that we discovered as we went along. We were in a room for three years doing this. We really had to push ourselves.

During the filmmaking process, you guys visited a lot of the places that were important to Bill throughout his life. How did that journey give you a better understanding of him as a person?

Matt Harlock: The genesis of Bill as a performer, which his friend Dwight Slade sums up quite well, is that he felt Bill became the performer we know from his more well-known specials. But there was also this perfect storm of elements that occurred during the late 60s, early seventies, which was: Bill and his family were an affluent family living in the suburbs of Houston. They were a product of the American dream. They had made it. They were living in five bedroom houses with pools. Essentially, he had this background...A southern Baptist upbringing that was obviously quite strict. There were rules to be observed. At the same time, there was this new stand-up comedy. You had Steve Martin and Woody Allen making a splash. And you had this explosion of rock music that had a certain theatricality. Bands like KISS, who they were really into as kids. They were doing these outrageous things on sage. They were silly. Some of it was meaningful. All of those elements became what informed Bill as a performer. He took the things he liked about stand-up from Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, and Woody Allen. He took the theatricality from bands like KISS. He took his strict upbringing, and enhanced it. He took his suburban, affluent background, and started to question it. He wanted to know if it was achieving anything, if there was any more to this. That led to his friends taking part in a different type of spirituality, which included transcendental meditation. Attempting to try and find something that united the human experience. Obviously, he was searching for enlightenment. The way he attempted to do that was communicate his experiences with audiences. Those are the autobiographical parts. The early seeds, which are absolutely necessary to see in terms of who he became as a performer. That is something in the film; you need to understand this about him to understand who he became.

Is this a singular experience for you guys? Or do you feel there are other people in history that could be applied to this unique style of documentary filmmaking?

Matt Harlock: The idea of a biopic was something we were interested in, in terms of telling Bill Hicks' story. We wanted something more than just an analysis. Which some people might have been expecting. I think you are right, I think this is a singular experience. There are people out there who are trying to do what Bill did fifteen years ago. Bill was someone who was driven to ask the hard questions throughout his career. Now, you see guys doing it on a nightly basis, with a huge audience, on Comedy Central. Which is fantastic. The notion that Bill was the only person doing this is not the case. But the thing that he did do was have an interesting mix of spirituality and salaciousness in his joke writing craft, which put him head and shoulders above those other performers.

Paul Thomas: In terms of using this same approach to tell someone else's story? It took us four years of our lives. It is not something you would apply lightly to someone. There are other great, deserving people and cultural figures that you could apply it to. One thing is, there needs to be a good photo archive of that person. You also need enough surviving interviewees to tell a good, rounded story. We were lucky in that Bill had such an impact and influence on these people's lives. Not just his family and friends, but also the comedians he'd met along the way. That they were able to recount a very solid and thorough story. This is made up of all interviews. There is no scripting going on. It's just a lot of interviews and a very long interview process. We weaved them all together for this seamless story. But it feels like something has been written to get it down to time. Really, it's just a very long interview process. Unless you have that good, firsthand witness account available, it's tricky to do a similar thing. You end up falling back on a voice over. And a narrator doing a scripted version. The interesting thing here is that it's all real voices. It's all real interviews. Though, it hits that same level as though we made a scripted film.

Matt Harlock: I think I was answering a different question than what I was asked before. But the idea of applying this documentary technique to someone else? There is a specific amount of requirements for it to be useable and appropriate. The interesting thing about this technique is that it allows Bill Hicks to be back inside the story. We felt it was important to have him, and not just animation and talking heads. Sure, there are a ton of other people you could apply it too. One other example we heard, which might work, is recreating letters from people during the War. Bringing that to life. Where you have material and not images. It is interesting to think about what else we could apply this to.