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Late comic cuts

Bill Hicks would have loved the name of Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas's documentary about him -- American: The Bill Hicks Story. Here's a comedian who 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 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'.

He quipped: "I too have been appearing in front of handfuls of hillbillies and doubting my own existence."

Five months before his death on February 26, 1994, from pancreatic cancer, Hicks saw his 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 invited the comedian's mother, Mary, onto the show on January 30 last year to play the segment in full, and offer his apologies.

America feels differently about Hicks now. They realise that 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 16 years since Hicks passed away, and he's now bigger than ever. There have been magazine articles, TV specials, biographies, tributes) and now, Harlock and Thomas's fine documentary.

PAUL BYRNE: Did you feel you had 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.

PB: Did you meet any reluctance from his mother, Mary, or Bill's siblings, Steve and Lynn, or any of his close friends?

PT: It took two years 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.

PB: Amid all the people you got to talk about Bill, couldn't you have got Denis Leary as well, to apologise for ripping him off?

MH: The film is narrated through the 10 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 its own rules to us.

PB: If Bill had lived, do you think America would have finally caught up with him?

MH: What we have found from the US festival audiences is that a large proportion of America's population is actually very smart and very inquisitive about current issues and about the wider world beyond US soil.

PT: So there still seems to be some hope!

PB: Putting alcohol into Bill Hicks' system was like pouring gasoline on the raging fire within -- and his true voice emerged.

PT: The drunk years took up a sizeable 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.

PB: It's an interesting approach, having no talking heads until the very end, relying instead on old video footage and animating many of the 1,300 stills used . . .

MH: The photo approach means that Bill is once again present in those scenes and not the absent missing person among interviewees.

PB: Do you think Bill would be happy with all this posthumous success, or would he just laugh?

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

PB: 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?

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

American: The Bill Hicks Story hits Irish cinemas on Friday