The Making of Rum Diary

...and a Brief History of Gonzo in Film

During my last visit with Hunter S. Thompson the discussion turned to his “long lost novel” The Rum Diary. We were sitting in his kitchen at Owl Farm sipping Wild Turkey.

“I’m in a weird position.  I’m seeing films about me on television and people writing books about me.  It’s very eerie to live like that!  I try to ignore it.”

Hunter wrote The Rum Diary while still in his 20s and living in Puerto Rico. The book was published - to glowing reviews - by Simon & Schuster in 1998. 

“I’ve always had an ambition to write fiction. I’ve never had any real ambition within journalism. Only a madman would want to be labeled a “gonzo journalist” in these wretched times!” A smoldering Dunhill protruded from the end of his cigarette holder. 

“The Rum Diary is currently under cannibalization and transmogrification into a very strange movie,” he told me with a mischievous grin. 

Filming on Rum Diary began on location in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Hollywood in early 2009. Johnny Depp, first unleashed as Raoul Duke in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, resumes his role as Hunter S. Thompson. He portrays Paul Kemp, a character based on Thompson during his pre-Hell’s Angels days, when he lived, drank and wrote in the Caribbean. 

The script was written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Killing Fields.  Robinson had spent a blissful six and half years sober prior to production - but actually started drinking again because of Rum Diary. 

During the shoot in Puerto Rico, Hunter’s chair and a bottle of Chivas were present on the set each day.

Depp actively recruited Robinson for the project; the two had met in LA and Depp professed to be a huge fan of Withnail & I, Robinson’s cult-hit debut film. He later sent Robinson a copy of Rum Diary and convinced him to write and direct.  

The practice of rewriting scripts over and over, a golden rule in the movie industry, never sat well with Thompson. “True Gonzo journalism, as I conceive it, shouldn’t be rewritten,” he told me for a Hustler interview – the same year Rum Diary was published.  “I like transcript - it’s truer, but as you’ll find out when you start to transcribe these tapes it wanders and runs around.”

Myriads of film and documentary makers have attempted to capture the essence of the Good Doctor. However, for various reasons, productions of Hunter’s life and work have traditionally been plagued with difficulty. Take, for example, Where the Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray.  Hunter served as executive consultant on the film.

“I was staying with Bill Murray that summer. We had a big house in the Hollywood Hills and I had a red 450 Mercedes. We’ve been friends a long time. It’s a tribute to some kind of friendship that it can survive that movie,” Hunter explained to me during a SPIN Magazine interview 

“It’s weird, you turn on the TV set about every three months and there it is. I’ve never seen the theater version, but I’ve got all the different versions here. They paid me to write new beginnings and endings. But it was a bad script, you couldn’t cure it.” 

“He did a good job,” Thompson said of Murray’s acting, “I refer to it as impersonation.  But it’s a silly film…it’s a cartoon.” 

The time spent with Thompson took its toll on both Murray and the movie. After filming wrapped, Murray took on Thompson’s mannerisms and donned dark sunglasses, smoked cigarettes through a filter and became increasingly volatile. 

A similar fate awaited Johnny Depp after he moved into Owl Farm prior to filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To this day, Depp will admit that it has been hard to shake some of Thompson’s phrases and moves.

The saga of bringing Fear and Loathing to the screen is a convoluted and twisted tale as well. Early on it was determined that Thompson had granted the movie rights (scribbled on a cocktail napkin) to an ex-girlfriend. Legalities were eventually settled and several directors and actors took stabs at adapting the comic masterpiece. Terry Gilliam was the last man standing and oversaw production when the smoke settled.

“Johnny Depp held a gun to my head and threatened my children,” Gilliam claims to me in an email.  “He said that he would not shoot me if I didn’t do the film. He was never very good when it came to issuing threats.”

I recently asked Ralph Steadman, Hunter’s longtime collaborator, about his last outing with Hunter: “It was October of 2004. I said Hunter, you know you have never inscribed a book to me. So he picked up a copy of The Rum Diary and wrote: ‘Here’s your f**** signed copy.’ We had such a loving relationship!”

The long-awaited screen version of The Rum Diary opens in theaters on October 28th.

posted at 09:56 pm
on Thursday, October 20th, 2011

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