When Johnny Depp starred in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, he established a deep bond and connection with the writer which has never faded. Basing his lizard character in Rango on Thompson earlier this year, Johnny now gets to portray his friend once again in The Rum Diary, also starring Giovanni Ribisi and Aaron Eckhart. Director Bruce Robinson and producer Graham King sat down with Johnny and Buzzine to discuss how this project came to be, their passion for Hunter S. Thompson, and the challenges of making this movie.
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me about the passion and obsession for Rum Diary. Why? Where does it come from? And what does it mean to you?
Johnny Depp: Initially it was a manuscript in a box that Hunter (S. Thompson) and I happened to stumble upon one night while looking through the Fear and Loathing manuscripts, and there it was. And he hasn’t seen it in God knows how many years – maybe since he wrote it in 1959. He decided at that moment that we should do it as a movie, and we started down that line. We started trying to get that ball rolling, and one thing led to another – we got close here, we missed on that one, and we eventually were getting closer. And once Hunter made his exit, I felt: okay, my partner is no longer sitting next to me, but we’re gonna keep moving as if he is, and we’re gonna get this thing done, and we’re gonna get the guy that we want -- who is our dream, which is Bruce Robinson -- to do this thing. So it was just kind of a really silly perseverance.
EI: How is it that you channel Hunter’s energy so well? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…Rango... [laughs] now Rum Diary. Was it funny, by the way, to see yourself as a lizard…?
JD: Absolutely, yeah. I thought that was a very funny moment.
EI: How is it that you channel him so well, and what is it about for you…that you have in common?
JD: Hunter was always about a kind of freedom, to me. He was always incredibly free and incredibly brilliant and smart about understanding his freedom, and there was an irreverence to him that was linked into that brilliant mind of his – that he was so smart that he ultimately just didn’t care. He cared, but it’s like caring so much that eventually you don’t care. He knew exactly who he was, and he, for the most part, had no fear, even though he wrote a lot about fear and panic and things like that. He was quite a man.
EI: What was the biggest challenge for you…other than putting it together financially, but shooting that movie, and as a producer?
JD: I think the biggest challenge for me was having played Hunter in 1971 for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and then playing a version of Hunter in 1959-1960, which is before the time that the guy actually found his voice. He was teetering on the precipice of becoming Hunter S. Thompson, but he hadn’t found that voice yet. He had the rage and he had the smarts, and he had the capabilities, but he just hadn’t hit the mark yet.
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me the passion, the obsession for Rum Diary, for Hunter Thompson, and why come out of retirement to direct this movie?
Bruce Robinson: It wasn’t retirement. What I did was cease to be a film director, but I’m a writer, and I’ve been a writer all my life. And since I stopped being a film director, I’ve written many many screenplays – that’s how I earn my living. None of them get made, of course, because they never do get made, but you get nicely paid for doing them. And then Johnny came out of the blue…not so much the blue – the pale blue maybe – he came out of the pale blue with this novel. He sent me the novel, “Will you write it?” And it was a tricky one to do. But anyway, I wrote it, not expecting to be its director, and then Johnny is saying, “Now you’re gonna direct it,” and we’d run around a little bit, flirted with each other… [Laughs] It’s kind of ridiculous. This is Johnny Depp! And I live on a farm in England with a f*cking chicken on my head. And Johnny Depp is on the line saying, “Right. You’re out to Los Angeles. You’re directing the movie.” So I just acquiesced. I came out here and did it.
EI: Why did you only pick up two lines -- and what are lines from the book? -- and chose to totally be creative with the book?
BR: Because the only way I felt that I could be true to the book in a sense was by being me – honest me. Not by looking in the book, “Oh, what line did Hunter use here?” So I read the book twice – literally twice – and threw it away, and then wrote in the vernacular of Hunter Thompson, I hope. And to answer the question, the only two lines that survived from the book are: “Have some fun with a f*cking luger,” in the bowling alley, and Sala’s line: “We’ll be lucky to find an oil spot when the car is gone.” And those are the only two lines from the whole novel that are in the film. Everything else is reinvented.
EI: The movie is quite a mad ride. What were the challenges to shoot that movie, and did anything get out of control? [Laughs]
BR: The hardest scene to shoot, I’ve got to tell you, was the acid scene – when they take the LSD. The reason it’s difficult is because so many times, personally, I’ve been to a movie where someone has taken acid or something, and you can’t show a subjective drug thing on the screen because it doesn’t work somehow. Even when you get Hitchcock and Salvador Dali, who did Vertigo, it always looks bloody stupid to me, so I that was my…I would use the word “challenge”. That was a tough one -- to work out how we could do that. And that was the only special effect in the film.
EI: Why do you think Johnny is such a great Hunter Thompson? What are the characteristics?
BR: He adores him. By the way, I wasn’t sticking my tongue out at you. I was trying to mimic the acid scene. [Laughs] He adores Hunter – great friends, done lots of adventures together, and taken the oxygen because of the intensity of the hangovers and all of that kind of thing. It’s just kind of up Johnny’s street -- this sort of material, I think. And the thing that I would hope comes through is that sense of sort of youthful adventure, because Johnny is 47 years old; Hunter was 20 when the book was written. And there was a scene that we cut out, where he’s explaining why he’s 40-odd years old and still doing this job. And you know, we didn’t need it, so we just chopped it out.
EI: What do you think the world of Hunter is about? What is it about for you – Hunter Thompson’s universe?
BR: Rage. Anger, rage…and a comedic rage – that he looks at stuff that makes him so angry that, without his talent, it would be a kalashnikoff, but because he’s talented, he turns it into his world, his humor, and he puts himself into that. He invented that kind of journalism. Well, he didn’t really – Mark Twain did – but it’s that sort of thing. He becomes the star of the story, doesn’t he? And he is a man filled with rage, as indeed am I. And if I couldn’t exercise it in a comedic way, I don’t know what I’d be. I hate violence, so I could never be a violent guy, but I would imagine that I’m machine-gunning people day and night, probably. [Laughs]
Emmanuel Itier: Tell me about your passion for Rum Diary, Johnny Depp, Hunter Thompson… What do you see in that trio of things…?
Graham King: Rum. [Laughs] First of all, when I read the script, I saw that more than Hunter Thompson fans will enjoy this movie. This is not just about being a Hunter Thompson fan and gonzo journalism and telling that story. It’s a fun movie, and it’s a fun, entertaining ride that I thought is bigger than just a Hunter Thompson movie. So that was the balance that I saw that’s hit me over the edge into going ahead and making the movie. And to get to work with Bruce Robinson was pretty amazing. Withnail & I was one of my favorite movies. So the balance of that combination with Johnny, Puerto Rico, the cast, the script…it was all there.
EI: What is the movie truly about, for yourself? Is it freedom…?
GK: It’s about having a voice and going after what you believe in in the world, and I think we can all relate to that in certain ways. And I really feel that that’s his journey – coming down to this island, finding out the politics, finding out what’s going on, and making a decision that he’s not going just going to be one of those guys that lay low. Is he being a leader, or is he being led? And I saw that in The Rum Diary.
EI: Why is Johnny channeling so well Hunter Thompson? I mean, Fear and Loathing, Rango, and now The Rum Diary. What do you think he has?
GK: I think it’s his passion and his love for Hunter – that he just doesn’t get that out of him. And that’s part of his DNA. That’s natural to him. He doesn’t have to act. When he showed up on set in Puerto Rico every day, it wasn’t Johnny acting and getting into costume like Alice in Wonderland or Charlie (and the Chocolate Factory) or anything – he came on, and he knew exactly the role he was playing. It was very easy for him, because it was someone he respected and loved so dearly that it came natural. They were like brothers, so it came natural for him.
EI: The movie is quite mad. It’s a mad ride – you fasten your seatbelt and you’re…wow! Was the shooting quite crazy, insane, and different from others that you’ve been involved with?
GK: Yeah, it was mad as the movie is. It was. It was as mad as Johnny and Bruce paying homage to Hunter every day with his little bottle of Chivas Regal on the chair – Hunter’s chair – and I’m going [laughs], “What is that?” And these characters showing up -- Giovanni Ribisi was fantastic, right? I mean, these characters showing up – Aaron Eckhart – and really being in character and going on this romp. And there’s been a lot of negativity because we delayed the release of the movie. And I think it really worked out well for us because, certainly this year, these R-rated comedies are what people are going to see. And again, I can’t stress enough to where you don’t have to be a Hunter Thompson fan to enjoy this movie.
EI: What do you think has been, for you, the challenge of doing Rum Diary? What was the biggest – as a producer – headache?
GK: Keeping them all sober. [Laughs] No, logistics were tough. I’d never shot in Puerto Rico before; we’d never gone there. It was a real indie-type movie – the way it was made. It was really fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. If we couldn’t afford a set, we would find something else. The set designer was fantastic on saying, “Okay, this is the set for the bar; we’re gonna turn it around and make it a set for something else.” Everyone paid homage to Hunter and to Johnny’s passion, and to Bruce’s passion, and we all got in as a family and did it together.
FilmDistrict's 'The Rum Diary' is released on October 28, 2011.