FEAR AND BLEATING IN LAS VEGAS
HUNTER THOMPSON GOES
by Mark Ebner, "At Large"
Cult movie star, Johnny Depp (with supermodel ex-girlfriend, Kate Moss), surfaced at gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson’s fortified Colorado compound during the Summer of ‘96. They fired guns and detonated bombs there. That much we know.
Months later, the "Hunter and Johnny Show" appeared before a crowd of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas paperback-clutching teenagers at diva Depp’s appropriately nicknamed "Diaper Room" (Viper Room) club in Hollywood. Thompson took center stage on a throne, side-armed with a crystal decanter of Chivas Regal Scotch; Depp-as-Thompson-translator flanked him stage left, and actor, John Cusack, provided a steady flow of beer from down stage right. As a rule, Thompson does not lecture, but on this special night the crowd was treated to a couple of hours of his incoherent rambling on various conspiracies, flatly punctuated by the requisite question and non-answer moments.
Depp spent a good deal of the early Summer of ‘97 on tour with Thompson, helping to promote the Doctor Of Journalism’s latest collection of early writings, Proud Highway. At a San Francisco signing, a scuffle broke out at Booksmith on June 26. Thompson had arrived with his own uniformed security guard, who, in the melee, was unmasked as Depp.
The next day at Book Soup in Hollywood, Thompson showed with Depp and aging rocker, Warren "Werewolves Of London" Zevon. A kid approached the author with a bottle of Wild Turkey to be autographed. Offended because he hasn’t swilled Turkey in 15 years, Thompson grabbed the bottle by the neck as if to strike the teen, ordering him to "get the hell out of here." Curiously, Depp stood by, casually puffing a smoke through a trademark Thompson cigarette holder.
At another book signing, somewhere between LA and San Francisco, a Thompson fan showed up with a shotgun in his backpack. The deranged groupie wanted Thompson to sign the weapon. Instead, the author ordered Depp to negotiate a purchase of the firearm.
Next, Johnny Depp "did" Hunter Thompson at an Allen Ginsberg memorial at UCLA. Thompson, too ill to attend the tribute, sent the actor in his stead and persona, to read a wicked one page tribute to the deceased poet.
With the Depp-to-Thompson transformation complete, since principal photography on "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" -- the movie, began on August 3, per actor’s orders through his personal publicist Nancy Seltzer, the set was closed to all media. The film is about a journalist, who, in his writings, experimented in the subjective realm to the point where he single-handedly invented the gonzo style demanding the presence of the writer-as-participant. Yet, journalists-as-witness were shut out of the "making of" the Thompson masterpiece. A "closed set" is not uncommon in movie making, but, even "down time" access to any of the creative principals was conspicuously denied across the board.
Maverick director, Terry Gilliam, has always been press-friendly though. He actually invited documentary crews onto the sets of both "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys," and has welcomed reporters on-set as "protection witnesses" for his ensuing battles with studios trying to mess with his vision as set on celluloid. Not on this pic.
When it was falsely assumed that Rhino Films’ Head of Production/Fear And Loathing Producer, Stephen Nemeth, whispered about the production’s whereabouts to a Las Vegas newspaper, Gilliam called in his "fuck you" to Nemeth in LA, telling him to not even bother showing up. The director’s producing partner/henchman, Patrick Cassavetti fired off an equally castrating letter to Nemeth, effectively shutting him out. So, Rhino’s hooves were shackled towards creating a buzz on a film about catching one, and Nemeth -- the last man standing in LA while Gilliam & Co. raced to meet a tight 45 day shooting schedule in Glitter Gulch and the desert -- while reluctant to talk on the record, was really the only man to speak to.
"It was Johnny [Depp]," bemoans Nemeth of the press blackout. "It’s one of those great ironies that he should have made and exception on. Out of respect to journalists. Globally. Journalists who are gonna make this movie work. They are the ones who are gonna promote the fucking thing, you know? Having them banned from a movie about gonzo journalism is fucking amazing. Ridiculous."
As pressured as the filmmakers were in trying to bring the film in for $20 million in a month and a half with a director who has notoriously taken years to get projects from script to screen, Nemeth gets points in the stress validation department. He’s been chasing this project since 1992, and his commitment to the material was urgent, admirable. When At Large last visited the development scene, Alex Cox was scheduled to direct. And he was not even Rhino’s first choice at a time when "the little independent that could" was budgeting the film at a scant $5 million.
Lee Tamahori ("Once Were Warriors," "Mulholland Falls") got first crack at director negotiations. He even met Creative Consultant-to-the-tune-of-two hundred grand, Dr. Thompson’s approval, but basically priced and scheduled himself out of the picture. Even if Rhino could afford him, Tamahori wasn’t available until after the January ‘97 start date, and they were now well into September of ‘96. With the clock ticking, Rhino appealed to Thompson for an extension on the movie rights that would expire per the start date. Thompson and lawyers denied the extension, in effect trying to exact leverage that might force Rhino out. Rhino wasn’t budging because they saw the value in, and had resolved commitment to the entity they had created. They had bought the book, and developed it to the point where it looked like the film would actually get made. 25 years have passed since the bestseller’s first printing, and some 17 screenplays based on the novel have changed from one hopeful Hollywood hand to the other. Rhino Films had no intention of bailing out.
Rhino followed Thompson’s refusal to grant an extension with a hard fastball. "If that’s your position, the movie is green-lit," they declared. "It’s going on January 28th, and we’re going with another director." A few days later, Alex Cox was hired. Cox, a helmer who’d shown flashes of brilliance with "Repo Man" and "Walker", could, according to Nemeth, "do it for a price, could do it quickly, and could get this movie going in four months." Cox got busy co-scripting with Tod Davies, a (female) UCLA Hunter Thompson scholar. With Cox on board, Depp and Benicio Del Toro committed to the lead roles.
Alex Cox is a rebel, "not," stresses Nemeth, "a sellout choice," but ultimately, Rhino sold him out. During pre-production, Cox ran into the usual "creative differences" with Laila Nabulsi -- an ex-flame of Thompson’s (with no prior movie experience to speak of) who had hung onto a license to broker his book for almost two decades. Although her arrangement with Thompson attached her to produce the movie, Rhino probably could have bought her off the project, but -- given the exit ultimatum between Cox and her -- they chose to protect her. Which is ironic, because she was there [on the set] without really protecting Rhino’s honor, and Rhino’s producer of record, Nemeth, was - in effect - banished. "But, what can you do?" asks the resigned producer.
What they (Rhino) did was pay Cox off (some $60,000 in script fees), and roll genius-loaded dice by offering the project to Terry Gilliam. Gilliam received a copy of Cox’s script at a restaurant in Tuscany. Never much one for paperwork, he flew to Los Angeles a couple of weeks later and began scouting locations in Las Vegas -- a town he’d visited only once before. Not satisfied with Cox’s humorous screenplay, he decided to tackle a draft with friend, writer Tony Grisoni ("Thief Of Hearts"). They had a new script ready inside of a short month, but now Rhino, despite having been granted an extension from Thompson until July 1, needed another one to accommodate Gilliam’s fees and schedule.
Without a solid deal in place with Gilliam, Thompson’s people declared, "Hunter will give you an extension if it’s tied to Gilliam," to which Rhino responded, "No. If it doesn’t work out with Gilliam, and we’ve got a deal that’s locked to him, then we’re fucked."
Without the terms of Gilliam’s deal settled, Rhino was forced to play hard ball again. Without the director contractually obliged, hence protecting Rhino’s interest -- with no extension, Rhino would have been forced out. A Rhino memo obtained, issued to all parties, basically read:
"With all due respect to the world class talent involved, who we obviously want to make this deal with -- if you’re not going to protect us, we have to do something. This is the opposite of a threat. We are not threatening you, we are telling you: We are going to start prepping another movie because we have to. To commence July 1. We don’t want to do this."
A separate memo went out to Nabulsi outlining that, if Depp and Del Toro do not want to go with the new plan, then Cox is back on to direct, and ideas for back-ups [talent] are needed, just in case. Nabulsi circulated that memo to everyone, and Depp and Gilliam were infuriated.
"For some reason they just got bent out of shape," says Nemeth. "Instead of saying ‘Wow, I gotta protect these guys,’ they said fuck them and the horse they rode in on for taking a strong position and not being screwed out of this deal. It was the weirdest, most vitriolic response to something that was so obvious."
The next Rhino-generated memo went to Gilliam, asking the director to not mess with them. It was a matter of survival now, but without an extension, Rhino had to either green light another picture, or walk away. From flaming memos pieced together, it’s clear that they, the hands-on filmmakers, wanted Rhino to disappear. Although they weren’t saying that, their agenda was clear.
In the end, before cameras rolled, Rhino hung on, and, with Universal Pictures now on to distribute the film, Fear And Loathing commenced principal photography on August 3 with a $20 million dollar budget covering 1/2 million dollar salaries to both Depp and Gilliam with fat -- as yet undetermined -- back end gross profit participation. Ironically, without his "profit point participation" settled, Gilliam worked throughout production without a firm deal in place.
With the bulk of the film being shot in Vegas, the Riviera Hotel was dressed to resemble Del Webb’s old Mint Hotel as featured in Thompson’s book. Without a plot to speak of, Gilliam’s distillation of the outrageous material ought to be rendered a fast and furious E-ticked ride. No stranger to character driven set-pieces, Gilliam may be the only director with vision warped enough to pull off a translation of source material so hyper-cinematic in and of itself.
Johnny Depp, beyond his Kentucky-bred kinship with Thompson, completely embodied the spirit-addled spirit of the madman, circa 1971. Word from the set Gilliam directed Depp "way over the top," while frustrating Del Toro by keeping his wacky instincts somewhat harnessed. Ellen Barkin, Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, and Harry Dean Stanton made for loony cameo casting choices, with Gary Busey rounding out the roster as the "Highway Patrolman" character.
At a Santa Monica cafe, just back from his desert action on Fear And Loathing, Busey reenacted a scene that Gilliam let him improvise. In a bit that has Busey’s Trooper warning Depp’s deranged Duke to drive carefully, Busey tagged on the following bit: "May I kiss you deep, on the mouth, before you go?" That little improvisation lent itself to Depp’s character Duke’s follow-up voice-over musings about feeling like he was just raped by the cop, and reveals that Gilliam has been maintaining the collaborative exchange with talent that he’s famous for.
"Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" will either belly-up bomb, or rock heavily with a bonus roll beyond box office dependent on a slamming soundtrack. Gilliam wants to use all period music in the film. And rightly so. What would the movie be without the book’s signature Rolling Stones song, "Sympathy For The Devil?" Unfortunately, about $300,000 (the cost of the song) poorer, seeing that that one tune eats up about a third of the soundtrack budget. Although ideas for Bob Dylan and son Jakob to cover "Highway 61 Revisited" are being tossed around for an end title song, even this early in the game, Gilliam is not wont to compromise on his ideals for authenticity.
Since his first book, Hell’s Angels came out, Hunter Thompson has always been judged by his last effort. And so he will be judged on how this film turns out by the generations coming up to buy his books. (Over 3 million copies of Fear And Loathing have sold to date.) It’s up to Depp’s remarkable talent for caricature, and Gilliam’s always brilliant vision to preserve Thompson as an icon, else, he’ll be written off as the sellout comic book character that Gary Trudeau made a living sketching him as in his Doonesbury strip. Or, the buffoon that Bill Murray portrayed in "Where The Buffalo Roam." After several un-returned phone calls and a Fedex-ed plea for him to go mano y mano, Thompson finally picked up his phone at 3:00 am Rocky Mountain Time on August 23.
Las Vegas (or, The Circus-Circus Hotel & Casino) is "what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war," wrote Thompson in Fear And Loathing. Hitting the Scotch, he explains that, although he’s been invited on the set, his profound distaste for Las Vegas has kept him away so far. Besides, at 60, his war at home is enough. "I’m under arrest all the time. I’m at war with the police and the authorities out here, and I’m trying to beat them back."
Thompson dismisses his aforementioned battle with Rhino as born out of personal mounting frustration. Although he never "expect[s] any money out of Hollywood except advances," "they [Rhino] just kept asking for more [time]. I got kind of agitated about it, because I thought they were trying to put off doing it. So I began to charge them more... I wanted to see the movie done, once it got started. I’ve never been particularly been eager to see it done, but once it got started I got pissed off that they weren’t moving fast enough. You know, if the train has left the station, you might as well get on it."
So, Thompson consulted the movie from home, on the phone, between chapters on his latest book, Polo Is My Life. His job description entailed on-set problem solving. "You know," he says seriously, "how to act when you’re full of ether." With ether being the most damaging drug of choice for the Fear And Loathing roadtrippers in search of the American Dream-turned-Nixonian nightmare, Thompson’s acting solutions for such mandatory "messy behavior," involved "Depp [putting] two ice cubes in his mouth, so he talks weird."
Another main problem for Thompson was one of wardrobe. "I’m a little concerned about the clothes this woman [the Costume Designer] keeps putting on Depp," he mutters. "You know, bizarre Hawaiian zoot suits, and shit like that." Solution? "Well, fuck. The way it’s been going is that Depp just [came] out here and [looted] all my fucking closets." And Del Toro had been straying from the Thompson dress code. "It [was] hard to get Benicio to dress properly. He is just, uh, he’s just difficult," says Thompson, warning, "He’s a good one, but he needs a touch of the lash now and then."
One of Thompson’s most difficult consulting chores involved translating the hallucinatory experiences of the characters. "It’s hard," he admits. "Well, one way to do it would [have been] to let them have a drop of acid apiece." He rethinks that idea. "Hmm. That might [have] run the budget up some."
Thompson finds the whole special effects thing really terrifying, yet is nonplused that live iguanas were used for visual enhancement. "Well," he laments, "I wanted to use live alligators, and nail their paws to the bar. You know, after giving them Quaaludes." The Quaaludes, to Thompson, would have been the humane way to go with the reptiles. That, and, "you’d use clean nails."
Non-committal about whether or not he bowed with a cameo appearance in Fear -- beyond rumors of Brad Pitt and Woody Harrelson doing bits in the film -- Thompson’s choice for a surprise turn would have been his old friend, Jack Nicholson. He brightens at the very thought. "If he [wanted] to come down and swing a, uh, pick at somebody -- I’d [have] encouraged that. Yeah. Jack and I [could have had] a little fun on one scene. Yeah. Wreck a car, put picks through the fucking hood. That would have been fun."
And therein lies a clue to additional Thompson material seeping into Gilliam’s rendition of the book. Looking through some boxes one day, Thompson found scribblings that never made it to the novel’s page. For the film, this insert will be called "the coconut scene." He hints: "The two characters are bashing some coconuts apart on the hood of a Cadillac in a parking lot in Vegas. With a sharp tack hammer, you know? Going right through the hood."
Coco-nutty scenes have always served as trademark salvos fired at the creeping fascism Thompson deems prevalent in the privileged class. As a worker among workers, he definitely feels he’s earning his consulting fees on this movie though. "Particularly if you stretch it out over twenty years," he calculates, while maintaining that the 300 grand (extension fees included) he’s pocketed so far does not suit him. What would be enough? "Ohhhh," he muses, "about a million dollars a month for two years."
Concerning the press blackout on the movie production, while Thompson agrees that the "making of" angle would be an interesting one, had he aided At Large with set access, that might have - in his estimation - cost the service future coverage on Depp. So, Depp’s label as "cult movie star," smacks as oxymoronic as the concept of "entertainment journalism" to the recluse Ph.D. "Uhh, it [entertainment journalism] seems just like promotion to me. It seems like it’s planted more by the studio PR departments than it is by the publications. That must be the nature of the beast. I don’t know."
As the Universal Studios publicity machine no doubt grinds towards the requisite post-production/pre-release press blitz for "Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas" (the movie based on "the novel that sunk a generation"), head scratching journalists worldwide wonder if the closed set on a film about a journalist whose specialty was infiltrating signals the end of entertainment journalism. "Uh," stutters Thompson, "do as I say, not as I do."
A follow-up call to the Thompson compound finds a strange answering machine message:
The braying of some weird electronic animal answers, then Thompson speaks -- "Hello? <Bwaaah-Bwaaah> I’m sorry, we’re herding up some sheep here..."