Last month marked the 21st birthday of Terry Gilliam’s twisted, reflective and mischievous adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The film and book tell the “true story” of journalist Thompson (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer “Dr Gonzo” (Benicio Del Toro) who travel to Vegas on a sporting assignment but abandon it to search for the American dream and gorge on a galaxy of drugs.
To celebrate the film’s birthday and Arrow’s spanking new 4K Blu-ray release, HeyUGuys hijacked Terry Gilliam for a chat during The Man Who Killed Don Quixote junket in the HKX building at London’s King’s Cross.
After being escorted through a brassy reception, up an elevator and into a room hidden behind a bookcase, we were eventually taken to a glass corner office.
Inside, Terry stood staring out a wall sized window looking at London’s neon stippled skyline at night. He wore a long brown jacket that hung open like a cape then turned and burst into life upon our entrance.
HEYUGUYS: Fear and Loathing was released over twenty-one years ago. Have your feelings for it changed over the years?
I love it. it’s still great. And it’s a fantastic package that Arrow put together. I didn’t realise there were so many extra features. I had to re-watch it recently to check the grading and was completely blown away. I always wanted to be so distant from my films, that I can watch them like a punter and say; “this is fucking great!” That said, my new commentary could be shit because it’s mostly me going; “Wow! This is amazing! Can you believe it?”.
You came to the project quite late, taking over from original director Alex Cox. Were you given creative freedom with the script or was it all ready to go?
We threw that first script out. Fuck that script! Take it away. We wanted to approach it like Dante’s Inferno. There is Virgil, a Pagan, taking Dante, a Christian, into hell, which made sense to us. Hunter was the Christian and Gonzo, the pagan. We thought of it like that and then how to move forward.
I also realised there were moral choices to be made in this story. You can’t just have two guys rampaging about Vegas with no shame. And then the trailer came along and presented: “two wild guys having a wacky drug weekend”. I thought; “you fucking fuckers!”
Tony Grisoni (co-writer) and I then went back to the book and, in eight days, tried to rewrite the script in the spirit of Gonzo: high speed. We then went our separate ways. A couple of days later we looked at our script again and thought it was shit, so we did more rewrites. At that stage it felt more like an editing job on Hunter Thompson’s book, figuring out the structure, what to cut and not.
While a lot of the film feels like two characters spewed out into a river to hell, there are a few sober scenes. Some featuring Hunter searching for epiphanies while reflecting on the era, the end of the 1960s, what it all means. Was that something you connected to?
Yes, I was of that time. That is why the book is so important to me, because it’s about then and the failure of our dream. That time was so full of optimism because we, the young people, were making a change. We did, but not as much as we’d have liked. There was just a lot that failed, and Hunter, in some way, was the first person to write about that.
Weirdly, it was because of one of those scenes that Alex Cox was thrown off the project. He and Hunter were talking about the Great Wave speech. Alex loved the idea of having Hunter surfing this animated wave, but Hunter hated it. Alex was overselling it and not seeing himself getting deeper into the shit until Hunter threw him out. The idea of Alex animating it made him crazy, because it was such an important speech. In the end, we just shot it very simply with Johnny staring out the window.
Johnny and Benicio were amazing. Did you have to rile them up into animal states for their drug binge scenes?
No, but what was interesting was that there were two different styles of acting going on. Johnny knew exactly what he was doing, but Benicio was almost completely out of control, which made all of us angry. The continuity girl was shouting “what the fuck is he doing!”. The sound guy was complaining that he wasn’t speaking loud enough. So Benicio wasn’t the most popular guy on set. However, when it all came together, he was stunning. We needed to throw out so much good material of Johnny as it didn’t fit with Benicio but the end result is fantastic. Johnny is so clean, crazy and down the line but Benicio is a force of nature. In the end, they worked perfectly together.
Hunter comes across just like that in real life from what I’ve seen, with short bursts of quick dialogue whereas Gonzo is just a slobbering beast.
It was very funny because Johnny was getting so pissed off with Benicio. He was always asking “what’s Benicio doing now?” So, I said, “Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll do your wides, mids and close ups but I’ll do Benicio first, so you can see what’s he’s doing” and Johnny said “No. I want to go first. I know what I’m doing, and I don’t give a shit what he’s doing.” But that tension ended up being a good thing because it kept the whole thing alive.
Was Hunter on set a lot?
Thankfully no. Just the one day, and we hoped never again. It was the day we did the Matrix club scene. Hunter comes in and it’s suddenly not about making the film anymore. It’s about him. Hunter had to be the centre of attention and he was being an asshole; throwing bread rolls everywhere while we were filming. After being told to sit down for his cameo, he started saying “I wouldn’t sit there, I’m a journalist. I’d be out there!” I said; “We need you there! Because the camera’s there.” Then he refused to go on set.
The producer, Johnny and I were like three dogs trying to get this recalcitrant sheep into the coral. In the end I had to get the best looking female extra and sit her on the table where Hunter was supposed to go. On the first take he didn’t even look up when he was supposed to because he was too busy talking to her. He was such a fucking pain in the ass, but we got there in the end. That’s the price you pay when dealing with Hunter Thompson. We also shot the trial with Harry Dean Stanton that day.
It’s quite a daring and provocative film, even for its time. Do you think it would get made today in the same way, if at all?
No, no way. It’s already shocking people. I read a couple of reviews of the re-release and they’re saying; “it’s shapeless”, “it’s offensive”. Shut the fuck up! It’s a true story. We need a film like this now, to make people think about what they are doing. Either they’ll dismiss it, which a lot of them will, but hopefully it will make people think about how they behave.
What were you most proud of about it?
The North Star Café scene with Ellen Barkin. In all the versions of all the scripts I had been sent over the years, which I always said no to, they never kept that scene from the book. It is one of the most important, because Hunter is forced to make a moral choice after Gonzo crosses the line with the phone and the knife. Despite all the outrageous things they had been doing up to that point, they had never been that threatening. Also, through that scene came the value of Johnny knowing Hunter so well. Why nobody wanted to do that is odd because it’s an important moment.
Then, straight after Fear and Loathing was your first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote?
Well, 1989 was when I first thought of doing Quixote. We got the money and then pissed around for several years, but it was after Fear and Loathing that I got Johnny on board, so 2000 was the first time we finally shot something for it.
Apart from changing the protagonist from an Ad Executive to a Film-maker in Don Quixote, were there many other differences to how it ended up?
In the original version there wasn’t a backstory about that character being corrupted by commercial success. He just got bumped on the head and ends up in the seventeenth century. We were doing a lot of other interesting things back then, but the idea of someone having created Quixote on film then having the shoemaker go mad: that’s when it really became about something. Adam Driver is a kind of Dr Frankenstein who created this monster he’s stuck with and responsible for, but ultimately, it’s about the power of films: what they do to people who make them and those who watch them. That made it much more interesting to me.
Did you approach the production this time with a bit more apprehension?
No, not at all. The main problem going into it was the expectation of all these people who saw Lost in La Mancha and were waiting for it. But after a week of shooting you don’t give a fuck about the audience. You just want to get through the day. That was a general weight on my shoulders though, because I knew that whatever I made was not going to be as wonderful as people imagined it would be. After twenty years, a lot of people thought it would be full of angst and darkness, but it’s joyous! And that’s what I loved. All the changes, the new cast and backstory, was to simply keep it fresh. So, each time I went out, was like doing a new film, and that freed me. It was also an easy shoot and we came in on time and budget. Surprise, surprise, surprise.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is out now on 4K limited edition Blu-ray from Arrow Video
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will be in cinemas from 23rd January 2019.