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The Director Goes Gonzo on Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, His Life and Work

by Brad Balfour

At a time when we need counter-culture heroes more than ever, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney's Gonzo-The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson explores in a relatively unvarnished fashion Rolling Stone magazine's late wild man of journalism and a counter-culture icon. During Thompson's heyday, he challenged assumptions about journalists and politicians alike in both his writing and drug-infused lifestyle. When he hit his stride, his rambling "Fear and Loathing" essays in Rolling Stone provided a counter-culture journalistic response to the world's insanities at the time.

While Thompson was hardly a model of virtue – a gun-toting, foul-mouthed, intoxicated madman who so declined creatively and physically that he committed suicide in 2005 at 67 – he became a mythic figure of his time ("Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau even based his character Uncle Duke on Thompson's alter-ego Raoul Duke). What saved him from irrelevance was his remarkable prose and insights into the hypocrisies of both mainstream political and culture figures as well as those on the cutting edge.

Though not quite as politically charged as his two previous films, Taxi to The Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room, veteran documentarian Gibney manages to connect Thompson's vision and history with Gibney's own dark outlook on American society today. In some ways, Gibney sees his semi-cynical take on human behavior as mirrored in both Thompson's work and life as well. Before a small roundtable of journalists, Gibney recently discussed his experience with Hunter's life and death.

Did you ever meet Hunter S. Thompson before making this film?

No, so I was the perfect person to do the film because I didn't know him from Adam. I read his work. I knew the Fear and Loathing in Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail books from long ago, and had followed the exploits of the good Doctor from time to time, so I was amused.

But it just seemed to me, when I was approached to do the film by [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter and the folks at HDNet, that it would be interesting to do a film about a guy who didn't play by the journalistic rules at a time when the journalistic rules were being used against journalists by people in power.

When he died, it was right around the time it was revealed that Jeff Gannon, the sometime male prostitute, was posing as a White House journalist, and had been given a press credential by the Bush administration to ask these kind of puffball questions: "Oh Mr. President, isn't it terrible the way these people are treating you?" You need a Hunter to dig into stuff like that. Somebody who's not afraid to insult, make fun of, so it seemed like a good time.

Both you and Thompson seem to have shared a similar sense of political awareness and concern.

The political element in Hunter's writing was certainly there. But it was also frankly… he was just so funny. I thought it would be fun to have some fun with Hunter. In my office there are two cutting rooms. One I used for Taxi to the Dark Side, and one for Gonzo, so it was nice to be able to go back and forth.

Taxi was very, very dark, and actually some of that darkness helped rudder the Hunter film in a darker direction at times, but [doing Gonzo] was also a respite from Taxi because initially, the attempt with Taxi was to try to put some of that dark comedy that had been in Enron into Taxi, and there were elements that'll probably be on the DVD extras or whatever. But in the film itself, once this poor kid's legs get pulpified by these much bigger guys in a prison in Afghanistan, there wasn't much room for humor, and properly so.

There seems to be a parallel between the Nixon administration and George W. Bush's administration.

Hunter, personally and in his writing, intuited the great contradiction in the American character, between this sense of possibility and idealism, and the dark side, or what he called "Fear and Loathing." What both Nixon and Bush were able to do effectively was to stir that sense of fear and loathing in a certain portion of the American public, to remind them how afraid they should be, and how people were trying to take stuff away from them. That's how they would get elected. Not by appealing to a sense of possibility or idealism, but to appeal to their sense of fear and rage, and sometimes to inchoate rage. And that's something that Nixon did very well, as did Bush.

Are there any journalists who are writing today that you consider comparable to what he was doing?

Well he was such a giant. At his height, from 1965 to 1975, he had it all: the sense of humor, the sense of anger, and the peculiar kind of literary excellence; he just had this way with words that was extraordinary. So he was a blogger, really. In particular, the Campaign Trail book was a precursor to blogging, but he blogged at a
pretty high level in terms of the use of language.

But there are people who use anger today. I would say Jon Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert have a kind of anger about the way things are, but they express it through satire and comedy, and also by using real events that they say, "Oh, look at this! Look what they said two months ago! This person's a liar." And that's what you need.

You feel the evidence of Hunter's influence, but you don't see somebody who's doing it like Hunter was able to do it. You know, the channel is so bifurcated now. Rolling Stone was an underground magazine when Hunter was writing for it, but it was also a national magazine. Everyone was reading it. It wasn't just, "Oh my page opens to
this blogger or that blogger." He had this broad sweep of people.

What about some of Hunter's contemporaries – like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test author Tom Wolfe?

Well Tom Wolfe was interesting. He had a more ironic sense of detachment. With [Ken] Kesey and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test he did hang out with those guys for a while, but… yeah Tom Wolfe was another character like that… somebody who combined journalism and literature.

Was there anyone you would've liked to meet besides Hunter?

I would've loved to have met Kesey [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.] We're doing a film now about Kesey and the [Merry] Pranksters, and he was apparently an extraordinarily charismatic guy.

How was it interviewing politicians like former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern?

He was a very decent man, and you felt like you were getting the truth [from him]. It was a weird day, because in the morning, I interviewed him in the same hotel suite [that I interviewed former Republican presidential candidate] Pat Buchanan in the afternoon! And Pat came in, and was like, "Where's George?" He wanted to hang with McGovern – the guy who he had beaten to a political pulp in '72.

And [former President Jimmy] Carter was fascinating. We had thought we would have had a tremendous amount of difficulty getting to Carter, but he accepted right away and gave us a lot of time. He told us a very funny story that we couldn't put in the movie, for no particularly good reason. But Hunter had gone to interview Carter after this University of Georgia thing in '75, and he spent three days with Carter and Roslyn and hung out with them. Just the idea of Hunter and Carter hanging out for three days…

Anyway, Hunter had this fantastic interview, and he was going to go back to Woody Creek [Colorado] and write it up, and then went on vacation or something. When he got back, he realized he lost the tapes! So he calls up Carter's people and goes, "You know I fucked up, I lost the tapes. Can we do it again?" By this time, Carter's taking off, so they're like, "I'm not sure we want Hunter. We want to control the message a little more," so they put him off.

Then he finally went down to wherever they were traveling around in the country, and he was trying to hunt down Jody Powell [Carter's assistant]. He finds him in his room and Powell won't answer the door, so Hunter lit a fire under his door. Literally! And starts burning down the door! Carter had to be called from upstairs to come and calm Hunter down, help put out the fire [laughs].

Did Hunter get a chance to talk with him further?

Not as much as he wanted. He certainly didn't get his three days again.

Did Johnny Depp regale you with any Hunter stories since the two were so close?

[Laughs] They were very close. Working with Johnny Depp was a brief experience, but it was a good one. It was the kind of thing where, under tremendous pressure, he comes into town, does his thing, and goes out again. So, there wasn't a lot of hang-time. But Johnny loved Hunter. He feels deeply connected to him because
there was a room in the basement of Hunter's house called "Johnny's Room." It was a small, garret-like room with a cot and a slit for a window, and that's where [Depp] lived for a month or so just before [making the film] Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You can see in the film, one of the interesting things that is shot, and it's in Johnny's
house, in this bar, that was one of Hunter's favorite places; he's wearing Hunter's shirt.

What was it like hanging out with [artist] Ralph Steadman?

He is a fascinating character and was transformed by Hunter – by Hunter and maybe, the drugs. When he gave Ralph psilocybin I think his world kind of changed. It was so much fun to hang out with Ralph. I went to his place in Kent [England] and he has this big studio in the back of his property, and you inhabit this world. You walk through four or five huge rooms filled with drawings and little artifacts from here and there. He has this wild imagination. He's a great raconteur and storyteller with a very dark sense of humor.

But it was great to see those earlier drawings before meeting Hunter – B.H. and A.H. – they're very sort of uptight. Now he has this ability… it's just like the poster, I mean he took that photograph of Hunter and said, "I'm going to defile it!" I had him sign a book for me and he signs it, and then he takes the pen and goes "thwack!"

How much of Hunter's drug-taking has been exaggerated, or is it accurate? And how did it inform his writing? Do you think that's why his writing quality diminished over the years?

Well it both enhanced it at first, and over time, it diminished it. I think the thing that really got to him in the end was the booze. He was drinking every day, all the time. But the early brushes with hallucinogens opened him up for free association and things like that. But a lot of people [did them] during that time. Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest while he was on acid or Dylan, who he claims he didn't use drugs, though I don't think so. But for a long time, the key drug for Hunter was speed, and then as it got into the '80s, it became coke.

He wasn't much for deadlines.

Deadline writer, right. Even though he almost never made a deadline, he'd go on these writing jags, and then he'd smoke a joint to get an idea while he was on speed, and then he'd be drinking. I think it was real but at the same time, he was also doing it for effect. So it wasn't like the drugs were talking in the writing – that
was Hunter.

For a long time he was a very disciplined guy; he was the guy who typed The Great Gatsby on his own just to feel what it would be like typing those words. I think he was purposely exaggerating it as well so you would have this sense that he was this larger-than-life character. At the same time, he became a drug action hero because he had this capacity for ingesting this stuff that nobody else had.

As [Boys on The Bus author and Rolling Stone writer] Tim Crouse says in the film, "You'd see it go in, but it didn't seem to have any discernible effect." I think that Hunter may have been bipolar, and that he was self-medicating to get this even keel. And over time, he would only get fifteen minutes of lucidity in a day, and then it would go down.

Was there anything you unearthed during your research that really shocked you?

At four or five in the morning he would do these long, tape-recorded monologues. And he would take tapes that he had recorded out in the field and would play them, and make a little commentary about them, and then he'd play a little music, and that would become part of his tape. He would make a little "movie of the mind." We're going to actually release a five-CD box set of some of those tapes.

Have Hunter's second wife Anita and his son Juan seen the film and if so, how have they responded to it?

I was talking to Juan last night and he said he liked it very much. It was difficult for him to watch it the first time through. I know Anita likes him. You know they all have little issues with it, but I gave them and the estate a lot of credit, because they really opened up this material to me, and I was an outsider. The one person I really haven't heard from yet is Sandy [Hunter's first wife], and I would like to.

One of the biggest events in Hunter's life was his suicide, but you chose not to include a lot about it in the film? Was it the ultimate act of nihilism on Hunter's part?

None of us ever really know why someone commits suicide. Hunter was in poor health, the alcohol was really taking its toll on him, and his mood was getting darker and darker and darker. Some people say it was the Bush/Kerry election; well maybe that was part of it. But I also think physically and mentally he was just heading downhill.

Yet suicide is also a narcissistic act, and we juxtapose Juan and Sandy who have very different views about his suicide. Juan says it's kind of a mythic thing – that he knew how he was going to go out, he just didn't know when, and he chose a moment when everyone was there. Well it's a little weird when you take a gun to your head when your grandson is in the next room.

And you're on the phone with your wife.

It was the act of a narcissist, and it was also a guy who was thinking about his legacy rather than the people around him. So it wasn't a pretty picture.

How did Hunter's celebrity affect him?

It's sad that sometimes you get to that point where you become a celebrity. I have to say, as nice as a guy that he was, I was a little astounded by all the attention paid to [the late NBC Meet The Press host] Tim Russert recently. Some people were saying, "It was like when JFK died." I don't think so. He was a talk show host! And he was a journalist, and the job of the journalist is to get the story, not to be part of this celebrity club so that you're honored by other celebrities.

That's the great trap, and Hunter fell into that trap too. He had this celebrity club that would just come to his house in Woody Creek, and it would all be hangout time. I think it's a hard task when you become a celebrity and you still have to operate as a journalist. It's not easy to do, and I'm not sure how many people still do it effectively.

You can even see it with somebody like Christiane Amanpour. She's about as good an example as it gets of somebody who's still trying to do it, but she walks into places and she's this huge celebrity now.

But Tom Wolfe seems to utilize that method quite effectively. He's dubbed it the "Man from Mars" effect.

Right. Some people do that to great effect. Truman Capote was another one. What was that line from the movie with Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei?

You mean My Cousin Vinny? 

Right. And Joe Pesci is saying, "You can't wear that kinda outfit around here!" And she turns to him and says, "And what, you blend?" Capote never blended, Hunter never blended. Wolfe never blended. Their M.O. was to be the outrageous person that would make everyone feel comfortable, and I do think it worked for Hunter. But there's a difference between that and then just getting caught in kind of "celebrity hangout status." But yeah, it still works for Wolfe. I'm very amused in the film when Wolfe says, "Hunter was trapped in Gonzo," and here's this guy in this white Savile Row suit that he never takes off. So it's not like Wolfe has eluded the need to live up
to his own image.

What was your brush of celebrity like at the Oscars?

Well, I always take it with a grain of salt. I can remember walking the red carpet for the first time when I was nominated for Enron, and I'm thinking, oh man, this is good! I've arrived. Everyone wants to talk to me. And this photographer beckons, and I'm ready for my close-up, and he says, "Will you get out of the way? Jennifer Aniston is coming!" Well okay, I get it.

And what about winning the Oscar?

Winning was great. There is a moment of heaven where you go down to the bowels of the Kodak Theater, and you go to this room where all these beautiful women in long gowns are handing you drinks and taking your picture. You go into the Press Room and there's this huge, cavernous group of reporters from all over the world. There's so many of them they have numbers like an auction, and they call out the numbers. And they said, "And now, who has a question for the Academy Award Winner: Best Documentary?" Zippo. You know, a documentary on U.S. torture policy, attacking Bush/Cheney. Questions? Zippo. So I got perspective pretty quickly.

The only thing I do remember from that night that was jaw-dropping just for that night was that when you walk around with that statue in that town on that night, it is a little bit like having Gandalf's staff. Every door opens for you. I remember going to the Miramax Party and stepping on the sidewalk right outside the Chateau Marmont, and there were a thousand photographers, and we had to get the bouncers to help us in because I was just blinded. There was one sheet of white. There are so many flashes and strobes going at the same time. It was intoxicating, but you realize it wears off fast.

This film primarily covers the era from 1965 to 1975, which were pretty much your formative years. So how involved you were with the countercultural movement?

Well it was interesting. I had a front row seat to some of it – particularly the political stuff. My stepfather was a guy named Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr. He was the Chaplain at Yale, and he became this comic book character also in Doonesbury – the Reverend Sloan – and we used to have summit meetings at the house for people who would plan the next big demonstration. Now I was young but still, it was pretty interesting.

You had some pretty heavy hitters at your house.

We did. I can remember when Andrew Young came and spent the night, and Sargent Shriver was there. And Bill had taught Jeb Magruder. So Magruder came by one day, Margaret Mead came by, so did Arthur Rubenstein. All sorts of wild characters were passing through the house.

You mentioned the Kesey film, but do you have anything else you're working on as far as upcoming projects go?

There's a film about the role of money in politics. It's about the Abramoff Scandal – called Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

And what about plans to make a film based on the book Freakonomics? 

It's an omnibus film where different directors do portions of the book, so it's not "my thing." But I got fascinated with this section of the book about cheating in sumo wrestling.

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2008. Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
#2 © 2008. Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 21, 2008.

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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 21, 2008.