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The Hellraiser's Apprentice

by Martyn Palmer
The London Times
November 7, 1998

Johnny Depp is known for choosing quirky roles--but nothing could have prepared him for life with Hunter S. Thompson as he rehearsed his portrayal of the writer's famously drug-addled alter ego

Five days into his stay with Hunter S. Thompson, the actor Johnny Depp was beginning to place more and more value on the rejuvenating powers of sleep. Thompson, self-styled King of Gonzo journalism, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and not a man noted for keeping regular hours, would be up all night and then, finally, trail off to bed in the late afternoon for a few hours' shut-eye. Depp would escape to "the dungeon," a basement room in Thompson's isolated Aspen retreat, exhausted after Hunteresque displays of excess, knowing that in a very short time the writer would be hammering on the door yelling at him to get up.

"After a couple of days being awake with Hunter, I began to appreciate more and more that sleep was my friend," said Depp subsequently. "I was staying in the dungeon and it was the darkest room in the house. I'd go down there and lie on the bed, just rest up and read a book and smoke a cigarette. I really needed that time just to recharge before facing Hunter again."

Depp, 35, first met Hunter S. Thompson at Christmas in 1995 when, along with a group of friends that included his then girlfriend, the British supermodel Kate Moss, he had taken a short break in Aspen, Colorado. While they were drinking in a local bar, the Woody Creek Tavern, Thompson arrived. "We were introduced," says Depp. "I'd been a fan of his since I was a kid. I mean, I've read all of his work and I wanted to meet him. Let me tell you, he doesn't disappoint. We got on right from the start, and I think one of the things that helped at that initial meeting was that we're both from Kentucky. Hunter is, beneath it all, a real Southern gentleman."

Later that night, Depp, Moss and co. were invited back to Thompson's home—which the man himself likes to refer to as a "fortified compound"—for a few more drinks, where they were to see Thompson in full flow. The compound is, by all accounts, stocked with everything from explosives and small arms to enough canned food, bottled water and booze to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war. During the evening, Depp casually expressed an interest in a nickel-plated shotgun which was hanging on a wall. "That was it," he recalls. "He (Hunter) took it down and said, 'Come with me.' Then he gave me this propane tank—and I've got a cigarette in my mouth—and then he hands me this thing the size of a matchbox. I ask what it is and he says, matter of factly, 'Oh, that's nitroglycerine . . .' I put the cigarette out. The next minute we were out in the garden firing shots at this homemade bomb. I hit it first time . . ."

The explosion was, apparently, spectacular, and Depp had his first experience of Thompson's rather bizarre and unique sense of fun. It wasn't to be his last. But at that stage neither knew that Depp was about to take on what has surely been his hardest role to date, playing Thompson himself (semi-disguised as the writer's alter-ego, Raoul Duke) in the movie version of his 1971 novelFear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Fear and Loathing is about many things. It's about two men--Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, his attorney—driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a crimson convertible dubbed "The Red Shark" and consuming a hippo's bodyweight in illegal substances. You name it, they take it—grass, cocaine, acid, uppers, downers, ether, amyls and other chemicals probably used to anaesthetize elephants. The book is based on a journey that Thompson took with a friend, lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta, to cover a road race, the Mint 400, for Sports Illustrated.

"My idea," Thompson wrote, "was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication, without editing. But this is a hard thing to do and in the end I found myself imposing an essentially fictional framework on what began as a piece of straight/crazy journalism. As true Gonzo journalism, this doesn't work at all—and even if it did, I couldn't possibly admit it. Only a goddamned lunatic would write a thing like this and claim it was true."

First published in Rolling Stone under Raoul Duke's byline (the magazine promptly gave the game away and revealed that Thompson was the author), the initial piece, and the book that followed, was a landmark—a dark and idiosyncratic commentary on what Thompson called "The Foul Year of Our Lord, 1971." The Sixties had ended, Nixon was still in the White House and it seemed that the spirit of free love and peace was dead and buried. It has been described many times, and accurately, as a "journey to the heart of the American nightmare." Although critically acclaimed and a literary success, for nearly a quarter of a century Thompson's book was considered to be unfilmable. After all, just how do you translate page after page of drug-fuelled madness and paranoia on to the screen?

In 1996, the British director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) thought he had the answer. Armed with a script and a $5-million budget, Cox approached Depp to see if he was interested in playing the part of Duke/Thompson. He was. And what's more important, his newfound friend Hunter gave him his blessing. Next Benicio Del Toro (best known for The Usual Suspects) was recruited to star alongside Depp as Dr. Gonzo. Then, somewhere along the way, something went wrong.

When Cox traveled to Aspen to meet Hunter, the author's idea of a fun-filled day included leaving a blow-up sex doll (covered in blood) near the side of the road to mark the turning to his house, cooking some sausages and watching a game of football on the TV. "I cooked my special sausage and the ball game was on," recalled Thompson. "And, Jesus Christ, it's a classic example of how not to work, as a director, with writers. First, he hated football—he refused to watch football—and then I cooked really good sausage, which I prize, and he disdained that: vegetarian. And he just persisted to insult and soil the best parts of the book."

Soon afterwards, Cox was off the project and former Monty Python star Terry Gilliam (director of edgy films such as Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King) was brought in. "It's strange the way it came together," says Gilliam. "They were basically going to make a $5-million film with Alex Cox directing it. Then Johnny got involved and Johnny said, 'This isn't enough money to make this film.' So the budget crept up to $7m. So they had a script, they had Johnny and they had $7m, but they didn't have a director, and so they came to me. I said, 'OK, I'll come on. But we'll write a new script and I think you had better double the budget.' I think we made it for about $18.5m in the end."

Before filming started, Depp decided that he needed to return to the compound. He wanted to observe Thompson at work and at play. In total, he was to spend three months with Thompson, and at one point he even acted as his roadie while the writer was on a book tour. "I felt under tremendous pressure," he admits, "because I was so freaked out by the idea of disappointing Hunter. That was the heaviest thing for me. So I did my best to absorb him. My goal was to steal his soul—that's what I wanted to do, to try and take as much of him as possible and put him in my body.

"I know it sounds really goofy and all that stuff, but I felt like him—especially when we were doing it. I found it hard to find Johnny in a way because I felt more like Hunter. Even when I was not working, at the weekends, I felt like Hunter . . ."

Perhaps Depp had gotten a little too close for comfort. And today, months after the filming is finished, sitting in a Parisian hotel (he's been filming Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate in France) he is clearly still in awe of the man. "Maybe I did spend too much time with Hunter. Maybe it had gone too deep. I don't know. It was strange. Hunter's an incredible animal, he's really something to watch. On the one hand he's this great Southern gentleman, very sensitive, very caring. But on the other he's very sharp and very cutting. He's a great observer.

"I mean, the fact that Hunter is still around is a miracle. The way he has lived, the life he has built is like no one else I have ever known. Maybe Shane McGowan (the former lead singer of the Pogues), and that's it. You know, what I feel says it best is the quote at the beginning of the book—the Dr. (Samuel) Johnson quote: 'He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.' And I think that says everything about Hunter. Everything. Because there is pain. I don't think it's all recreational . . ."

During filming, Depp and Thompson would be on the phone to each other almost every day, sometimes for four hours at a time. Terry Gilliam, however, decided to try to keep his distance. "I had as little dialogue with Hunter as possible," he says. "Hunter wanted us to get it right and he has this incredible energy and intelligence. But he also makes you crazy . . . I was like, 'Stay away!' I wanted to get it right, but I did not want to sit there and be constantly aware of what he may or may not be thinking. I just had to go my own way."

His way turned out to be quite a trip in itself and, just like in the book, Duke and Dr. Gonzo imbibe ferocious amounts of every drug known to man as they encounter real and imagined characters on their surreal, hallucinogenic journey to Vegas. But both director and star insist that Fear and Loathing does not in any way promote the use of narcotics. "Is it a pro-drugs film? Absolutely not," says Depp. "I mean, when you see this film and you see what these guys ingest and then feel and go through, and then expel from their being, it's not like I watch it and go, 'Jesus, what a great idea! Let's get really high and puke.' Or I'd love to see people wandering around with six hairy tits on their back. I mean, come on, this is like a drug nightmare. But, you know, what were people expecting, Peter Pan? This is Fear and Loathing."

When he is asked if he felt the need to chemically prepare for the role, as it were, his answer is short and sharp: "There are some people who don't have to do that. I find acting a little more fun."

At Cannes, where the film was shown earlier this year, critics were divided. Fear and Loathing took a fair bit of flak, some of which centered on the fact that the film, just like the book, is not exactly burdened down with plot. But the director is unrepentant.

"There are plenty of stories out there," says Gilliam. "Why not spend a couple of hours not worrying about a story? I mean, that was the whole point of making a film of this book. I definitely sat down and said, 'We are not going to turn this into a film like every other film with a first, second and third act.' I wasn't interested in any of that. It was, 'Can we translate the book fairly accurately? Can we capture it on film?' That's what I wanted to do. Is it a film, a diatribe, a nightmare? Whatever, it turns out to be a trip. I did not plan for this film to be a drug trip, but it is. It lifts you and it takes you up and it takes you down and it drags you out. It's a very cheap and not very damaging drug trip. It's the safest drug out there."

But for Depp, as well as Gilliam, there are far greater implications in Thompson's book and, he hopes, in the film too. It's not just about two guys getting totally wasted. "I have my beliefs about America. About what it was, what it might have been and what it has become now. For me, Fear and Loathing is hysterically funny, but it is also deadly serious. It has this kind of melancholy as it deals with the death of the American dream, about the death of hope.

"And when this was written it was at a time when all this weird stuff had happened. Martin Luther King had been murdered, John and Bobby Kennedy had been killed. We had lost all those great leaders at that time and had this kind of strange figure in the White House, Nixon—this odd guy who wore make-up to cover up his five-o'clock shadow because it made him look like a gangster. It was the end of the Sixties, the end of all the hope that was there, and it was a weird time. And Fear and Loathing is about all that stuff."

For Depp, of course, Fear and Loathing is one more quirky role in a career that has studiously avoided the mainstream. Born in Kentucky, the youngest of three children [Editor’s note—actually, the youngest of four children], Depp moved to Los Angeles in his teens with the hope of carving out a career in music, his first love, and he started acting to pay the bills. Then he landed a role in the hit TV show 21 Jump Street and his face was splashed across the covers of teen magazines all over the world. It's an image he has been trying his hardest to resist ever since.

With films like Cry Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Donnie Brasco he has built up a reputation as an actor's actor of genuine talent, and he has turned down more "blockbusters" (Legends of the Fall, Speed, Interview with the Vampire, amongst others) than he cares to remember.

"Why do I avoid the mainstream? It could be ignorance. It could be that I'm just incredibly thick and dumb. But it takes commitment. I feel deeply committed to these characters I've chosen because I have an interest in them, because I find them stimulating and I think it's something I can do that's maybe a little different. I think it's very easy to take the paved road, and I think it's very boring."

Depp blames this commitment to his work for the break-up of his relationship with Kate Moss. Their on-off romance seems to be off for good, and Johnny believes it's his fault. "I let my career get in the way and I didn't give her the attention I should have done," he says. "We had so much going for us, but I've just been very stupid. I was an horrific pain in the butt to live with. Trust me, I'm a total moron at times."

When the time came for the writer to see Fear and Loathing, both Gilliam and Depp were apprehensive, worrying what Thompson would do if it was not to his liking. "For me, making this film was interesting and maddening," says Gilliam. "It was interesting because it forced me to work in ways that I don't normally work. But it ended up with the film being absolutely true to the book, I believe. And ultimately when Hunter saw it he blessed it. He thought it was wonderful, so we did it—we came up with what he was trying to do in his book. And, actually, I don't care much about anything else . . ."

Depp, too, let out a huge sigh of relief when Thompson gave his approval. "His reaction, thank God, was very good. He said a lot of things about the film, but one which I'll always remember: he called it 'an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.' That destroyed me. That's kind of beautiful, don't you think?"

-- donated by Emma

-- photos added by Zone editors