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Johnny, Get Your Gun

by Douglas Brinkley
Photographs by Satoshi Saikusa
George Magazine
June 1998

Johnny Depp and Hunter Thompson were destined to meet one day. And when they did, the result was the new film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Depp as Thompson’s antihero.

Johnny, Get Your Gun

Hollywood daredevil Johnny Depp delved headfirst into the bullets-and-barbiturates persona of Hunter S. Thompson, whom he plays in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Here is an exclusive account of Depp’s long, strange trip to Thompson’s legendary Colorado ranch.

Just before New Year’s Eve 1995, the telephone rang at Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous Colorado ranch. The celebrated author was writing liner notes for his friend Lyle Lovett’s album The Road to Ensenada. (The composition was reportedly rejected because Thompson facetiously accused the country crooner of having a fondness for “Fat Young Boys”.) The phone rings constantly at Owl Farm, Thompson’s fortresslike home in Woody Creek, where he has lived for the past 30 years. On any given evening—one never speaks of days at Owl Farm, owing to Thompson’s well-documented nocturnal habits—the author receives about 30 phone calls and twice as many faxes. The attempts to communication are usually unrequited, as the machines ring, ding and whirr their electronic hearts out.

But on this particular winter night, Thompson himself picked up. It was Alan Finkelstein, who owns an L.A. nightspot, a rustic home near Thompson’s, and a slot on the prince of gonzo’s “honor roll” of admirable citizens. Finkelstein said that his friend Johnny Depp was at a nearby tavern with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Kate Moss, the supermodel. The young couple wanted to meet the mad-dog writer who had made “fear and loathing” a part of our contemporary lexicon. “Why not?” Thompson told Finkelstein. “I’ll meet the little bastards.”

Thompson had seen Depp in John Water’s Cry-Baby and considered him a “cut above the pimply teenage actors” who hang out in Hollywood fern bars, calling each other “dude” and “big guy” and “whoreface” while being tied to their agents by the invisible umbilical cord of the cell phone. It wasn’t that Thompson disliked all of Hollywood. On the contrary, three of his friends—Jack Nicholson, actress Anjelica Huston, and director Bob Rafelson—lived there. But why watch a movie created by formula and focus groups when he could gather live human beings in his own kitchen to eat, drink, and read aloud from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) or Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)?

Thompson’s nightly readings have transformed Owl Farm into the liveliest literary salon west of the Mississippi. An evening with the notorious “doctor of journalism” is a highly coveted invitation. CEOs, U.S. senators, schoolteachers, and FBI agents convene to swap stories. Owl Farm has even become the unofficial headquarters of the Fourth Amendment Foundation, which is dedicated to stopping illegal searches and seizures by the U.S. government. The venerable George McGovern, whose presidential run Thompson chronicled in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trial ’72, serves on the foundation’s board.

So it was not surprising that the 33-year-old Depp, who once paid $15,000 for Jack Kerouac’s raincoat, wanted to meet his favorite living American author. Thompson wasn’t ready to invite him to Owl Farm but agreed to go to the tavern. Upon arrival, Thompson whacked Depp on the head with a cattle prod. Depp’s face lit up. The myth is real, Depp recalls thinking: “From the second I met him, it was a constant smile. Nobody makes me laugh harder.”

Thompson also took an immediate shine to the young actor, not just because of Depp’s brilliant performance in Cry-Baby or even for his ability to quote verbatim from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “I noticed at once that Depp had a dangerously energized intelligence,” Thompson says. “He was a suave little brute, but he had a wicked sense of humor and a rare instinct for escalation.” It took Thompson all of one margarita’s worth of conversation to ascertain that Depp was an action addict—a player, a chain-smoking gambler who knew what Bob Dylan meant when he wrote, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”

It seemed only natural for Thompson to invite his new friend to Owl Farm that night to construct a mega-propane bomb. They would detonate their creation at midnight. The valley would rumble as if Zarathustra had spoken. Also at ground zero would be Kate Moss’s mother, who was visiting from London for the holidays, as well as a brace of bodyguards.

Now, Hunter S. Thompson is not the kind of man who is afraid to demonstrate his prowess with explosives before a woman of delicate temperament. But he began to think he might be crossing the line with Moss’s mum. How would a proper British matron react when a potential son-in-law fired a nickel-plated 12-gauge shotgun at a combustible target attached to a metal canister? How would she endure the arctic temperatures at 8,000 feet above sea level and the screeching of Thompson’s exotic peacocks? To Thompson’s surprise and delight, Depp—who has a gun-dealing uncle in Kentucky—drew a bead on the canister, pulled the trigger, and hit the bull’s-eye on his first try. “It scared the piss out of the mother and the bodyguards,” Thompson says. “But it impressed the hell out of me. We were instant friends.”

Depp had read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an alienated adolescent growing up in the small town of Miramar, on Florida’s Atlantic coast. He lived there with his mother, Betty Sue, who worked as a waitress after his father left the family. Even then, Depp appreciated society’s outcasts and was “blown away” by Thompson’s picaresque saga and the passion for justice that informs its lyrical hilarity. “Hunter has guts. He sacrificed himself for a lot of people,” Depp says.

Despite the 30 years separating them, Thompson and Depp have much in common. Both are Kentucky-born. And, it turns out, as teenagers they were both hooked by the same celluloid hero, the legendary Marlon Brando. Thompson saw Brando in The Wild One, a 1954 movie that defined youth alienation during the Eisenhower era. At age 16, Thompson set out to become the Brando of Louisville, adopting a black leather jacket and a Kool cigarette perpetually dangling from the corner of his mouth. Depp had his first Brando encounter in junior high school. His older brother Danny, who had turned the teenager on to Van Morrison’s St. Dominic’s Preview and Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, took him to see the aging, unrepentant rebel in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris.

As a young journalist for The National Observer, a weekly Dow Jones publication, Thompson journeyed to Olympia, Washington, in March 1964 to meet Brando. Both men became personally involved in the Native American fishing-rights rebellion. (Thompson’s magazine article on the subject was later republished in his anthology The Great Shark Hunt.) Thirty years later, Depp encountered Brando when they co-starred in Don Juan DeMarco (1995) and The Brave (1997), a never-released film about government oppression in Indian country.

Naturally, Brando, Depp, and Thompson would get along—they are bound by a devotion to social justice and an admiration for those who break the law to attain it. “I’ve been obsessed with outlaws all my life,” Depp explains. Thompson has taken them beyond serious study; his highly personal, H.L. Mencken-inspired journalism began with his 1962 breakthrough article, “A Footloose American in a Smuggler’s Den, “a paean to South American rumrunners. Three years later, he was living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and trailing the most notorious outlaws of the day—the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang—for The Nation. (The bikers beat him up in the process.) First serialized in Rolling Stone, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas embellishes on Thompson’s drug-induced adventures with Oscar Zeta Acosta, the famed Chicano lawyer and a leader of the Brown Power movement in Southern California. The narrator’s hyperbolic use of drugs and alcohol sought to underscore the hypocrisy of puritanical America.

But before long, Thompson began to worry that signing his name to a savage fictional drug fable might not be a wise career move; at the time, he was applying for White House press credentials to cover the 1972 presidential campaign. And if Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon’s press secretary, thought Thompson himself was eating human adrenal glands for literary fuel, as described in Fear and Loathing, his chances of getting interviews with Nixon, Spiro Agnew, or any other incumbent Republicans would be nil. After all, the book’s Thompsonesque protagonist was a debauched dope fiend who, given his druthers, would flog every police officer within bullwhip range. Thus the pseudonymous byline in Rolling Stone read “Raoul Duke.”

Happily, Thompson scored his credentials in time for the New Hampshire primary in March 1972. Random House was planning to publish Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in June—after most primaries would be over—so Thompson gave the publisher permission to put the book out under his name. In January 1972, Thompson took a job as Rolling Stone’s national-affairs correspondent and drove his new Volvo 174 across the country, with his wife and son in tow, to a rented house in Washington, D.C. Out on the campaign trail in California a few weeks later, he received advance copies of his new book. “I knew that the jig was up,” Thompson recalls. “I immediately sought out Gary Hart [then McGovern’s campaign manager], handed him the Vegas book, and said, ‘This is your birthday present,’ Hart read the dust jacket and the opening paragraph, which begins, ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,’ and laughed it off. It was too late to expel me from the inner circle.”

Thompson considered Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a “political statement” against Nixonian authoritarianism and the Vietnam War. The book sold well, and he became a bona fide campaign-trail celebrity. He continued writing antic dispatches (under such headings as THE MILLION POUND SHITHAMMER and STONED ON THE ZOO PLANE) aimed straight at the candidates’ viscera: Richard Nixon as “a vengeful zero with nice lives”; Edmund Muskie as a man who “talks with the desperation of a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next years crop”; and Hubert Humphrey as a man given to prattling “like an 80-year-old woman who has just discovered speed.” Thompson favored McGovern, and he showered the South Dakota senator with praise and even served as his unofficial adviser. “Hunter suggested at one point that I’d pull in a couple of million votes if I posed for a picture before the California primary wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, holding a can of beer, and leaning against a motorcycle,” McGovern says. “I suspect he was right.”

Johnny Depp was nine years old in 1972. Eleven years later, he was just another struggling musician on the L.A. punk circuit with his band, Six Gun Method. Broke and dissatisfied, Depp decided to give acting a shot, after his friend, Nicholas Cage introduced him to a high-powered agent. Before long, Depp auditioned for and won a part in director Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, which would become a horror classic. He then landed a starring role as a heartthrob narc on 21 Jump Street, one of Fox TV’s first hits. Overnight, he became a teenybopper’s dreamboat. “They were selling me as a Kewpie doll, trying to make me into a neat package,” Depp says. “It was death.” Like Thompson, who has spent his life lashing out at purveyors of formulas, whether they be editors, agents or other go-betweens, Depp rebelled. Thanks to what he calls the “divine intervention” of quirky director John Waters, Depp was rescued from a career aimed at pleasing television executives. “I told [Johnny] if he did Cry-Baby, we’d kill that image,” Waters says. “So he parodied himself by playing a teen idol, and it totally worked.”

Even better, Depp transformed himself into one of Hollywood’s most uncompromising and iconoclastic actors. Depp is constantly exploring the boundaries of alienation in such superb films as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (the caretaker of monstrously obese mother), Edward Scissorhands (a misunderstood Frankenstein-like creature), Donnie Brasco (a bedeviled FBI agent), and Ed Wood (a wretchedly failed director).

Depp left his first meeting with Thompson in Woody Creek puzzled as to why Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had not been made into a feature film. He was now determined to bring Thompson to the big screen and make the character of Raoul Duke his own. To broach the possibility, Depp invited Thompson to do a one-night gig at the Viper Room, the actor’s notorious rock club on Sunset Boulevard. Thus it was that on September 29, 1996, a sellout crowd roared with laughter as the two Kentucky outlaws held a kind of weird lyceum. Pere Ubu met Marcel Duchamp for three hours of absurdist dialogue ranging from Plato’s parable of the cave to President Clinton’s foreign policy. After the event, the two began corresponding by fax. A few weeks later, Thompson phoned Depp early one morning to ask whether the actor had any interest in playing Duke if a movie version was ever made. Depp was taken aback. “It was the role I always wanted to play,” he recalls. “Without hesitation, I said, ‘You bet!’ ”

After that, Thompson invited Depp to a party celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fear and Loathing at New York’s Lotos Club. Tom Wolfe, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Buffett, and other celebrities paid homage to Thompson’s unique style of reportage. The crowd buzzed about whether John Cusack, Matt Dillon, or Johnny Depp would play Duke in the film. But Thompson had already made his choice. He had also decided to get Depp honored by their home state. As Thompson explains, “I told him, ‘Don’t worry, son. I’ll make you a Kentucky colonel.’”

Within days, Thompson had asked Depp to come to Louisville and read from his work in public. “The Louisville gig has mushroomed into a huge historic event where the Mayor will present me with the Key to The City onstage at Memorial Auditorium with an SRO crowd of 8,000 and flutes playing and nymphets dancing on perfect god-strung harps and teenage winos fighting in the aisles for autographs,” Thompson wrote in his fax to Depp. “The scene is set for a beautiful public drama about Right and Wrong and about what happens to the high-life in Bluegrass Country when Billy the Kid returns more or less from the Dead and settles many old scores. And never mind the fact that he might be certifiably Insane ye god’s they’re giving him the Key to the fucking City.”

The event went off without a hitch, and afterward the latest recipient of the key to Louisville took the newly designated “Colonel” Depp on a nostalgic tour of Cherokee Park, where they paused at Thompson’s boyhood home. Thompson had traveled quite a journalistic distance from the “Southern Star,” the two-page mimeographed sports sheet he wrote when he was 11 and sold to his neighbors and friends. Depp was exhilarated. “I was so fucking excited to be part of the Louisville extravaganza,” he says. “It was fantastic.”

That spring, Depp moved into the basement at Owl Farm for nearly a week. “Hunter was the deepest I’ve ever got into a character. I love and admire the guy,” he explains. “I really wanted to get him down right.” Soon Depp’s character study expanded into an archaeological dig for the artifacts of Fear and Loathing. Thompson had saved everything from those frenzied weeks in 1971 that had started with a trip to Las Vegas on assignment for Sports Illustrated to write the captions for a photo-essay on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. When Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner learned that I was in Las Vegas, he gave the journalist another assignment—to cover the National District Attorneys Association’s third annual conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which was being held at Caesars Palace. When Sports Illustrated “aggressively rejected” his copy, Thompson was free to focus on his Rolling Stone assignments. To unwind in his casino hotel room, he began typing a journal of his bizarre Vegas odyssey.

Thompson didn’t turn his journal into a book on the American dream until after he had left Las Vegas. Holed up in a swank Ramada Inn in Arcadia, California, across from the Santa Anita racetrack, he worked at a fever pitch, frequenting the 24-hour coffee shop and breaking only for an occasional swim. Not only did he finish another Rolling Stone piece, but he had a first draft of Fear and Loathing by the time he returned to Woody Creek. There in his basement study, which had been dubbed the War Room and now serves as his archive, Thompson blasted the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and, he says, “anguished over five or six drafts until I got it right.”

Before filming, Depp sank into a mood of monkish idolatry for the writer, whom he compares with the French surrealist Antonin Artaud. Deborah Fuller, Thompson’s longtime personal assistant, emerged from the War Room with a box of Fear and Loathing manuscripts and memorabilia: Circus Circus cocktail napkins and a ticket stub from a Debbie Reynolds lounge show, a Las Vegas city map and airport luggage tags, I.F. Stone’s, biweekly newsletter and a cloth money bag from the Mint Hotel, the Flamingo Hotel room service menu and a Whittlesea VIP U Drive Rent-a-Car receipt. “The freakiest thing was that it was all real, that the reality was as insane as the book,” Depp says. “I was elbow-deep in literary history,” For days he delicately picked through the keepsakes and pored over Thompson’s notebooks, reading aloud and unpublished chapter titled “Coconut Scene” (which directory Terry Gilliam later incorporated into the movie). Fuller also turned up racks of Hunter’s mothballed clothes from the 1970s: Hawaiian shirts, a patchwork jacket, a safari hat, a silver medallion given to him by Oscar Acosta, his lawyer and compatriot in Vegas. Depp slipped into the garments. “I begged Hunter for the clothes, and he trusted me with them,” he says. “After that, I figured why not go for it all, and I started Xeroxing his notebooks.” At the time, Thompson wasn’t sure whether to trust his acolyte, wondering if he had let “Judas Goat thief” in his house, filling pockets with irreplaceable mementos. But Depp is more respectful than that, and his enthusiasm paid off: His wardrobe in the film consists almost entirely of Thompson originals.

By Week’s end, Depp had captured a number of the mannerisms and vocal inflections of the man William F. Buckley, Jr., called “an important sociological phenomenon.” Starting with the Dunhill cigarette in a holder, which Thompson bites with clenched jaw, Johnny had absorbed Thompson’s externalities. The pair also bonded Iron John style, cooking breakfast together, shooting .44 Magnums, and analyzing the women of Kentucky’s horse set. Depp ended up nearly bald after Thompson took an electric razor to his head. Johnny even wanted to master Thompson’s driving style, so the writer drove them around Aspen in his classic red convertible. Depp noted every nuance as Thompson screeched into parking lots and seemed to aim the car at oncoming traffic with glee. When Depp finally departed for Las Vegas at three o’clock one morning, it was in Hunter’s red ride, which would be used in the film. Depp says he felt oddly confident, and with good reason. “Hunter gave me a mobile phone, endless flashlights, a tape player, wine, a full cooler, a big ugly ESPN jacket—everything I needed to live off the land,” he recalls. “I felt that he had handed me the baton.”

While he was on location in Los Angeles, Depp got a call from comedian Bill Murray, the Saturday Night Live alumnus who had played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam—an excruciating 1980 attempt to adapt Thompson’s work and persona to the screen. Like Depp, Murray prepped for the roll by spending time with Thompson. After the movie wrapped, Murray returned for another season of Saturday Night Live but found that he could not purge Thompson from his system. “Billy was not Billy Murray,” a Saturday Night Live colleague recalls. “You couldn’t talk to him without talking to Hunter Thompson.”

Eighteen years later, Murray warned Depp, “Be careful or you’ll find yourself ten years from now still doing him . . . Make sure your next role is some drastically different guy.” Depp took Murray’s advice to heart. As soon as Gilliam dismissed him from the set, Depp was off to play a southern astronaut. He is currently shooting a film in Paris with expatriate Roman Polanski. (Thompson is rumored to be making a cameo appearance.) Depp is now so sure he can switch the Hunter persona on and off that he may star in a film version of The Rum Diary, Thompson’s long-lost novel about vagabond journalist in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, which Simon & Shuster will publish this October.

As Depp prepares to head off on a promotional tour for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson recently sent him a “Hey Rube!” letter, setting the terms straight for their future collaboration: “Yr. performance in the Vegas film is majestic . . . I may denounce you for it, in self-defense, unless I get $3 million for my film rights for RUM DIARY. That way, I can be effusive about yr. power and yr. genius, which I want in my heart to do. I have a feeling that this movie will plunge me into huge grief and social disapproval on the magnitude of Charles Manson. Jesus, just as I was finally getting respectable, you come along with this sleazy dopey movie and destroy my reputation.”

-- donated by DeepinDepp