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Colonel Depp & the Rum Doctor Blues

by Douglas Brinkley
Photos by Marc Hom
Winter 2011

Johnny Depp first met Hunter S. Thompson at the Woody Creek Tavern in 1994. Ever since, he’s been on an artistic mission to introduce the non-initiated to the “Hunterfigure.” Douglas Brinkley gives an exclusive glimpse into the making of The Rum Diary and unveils a mentorship documented in Johnny’s own tattoos.

When Johnny Depp strapped on his strat guitar at the Hiro Ballroom in New York City on October 25, the midnight crowd roared. Cell phone cameras were lifted like candles at a vigil; people wanted proof that they saw the real Captain Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, and Edward Scissorhands, to show off to friends.

Just a few hours earlier Depp had attended the premiere of his hijinks film The Rum Diary—in which he plays the young Hunter S. Thompson in late 1950s-early 1960s Puerto Rico—at the Museum of Modern Art. The movie is based on the debut novel of Thompson in his pre-Gonzo days. Depp was set to jam with a group of his favorite all-star musicians, when suddenly Keith Richards hopped on stage. Depp grinned and the two launched into Jazz Gillum’s expansive “Key to the Highway.” Undergirded with a slow-tempo beat, the Richards-Depp deep-muddy blues session began. Bringing the Rolling Stones guitarist on stage was all part of Depp’s ongoing mission to honor the legacy of Gonzo journalism’s high priest.

A Promise Kept

“Making The Rum Diary was my fulfillment of a promise I had made to Hunter,” Depp explains. “I had found the novel before it was published at Owl Farm. Hunter had it in his basement archive—The War Room—just lying around. I was floored by the elegant prose. I couldn’t believe he wrote it when he was only 22! And together we decided to make a motion picture out of Rum. From the start it was collaborative. Now I’ve fulfilled the deal.”

For the past week Depp had stormed around America with director-screenwriter Bruce Robinson promoting The Rum Diary and talking about Thompson’s literary legacy. In recent appearances at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, Depp was embraced by diehard fans as a one-man Beatles band and the reincarnation of Elvis Presley (only with his fingernails painted blue). Depp’s assistants have started calendaring the exact time on the schedule when The Scream (the gleeful anarchy and frenzied kiss-blowing that now greets their boss in every town) could be expected, as if Old Faithful spouting at Yellowstone.

After the Austin event I talked to Depp at some length about all things Thompson. Dressed in five different shades of blue—pants, shirt, vest, hat, socks—Depp looked like a cross between a male model and a drug dealer on the run. But the warmth of his eyes always gives him away as the boy next door. His overriding concern was whether Hunter would have liked The Rum Diary. “I just wish the bastard was here to see all of this commotion,” he says. “Can you imagine him realizing that all these people are honoring him? In 2011? If there is a movement afoot to anoint Hunter as the greatest nonfiction writer of the 20th century. Sign me up.”

Ever since Depp first met Hunter at the Woody Creek Tavern in 1994, he’s been on an artistic mission to introduce the non-initiated to the ribald humor, idiopathic anger, moral rectitude, and drug-induced zaniness of Thompson’s work. As their friendship developed Depp flirted with doom many times on behalf of the Gonzo cause, including backyard bombs; smoking near dynamite; and going through airport security as a drug mule. Once the two Kentuckians decided to turn Thompson’s semi-autobiographical “The Rum Diary” manuscript into first a novel and then a film, they went to Cuba together in full-blown Keystone Kops mode, hoping to smoke cigars all night with Fidel Castro and see Ernest Hemingway’s boat, El Pilar. “Hunter was supposed to pick me up at the Havana airport,” Depp recalled. “But I retrieved my luggage, looked around and no Hunter. I made my way to the Hotel Nacional and no sooner did I get into my room and the telephone rang.

‘Colonel Depp, where are you?’

‘Why, I’m in the room you just called.’

‘I’m at the airport waiting for you.’

‘Well, I’m not there.’”

That was the inauspicious beginning of the hilarious high-humidity romp Thompson and Depp shared tooling around the island nation, looking for action. “I had a break after filming Sleepy Hollow in London and decided to go scouting the Caribbean with Hunter,” Depp recalls. “My Cuban memories are rum, rum, and a crazy guy who thought he was Beethoven. I filmed some of our adventures . . . it’s somewhere in my archive.”

Another obligation Depp made to Thompson was finalizing The Rum Diary as a major motion picture. Not only did Depp discover the novel in Hunter’s basement “war room,” but, along with editor Mary Sue Rucci of Simon & Schuster, he helped edit the manuscript down to a manageable length. One rainy evening in New York at the Carlyle Hotel, Depp and Thompson read the novel aloud to improve the musical rhythms of the prose. It was 1998 and they were in Manhattan to promote the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and get The Rum Diary ready for publication. As dawn finally broke, Depp, exhausted from proofreading, headed off into the rain to a Lower East Side tattoo shop. The artist there was a longtime friend. “I consider tattoos my diary,” Depp tells me. “I received my first tattoo as a teenager. My skin is a record of my life. Recently, right before coming to Austin, I went to Disneyland with Damien [Echols] of the West Memphis Three. He had just gotten out of jail. He wanted to see Disneyland so I took him. Afterwards we went and got tattoos together. That’s my way of documenting things in my life.”

Honoring the Legacy of Hunter S. Thompson

Once Hunter committed suicide in 2005 Depp felt rudderless. The fun factor of working with his friend on The Rum Diary had vanished. But in a flash of inspiration he decided Thompson’s death only meant the show must go on. “He had become like a father figure or best friend or something very special,” Depp says. “I loved Hunter very much. Thought about him every day, sometimes every hour . . . still do.”

There are some telephone calls you never forget. On February 20, 2005 I had just finished delivering a speech at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio (such is the life of a presidential historian) and was driving back to my Motel Six room about 15 miles away. It was lashing snow and the road was icy. Suddenly, my cell rang.

On the other end was Sheriff Bob Braudis of Pitkin County. “Dougie,” he said with a voice that exuded adrenaline. “I’ve got bad news. Hunter is dead. He committed suicide. Can you get out here fast?”

Shellshocked by the ghastly news from Colorado, my first instinct was to call Johnny Depp. Thompson loved Johnny; he thought of him as a blood brother, adopted son, and sidekick combined. Having spent many days with them in Aspen, Louisville, New York, and other places I knew they shared almost identical taste in books, music, guns, and films. It didn’t take me long to track Depp down for a breathless debriefing. “The bastard really did it!” Depp said. “Then we’ve got to build the first Gonzo cannon.” Ever since Thompson had collaborated with BBC on a 1978 documentary he had pushed the novel notion that his ashes should someday be shot out of a cannon larger than the Statue of Liberty.

A few weeks later I flew out to West Hollywood to see Depp at his compound just a few blocks from Sunset Boulevard. He greeted me with wine and unfurled on the kitchen table these elaborate architectural blueprints for blasting Thompson’s ashes into the high Colorado sky. He had employed a team of construction and detonation specialists to erect the Gonzo monstrosity. “A lot of Pitkin County laws had to be abided by,” Depp recalls. “But it was just something I had to do for Hunter. The burden was on me. Somehow in that wild mind of Hunter’s, he knew I’d live up to my promise.” Instead of mourning Thompson’s death, Depp decided to celebrate it by mounting the Gonzo cannon atop a 153-foot tower to shoot Thompson’s ashes up into the Rocky Mountain sky. “It was a beautiful ceremony at Owl Farm,” Depp recalls. “Hunter swirled around and then fell on us. You could taste him in the air.” And Depp grew more determined to bring The Rum Diary to production.

Depp has now fulfilled his promise to make The Rum Diary—only it was shot in Puerto Rico instead of Cuba. Even though The Rum Diary’s characters are seedy, marginal, booze-soaked, depraved, and disheveled, they all have heart. Screenwriter-director Robinson perfectly captured Thompson’s “voice made of ink and rage.” The stories about filming the movie are already becoming the stuff of legend. “What a wild time I had in San Juan,” Depp recalls. “Hunter’s spirit was with us every minute. We visited all of his old haunts. We put a picture of Hunter on a chair along with a bottle of Chivas Regal. We channeled him.”

Although Depp has now played the “Hunterfigure” in two films, he’s not done with him. The juggernaut has just begun. Down the road he might make either Hell’s Angels or The Curse of Lono into a movie. In many ways Depp sees Hunter like a James Bond/Inspector Clouseau figure. You can put the Hunterfigure into any situation and have instant comedy. Thompson going to Walmart, for example, could make for grand anti-authoritarian sketch comedy. More than anything else Depp insists Thompson’s persona is evergreen. “I never tire of him,” he says. “If I feel blue I think about him and smile.”

While in New York I participated with Depp on a panel at Columbia University on Thompson’s journalism legacy. If The Rum Diary did nothing else it brought Thompson into the Ivy League for the first time since he dropped out as an incorrigible extension student in the late 1950s. The Columbia dean questioned Depp about his “obsession” with all things Thompson. Where did such devotion come from? Depp had a string of fine answers, but later that evening at a quiet dinner at Scalinatella with friends, the poet and singer Patti Smith had the perfect explanation. “It’s amazing what loving somebody means,” she told me. “Just because somebody dies doesn’t mean they’re not still part of your daily life. I was so moved when I went down to see Johnny in Puerto Rico to see the picture of Hunter on the film set. I took a lot of pictures of the chair. It was like he was actually watching the proceedings.”

But don’t count on seeing Depp go Gonzo again too soon. He has a full plate of films lined up to make in the next couple of years. For starters, Disney has signed him to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger, a high-rolling comedic adaptation of the beloved TV show. “I’m part Cherokee,” Depp explains. “And an old time Lone Ranger fan. To me Tonto was the stoic fox of the operation. He was the insider in America and the Lone Ranger was the newcomer to the land. I’ve got a great feel to how Tonto should be played.” Perhaps Depp’s biggest coup was acquiring the rights to the life of Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel). “Mrs. Audrey Geisel thought I was the best person to play her husband,” Depp tells me. “What an honor! We’ve come up with an intriguing way to introduce all of his great characters into the film. I can’t wait to get into the role.”

Depp, who just finished making Dark Shadows with Tim Burton in London, is for the time being all about The Rum Diary. His hope was to make a film about Hunter’s early reportorial years that was true in spirit but respectful to the family. Thompson’s widow Anita, a resident of Woody Creek, went to the screening in Los Angeles and fell in love with the film. “Depp really knows how to put together a first-rate team,” she says. “I can watch it over and over again.”

At the New York premiere Hunter’s only child, Juan Thompson, a 47-year-old computer specialist from Denver, attended with his wife Jen and son Will. “I can’t thank Johnny enough for all he’s done for our family,” he says. “The guy has just been so amazingly kind.” Juan is currently writing a memoir about his father for Alfred A. Knopf.

The Rum Diary portrays the Hunterfigure of the late ’50s-early ‘60s, not the early 1970s of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It works beautifully as cinema. As Depp played “Key to the Highway” at the ballroom with Richards he was a mighty happy man. The early reviews for The Rum Diary were fairly strong. (Even critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times liked the film.) The best Puerto Rican rum was being served at an open bar. Cigar smoke was in the air. And Depp was swapping blues licks with his other childhood hero: Keith Richards. Depp, at 48, had found Hunter’s hubristic trick to life: Do-what-you-dream-of-doing. After the jam Depp and Richards hugged and started to leave the stage.

“That was for you, Hunter,” Richards said. And then the two pirates headed out into the night.

Douglas Brinkley is Professor of History at Rice University and literary executor of Hunter S. Thompson’s estate.

-- donated by Theresa