Interview: Bruce Robinson On Coming Out Of Retirement For THE RUM DIARY

"I had no aspirations to be a film director ever again in my life. I made a promise to myself as a matter of fact that I'd never do it again and kept the promise 17 years."

The Rum Diary (my review here) is out this week. It's based on an early Hunter S. Thompson novel about a journo who goes to Puerto Rico, where he lives on rum, lust and righteous indignation as he stumbles through the incendiary environment. But the most exciting thing about 'The Rum Diary' is that it brought director Bruce Robinson out of retirement. The man behind the funniest British film ever (this has been scientifically proven by boffins at the University of Svalbard) is an enigma. After 'Withnail & I', his first major foray into Hollywood directing, 'Jennifer 8', was such a horrific experience that he vowed never to direct again. Johnny Depp, it seems, was the man to tempt him from his cinematic celibacy. But the experience hasn't been a whole heap better in many respects, a clearly-troubled and pleasantly candid Bruce Robinson explained to us last week. Q. Can you tell us a bit about how you were tempted back to Hollywood with this project... Bruce Robinson: Not Hollywood at all, but tempted by Johnny. I had no aspirations to be a film director ever again in my life. I made a promise to myself as a matter of fact that I'd never do it again and kept the promise 17 years. Then I was on vacation in Spain and I got a phone call and it was Depp. I don't know how he found me, in Seville I was, and he just said "It's Johnny here, have you read The Rum Diary?", "Uh... No", "Well I'm getting a copy to you tomorrow" and tomorrow The Rum Diary turns up and "do you want to write it?" Well, I'm a screenwriter basically so I said "Yeah, sure, I'll have a go at it", and I did, then he called me up and he said "Well now you're going to direct it" and there was a bit of a friction over that. It's kind of almost facetious to say it but, you know, here's the world's number one film star was bullying me and, I mean, it's extraordinarily flattering, firstly, and secondly it was very difficult to say no to someone of his stature inside the industry. I did say no in the beginning, but he was so confident about it and kept on about it, so I thought, well, its not my chops on the screen, the risk isn't mine, 'cos if I fuck this up, so what? Q. How reassuring was it to have his protection that your vision would be the one that ended up on screen? BR: Well, enormously so. There's a lot of Hunter S. Thompson disciples carping about the movie in the States I'm told. I haven't got a laptop, my son's got a laptop and he says "oh there's another one here" and it's "How dare he make this film like this without a fucking Yeamon in it..." and the reality is that there's an enormous difference between a book and a movie. If you're so in love with the book take the fucking book into the cinema. The fact is that the book firstly is a very early piece of Hunter-esque writing and you see these seeds of what is going to come out of this book, and secondly there are two lead characters, and that might work as a narrative in a novel but when you've got one big film star it doesn't work. So there was Yeamon and there was Kemp, and I realised that Hunter S. Thompson had split himself down the middle into two separate characters, retrospectively it seems very very obvious, but it wasn't at the time. So I threw one of them overboard, and all the Thompson fans are freaking out, you know. What am I to do, you can't win. Doesn't bother me though, I mean, fuck it... But this film was extraordinary, just nobody turned up. It's very weird isn't it? But then again, you see, it's a little film. And my stuff doesn't appeal on a broad front anyway. Who wants to go and hear dialogue any more in movies? We don't want to hear dialogue, we want to hear Shrek mumbling... don't we? I mean, my favourite filmmaker is Luis Bunuel, if you opened a thousand print movie of Bunuel in the United States, well I know bloody well in Farmingdale Illinois they're not going to take the chicken off their head to get in the fucking truck and go and see it, they're just not. Q. What's Johnny's take on the film's success... or ...? BR: Well, I mean, that is the problem, I'm saying all of the American media are saying "Oh, this movie's bombed". How can it bomb if no-one's gone? It's very weird, the audience - you know they have people with computers doing audience ratios and stuff - I think it breaks down over the spectrum of the theatres of the United States to 7 3/4 people in each cinema, for each screening. Which is not great news... for the financiers. Me? It's got nothing to do with me. My job is try and make the film. Which ain't 'Citizen Kane', no-one's pretending it is. There are errors in the film which I wish I hadn't made, but my intention was to make entertainment with some good laughs in it, that's all I wanted to do. Q. How difficult was it keeping Johnny from going the full Hunter? BR: Well, we obviously discussed that before we started shooting and it was very apparent to me that it would have been a different kind of negative comparison. I didn't want to remake that, what would be the point? Plus, in the period this film was set in '59/'60, Hunter Thompson was a very handsome young man. He used to model clothes to get money and stuff in Puerto Rico. So my interest was pre-gonzo, I wanted to try and have a look at this guy... it's a key line in the film for me when he says "I don't know how to write like me" and that's the great problem that anyone who writes has. "Where is my voice?" You know. That was the side of it I wanted to look at in here, and I think one of the poisonous elements of 'The Rum Diary' in terms of the few criticisms I've read of it is this constant harping on Hunter fucking S. Thmopson, and that it's not like 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'. I mean, put that in another context and say "'Hamlet'? Well it's not like 'Romeo and Juliet'!" Well of course it isn't! Q. How pleased were you with the 'accusatory giblet' line? BR: Well when I wrote it it made me laugh. That's the other thing too, there was a review that my son showed me on the internet of, uh, some American reviewer, really hated the movie, desperately hated it, wanted us all shot, and he said 'this terrible piece... why is this terrible piece... the only thing that saves this movie is Hunter Thompson's scintillating dialogue.' There's only two lines of his in it. Q. Which are the two Hunter lines? BR: The two Hunter lines are "Have some fun with the fucking luger", which is in the bowling alley, and "We'll be lucky to find an oil spot" when they go and rescue the car. Not another line of his in the whole screenplay. Q. Moving away from Hunter, I was wondering how much of your own experiences went in there? I'm a massive fan of 'Withnail & I' and of of your anecdotes that make their way into your work, and I thought I spotted one I recognized from an old interview. It was about your friend Vivian, who has family in Islay who worked in a distillery... BR: You got it yeah.., Q (cont'd): ... so that's where the Moberg scene comes from? BR: Yeah. At the Lagavurn (?) whiskey plant in Scotland, on the isle of Islay, all of the people in there used to nip the scotch all day, drunk the whiskey all day, and the management got fed up with these people. You know, heads like vindaloo, bowls of vindaloo, going "arrr, top of the morning", sorry that's Irish, so they banned all the workers in the place having nips of whiskey. Now there's only one electricity dealer man on the island, sells irons and stuff, suddenly he gets an order in for 50 spin dryers, which he's never had before. So all of these guys are buying spin dryers so they can get hold of the whiskey filters and spin this white stuff, unfiltered, neat alcohol out of the filters. And the product was called 'yon white stuff' and I have drunk it, and it's just kerosene, it's unbelievably vile. The night Viv and I drunk it he came back from Islay and we were drinking this stuff and we had, in our bathroom, we had all these pustules coming through the walls, you know, and we went in there, suddenly I got a 4lb hammer, where it came from I know not, it was like a sort of Walt Disney cartoon or something, and we bashed the fucking back wall of the house down on this yon white stuff. Q. How many other similar elements of your own life filtered in to 'The Rum Diary'? BR: There are two rip offs from 'Withnail'. One is from the Danny the dealer character, when Withnail challenges him and he says "I could take double anything you could" and Danny the dealer says "Very foolish words man". I used that same motif in 'The Rum Diary' where Johnny says "There's no such thing as 400 proof alcohol" and the horrible apothecary looks up and says "words you might need to moderate". The other rip-off is inthe Cafe Cabrones where Sala says to him "what are you smiling at?", "I'm not smiling, I'm maintaining a casual face...there's one over there, a big one, doesn't like the perfume", "the one with the eye?" So that was another rip-off from Withnail, but those were the only two. Q. Did you cut anything out of the film that you hated to lose, particularly? BR: The film could probably profit from another 10 minutes taken out of it frankly. But it's all a balance. Sometimes the problem with cutting is that it throws something else out of kilter because... 'Withnail & I' is illustrative of that. Handmade hated the film with such an intensity that they refused to let me shoot the drive back to London, you know, the 'I'm making time' scene, which blew the whole gag of the policeman and the child's piss in the fairy liquid bottle. So I had to pay for that because the whole film had been structured towards that drive. So there were things in 'The Rum Diary'. The Amber Heard scene where she does her dance with the black guy, that was cut down by half to the detriment. It was so tense that scene, with that hound dog tale of music going and it got ruder, if you like, and ruder and tenser and tenser and they made me cut in half. And I really regret taking half of that scene out. Q. On the flip side of that there were things you said you'd made mistakes on, you'd like to change... BR: Yeah oh yeah, I should've squeezed 10 more minutes out of the film, I should've done, but it's an incredibly complex process. It's a mix of finance, availability and all sorts of things like that with cinema. I'd liked to have spent more time on various parts of the movie, some of which are probably screenwriting errors... but it is an art not a science, there are no rules, you can't say 'how am I going to do this' you just do it, and hope it's going to work. Q. Is there a moment you're particularly pleased with? BR: Well I've got to say I love the sequence in the little car, you know, when 'oh my god it's the cop we set on fire', that sequence, I like that. And I love some of the acting, the interrelationship particularly between Lotterman, the editor, and Moberg. This hatred they have for each other, I like that. I have absolutely nothing but admiration for the quality of the actors in this film. Any mistakes, obviously, are mine, narrative mistakes or whatever, but nobody can say they're not fucking great actors these people, they are. They're as good as it gets I think. Q. Does this mean that you'll be returning to directing on a regular basis? BR: Oh no, no. No it doesn't. I have converted a novel I wrote into a screenplay, which I may well do. But it's a tiny little English film, you know, a couple of million quid type film. I might do that, I don't know. I've been working for fourteen years on the same book, about the Whitechapel murderer, which is a kind of obsessive passion of mine at the moment... it'll take me another two years to finish that. But you know the thing about the directing thing is you take a great filmmaker like Ridley Scott, he does movie after movie after movie, this one's a dog, that one's not bad, that's brilliant, this is a dog, that's brilliant. But my stuff can't be like that because it's kind of esoteric so if i make something and I fuck it up, I'm persona non grata... which truly doesn't bother me. AT THIS POINT, THE PR INFORMS US OUR TIME'S UP, BUT BRUCE INSISTS ON HIS COFFEE. WE THEREFORE HAVE AN INFORMAL CHAT ABOUT 'WITHNAIL & I', THE ROUGH TRANSCRIPT OF WHICH FOLLOWS... Q: Are you getting asked a lot about 'Withnail & I' at these things? It's interesting how many of us are still in love with that film... BR: It's amazing isn't it, who was it we were talking with about this morning...? Totally by accident and not design it doesn't seem to age does it? But I mean that wasn't my intention, I didn't think 'oh I'm gonna make a film that won't age'. When I made it my son hadn't been born but he's seventeen now and his school friends are saying 'oh your dad did Withnail' and he's saying 'what is it dad? Can we see it?' And I hadn't seen it literally for ten years and it's still the same Richard E in that long coat, and fresh! Q: We saw it again recently, Time Out put in on in the Haymarket, big audience. BR: Does it still get its laughs? Q: Oh yeah, absolutely. BR: Even though everyone knows the lines? Q: Even though everyone knows the lines. We took a few people to see it who hadn't seen it before and they loved it too. BR: Amazing isn't it. Oh well. Q: They're showing it down in Bristol now aren't they? BR: Yeah, I'm going actually. I was hoping they were going to show this but they want to show that. BR: I'll have to wait twenty years for 'The Rum Diary' to get screened then... Alright, sorry I've got to rush because they're after me up there I suppose. Anyway, you definitely laughed did you? Q: Yes BR: Thank fuck for that. 'The Rum Diary' is out in the UK today, 11th November 2011. We also spoke to one of its stars, Amber Heard, so keep your eyes peeled for that too...
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