Mark Clark chats GONZO with director Alex Gibney

In a swanky hotel just off Trafalgar Square OWF sat down with Alex Gibney, director of GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON (released today in the UK). What should have been a round-table chit-chat with two other journos turned into a 15 minute one on one as the other two slackers were late/no shows. So exclusive chat and gold star from the film company PR person, not a bad start€ OWF: I believe you mentioned that doing a documentary on Thompson wasn€™t originally your idea; was there ever a point in pre-production or even during production where you thought this is too much, he€™s too hard a man to pin down? AG: Well, not too hard a man, but I can tell you there were times when we were trying to figure out who owned all this shit that was in the archives, trying to get permission to include their photographs and , you know, it ended up being a kind of nightmare, and with somebody as fractious and as wild as Hunter there were all sorts of people who had a kind of ambivalent attitude towards him and also toward the fact he was a guy who also had a certain amount of fame, and so people€ well it was tough to deal with the circus that he left behind. Sometimes a good feeling, sometimes an ill feeling, ill will; and to break through that was painful. When you€™re trying to bring this to a conclusion it was very, very hard to kind of herd all the cats in the same direction. And to get all the materials, because you know other films had been done about Hunter, and I felt like that unless we got the shit this wasn€™t gonna be worth doing. But getting the shit was hard. OWF: You actually ended up getting access to the estate AG: Yeah, well the estate gave us access but you know the estate wasn€™t very organised so there were a lot of cardboard boxes either in a storage locker in Denver or up at Hunter€™s house. We found a cassette that said €˜Taco€™, well that was the taco stand scene, and that was in the bottom of a cardboard box that was not particularly well marked about anything. It contained some old movies that Hunter used to watch, a porno film, and then near the bottom was a little cassette. OWF: I like the fact that you found the 600 bars of soap AG: Yeah they€™re there, they€™re still there in the corner of Hunter€™s original study; I mean by the end Hunter had converted his kitchen to a study, but before for a long period of time his command centre was in the basement and so down there by his desk were the bars of soap. OWF: Near the end of the film one of the interviewees, I think it€™s Jann Wenner, says journalism could probably do with Thompson right now. Do you think he would have gotten involved in the US election? AG: I think the person who says it is actually Jimmy Buffet; but no doubt. The question is, his powers were failing because alcohol was eating him up and in general his health was failing; but if he could have kept those demons at bay then I think he definitely would have been involved. You know I don€™t think it€™s useful for everyone to write like Hunter but it€™s useful to have one or two around. OWF: Do you think it would have been harder for his voice to be heard with the apparent corporate stranglehold on mainstream news... AG: Well it€™s funny, it€™s not quite a corporate stranglehold, it€™s weirder than that now. He was able to be more influential in his heyday because there was one big counter-cultural magazine, Rolling Stone. Now Rolling Stone occupies its place on a shelf with 500 other magazines. Not only that, but there€™s the TV networks, and then there€™s the blogosphere, Look, part of the blessing and the curse of the internet is the blogosphere, and the blessing is that you don€™t have to go through a corporate master to get yourself heard, over time people can come to your site if you can make people aware of it and you don€™t have to get anyone€™s permission to put it up there. But the downside is that everybody€™s going to these sites, so it€™s a more atomised audience and it€™s very hard to reach masses of people in the way that Hunter did when he was in his heyday. OWF: Yeah, I was going to mention the interminable blogs that seem to be everywhere; I tried to follow the US election campaigns and I found it hard to even figure out what I was supposed to be looking at. AG: Right, it€™s very hard, you kind of have to find a few ports in a storm and keep going back there hoping they€™re going to clue you in. I also find myself subscribing to a lot of curated sites where I get regular blasts, you know €˜check that out, check this out€™ so it€™s like looking at Nick Hornby€™s (Author of €˜High Fidelity€™) playlist or something. OWF: Johnny Depp€™s involvement, was that arranged at the start or something that came along later as a €˜hey that would be a great idea€™? AG: At the start we didn€™t know exactly what we were doing but the moment we decided to make the film with Hunter€™s voice at the center, that Hunter would tell the story, Hunter€™s words would tell the story, then it became pretty evident that Johnny Depp was the only one to really do it right. Whether we would find a way to make that happen, you know, it took a long time to get him to watch it. When he watched it he said he€™d do it and then after he said he€™d do it, it took a long time to get him to do it, and we were running out of time. But just a few days before we were out of time he did it, and he was great. And he channelled Hunter in a way that€™s kind of unbelievable. Because I didn€™t want somebody to read narration, I wanted somebody to be Hunter, and at the same time that was sort of organic too because Hunter used to like to read his work out loud. That€™s how he figured out whether it was working, whether it had the right rhythm and cadence. So Johnny could read it as an author reads his work, you read it feeling the voice and passion of the author. OWF: Do you think Terry Gilliam€™s film successfully tapped in to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? It might be seen as a weird partnership€ AG: Well it made sense, the partnership; I mean Terry Gilliam as a former cartoonist, former animator. I liked Terry€™s film; my only criticism of it in terms of how it captures the book is I don€™t think it captured enough of the real life. IN other words the great thing about Hunter was his ability to present you with a kind of unvarnished view of something, and then that would turn into a kind of hallucination. Well he got the hallucinations right as far as I was concerned, I felt like I was tripping watching the movie. But it was that tension between the real world and not, he tried to get there a little bit with a montage of newsreel footage when Johnny€™s reading the wave speech But that was the one aspect of it that I missed, just to capture the book could have been done better. OWF: In the documentary there seemed to be a conscious decision to not delve too deeply into Hunter€™s apparently fractious domestic life. AG: Right, yeah, it€™s called €˜The Life and Work of Doctor Hunter S. Thompson€™, I think we focussed on the work because nobody would really give a shit about him if he hadn€™t been a great writer and I think people had forgotten about that. At the same time I think we got just enough, you know we put in a rather private audio tape recording of Hunter having phone sex with a woman he€™s having an affair with. And you learn from his wives that Hunter had this vicious side, so there were other things we might have put in, you know worse episodes of how he didn€™t show up at places, or when he did he was completely shit-faced. We could have put more of that in but at some point I thought if I put in enough so that you see that this was not a guy who was an angel; you know very early on you hear Sandy (Sandy Conklin, Thompson€™s first wife of 18 years) say the man could be absolutely vicious. Then you see this older man obviously completely fucking drunk saying €˜get me a goddamn motherfucking thing€™ or whatever it is he says, it€™s kind of clear there that this may not have been the easiest guy to live around. And there€™s some subtle indications too, you know I€™m not sure he was the world€™s best father, but the way it€™s presented is sort of poignant, I mean Juan (Juan Thompson) has great affection for his Dad and I think his Dad had great affection for Juan. But kids grow up and they measure themselves by other kids and by their parents, and he€™s getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to school and his father€™s just going to bed, and he comes home from school and has his dinner and his Dad€™s having his breakfast. I mean kids learn to adjust but it can€™t have been easy being Hunter Thompson€™s son. OWF: I certainly got a greater picture of Hunter S. Thompson that I had had previously because my experience, probably the same as most of my friends, was reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when we were at college€ AG Yeah, right€ OWF: And maybe a few articles, but beyond that Thompson was this 50+ year old guy who carried a shotgun around, and so it was doubly fascinating seeing a lot of the €˜younger€™ footage, particularly the episode where he€™s running for sheriff. That was almost my favourite part. AG: Yeah, he€™s a charismatic character; he€™s funny, he€™s charming and also he has a kind of charisma that is really palpable. People were getting behind him. There€™s a twinkle in his eye too€ Yeah it€™s fun to see the young Hunter, he€™s seductive. OWF: It€™s a damn shame he doesn€™t actually win in the end, you€™re really rooting for him€ AG: Yeah you€™re really rooting for him, because at the beginning it€™s such a ridiculous thing, Johnny Deep reads the platform for sheriff (as Hunter twirls the gun in his hand); we€™ll prosecute anybody who has the temerity to sell drugs for money€ So by the end you€™re thinking €˜Yeah, win!€™, but he doesn€™t and that prefigures the series of episodes he has with people who are noble losers. OWF: If there is anybody, who do you think has taken on the mantle of Thompson, I€™m thinking of things like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It€™s not the same€ AG: But I think that€™s a good one, I talk about that a lot, the Daily Show and Colbert (The Colbert Report), because Colbert actually assumes a fictional persona rather like Hunter assuming the persona of Raoul Duke; you know where Colbert is a right wing nutjob running a talk show. Well, obviously Colbert is not a right wing nutjob but that fictional persona goes a long way toward revealing a truth that would not be possible to reveal if he were simply playing it straight. OWF: One final quick question; you€™re working on €˜The Best and the Brightest€™ (book by David Halberstam on the origins of the Vietnam War)? AG: I am, I mean that€™s been a long term obsession, so hopefully we€™ll finally get that off the ground. OWF: Well, we€™ll look forward to seeing how that pans out, and thanks for talking to us. AG: Thank you, good to see you€

GONZO goes on general release December 19th 2008 in the UK.

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Film writer, drinker of Guinness. Part-time astronaut. Man who thinks there are only two real Indiana Jones movies, writing loglines should be an Olympic event, and that science fiction, comic book movies, 007, and Hal Hartley's Simple Men are the cures for most evils. Currently scripting.