Among his many short-lived journalistic stints, Hunter S. Thompson briefly worked in the late 1950s for a bowling magazine in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was the setting for an early, semi-autobiographical novel, The Rum Diary, that didn’t see publication until 1998, though it was written in 1961. Thompson’s good friend and on-screen avatar Johnny Depp optioned and eventually produced and starred in the film of the same name, tapping Bruce Robinson (best known for the alcohol-soaked Withnail and I) as writer and director. Over a shared margherita pizza at New York City’s Bowery Hotel, Robinson spoke with TIME about his creative process, his lone encounter with the notorious writer and the sad state of American cinema and politics.
This is the first movie you’ve directed in 17 years. Why now?
Johnny Depp approached me about 10 years ago for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I had so hated the idea of ever directing again that I declined. But we met and had some good discussions and then a number of years later, I was on vacation in Spain with my family and I got a phone call from Johnny. I don’t know how he found me in Seville, but he had. He asked if I’d read The Rum Diary and I said no, I’d never heard of it.
I’m a big fan of Hunter, but not such a big fan of that book. The story is great, but I thought that the book was kind of an ingénue’s book — a young man’s book. It has a lot of faults in the narrative and drive and some of it is very vulgar too, which I didn’t like. But Johnny asked if I would adapt it for screen and I accepted and wrote it and gave it to him and then he was back on the phone saying, ‘Okay, so now you’re going direct it.” And, without seeming facetious, I said ‘No, I’m just not going to do that.”
And so he nagged me and bullied me and came after me, which was very flattering considering he’s the world’s number one film star. I think he was so confident about me doing it that I finally traded off of his confidence said, ‘Alright I’ll do it, what do I have to lose?” The thing about directing too is that old cliché about riding a bike: once you’ve done it, you’re very quickly back into the métier.
(MORE: Read Richard Corliss’ review of The Rum Diary)
There are some obvious comparisons being made to Fear and Loathing, which was also a Thompson adaptation starring Johnny Depp. But I found threads of Withnail and I throughout. Was that conscious?
There are some strong parallels between Withnail and I and The Rum Diary. I’m almost kind of ripping myself off, especially with Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), who drinks ethanol. That’s a kind of rip off Danny the Dealer in Withnail — they are a similar type of madman. And then there’s the sort of male bonding between Kemp and [roommate/coworker] Sala, which is also similar to the relationship between the two leads of Withnail. I didn’t set out to do it that way, it’s just the way it came out.
I read that you wrote Withnail during a period of creative frustration at the beginning of your career and that’s very similar to Thompson’s circumstances as he wrote The Rum Diary.
When I was writing Withnail, I was so busted flat that I had one lightbulb that I would carry around the house with me. I mean, really. No furniture, no money, and I was hoping to be an actor, but I could never get a job.
I was going to burst into tears one night except that instead I burst into laughter. And that’s when I started Withnail and I. I was suddenly able to write like me. I think that’s always true for writers and any art form really. [George] Bernard Shaw said that when you copy yourself, you know you’ve got style. And I feel that if you can write like you write, then you are true to yourself. And it’s not an easy thing to do – it’s a disgustingly difficult thing to do.
Was writing this script made easier or more difficult by the 2005 suicide of Thompson?
Well, I live on a farm in the English countryside and I was five pages in when one Sunday morning I was driving into town to get the paper and I flicked on BBC News and heard that Hunter Thompson had shot himself and I thought, “Oh well that’s it, this project will never get made.” I thought the project would die with him. But Johnny called and said, “We’re doing this – even more reason to do it.” So I just kept writing.
Had you ever met Thompson?
I met him once in Los Angeles in 1993. We went to the Chateau Marmont. We sat in a room for about two hours and didn’t say a word to each other. He was drinking his Chivas and [makes gesture of snorting cocaine] and we didn’t exchange one word. And then at the end of two hours, I said ‘I’m going now.’
It was kind of ridiculous! My wife’s friend Laila was Hunter’s girlfriend at the time and we were living in Los Angeles and she called up and said, ‘Hunter’s in town, would you like to meet him? He’d like to meet you” – he was a Withnail fan too. And so yeah, I thought, “This is an iconic, famous, famous writer – sure I’d like to meet him.” And I think he must have been completely, completely off his head on something because he was very fond of narcotics and Chivas Regal — lots of it. I can’t really drink whiskey – can you?
Yeah, I like whiskey.
Oh, it makes me feel rotten. I can drink wine all day, but if I drink scotch or vodka that would really wipe me out. I don’t even like it. I really like the taste of wine, though.
(MORE: See Withnail and I in the Top 10 Sloppiest Movie Drunks)