After 17 Years Away, Director Bruce Robinson Returns With The Rum Diary

Withnail and I's Bruce Robinson brings Hunter S. Thompson's to the big screen in The Rum Diary

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Chris Pizzello / AP

Bruce Robinson, director and co-writer of the film "The Rum Diary," poses for a portrait on Oct. 12, 2011, in Beverly Hills, California.

You decided to start drinking again with this project, after many years of sobriety.

Sitting on your own all day from seven in the morning to three in the afternoon, it’s very easy to get into a syndrome of just drinking wine all day, because it’s very lonely and hard work. Which is what I was doing for years, I used to do that. I just got to the point in my life where it wasn’t great anymore, so I stopped.

Then when I got The Rum Diary to write, I’m in front of a typewriter and the sober side of my head is saying ‘thou shalt not’ and the creative, still-drunken side of my head is saying ‘you’ve just got to.’ And I let the sober side win for a few weeks, and sat there with nothing coming. I needed to revisit that mindset that makes a man like Moburg exist. And I’m afraid in my case that involves just going there, somehow. The only reason people use alcohol at parties is to soften up the environment, so people start talking to each other. And if I have a glass of wine, I can hear the voices — I just can.

Many people may not know that you’re also a novelist and that you were an actor for many years. So for you, what are the main differences between working on a visual narrative and working on a written one? Between acting and writing?

I think they are all very similar actually: acting, directing, writing. My problem with being an actor was that I was far too shy to actually do it. I couldn’t cut me out — there was always someone inside [my characters] shivering. I remember being on stage once, doing a play in London and all through my scene there was someone banging something together and I was so angry throughout, thinking, “Why are you doing that during my scene?” When I got offstage to find out who’d done it, I realized it was me: my knees were knocking together and I had riding boots on. Terrible. Really, that’s how bad it was for me as an actor.

But one thing about it: I’m a very good actor on my own, when the door’s shut, because I act out all of my characters out loud all day – that’s how I write. I walk up and down, doing it all day.

I have a standard American accent – it doesn’t change that much. Like with Mober. [Affects nasal, Southern-ish drawl.] I would write him like that and walk up and down until I hear him say something – and that’s an improvisation technique I got from acting — so I’ll be Moberg and I’ll walk around my room, saying junk, junk, junk and then suddenly, I’ll say a line and I’ll think ‘Hey! that isn’t bad.’ And I’ll put that into the typewriter and then out of that, I’ll start building the scenes.

Moberg was such a unique character – his voice was so grating and he was so anxiety producing for me. I kept waiting for him to fall over.

He’s so disgusting. And you know Giovanni Ribisi stayed in that character, talking like that throughout the whole shoot. And he flew up to New York one weekend and he had that old [raincoat] on, and his filthy black fingernails and he was talking to everyone nasal like that. Imagine being the airline stewardess and watching him get on the plane.

We’re returning to the issue of substance abuse. Moburg, and to a lesser extent Kemp and Sarla are always on one intoxicant or another. Why do we like to watch that so much?

I guess because we all like doing it. [Laughs] I think a lot of young people see the power in it. They think, “Oh God, I wish I’d said that — I wish I could be like that. I wish I could hold the world in contempt because I am the most wonderful thing alive.” I think that touches something in people, that recklessness, because most of the time we aren’t allowed to do it, you know? Drinking and driving: illegal. Smoking, even in this restaurant: illegal. But then you get people like Moburg and Kemp and Withnail who would be in here completely f—d up: smoking, drinking, raving, ranting — inside all of us is that we’d like to do that occasionally.

The movie deals with issues of political and economic injustice that will seem familiar to contemporary audiences. Was that a conscious decision?

We’re in a bad place at the moment. I’m not a religious person, but I prefer God to money.The new deity – the God now, literally, is money. And not money-making things or money-creating things, but money for money’s sake – trading it with itself. And a lot of people are making a fortune for doing nothing: they’re not making a bed, they’re not pouring a beer. And it is an outrage – my country’s the same as here. We’re completely busted flat because of these bastards who’ve done this to us and yet they are immune – completely immune to any other reality.

But what I’ve learned is that you can’t do a movie where you’re didactic. I’ve got a little card on my typewriter that says: “Movies are for entertainment; Western Union is for messages.” Jack Warner said it in 1940.

So the politics in The Rum Diary are very subliminal, but very powerful. Audiences, they’ll tolerate a certain amount, but they’re really there for entertainment. If it’s there, the smarter faction of the audience is going to organically understand what it is without it having to be shoved down their throats. There’s one important scene when [real estate magnate] Sanderson explains to Paul Kemp how to get a 5% tax rise: he says: “You ask for 10% and when they complain, you say ‘ok, we’ll compromise at five.’ They think they’ve won and you’ve got what you wanted in the first place.” That was in and out of the script, but I finally left it in because that is the conflict — that’s how they do it. That’s how it works all the time.

So does this mark your permanent return to directing? Will we be seeing more from you?

I would of course. But I have no interest in those kind of Hollywood blockbuster type movies. I don’t go to see them; they’re of no interest to me. They’re films for children in my view. Thirty years ago, there were highly commercial films, but they were Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and The Sting and The Godfather, The French Connection. All of those movies were meant for grown ups and yet they were still great movies and still very, very successful. Why have we all got to watch children’s movies?

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