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)
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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