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Hustler, August 1998
Page added May-14-99
Fear and Loathing in Hollywood
A Strange and Terrible Saga of Guns, Drugs and Hunter S. Thompson
by Kevin P. Simonson
used with kind permission
In 1971, Hunter S. Thompson set off for Las Vegas armed with a keen sense of the absurd and a plentiful cache of drugs. The resultant book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a classic in the literature of depravity. Nearly three decades after publication, Thompson's demented masterwork is finally making it to the big screen. Join the doctor of gonzo journalism as he ponders movie-biz ironies with explosions and cautionary words at his Aspen, Colorado, fortress.
Hunter S. Thompson lives in a hidden fortress several miles outside Aspen, Colorado. Beyond the bumpy, rock-strewn driveway is a pair of giant, gnarled poles flanked by demon vultures crafted of rusting metal. At night the eyes glow red as Tabasco, following a visitor's every move. A bowie knife the size of a meat loaf protrudes from the rustic frame of the house's side door. A few inches away, a bullet hole pierces a thick windowpane.
"I had a couple of handymen doing some work on the porch," explains Thompson, the man credited with forming gonzo journalism - a style of reporting in which the writer becomes a part of the story. "I snuck up behind them and shot off a couple of rounds between them through the window. Scared the bejesus out of them."
Inside the main house of Owl Farm - as Thompson calls his property - the kitchen walls are covered with 30 years worth of gonzo memorabilia; an uncashed ten dollar check from Carl Woodward, a rubber Nixon mask, dozens of newspaper articles and Scotch-taped notes. A machine gun sits against the side of a large-screen TV. Thompson, a self-described news junkie, usually has the set turned to CNN or a sporting event.
Thompson's refrigerator is adorned with black-and-white photos of him and Bill Murray riding in a high-power motor boat. In the photos, Murray is pasty, bloated and barely recognizable.
Murray and Thompson were roommates for a brief period prior to the filming of 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam, a fictionalized film version of Thompson's life as a gonzo journalist. Murray, who played the self-titled Good Doctor, signed on for gonzo boot camp, and Thompson became the actor's mentor and drill sergeant. Many lesser revelers who fall under Thompson's spell feel compelled to keep up with him toke for toke, drink for drink and line for line.
The time spent with Thompson took its toll on both Murray and Where the Buffalo Roam. Murray's new persona reportedly alienated him from his cohorts on Saturday Night Live, and the movie was universally panned - even by Thompson.
"He did a good job," Thompson says of Murray's acting, "but it's a silly film, a cartoon. The studio paid me to write new beginnings and endings, but it was a bad script. You couldn't cure it."
Perhaps this summer the pictures of Murray and Thompson will be replaced by new ones. Hunter's perennial cigarette holder has been passed on to Johnny Depp, who will play Raoul Duke, Thompson's alter ego, in the upcoming film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The movie also stars The Usual Suspects' Benicio Del Toro as Thompson's partner in crime, mammoth Samoan lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta. The remainder of the cast includes Gary Busey, Christina Ricci and Tobey Maguire. The film is slated for an early-summer release.
For the uninitiated, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas details Thompson's drunken, drug-addled adventures in Las Vegas while covering an off-road motorcycle race and concurrent law-enforcement convention. The book is on many reading lists in college classrooms throughout the country. Signed first editions can fetch up to $2,500.
Random House marked the novel's 25th anniversary with a Modern Library Edition, the literary equivalent of an Academy Award. Hunter S. Thompson can now boast that his peers include fellow hard-drinking scholars William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
The 25th anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas's release was celebrated in a different manner by the author himself. Thompson invited his professional sidekick, artist Ralph Steadman, and a few select others to Owl Farm. There, in Thompson's sprawling backyard, the revelers strapped a propane tank and exploding target to an idling John Deere tractor. Stradding the tractor was a voluptuous blow-up doll.
"Hunter took aim and shot it," recalls Steadman, a well-mannered Brit who has illustrated many of Thompson's books in his scrawling, nightmarish style. "Boom! The whole lot went up like an H bomb. We got it all on film."
"It's wonderful to watch in slow motion - the screen goes white when this propelling gas goes up. The explosion was an amazing thing, and this was his celebration party piece."
* * *
Life hasn't always been a cabaret with guns and explosions for Thompson. In the '60s and early '70s, he lived on the road and travelled the Western hemisphere as a correspondent for such diverse publications as Time, Scanlan's Monthly, the New York Herald Tribune and a bowling tabloid in Puerto Rico. On the rare occasions he found himself at home, Thompson served as night manager of the infamous Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre, a porn emporium in San Francisco.
Thompson and Steadman were first paired up to cover the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan's, a doomed sports magazine. From that point on, things got weird.
"I think the whole thing with the friendship is that there's a certain chemistry - it's like chalk and cheese," says Steadman. "He has a way of inspring loyalty in me, even though I sometimes hate him for it."
The odd couple were next sent to Newport, Rhode Island, to cover the America's Cup. At the world's most prestigious regatta, Thompson and Steadman made an ill-fated attempt to spray-paint the words FUCK THE POPE on the side of one of the competing yachts. They were run from the event when a security guard heard the clack of the spray-paint can as the two rowed between the multimillion-dollar boats.
Steadman calls the trip a dress rehearsal for the Vegas book: "It's how Fear and Loathing came about. I've hated boats ever since."
[sic*] Several years later, Hell's Angels, a candid examination of America's infamous motorcycle gang, hit bookstores, and Thompson's role as demented observer of America's seedy underbelly was cast. He next set his sights on another corrupt and blighted institution: Las Vegas.
"So we have a parcel of drugs in the trunk of the car and take off for Las Vegas," says Steadman in his best Thompson imitation - an octave or two below Tom Waits.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, first seriallized in Rolling Stone, became an overnight success. Talk of adapting Thompson's masterpiece began soon after and continued for more than 25 years.
Martin Scorsese, who wanted to direct Jack Nicholson in the main role, was the first to tackle Fear and Loathing. He failed. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were also unable to get anywhere with the project in 1975. According to Thompson, others who have expressed interest include Larry McMurtry, David Lynch and Dennis Hopper.
The copius drug use and nefarious business in the book have always been sticking points for the successful production of a film version. Picture Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin wearing tan polyester, inhaling ether and harassing tourists. Today, $5.99 all-you-can-eat-prime-rib diners are in abundance on Vegas's main drags. In Thompson's world, buffets consisted of cocaine, grapefruits and Wild Turkey.
"There was a time when you couldn't do anything in movies about drugs," says Thompson. "This is the time in Hollywood to do just that - because it's been so repressive.
"Besides, I enjoy drugs. Coffee's a drug, aspirin's a drug...It's all a matter of how much. Too much of any drug can make you act like a beast."
Six years ago, producer Steve Nemeth made it his mission to battle Hollywood's censors and bring Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen. Allied with Rhino Records' fledgling film division, the producer acquired the book's film rights from Blade Runner director Ridley Scott's production company after Scott gave the movie the ax.
An unforseen problem developed. It was determined that one of Thompson's ex-girlfriends, Laila Nabulsi, actually owned the movie rights. According to one of Thompson's former assistants (Thompson's life is plagued with ex's of one sort or another), the writer had granted Nabulsi the rights scribbled on a cocktail napkin.
Legalities were eventually settled. Nemeth is producing the film along with Nabulsi and Patrick Cassavetti. Their first challenge was marketing the project in a form that would convince talent to sign on, and, eventually, fill theaters.
"Because Fear and Loathing has been one of the bestsellers on college campuses, people who were in school 25 years ago up through today will come and see it," says Nemeth. "It can be viewed as a horror movie because it's so creepy and scary. The film's also a satire on American culture; so it's a comedy."
Like any good Hunter S. Thompson story, the saga of bringing Fear and Loathing to the screen is a convoluted and twisted tale.
A film script of the book has floated around Hollywood for many years, and dozens of screenwriters have taken a crack at the adaptation. According to director Terry Gilliam, who cowrote the final draft of the script with Tony Grisoni, the most challenging aspect of penning the screenplay was "trying to get an admission from the Writer's Guild of America that we had adapted it." It is still the subject of a heated debate among several writers who will be credited with authorship.
The practice of rewriting scripts over and over, a golden rule in the film industry, dosen't sit well with Thompson. "Fear and Loathing is a masterwork," Hunter says. "True gonzo journalism, as I conceive it, shouldn't be rewritten.
"Take the ending, for instance. There was no ending in the book. I had to get the second half of the magazine thing in. The deadline came; I had to wind it up in the Denver airport."
The next ordeal came with the selection of a director. Alex Cox, of Sid and Nancy fame, was originally slated to bring the nightmare commentary on American culture to the screen. However, a few months before filming began, Cox and his version of teh script were unceremoniously dumpted, and former Monty Python star Terry Gilliam took over.
Rumors vary, but insiders say leading man Depp and Cox butted heads over the director's script and his take on Raoul Duke. Before Cox left, he made omnious comments on the potential success of the film: "[Fear and Loathing] can't be a mainstream movie because it's so countercultural and demented."
New director Gilliam seems the perfect replacement. His own legacy of dementia includes Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. His revamped vision proved more in sync with the assembled cast, especially the man hired to portray Thompson.
"Johnny Depp held a loaded gun to my head and threatened my children," recounts Gilliam. "He said that he would not shoot me if I didn't do the film. He was never very good when it came to issuing threats.
Gilliam's screenplya even drew grudging acceptance from Fear and Loathing's author. "The new script isn't bad," admits Thompson.
* * *
With shaved head, Depp is a spitting image of a young Hunter S. Thompson. Prior to filming, the 34-year-old actor spent several weeks with Raoul Duke, studying his mannerisms. They relaxed at Owl Farm and were spotted at several of Thompson's book signings.
Principal photography for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas began last August 2nd in Los Angeles. The cast soon moved to Las Vegas for three weeks of filming at the Stardust, Riviera and Binion's Casino. During the Vegas shoot and the following five-week stint back in L.A., a strict closed-set policy was enforced.
While a closed set is not uncommon for Hollywood productions, Gilliam made it clear that the film's producers were also unwelcome.
"Isnt' it amazing?" questions producer Nemeth. "It's a movie about a gonzo journalist who wouldn't take no for an answser, and who'll infiltrate anything to get his story. In the true spirit of Hunter HTompson, you'd have thought we'd bend over backward to make it work for the people who care."
Despite the secrecy and a budget that ballooned from an originally estimated $6 million to more than $20 million [Christine - I think the final figure was $35M], Nemeth is excited about the end result. "[Fear and Loathing] is going to be one of those anomalies that will have crossover appeal because it's recognized as one of the great pieces of American literature in the 20th century."
Despite Fear and Loathing's imminent release, legal problems - including a recent drunk-driving incident and a distant sexual-harassment suit - and drunken, incomprehensible book readings have prompted whispers of Thompson's demise.
"A lot of people say he's finished," says Ralph Steadman. "But some of these naysayers have never been anywhere near as good as Thompson. They use his phrases and adapt his style - the Fear and Loathing language. There's still a lot there, it just comes in bursts."
Thompson is accustomed to the negative press. He was the inspiration for Gary Trudeau's ;perpetually stoned Duke in Doonesbury, and David Letterman banned him from the Late Show because Thompson threatened "to bring four huge thugs over there" and shave Letterman's head on camera after being bumped from a taping.
"This vilification by Nazi elements within the media has not only given me a fierce joy to continue my work, but has also made me profoundly orgasmic, mysteriously rich and constantly at war with those vengeful, retro-fscist elements of the Establishment that have hounded me all my life," Thompson babbles with paranoid optimism. "It has made me wise, shrewd and crazy on a level understood by those who have been there."
* * *
Back at Owl Farm, Thompson will continue to raise peacocks and dobermans. He will continue to bike down the road to the Woody Creek Tavern for his meals. He will rarely answer his phone and continue to terrorize visitors to his home.
A contented recluse, Thompson's privacy will be invaded with a barrage of requests for magazine and television interviews because of the long-awaited release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on the big screen.
He will grant only a few: "I guess HUSTLER's okay for an article. Who knows? Not me - I'm just a country boy."
*Hell's Angels was published in 1966, FLLV in 1971. All Scanlan's articles were published in 1970. What does sic mean? It's Latin for "as it was found". In this same paragraph, the Canadian version of Hustler said that the Angels in question were Canadian. Hustler and Screw get around customs laws by having their own publishing plants in Canada, so the Canadian version, which is hiding somewhere in my closet, may differ more than the American version. How's that for a SNED? (something new every day)