Posted by: Naomi - 7/2/2004 (12:42) - 220.127.116.11
Photos Satoshi Saikusa
Depp had read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an alienated adolescent growing up in the small town of Miramar on Florida's Atlantic coast. He lived there with his mother, Betty Sue, who worked as a waitress after his father left the family. Even then, Depp appreciated society's outcasts and was "blown away" by Thompson's picaresque saga and the passion for justice that informs its lyrical hilarity. "Hunter has guts. He sacrificed himself for a lot of people," Depp says. Despite the 30 years separating them, Thompson and Depp have much in common. Both are Kentucky-born. And, it turns out, as teenagers they were both hooked by the same celluloid hero, the legendary Marlon Brando. Thompson saw Brando in The Wild One, a 1954 movie that defined youth alienation during the Eisenhower era. At age 16, Thompson set out to become the Brando of Louisville, adopting a black leather jacket and a Kool cigarette perpetually dangling from the corner of his mouth. Depp had his first Brando encounter in junior high school. His older brother Danny, who had turned the teenager on to Van Morrison's St. Dominic's Preview and Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, took him to see the aging, unrepentant rebel in 1972's Last Tango in Paris.
As a young journalist for The National Observer, a weekly Dow Jones publication, Thompson journeyed to Olympia, Washington, in March 1964 to meet Brando. Both men became personally involved in the Native American fishing-rights rebellion. (Thompson's magazine article on the subject was later republished in his anthology The Great Shark Hunt.) Thirty years later, Depp encountered Brando when they co-starred in Don Juan DeMarco (1995) and The Brave (1997), a never-released film about government oppression in Indian country.
Naturally, Brando, Depp, and Thompson would get along--they are bound by a devotion to social justice and an admiration for those who break the law to attain it. "I've been obsessed with outlaws all my life," Depp explains. Thompson has taken them beyond serious study; his highly personal, H. L. Mencken-inspired journalism began with his 1962 breakthrough article, "A Footloose American in a Smuggler's Den," a paean to South American rumrunners. Three years later, he was living in San Francisco's Haight-Asbury neighborhood and trailing the most notorious outlaws of the day--the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang--for The Nation. (The bikers beat him up in the process.) First serialized in Rolling Stone, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas embellishes on Thompson's drug-induced adventures with Oscar Zeta Acosta, the famed Chicano lawyer and a leader of the Brown Power movement in Southern California. The narrator's hyperbolic use of drugs and alcohol sought to underscore the hypocrisy of puritanical America.
But before long, Thompson began to worry that signing his name to a savage fictional drug fable might not be a wise career move; at the time, he was applying for White House press credentials to cover the 1972 presidential campaign. And if Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon's press secretary, thought Thompson himself was eating human adrenal glands for literary fuel, as described in Fear and Loathing, his chances of getting interviews with Nixon, Spiro Agnew, or other incumbent Republicans would be nil. After all, the book's Thompsonesque protagonist was a debauched dope fiend who, given his druthers, would flog every police officer within bullwhip range. Thus the pseudonymous byline in Rolling Stone read "Raoul Duke."
Happily, Thompson scored his credentials in time for the New Hampshire primary in March 1972. Random House was planning to publish Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in June--after most primaries would be over--so Thompson gave the publisher permission to put the book out under his name. In January 1972, Thompson took a job as Rolling Stone's national-affairs correspondent and drove his new blue Volvo 174 across the country, with his wife and son in tow, to a rented house in Washington, D.C. Out on the campaign trail in California a few weeks later, he received advance copies of his new book. "I knew the jig was up," Thompson recalls. "I immediately sought out Gary Hart (then McGovern's campaign manager), handed him the Vegas book, and said, 'This is your birthday present.' Hart read the dust jacket and the opening paragraph, which begins, 'We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,' and laughed it off. It was too late to expel me from the inner circle."
George Magazine, June 1998
Thompson considered Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a "political statement" against Nixonian authoritarianism and the Vietnam War. The book sold well, and he became a bona fide campaign-trail celebrity. He continued writing antic dispatches (under such headings as THE MILLION POUND SHITHAMMER and STONED ON THE ZOO PLANE) aimed straight at the candidates' viscera: Richard Nixon as "a vengeful zero with nine lives"; Edmund Muskie as a man who "talks with the desperation of a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop"; and Hubert Humphrey as a man given to prattling "like an 80-year-old woman who has just discovered speed." Thompson favored McGovern, and he showered the South Dakota senator with praise and even served as his unofficial adviser. "Hunter suggested at one point that I'd pull in a couple of million votes if I posed for a picture before the California primary wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, holding a can of beer, and leaning against a motorcycle," McGovern says. "I suspect he was right."
Johnny Depp was nine years old in 1972. Eleven years later, he was just another struggling musician on the L. A. punk circuit with his band, Six Gun Method. Broke and dissatisfied, Depp decided to give acting a shot, after his friend Nicholas Cage introduced him to a high-powered agent. Before long, Depp auditioned for and won a part in director Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, which would become a horror classic. He then landed a starting role as a heartthrob narc on 21 Jump Street, one of Fox TV's first hits. Overnight, he became a teenybopper's dreamboat. "They were selling me as a Kewpie doll, trying to make me into a neat package," Depp says. "It was death." Like Thompson, who had spent his life lashing out at purveyors of formulas, whether they be editors, agents, or other go-betweens, Depp rebelled. Thanks to what he calls the "divine intervention" of quirky director John Waters, Depp was rescued from a career aimed at pleasing television executives. "I told [Johnny] if he did Cry Baby, we'd kill that image," Waters says. "So he parodied himself by playing a teen idol, and it totally worked.
Even better, Depp transformed himself into one of Hollywood's most uncompromising and iconoclastic actors. Depp is constantly exploring the boundaries of alienation in such superb films as What's Eating Gilbert Grape (the caretaker of a monstrously obese mother), Edward Scissorhands (a misunderstood Frankenstein-like creature), Donnie Brasco (a bedeviled FBI agent), and Ed Wood (a wretchedly failed director).
Depp left his first meeting with Thompson in Woody Creek puzzled as to why Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had not been made into a feature film. He was now determined to bring Thompson to the big screen and make the character of Raoul Duke his own. To broach the possibility, Depp invited Thompson to do a one-night gig at the Viper Room, the actor's notorious rock club on Sunset Boulevard. Thus it was that on September 29, 1996, a sellout crowd roared with laughter as the two Kentucky outlaws held a kind of weird lyceum. Pere Ubu met Marcel Duchamp for three hours of absurdist dialogue ranging from Plato's parable of the cave to President Clinton's foreign policy. After the even, the two began corresponding by fax. A few weeks later, Thompson phoned Depp early one morning to ask whether the actor had any interest in playing Duke if a movie version of Fear and Loathing was ever made. Depp was taken aback. "It was the role I always wanted to play," he recalls. "Without hesitation, I said, 'You bet!'"
After that, Thompson invited Depp to a party celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fear and Loathing at New York's Lotos Club. Tom Wolfe, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Buffett, and other celebrities paid homage to Thompson's unique style of reportage. The crowd buzzed about whether John Cusak, Matt Dillon, or Johnny Depp would play Duke in the film. But Thompson had already made his choice. He had also decided to get Depp honored by their home state. As Thompson explains, "I told him, 'Don't worry, son. I'll make you a Kentucky color.'"
Within days, Thompson had asked Depp to come to Louisville and read from his work in public. "The Louisville gig has mushroomed into a huge historic event where the Mayor will present me with the Key to The City on stage at Memorial Auditorium with a SRO crowd of 8,000 and flutes playing and nymphets dancing on perfect gold-strung harps and teenage winos fighting in the aisles for autographs," Thompson wrote in his fax to Depp. "The scene is set for a beautiful public drama about Right and Wrong and about what happens to the high-life in Bluegrass Country when Billy the Kid returns more or less from the Dead and settles many old scores. And never mind the fact that he might be certifiably Insane ye god's they're giving him the Key to the f***ing City."
The event went off without a hitch, and afterward the latest recipient of the key to Louisville took the newly designated "Colonel" Depp on a nostalgic tour of Cherokee Park, where they paused at Thompson's boyhood home. Thompson had traveled quite a journalistic distance from the "Southern Star," the two-page mimeographed sports sheet he wrote when he was 11 and sold to his neighbors and friends. Depp was exhilarated. "I was so f***ing excited to be part of the Louisville extravaganza," he says. "It was fantastic."
That spring, Depp moved into the basement at Owl Farm for nearly a week. "Hunter was the deepest I've ever got into a character. I love and admire the guy," he explains. "I really wanted to get him down right." Soon, Depp's character study expanded into an archaeological dig for the artifacts of Fear and Loathing. Thompson had saved everything from those frenzied weeks in 1971 that had started with a trip to Las Vegas on assignment for Sports Illustrated to write the captions for a photo-essay on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. When Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner learned that Thompson was in Las Vegas, he gave the journalist another assignment--to cover the National District Attorneys Association's third annual Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which was being held at Caesars Palace. When Sports Illustrated "aggressively rejected" his copy, Thompson was free to focus on his Rolling Stone assignments. To unwind in his casino hotel room, he began typing up a journal of his bizarre Vegas odyssey.
Thompson didn't turn his journal into a book on the American dream until after he had left Las Vegas. Holed up in a swank Ramada Inn in Arcadia, California, across from the Santa Anita racetrack, he worked at fever pitch, frequenting the 24-hour coffee shop and breaking only for an occasional swim. Not only did he finish another Rolling Stone piece, but he had a first draft of Fear and Loathing by the time he returned to Woody Creek. There in his basement study, which had been dubbed the War Room and now serves as his archive, Thompson blasted the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" and, he says, "anguished over five or six drafts until I got it right."
Before filming, Depp sank into a mood of monkish idolatry for the writer, whom he compares with the French surrealist Antonin Artaud. Deborah Fuller, Thompson's longtime personal assistant, emerged from the War Room with a box of Fear and Loathing manuscripts and memorabilia: Circus Circus cocktail napkins and a ticket stub from a Debbie Reynolds lounge show, a Las Vegas city map and airport luggage tags, I. F. Stone's biweekly newsletter and a cloth money bag from the Mint Hotel, the Flamingo Hotel room service menu and a Whittlesea VIP U Drive Rent-a-Car receipt. "The freakiest thing was that it was all real, that the reality was as insane as the book," Depp says. "I was elbow-deep in literary history." For days, he delicately picked through the keepsakes and pored over Thompson's notebooks, reading aloud an unpublished chapter titled "Coconut Scene" (which director Terry Gilliam later incorporated into the movie). Fuller also turned up racks of Hunter's moth balled clothes from the 1970s: Hawaiian shirts, a patchwork jacket, a safari hat, a silver medal given to him by Oscar Acosta, his lawyer and compatriot in Vegas. Depp slipped into the garments. "I begged Hunter for the clothes, and he trusted me with them," he says. "After that, I figured why not go for it all, and I started xeroxing his notebooks." At the time, Thompson wasn't sure whether to trust his acolyte, wondering if he had "Judas Goat thief" in his house, filling pockets with irreplaceable mementos. But Depp is more respectful than that, and his enthusiasm paid off: His wardrobe in the film consists almost entirely of Thompson originals.
By week's end, Depp had captured a number of the mannerisms and vocal inflections of the man William F. Buckley, Jr. called "an important sociological phenomenon." Starting with the Dunhill cigarette in a holder, which Thompson bites with clenched jaw, Johnny had absorbed Thompson's externalities. The pair also bonded Iron John style, cooking breakfast together, shooting .44 Magnums, and analyzing the women of Kentucky's horse set. Depp ended up nearly bald after Thompson took an electric razor to his head. Johnny even wanted to master Thompson's driving style, so the writer drove them around Aspen in his classic red convertible. Depp noted every nuance as Thompson screeched into parking lots and seemed to him the car at on-coming traffic with glee. When Depp finally departed for Las Vegas at three o'clock one morning, it was in Hunter's red ride, which would be used in the film. Depp says he felt oddly confident, and with good reason. "Hunter gave me a mobile phone, endless flashlights, a tape player, wine, a full cooler, a big ugly ESPN jacket--everything I needed to live off the land," he recalls. "I felt that he had handed me the baton."
While he was on location in Los Angeles, Depp got a call from comedian Bill Murray, the Saturday Night Live alumnus who had played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam--an excruciating 1980 attempt to adapt Thompson's work and persona to the screen. Like Depp, Murray prepped for the role by spending time with Thompson. After the movie wrapped. Murray returned for another season of Saturday Night Live but found that he could not purge Thompson from his system. "Billy was not Billy Murray," a Saturday Night Live colleague recalls. "You couldn't talk to him without talking to Hunter Thompson."
Eighteen years later, Murray warned Depp, "Be careful or you'll find yourself ten years from now still doing him... Make sure your next role is some drastically different guy." Depp took Murray's advice to heart. As soon as Gilliam dismissed him from the set, Depp was off to play a southern astronaut. He is currently shooting a film version of The Rum Diary, Thompson's long-lost novel about vagabond journalists in Puerto Rico in the late 1950's, which Simon and Schuster will publish this October.
As Depp prepares to head off on a promotional tour for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson recently sent him a "Hey Rube!" letter, setting the terms straight for their future collaboration: "Yr performance in the Vegas film is majestic... I may denounce you for it, in self-defense, unless I get $3 million for my film rights for Rum Diary. That way, I can be effusive about yr. power and yr. genius, which I want in my heart to do. I have a feeling that this movie will plunge me into huge grief and social disapproval on the magnitude of Charles Manson. Jesus, just as I was finally getting respectable, you come along with this sleazy dopey movie and destroy my reputation."
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