The Rum Diary
A long-time dream of Johnny Depp’s—to bring his friend Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel to the screen—reached fulfillment on March 27, 2009, when cameras rolled in Puerto Rico on the first scenes of The Rum Diary, with Bruce Robinson, director of the classic comedy Withnail and I, directing his adaptation of Hunter’s work. Sadly, the Good Doctor did not live to see the film made, but a director’s chair bearing the name Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was placed on the set next to Johnny Depp’s every day during filming, as a gesture of respect and affection.
While Thompson’s novel (written in 1959 but not published until 1998, nearly 40 years later) draws on his real-life experience as a journalist in Puerto Rico during the late 1950s, The Rum Diary is fiction—a work of the imagination, not an autobiography. Johnny Depp stars as Paul Kemp, a frustrated, recently divorced writer who leaves New York for Puerto Rico, hoping to recreate himself. Kemp longs to be Hemingway but instead becomes a freelancer at a struggling local newspaper, the San Juan Star. Kemp does what most Hemingway wannabes do—writes to make a living, compromises his standards, hangs out with a colorful, hard-living crowd, soaks up the local culture and a considerable quantity of the local alcohol, gets in a spot of trouble with the law, and falls for the wrong woman . . . in Kemp’s case, the stunning and seductive Chenault, played by Amber Heard. Unfortunately Chenault is engaged to Sanderson, a local businessman involved in shady property deals, played by Aaron Eckhart.
The actors in the romantic triangle receive excellent support from a strong ensemble that includes Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) as Lotterman, the hapless editor of the San Juan Star; Michael Rispoli as Kemp’s pal, the photographer Bob Sala; Giovanni Ribisi as Moburg; Marshall Bell as Donovan; Amaury Nolasco as Segurra; Bill Smitrovich as Zimburger, and Karen Austin as Mrs. Zimburger.
Director of Photography for The Rum Diary is the always-brilliant Dariusz Wolski, who shot the entire Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, as well as Tim Burton’s most recent films, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Two-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood brings her magic touch to the period costumes; she has previously worked on six Johnny Depp films (Alice in Wonderland, Public Enemies, Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood, and Edward Scissorhands). Production design is by Chris Seagers, and composer Christopher Young will score the film.
The Rum Diary was shot entirely on location in Puerto Rico, from March 27 through June 11, 2009. Enthusiastic crowds greeted the filmmakers whenever they filmed in populated areas, and the bright yellow building in Old San Juan which served as the location for the San Juan Star was a favorite spot for Depp-watchers to gather. The spectacular carnival scenes shot in Vega Baja also drew hundreds of onlookers. As for Johnny’s approach to the character of Paul Kemp, he told writer Douglas Brinkley that “he hopes to interpret the character as a sort of booze-salted Bogart,” caught in a romantic triangle a la Casablanca. “I’m trying to get at the essence of the young Hunter,” Johnny explained.
The Rum Diary holds particular interest for followers of Johnny Depp’s career because it is the debut film of Infinitum Nihil, the production company headed by Johnny Depp and his sister Christi Dembrowski. The film is also produced and financed by Graham King and his production company GK Films.
The Rum Diary’s long journey to the screen began in 2000, when it was optioned by the independent production company Shooting Gallery (great name—sadly, the firm no longer exists, although producer Robert Kravis has stayed with the project) and SPi Films. Johnny Depp would be executive producer and star as Paul Kemp, with Nick Nolte also starring and producing through his firm, Kingsgate Entertainment (no relationship to Graham King). Two years later, Film Engine picked up the option and announced plans to produce The Rum Diary with Kingsgate partner Greg Shapiro (who has also stayed with the film). Benicio Del Toro (who starred with Johnny in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Josh Hartnett joined the cast, with Del Toro slated to make his directorial debut. The film was scheduled to shoot in late 2003, right after Johnny finished Secret Window . . . but then fate intervened. Del Toro had a family emergency and withdrew as director; Hartnett had other films waiting for his services; and Johnny Depp, due to the worldwide success of a little pirate film he made for Disney, was the hottest actor on the planet. The window of opportunity to shoot The Rum Diary closed. Instead, Johnny filmed The Libertine (another long-simmering independent project) in early 2004 and then followed it with a slew of major films: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Sweeney Todd, and Public Enemies. Hunter Thompson’s tragic death in February 2005 also required a period of mourning and adjustment for those connected to The Rum Diary; it must have been heartbreaking to consider making the film as a posthumous tribute to the Good Doctor rather than a shared enterprise.
The Rum Diary found new life in April 2007 when Dark & Stormy Entertainment, a new company co-founded by Robert Kravis, joined the project as a producer. With Infinitum Nihil (which didn’t even exist when The Rum Diary was first optioned), Graham King’s GK Films and Warner Independent Pictures all agreeing to produce the film, The Rum Diary’s chances looked excellent; then the writer’s strike hit, and Warner Bros. shelved The Rum Diary and abandoned the indie film business, shuttering Warner Independent Pictures. It was a year and a half before there was any good news. In early December 2008, Variety reported that “cameras might start rolling on the long-awaited film of The Rum Diary in March 2009.” And, at long last, they did.
Writer-director Bruce Robinson, Oscar-nominated for his script for The Killing Fields and lionized for Withnail and I, endured four years on the Rum Diary rollercoaster before finally getting to shoot his film. “I’m working with the world’s most famous movie star all of a sudden,” a bemused Robinson told Screen International’s Wendy Mitchell in spring 2009. “It’s kind of a shock to the central nervous system.” His take on the novel? “It’s really about Hunter S. Thompson before he became Hunter S. Thompson,” Robinson explains. “He’s looking for that voice.” Robinson does see some similarities between The Rum Diary and his own much-lauded comedy Withnail and I: “The Rum Diary is a much more sophisticated film, and it’s got boats and car chases, but I’m going to try to keep it simple, and in that way it’s like Withnail and I,” he explains. The “surreal humor” which rises from the characters’ situations is another common factor. “It’s a frightening, thrilling ride, but I’m so delighted to have such a great team,” says Robinson. “I’m driven to make this great film to live up to the material and to Johnny. [. . .] It’s not a solo effort.”
The Rum Diary is currently in post-production and is expected to be released in 2010, although no dates have been set.--Part-Time Poet
Director Gore Verbinski re-teams with his Pirates of the Caribbean leading man, Johnny Depp, for his new film Rango; the intrepid duo will leave the high seas for the southwestern desert . . . by way of the animation studio, that is. Johnny Depp will supply the voice and body language for the character of Rango, a pet chameleon who gets separated from his family while they are traveling out West. According to the official synopsis, Rango “is accidentally stranded in an old western town called Dirt. Surrounded by a slew of crazy locals, Rango goes on an exciting journey to discover the hero within himself.”
Verbinski has surrounded Johnny with an impeccable vocal cast that includes Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin (Oscar-nominated for Little Miss Sunshine), Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ned Beatty. The screenplay, based on an idea by Verbinski, was written by John Logan, whose credits include Sweeney Todd, The Aviator, and Gladiator.
Paramount is financing and distributing the feature-length animated film, which will be produced by Verbinski’s Blind Wink Productions; Graham King, whose GK Films developed the project; and John Carls.
“The combination of Gore’s exciting vision and the talents of John Logan and Johnny Depp make Rango a great tentpole for Paramount’s 2011 slate,” said the Vice Chairman of Paramount Pictures, Rob Moore, when the project was announced in September 2008. Verbinski returned the compliment, declaring, “I am tremendously excited about the support and enthusiasm we have received at Paramount.” Rango will be Gore Verbinski’s first full-length animated film, and it will feature cutting-edge technology from the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic that will “allow us to capture and translate every aspect of Johnny’s performance, using it to drive the computer-generated character in a way that has yet to be seen in an animated feature,” Verbinski told Variety. Rango will reunite the director with another key member of the Pirates of the Caribbean crew: ILM’s visual effects supervisor John Knoll, who garnered an Oscar nomination for each installment of the POTC trilogy, and took home the award in 2007. “ILM previously worked with Verbinski to create the octopus-faced Davy Jones character played by Bill Nighy in the Pirates pics,” notes Variety; it will be intriguing to see what they design for Rango. “The techniques we are employing will allow us to capture and translate every aspect of Johnny’s performance, using it to drive the computer-generated character in a way that has yet to be seen in an animated feature,” Verbinski promised. “This is not a disembodied voice: Johnny Depp is Rango.”
Bill Nighy also returns from the Pirates of the Caribbean cast, playing the villain “who does battle” with Johnny Depp’s Rango. “I play the bad guy,” Nighy told the press in summer 2009. “I play a very, very bad guy. I’m a rattlesnake and I am a gun-slinging assassin. I literally have a Gatling gun—I have a machine gun in my tail—so I can just spray the whole town. I can kill everybody whenever I wish. I’m brought in by the corrupt sheriff to sort things out. It’s quite cool.”
Rango’s vocal cast reported to the studio in January and February of 2009 to perform their roles—which, said Isla Fisher, was nothing like the typical experience an actor has when doing an animated film. ‘‘Usually when you work on an animated movie, it’s really sterile, you know, you’re in a booth on your own, just with the director,” Fisher told Moviehole. “But [Verbinski] is shooting it like a real movie. So we’re all acting on stage and he’s shooting it. So then you go in to the sound booth and record your voice, so you have the memory of the emotions in the scene in your voice, rather than just having to conjure them up out of thin air.’’
Fisher, who plays “a tough little gun-toting lizard,” definitely approves of Verbinski’s unusual, theatrical approach. “That’s what’s so interesting [. . .]. We’re shooting it like a play. So we’re all on stage, and we act it out, and he shoots it with cameras. Then he’s going to animate the characters to match our faces. [. . .] I’m really enjoying this process. It really adds such depth to the performance to actually see the other actor you’re interacting with and to experience it, rather than just be alone in a booth.” “We are creating something that will resonate with a broad audience and stick in the minds of kids all across the globe,” Verbinski told Variety. “The characters and circumstances are buoyant and rich in humor and attitude, yet with a surprising emotional depth.”
Rango is currently in post-production and is scheduled to be released to theaters in March 2011. --Part-Time Poet