Interview: Alex Gibney on “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson”

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07022008_gonzo1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Doc filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) made indie film headlines this past week after instigating a seven-figure lawsuit against ThinkFilm, who he claims botched the theatrical release of his recent Oscar-winning feature “Taxi to the Dark Side.” If it weren’t such a severe case of feeling wronged, one might be inclined to think it was an outlandish opportunity to promote his new film about an equally outlandish personality, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” Appropriately narrated by Johnny Depp, Gibney’s portrait of the late, great Thompson — the pioneering first-person journalist and drug-loving iconoclast who committed suicide in 2005 — covers mostly the peak period of his career, from his dangerous embedding with outlaw bikers (1965’s “Hell’s Angels”) through his Rolling Stone coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign (“Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72”). Gibney spoke with me about Thompson’s intricacies, the turbulent state of being an indie filmmaker today and the special rule he has about holding his Oscar.

What do you personally feel Thompson achieved beyond creating an idiosyncratic persona?

He was a novelist in a journalist’s body, and he combined those two skills in one person, along with a tremendous sense of humor, which I think stemmed from a great anger. In his heyday, at his best, it was that ability to be a really good reporter, but give us the benefit of his personal perceptions and hallucinations to create a more wild vision of reality that seemed very much in sync with the time.

The late George Carlin, another icon who turned people’s words and hypocrisies against them, hadn’t voted since McGovern’s presidential run in ’72 because he didn’t feel it mattered. Your film posits that Thompson felt a similar impotence. Would anything change today if his brand of “Gonzo” still existed?

I think there are signs of Thompson-like behavior, but they come in odd places. In a way, [Stephen] Colbert and Jon Stewart inherited some of Thompson’s mantle: a kind of anger that expresses itself through comedy, but always with this attachment to the real McCoy. Or in Colbert’s case, a guy who is imagining himself as a fictional character and having satirical fun by creating that character, as much as Thompson did. The unique thing about Hunter was that he had the whole package. I’m not saying someone great couldn’t come along again. I’m just saying he was unique, the way [Norman] Mailer was and Tom Wolfe was. These guys were larger than life, but they each had a singular voice. It’s tough to find that.

But in terms of the political, I don’t think Hunter gave up. The piece we start the film with, on 9/11, was pretty prescient. It’s a jaw-dropper. It doesn’t seem that big a deal when you think about someone writing that today, but between 9/11 and 9/12, it’s powerful because it was hard to see how it was going to play out then. He saw it very clearly, and that was impressive writing. I just think he never really succeeded after ’75 in terms of matching his writing talent with the size of the subject matter he was covering.

07022008_gonzo2.jpg“Gonzo” heavily utilizes archival footage and clips from both Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and older documentaries. Beyond a fuller timeline of events, what does your film bring to the table that those other works didn’t on their own?

I think it brings a texture and vitality. Every piece of narration in the field is made from Hunter’s words, read by Johnny Depp, who inhabits him — not like a narrator reads text, but like an actor inhabits a character. This guy really knew and felt deeply about Hunter, and still does. Even the films that are made about Hunter aren’t just there for eye candy. We’re dealing with a guy who was both a reporter and a celebrity. He was the covered and the person who’s doing the covering. As a collage of materials, you really get the essence of Hunter and his time, how one person tried to make a difference, but how the character he created — and the lifestyle that everyone else lived vicariously through — ultimately destroyed him.

At nearly two hours, I’m guessing there was still more material you couldn’t work into the film. What events or angles would you liked to have included, if it wasn’t for the greater good to chop them?

I wish I’d been able to do a section on “The Curse of Lono.” It’s not political, but I find that to be a hilarious book. We thought about doing a big section on Lisl Auman, [a wrongly imprisoned woman Thompson rallied for], but I know Wayne Ewing’s working on a film about that, so why duplicate it? I wanted to do something about Puerto Rico — the young novelist and the time he spent hanging out there with William Kennedy, the great novelist. There were wonderful audio tape recordings, and that’s one thing we’ve solved. Hunter used to make audio tapes late at night. Sometimes he’d combine stuff that he’d record in the field with his own running commentary, with music. We’re going to release five CDs of those on a special collection called “The Gonzo Tapes” in conjunction with the film.

I had really hoped to see Thompson’s son, Juan, talk more about life with his father, which might have offered more insight to the person, not just his career. Did Juan not want to open up, or was that a conscious choice on your part?

I think we got enough. When Juan says, “When I’d come home from school, my father would wake up and have breakfast,” that gives you some sense of it. He learned to accept that, but it may not have always been easy for Juan to grow up with a guy who lived such an unconventional life. If I was going to do a deeper probing look at his family life, maybe I would’ve spent longer with it. If you look at the film again and listen carefully to the way [Thompson’s first wife] Sandy says her stuff and Juan says his, I think you get a portrait of what things may have been like around the Thompson household, even though it’s not always addressed directly.

Many people would be thrilled to have a documentary made about them, but do you think a guy like Thompson would’ve liked your portrait of him?

When we went to Sundance with the film, I had ruptured a disc in my back and could barely walk and was on painkillers. My editor-collaborator Alison Ellwood had broken her leg. We were saying it was the psychic revenge of Hunter Thompson, seeking to cripple us for having mucked about with his life. I suspect he probably would’ve been flattered and enraged at the same time.

07022008_gonzo3.jpgWhy do you think docs have seen such a commercial decline in the last few years?

I don’t think it’s just documentaries. We’re seeing that the indie world is having difficulty at the theatrical box office, and there are a number of reasons for that. One is that there’s a glut of pictures. Another may be that [when] you have these big flat-screen TVs at home with big speakers, sometimes it’s a nicer viewer environment than a lousy cineplex with tinny sound, a popcorn machine and screaming people on the other side of a door that isn’t insulated. We’ll see — these things also tend to be cyclical. I think there’s a tremendous appetite for documentaries and the form is undergoing a renaissance. There are fewer successes on the big screen recently, but from what I’m hearing about the response to Marina Zenovich’s Polanski film on HBO, everybody’s been watching and talking about it. They’re still making an impact.

I’m guessing you can’t talk too much about your legal matters with ThinkFilm, but more broadly, could you discuss the perils or potential cautionary tales of being an indie filmmaker working with distributors today?

Particularly today, filmmakers need to be careful about what their distribution strategy is and why. Every film may not be appropriate for a theatrical release, and the theatrical business is not a very good business for anybody except the distributor. The exhibitor takes half up front and the expenses are always taken out of the producer’s share; it’s not a pretty picture. It’s good for creating a profile for a filmmaker, but sometimes TV is a much better venue. It just depends on the film or the project. There are all sorts of inventive ways to get your film out there, sometimes via the Internet, sometimes via viral screenings in people’s living rooms across the country. I would tell filmmakers: Don’t just be seduced by the same old, same old. There are interesting things you can explore that may get your film out there to audiences better than the traditional distribution mechanisms.

What perks do you get with an Academy Award?

Oscar always opens up doors, especially the night of the Oscars. On that night, you hold that gold man and it’s like having Gandalf’s staff. You can go anywhere and do anything. It’s a talisman of such power. I’ve never been confronted before by a wall of white light as when I stepped out on the curb with my wife to go to the Miramax party. Suddenly, there were all these paparazzi, and they’re not really even taking pictures of me, it’s all the statue. There’s no question, it’s powerful.

But the further away you get from Oscar, the more doors don’t open automatically. [laughs] It’s no longer the revolving door, or maybe it is: you go in one end and come out the other. Look, it was an honor, and it helped open up people to a film that was tough for many to come to see, so that was a thrill. We keep it in the bathroom on the first floor of our house. The rule is, anybody can go in there and make a speech to the mirror, but you only get 45 seconds and then the music starts.

“Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” opens in limited release on July 4th.

[Photos: Hunter S. Thompson; Thomson again; director Alex Gibney – “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.