By 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.
“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.
Why 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]