Our ten hour journey from Woody Creek to Vegas had been rough, but now, as our caravan pulled into the circular driveway of the Palms Casino, I still had great hope that the premiere of Breakfast with Hunter would be a grand slam. Just as Hunter came to Vegas thirty-three years earlier in search of the American Dream, I was now returning to Vegas with Hunter desperately striving for another classic version of the Dream – filmmaker spends twenty years of his life making a movie about his hero that receives rave reviews, makes tons of money, and takes him to the Academy Awards.
But, of course, my American Dream was destined to become a nightmare, just as Hunter’s quest for the dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became a foolish errand for the drug addled after an empty myth. At least there was high comedy in Hunter’s 1970 account of his trips to Vegas. So far I wasn’t laughing as I pulled up behind the white RV at the Palms.
Producer Jennifer Erskine (and love of my life) was waiting by the special door at the far left of the entrance circle at the Palms with Bill “Doc” Sanders, the most mellow security man I have ever encountered. Bill worked for the Palms, and I had met him earlier in the week when I came through to advance the trip on my way from LA to Aspen to pick up Hunter. This refugee of the sixties who somehow ended up as a “risk assessment specialist” had introduced me to the Nine Group which managed the nightclubs and bars at the Palms, and showed me how to move around the hotel using a labyrinth of basement tunnels and service elevators. Celebrities want to be seen only on their own terms, especially in Las Vegas.
Inside the RV, Hunter was certainly in no shape to be observed. Enough stimulants to kill a horse and a half hour of coaxing were required to get the Beast out of the RV. I helped him down the two steps to the sidewalk realizing that he had zero mobility. My brother and Executive Producer Andrew Ewing sailed towards us across the sidewalk in his wheelchair. Although a paraplegic for over ten years, my brother “Drew” is a record-holding water skier and race car driver. But, his example was not inspiring Hunter at the moment as Bill and I carried Hunter up the six steps to the side entrance, then another excruciating twenty-five yards to the service elevator. Hunter spied a chair and asked for it to be put in the elevator so he could sit down while we rode up.
I realized that the gig was going to be far harder than we ever imagined because of his illness and pain and felt terribly guilty for having brought him back to Vegas. With Bill’s help, we got him into the suite, the best one I could wrangle with the special high ceiling for George Maloof’s Sacramento Kings when they came to party. Hunter hit the couching and didn’t leave it for at least fourteen hours.
On the way downstairs in the elevator with Bill, I bemoaned my fate. “You can see what I’m dealing with. Two weeks ago he was riding his exercise bike. Now he can’t walk. I need something he can move around in.”
“Mesa Medical,” responded Bill instantly. “That’s who the concierge uses for medical supplies. I’ll call them first thing in the morning.”
Bill was turning out to be our savior. He was not too assertive or intrusive, but always there when you needed him.
I went to my own room at the Palms provided by CineVegas and began to fight fires with Jennifer, talking to the various festival folks and trying to get ready to advance the art opening tomorrow at the Aladdin with Grace Slick. The former lead singer of Jefferson Airplane had come to CineVegas at their expense and my request as an honored guest to see her old friend Hunter and promote her art. There was also to be an Icons Seminar at the Venetian featuring Grace Slick, Hunter, Dennis Hopper and the art critic Dave Hickey.
Ironically, Grace became involved since her music was inextricably a part of the soundtrack of Breakfast with Hunter. In the film, Hunter attends a party celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the Lotus Club in New York City. As he enters, “White Rabbit” is playing very loudly in the elegant ballroom, and Hunter screeches and screams in glee. No way to use the scene without the music and no way to use the music without clearing, licensing, and paying for it. At that time I was just beginning to work with an excellent music clearance specialist in Hollywood, but to save money I thought I would be able to clear “White Rabbit” myself along with another Jefferson Airplane tune “Somebody to Love” which also is inextricably a part of the live sound on the sound stage where Hunter filmed his cameo for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Hunter knew Grace Slick from the sixties in San Francisco, but they had long been out of contact. So I put them back in touch through her agent, got Hunter to sign a book for her, and invited her to the premiere in Vegas as an honored guest with a plane ticket and a room at the Palms. Then, I asked for the music, and she said “Sure, you can have it for free.”
“The music is not hers to give,” said the cold-blooded music publishing company exec that controls the rights to much of the Jefferson Airplane catalogue. And she hung up.
And thus ensued a long series of unreturned phone calls to the publisher to beg for the right to pay for the use of the music. Recurring Cautionary Note to fledgling filmmakers: NEVER TRY TO CLEAR YOUR OWN MUSIC. And now I was stuck with Grace Slick and her manager in Vegas, and they were turning out to be quite needy as we worked on the arrangements for her art gallery opening at the Aladdin.
Anita called and said Hunter was agitated and starting to freak out. I volunteered to come up with Drew. She agreed it was a good idea. Drew always seemed to have a calming effect on Hunter, like putting a goat in a stall with a nervous thoroughbred.
Sure enough, the Beast began to bellow less as Drew rolled into the room. Hunter’s main concern seemed to be the lack of a typewriter. I said that Jennifer would take care of it, and he seemed Okay for the moment. Two friends of Anita’s showed up from San Francisco. We all smoked some excellent hash and actually had a good time for a bit. Literally on a high note, I took off with Drew, promising to be back shortly with a typewriter.
Jennifer was working feverishly trying to find a typewriter. Most people scoffed when asked. There was a rumor at the bell desk that there might be one stashed behind a secret door but no one had the key.
“You might as well look in the front of a model T,” scoffed the bell captain.
Then Bill “Security” Sanders returned her call to say that he had an old electric portable from college and would bring it over when his shift ended. Drew and I met Bill after midnight and went to Hunter’s suite with the typewriter. Hunter truly liked Bill’s personality and his ancient typewriter. Bill smoked a big cigar with one of his heroes, and I got a sense of peace for a moment. Once again, on the way down in the elevator with Bill, I thanked him for everything.
“No problem, Man. I just had the best few hours of the last few years of my life,” declared Bill.
“It’s because of who you are. Your personality.”
Mostly on the road you meet folks who are trying to get in your way. Bill was one of the rare ones who were there to save the day and were happy just getting a “thank you” in return. He is now the Senior Park Ranger at Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in Canon City, Colorado. Lucky tourists!
The next morning, Friday, June 20, 2003, having slept for more than a couple of hours for the first time in weeks, I was ready for some heavy advance work, starting with Rain, the disco club on the first floor of the Palms, and then the Ghost Bar on the top of the hotel. Both were wildly popular. A line for the Ghost Bar elevator stretched endlessly around the lobby of the Palms until four am every morning. Bill had showed me where to get the service elevator in the basement that went straight into the coat room of the Ghostbar for a clandestine entrance. Of course, you still had to talk your way through the security guy at the top, so that Friday I was making friends.
Earlier in the week, I had met Gina B. of the Nine Group – a Cher look-a-like who Bill said would set up Hunter and his A-list friends at the clubs. Taking a meeting with Gina on the empty dance floor of Rain was a bit unsettling since her work attire was a bikini top with eye-popping breasts, brief panty “boy shorts,” and nothing else, except a bandolier style leather belt to hold her radio. Gina graciously showed us the Sky Box above the dance floor that she had reserved for Hunter and his friends. I knew Hunter could never walk to the Sky Box and most likely be too embarrassed to use the scooter the concierge had just ordered for him. He would also hate the noise, but the option had to be there if he wanted to party. More likely, he would use the area set aside for him at the Ghost Bar, compliments of George Maloof.
The scooter was delivered by 11am. A sleek, brand new black model that we planned to dress up with CineVegas stickers and raccoon tails. He could go anywhere with this baby except up stairs. A sense of confidence was growing after yesterday’s painful journey as we headed to the Aladdin ( now renamed Planet Hollywood ) to advance the art gallery opening. We nailed down the load in from a delivery ramp, arranged for a pedi cab to take Hunter from the loading dock to the gallery, set up a private space for Hunter at the gallery and ordered extra security.
“It’s so buttoned down, it’s going to happen,” I said to Jennifer as we left the Aladdin.
“That’s why it won’t,” she replied wisely.
I checked my voice mail and heard a long, dreadful message from Anita: Hunter had freaked out during the night and was trying to bolt from Las Vegas. He had called his lawyer George Tobia pleading with him to get him a plane or at least a bigger suite somewhere else.
“The problem is the hotel,” Anita said in the message. “George is going to get us a suite at the MGM Grand and I am going to go look at it after I go buy him a typewriter.”
I marveled at the irony of Hunter obsessing over a typewriter that he would never use, and the idea of moving to the MGM Grand that was spread out more than O’Hare Airport. Hunter would be even more inaccessible and removed from the Palms and CineVegas. Pulling up at the Palms, we ran into Anita, Eve ( the vulture like second assistant introduced in Part One of the Return to Las Vegas, and some writer from Playboy who Hunter had conned into thinking that he could write a piece about his return to Vegas. I pleaded with Anita who I could see was on the verge of hysterics herself (imagine being trapped all night in a hotel room with that insanity).
I exclaimed, “We got everything he asked for – the typewriter, the scooter. The events tonight are perfectly planned. All he has to do is show up.”
Anita left me standing in the parking lot, as my cell phone rang once more. The CineVegas publicist was calling. A LA Times reporter and a photographer were here to do a story about Hunter’s return to Vegas, and she had stupidly promised him access to write his own version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I knew this was going to be one disappointed journalist, but agreed to meet him in the Palms coffee shop anyway.
The journalist was unimpressed when I tried to divert his fixation on actually meeting Hunter by telling him the story of our journey to Vegas and how I had mistakenly thought the RV had blown up on the road.
“When am I going to get see him? We need pictures,” demanded the writer, ignoring my story.
“A smart reporter would have patience,” I observed, trying to feign some sort of wisdom to hide my fear. “It may well happen tonight, and if it does it may well be three am.”
The writer and the photographer left, and were replaced at the table by much friendlier faces – Curtis Robinson and his wife Donna, both journalists and friends from the Owl Farm kitchen who published their own paper, The Roaring Fork Sunday. I told them about the last twenty-four hours, and asked for their help. I didn’t have to plead. As members of the tribe, they knew the trouble I faced. There was one glimmer of hope. Bill told me that Johnny Depp had been “checked into” the hotel. I knew that Hunter would have to behave for Johnny. But, we never saw him, even though the rumor of his arrival would not die.
Friday night started badly and then got worse. Not hearing from Anita and getting no response to repeated calls, I told Grace Slick and her manager to not wait for Hunter and to go ahead to her Aladdin art gallery opening without him. After a few hours, I finally get a call from Anita saying that they are still in the suite at the Palms and that Hunter wants to see friends and party. So Drew and I go check out the Skybar. Mario the manager of the Skybar had a special area reserved for Hunter and friends with drinks compliments of George Maloof.
We go to Hunter’s suite and find Hunter hanging out with a former Playmate of Year that his old girlfriend Laila Nabulsi insisted had to attend the premiere. The Playmate struck me as a cheap whore, and I had no idea why we needed her for “promotional purposes” but I had agreed to pay for her room across the street at the Gold Coast. Then, she started complaining, “Who is this guy Wayne Ewing who is paying for my hotel room? He wouldn’t even pay for incidentals!”
I reached over to attract her attention by lightly touching her arm and said, “That’s me.”
“Don’t touch me,” screamed the Playmate, as if I had just tried to molest her.
I followed Hunter into the bedroom and tried to talk about the LA Times writer, but then he started screaming as well. Anita asked Drew and I to leave, which we were happy to do. We returned to the Ghost Bar where rubes had taken over Hunter’s space. We hung out for a while and then I figured I better go check on the Beast again.
Leaving Drew behind to stake out a least a few square feet for Hunter if he decided to come out of hiding, I went back to the suite. Eve came to the door, and opened it only a few inches, then hesitantly let me in. ( ‘I’m the fucking Road Manager and this bitch now thinks she is charge, “ my mind raged ) Benicio del Toro is there now, along with a couple of guys who hope to produce The Rum Diary. There is also a drunken, investment banker from New York slurring her words. Benicio wants to go to the Ghost Bar, but Hunter still refuses to leave the suite.
“Can you get me in?” Benicio asked me.
“I don’t think they’ll hesitate,” I replied.
“But I need you to take me there,” he insisted.
I guess when you’re a “known” person like Benicio, you’re not comfortable moving around Vegas on your own so I agreed to take him. We had also once thrown a couple of drunks out of Depp’s mansion in Hollywood together, so I felt I owed him the favor. Yet, after showing him the special service elevator and leading him into the bar, Benicio turned just as weird and unfriendly as Hunter when I tried to introduce him to my brother sitting in his wheelchair amidst the swirling crowd.
“I’ve met your brother,” he barked at both of us and then moved off into the crowd, I assume in search of someone more famous and important than us.
Then to add to the insults, Eve – the young, second assistant who had ridden all the way to Vegas with me – emerged from the crowd. (“Finally,” I thought. “At least a pretty girl to talk to,” as I reached out to attract her attention.) She turned and literally HISSSED at me like a viper and moved away quickly. My American Dream of being the most interesting man in Vegas this weekend was clearly not to be.
The CineVegas publicist was also there in the Ghost Bar, and she kept insisting how important it was to get the LA Times journalist and his photographer some time with Hunter. They went to the Aladdin gallery opening despite being told to wait for confirmation and now are truly pissed-off. Despite my deep, well-founded belief that all was already lost, I went back to Hunter’s suite to see if I could arrange the interview.
Oddly, Hunter was now insisting that he wanted to “speak to the press.” At first, only the New York Times would do, but finally he agreed that the Los Angeles Times would suffice. Triumphantly, I called the publicist and told her to get them here immediately. She promised it would be less than twenty minutes.
“Where are the Goddamn photographer and reporter?” growled the Beast, restlessly waiting.
When she knocked on the suite door, I found her, the journalist, and a new photographer I had not met before.
“Who’s this,” I asked.
“He works for CineVegas. The LA Times guy couldn’t make it on such short notice at one am,” she replied testily.
Desperate for publicity, I made the mistake of letting them in. Hunter was virtually incoherent at this point so the writer got nothing out of it, and the photographer was cut in the forehead by his camera when Hunter threw the head of a mannequin at him. Threatening to sue, the photographer and journalist left along with the publicist. I admonished Hunter for his behavior. He screamed he wouldn’t be told what to do by a “toady” so I left in a huff trying to figure out what a toady is, but I knew it wasn’t good.
The next day, Saturday, was the premiere. But first there was to be the Icons Seminar at the Venetian. The venue was quite large, but they expected to fill it. I had done all I could to make sure it would work, even meeting with seminar participant and art critic Dave Hickey in Vegas weeks before to make sure the chemistry would work with Hunter. Hickey was smart, articulate and funny. I hoped Hunter could rise to his level.
Naturally, after staying up all night getting cranked up on cocaine and pain killers, Hunter refused to go to the seminar. It was amazing that he was still alive, but at this point I was beginning not to care. The CineVegas folks insisted that I go on stage in Hunter’s stead, and I got the rare privilege of discovering what a right wing nut Dennis Hopper really was, arguing with him about whether George Bush had the right to imprison people forever without a trial. Captain America’s buddy from Easy Rider thought it was a pretty good idea.
The most interesting comment in the seminar was by Dave Hickey who observed that “to be an Icon one must be relatively opaque so that people can read into the Icon whatever they want.” That was certainly true of Hunter. I had noticed for years how fans would bring their own baggage and read into his experience and personality exactly what they needed to think for themselves.
I needed the Icon that was Hunter to show up for the premiere that night, but had virtually no hope as I sat in the Palms coffee shop at 6pm talking with Curtis and Donna Robinson. The logistical problems had been solved: Andrea Weinberger of CineVegas came up with the idea of having two statuesque Vegas showgirls “escort” Hunter into the theater arm in arm. They would actually be holding him up so that he would appear to be able to walk. And, Bill Sanders of Security had a golf cart lined up to get him from the elevator across the casino floor to the theater and the showgirls. All that we lacked was Hunter himself who had not left his suite at the Palms in the two days since he had arrived.
“You go get him,” I told Curtis. “If I have to go up there again, I might hurt him.”
Curtis, out of friendship and I also suspect a bit of masochistic curiosity agreed to go get Hunter. I headed for the theater, bumping into the Playmate of the Year at the candy counter. By now she had figured out that I was the director of the film, and tried to flirt a bit, looking like a Hispanic Daisy Mae in cutoff blue jean short shorts. I tried to insult her as much as possible by ignoring her and waited to see if Hunter would appear.
Above the heads of the patrons dumping their money into slot machines, I caught a glimpse of Curtis gliding through the casino about as fast as you can imagine would be possible without magic. Then the golf cart came into view, driven by Bill Sanders with Hunter sitting next to him like a King and Curtis standing behind on the running board like the King’s coachman. They stopped at the theater entrance where the two tall show girls put their arms around Hunter and essentially carried him to his seat.
Donna Robinson, who in addition to being a great journalist was beginning to experiment with video, recorded a few seconds of Hunter entering with the girls and then the question and answer session after the premiere.
As the lights came up, Benicio del Toro told me, “It plays, Man!” and that was enough for me to forgive his rudeness the night before. Johnny Depp never showed up, but I figured he was smart enough to know that he didn’t want to hang out with the Hunter Thompson that was in Vegas that weekend and took no offense.
There was a star-studded crowd at the party afterwards by the Palms pool. Daryl Hannah and Christina Aguilera certainly caught my eye as we rolled Hunter around the pool in the golf cart and set him up in his own cabana, sitting on a large amplifier case so that all could see him. One friend called it the “Hunter Viewing Area.” Robin Leach of “Life Styles of the Rich and Famous” thrust a video camera in Hunter’s face and got only gibberish in return. Hunter kept reaching out with his cane and trying to hit the guests violently. Fearing that someone would eventually be seriously hurt, I asked Bill to bring the golf cart and we rolled Hunter on the amp case to the cart, slid him into the front seat, and then drove him out the back way as the crowd cheered.
I never even got a chance to talk to Daryl Hannah, but didn’t really care. I put my arm around Jennifer and took her upstairs, then went by Hunter’s suite to say thanks, and found only Hunter and Anita sitting solemnly. Their bags were all packed.
“I found a jet that can take us home at dawn,” she announced.
“Great. How much is it?” I asked
“Four Thousand dollars!” she said, yet not directly asking for the money. I assumed they were leaving regardless of who paid.
“I’ll split it with you,” I offered, and she accepted.
Hunter said nothing. I tried to thank him for coming, and apologized for all his pain and agony. I told him what an incredible success the screening had been, but he said nothing. We agreed to meet in a few hours at 6am to go to the airport. I called Bill and had him drive us in the Navigator that Drew had spent a thousand dollars renting, but Hunter had yet to use.
On the way, Hunter asked Bill, “What do you call people who move to Las Vegas and still party and gamble?”
“We call them losers,” said Bill flatly.
There was a bit of confusion driving onto the runway and Hunter started screaming at Bill who didn’t seem to take it personally, but I was still ashamed for the Beast. We found the Lear and two pilots waiting. Hunter got out of the Navigator, stood upright for the first time in days and insisted on smoking pot on the tarmac by the plane in full view of the control tower. The pilots stood by impassively. In Vegas, it gets a lot stranger than that, I imagine. Hunter and Anita took off and I returned to the Palms for one more bit of weirdness.
Grace Slick and her manager were in the lobby of the Palms with Jennifer throwing a fit because her return plane reservation had somehow been cancelled. Her manager insisted that I pay $10,000 to rent her a jet to fly to LA. I offered Grace a ride with Jennifer who was just about to drive her Honda the four hours to LA.
“I must have a jet. I don’t ride in RVs,” said Grace, spitting the words at me. Clearly, Hunter had been bitching to her about our RV ride.
“Then you pay for it,” I told the faded rock star and walked away.
Slick actually did pay for her own jet plane, and we figured out that her reservation was cancelled because of her use of the stage name “Slick” which does not match her government issued ID. Her manager threatened to call the AP and get a negative story written. I told him to fuck off and proceeded to have a good time gambling at the Palms with Drew.
I was winning at blackjack that afternoon, when Jennifer called with the Variety review.
“Hunter S. Thompson finally gets what he deserves….undiluted, 200 proof.” – Scott Foundas
And, then the Hollywood Reporter compared Breakfast with Hunter favorably to Don’t Look Back and called it “an intimate verite portrait that honors its subject with fierce affection and respect.” – Sheri Linden.
The reviews, if nothing else, made the return to Las Vegas worth the horror, although our relationship was never quite the same for the next year and a half before he killed himself. I still went out to Owl Farm frequently and filmed every once in a while, but Vegas seemed to have changed things for both of us, even though it was unclear how much of the experience Hunter could actually remember.
“You should have been in Las Vegas for the premiere,” Hunter told a dumbfounded Curtis later that fall.
I do know one thing for sure though. Next time, if and when the Beast comes back again, I’m going to get our own jet plane.
Copyright 2013 by Wayne Ewing