Six months had passed since Hunter’s trip to Hollywood in the spring of 1997 to replace Alec Cox as the director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (FLLV), and now, with the film in production, the Beast was bedeviled by another director interpreting his most famous work. Terry Gilliam inspired a special paranoia in Hunter, especially when it came to Hunter’s cameo role slated for the film. Thus, in September, 1997 Hunter asked me to advance his appearance on the set of FLLV.
Since Hunter’s spring stay at the Chateau Marmont (see “The Chateau Marmont Parts 1 & 2″ herein) I had sailed the Barney Google to Ventura, where I was directing the TV series “Mike Hammer” with Stacy Keach. So it was an easy reach between episodes to drive down to the classic small, old time movie studio in Hollywood where they had built the major sets for FLLV and were shooting. Hunter’s former girlfriend, Laila Nabulsi had taken comfortably to her role as the Producer of the film with a nice office overlooking the lot where we met to talk about Hunter’s cameo.
“It’ll be so easy. All Hunter has to do is sit on a stool in front of a green screen. Terry wants to have his face just float through a scene, like a hallucination,” said Laila off-handedly.
Having listened interminably the night before to Hunter ranting about how he would not be “manipulated” or “abused” by Terry Gilliam, I imagined it more likely Gilliam could get a 500 pound panther on meth to sit for the shot than Hunter.
“Hunter won’t stand for that, much less sit, once he realizes the green background makes it so Terry can do whatever he wants with his image,” I warned, and then suggested an idea that had occurred to me driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to the studio. “How about if Hunter and Johnny have a brief, chance encounter in some scene? They just pass by each other. Maybe with some recognition. Maybe not.”
And Laila, bless her persistent soul, took to the idea immediately, suggesting that the Matrix Club scene scheduled to be shot in the next few weeks might be perfect. The real, old Hunter could be sitting in the crowd as Johnny walked by as the young Hunter of FLLV.
Depp was friendly as ever and his trailer looked like a good place to stash Hunter when we came back. The sets were cool, especially the Circus Circus promenade which was built on an extreme angle to create the illusion that Johnny and Benicio would be walking bent over from the ankles. When I was introduced to the set dresser as Hunter’s “road manager,” she inquired what would be an appropriate book to have in the hotel room. Since Hunter had just been raving about The Death Ship by B. Traven, I suggested that title, and sure enough this cultish book about a man enslaved by the lack of a passport on a tramp steamer appears in the final film prominently next to Depp’s head when he awakes from a drugged stupor.
Hunter was far from stupefied when he arrived at the Burbank airport a few weeks later on a Lear jet to appear in his own movie. His neighbor and friend Don Johnson had loaned Hunter the plane to get to Burbank after they had flown together from Aspen to San Francisco.
Hunter’s long time secretary Deborah Fuller who rarely traveled with us, came along to make sure the cameo went well. Since my berth on the Barney Google was now seventy miles away in Ventura, I slept on the floor of her bungalow at the Chateau Marmont until she left and then Hunter got me my own room, where I lived like a troll in luxury under the stairs off the lobby. Depp lent Hunter his blue Porsche since Hunter had lent the production his red convertible for the film. Every morning I expected to find it trashed in the Chateau garage. But Hunter never put a scratch on that slick car, despite some wild rides around Hollywood.
One night Hunter took the Porsche and his Brooke Shields look-alike girl friend to the industry watering hole known as the Buffalo Club. While the car survived, he did manage to injure the pride of a fellow diner when he dramatically threw a drink nonchalantly over his shoulder, soaking the haute couture of a Bel Air madam. The wet lady threatened to call the police until the proprietor of the Buffalo Club – Tony Yerkovitch (who also created “Miami Vice”) – bought her dinner. But that was after Hunter’s visit to the set of FLLV. Until then – for one night – he was all business.
The making of FLLV into a movie from Hunter’s pov is one of the main threads in Breakfast with Hunter and his set visit and cameo appearance are an interesting counter point to Cox’s disastrous visit to Owl Farm earlier in my film. Yet, there is much that I had to leave behind that happened that day in a warehouse/studio in the San Fernando Valley. The company had moved out of the old time studio with the great sets in Hollywood and taken up residence in a cheaper location in the valley to finish the film. Hunter began the day apprehensive but in a good mood all things considered. Rolling Stone writer Chris Heath accompanied us in the limo to the set where we arrived on time (per the call sheet below) promptly at 11:30 a.m. for Hunter to shoot his scene. (Note that it will be day 47 of 44. Clearly Gilliam is over budget)
Hunter and Gilliam began sparring as soon as they met on the set, as you can see in Breakfast with Hunter. The dialogue between them about the art of writing vs. filmmaking is quick and clever, and the sub text is that these two egos have little use or respect for each other. Ultimately, this animosity would increase to the point where at the premiere of FLLV in New York the next spring, Hunter would refuse to be photographed with or stand near Gilliam who had made a point of trashing Hunter during the FLLV publicity tour. (Also note Chris Heath in the background of the conversation, madly scribbling down every word in his notebook, as if recording devices had yet to be invented. But, he did report their dialogue accurately, as you can see if you follow the link on his name above to his article.)
Looking back, I’m not sure if it was sheer incompetence, or the Assistant Director giving us an early call expecting a very late arrival, or Terry Gilliam simply fucking with Hunter, but we spent the next nine (9) hours waiting for Hunter’s scene with disastrous results. The waiting might have been easier if Hunter had been given his own trailer, but there was no trailer with “Dr. Thompson” on the door, which Hunter took as a direct insult from Gilliam. Instead, we relied on the good manners of Depp who shared his with us for the day.
After hanging out on the set until lunch, we retreated to Johnny’s trailer. Dramatic filmmaking is one of the most boring occupations imaginable, despite the supposed glamour, unless you happen to be blowing up cars that day. That’s one of the many reasons I came back to documentaries. Hunter’s reaction to boredom was to drink more, and by mid-afternoon he was flat out drunk and slurring his words, as you can see when he tries his old trick of tossing a large bottle of Chivas Regal in the air and catching it with one hand. Earlier in the film at Simon & Schuster in New York, Hunter does the trick perfectly. In Depp’s trailer, he forgot to put the cap on the bottle before flipping it in the air. “I thought it would come around faster,” he remarks, as Depp bends over with laughter.
Given too much time on his hands, Hunter also defaced himself with an indelible, black Sharpie marker as you can see in the previous clip, making his own form of a mustache which a makeup girl later spent an hour patiently erasing.
I keep going back to the set and asking when Hunter’s scene would be shot. “Soon,” became “later” and then “we’re not sure,” until finally it was apparent that they had intended from the beginning to shoot Hunter’s Matrix Club scene at the very end of the day. When we were finally called to the set at almost nine at night, Hunter had sobered up and was ready to fight. And there was much to quarrel with since what Hunter would do in the scene had yet to be determined.
Hunter insisted that he be seen as he was in 1969 in San Francisco – “an observer.” Gilliam seemed to agree, but Hunter was so perturbed that he disagreed with every direction from Gilliam, and argued with Laila who was now dressed as Grace Slick to make her own cameo appearance in the Matrix Club scene. When Hunter watched Lyle Lovett’s scene where he appears as an acid dealer in an extreme wide angle shot, he insisted he would not be grotesquely distorted as Gilliam had done to “poor Lyle.” I found the endless bickering boring and left it out of the final film. However, I did include Johnny Depp, despite suffering from the flu, doing his best to comfort his friend Hunter, and saying, “Whatever you want to do, I’ll be there.”
In the end, what Johnny and Hunter did in the course of three takes was interesting. Hunter wanted to do something other than just sit there, while Gilliam was looking for “barely a glance.” Of course, in his film Gilliam used the take he preferred, one in which there is only a quick look exchanged between them, and I used the one Hunter and I liked – the third in which he reaches out unexpectedly to seize Johnny who has taunted him into the move.
Hunter never did appreciate Gilliam’s version of his classic novel. Hunter did like Johnny’s performance and Benicio del Toro’s as well. But, the best he ever felt about the movie as a whole was that it wasn’t the disaster he feared. Hunter felt that Gilliam had no understanding of the sixties in America, having been an émigré in England at the time, and even less understanding of drugs, which Gilliam took pride in never having taken. Nonetheless, Hunter did his best to promote the film, and kept his opinion of Gilliam more private than Gilliam did his of Hunter.
Gilliam’s FLLV is a study of the difficulty in turning great writing into great cinema. Ironically, Hunter meant for FLLV to be a movie from the very beginning and wrote it with that purpose in mind. But, as he always said, laughing at himself, “I forgot about the camera. It has to be somewhere other than inside your head.”
FLLV is filled with fantastic dialogue and action inside the minds of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, but not much on the outside where the camera can observe their actions. This is the dilemma Alex Cox was struggling with and led to his demise when he insisted on using what Hunter called “cartoons” that would cheapen his greatest prose. Ironically, Terry Gilliam – a director who began his career as a cartoonist – was hired to replace Cox.
After our day on the set, we stayed at the Chateau until Heidi Opheim arrived to replace the Brooke Shields look-alike. I found a Cadillac to rent for the Beast with a powerful Northstar engine, and he and Heidi headed up the coast where he had a paying gig to address the Stanford Medical Society in Pebble Beach. That trip became the basis for much of the article he wrote for Time Magazine entitled “Fear & Loathing in Hollywood: Doomed Love at the Taco Stand” (11/10/97 issue) in which Heidi concludes, “You’re very strange and you don’t know why, do you?….It’s because you have the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope fiend.”
I always thought that was one of the most insightful observations anyone ever made about Hunter and insisted that he use it at the end of his last book Kingdom of Fear where it appears as “Fear and Loathing at the Taco Stand” (and wherein Heidi is now “Anita.”)
Hunter did not return to Hollywood until a year or so later in December, 1999 when we went to pitch The Rum Diary to producers with Depp in the Tiki Hut in his backyard. Hunter’s first and only published novel presents many of the same dilemmas as FLLV being adapted to the screen, and it will be interesting to see how writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) meets the challenge now that the film will be released in 2010. Over the years I shot far more with Hunter about The Rum Diary than I ever did about FLLV, little of which has ever been seen…..yet. Stay tuned!
Copyright 2009 By Wayne Ewing