If British writer-director Bruce Robinson had only made one film — 1987′s inimitable comedy Withnail & I — he would have been assured a place in the annals of cult movie history. And it very nearly became the case, too. Having finished his follow-up, 1989′s overlooked but frequently brilliant satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising (again starring Withnail‘s Richard E. Grant), Robinson took his talent to Hollywood and had such a wretched experience on his first studio picture, Jennifer 8 (1992), that he vowed never to direct a film again.
When the combined forces of Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp came calling, however, Robinson found himself being made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The result is The Rum Diary, a long-gestating passion project for Depp instigated when he and Thompson unearthed an unpublished manuscript from the late gonzo icon’s early years as a writer. Functioning as a companion piece — and a prequel, of sorts — to Terry Gilliam’s (screw the critics) classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary explores Thompson (via his proxy, journalist Paul Kemp) in his formative period as a journalist, as he begins to find his authorial voice in a haze of barmy booziness.
We sat down with Robinson to talk about the challenge of bringing Thompson’s novel to the screen, the weirdness of being back in Hollywood, and how Depp — who previously tried to bait Robinson to direct Fear and Loathing — finally lured him into taking on this job.
Bruce Robinson: Would you like a beer?
RT: I would but this could get swiftly out of hand. But please, by all means enjoy yourself.
Well I will. And I don’t care if they f–king carry me down [to the press conference], frankly. I’m so jet-lagged. It’s such a weird process [doing interviews] but I know you’ve gotta do it. It’s just, you know, if someone asks you to describe your movie you only know so many things, and I’m gonna start speaking Korean very soon to explain this movie. [Laughs.]
Fair enough. [Laughs] You talked about your love for All the President’s Men and those journalists going after the “bastards” — was that a theme that drove you in writing and shooting The Rum Diary?
Well, not entirely. When Hunter wrote The Rum Diary he had no idea he was going to become “Hunter Thompson” and gonzo and all the rest of the stuff, but subsequent to that one’s able to read all of Hunter’s stuff and the way he did go after them. He was a rageful man. He didn’t use bullets, he used words, which is a fantastic thing to be able to do — and he had the talent to do it. So there’s a line at the back of the film where Johnny has essentially found his voice, and he says, “I make a promise to the reader… I’m going after them, and it’ll be a voice made of ink and rage.” And when he loses, which he does at the end of the film — they f–k him up — he says “I smell ink.” That, to me, was something to do with Hunter, in the best way I could do it, anyway, with all faults.
Hunter and Johnny apparently took delight in hauling you out of retirement. So once they’d gotten you to write the script, how did they lure you into the director’s chair? Was Hunter still alive at this point — did you meet him?
I met him once around 20 years ago, and we didn’t have anything to say to each other.
Why was that?
I don’t know. I went into the [Chateau] Marmont hotel and he was there and we sat in a room, like you and me, for two hours and we never said a word to each other. He had a wet towel on his head.
Were you daunted?
Pretty much. I was a fan and he was an icon. He had all of his equipment — the coke, the grass, the Chivas Regal, the smokes and stuff. And anyway, I sat there for two hours, as close as I am to you, and we never said a word to each other. And then I said, “Okay Hunter, I’m off.” “Okay.” And I left. So that was the end of that. But Johnny has told me that Hunter was a big fan of Withnail & I and he liked watching that, which is the reason that he and Johnny chose me as the writer for this film. I don’t write like Hunter but I do write in the same kind of vernacular, you know, no jokes, but hopefully comedic rage — which is one of my motors, ’cause I’m f–king angry about so many things but I like comedy. That was the reason Johnny said, “Will you write it?” I wrote it, and then he said, to my astonishment, “Will you direct it?” My answer was “No.” And then he sort of went after me. [Laughs]
Because at the time you were still very—
And Johnny had been after you to do Fear and Loathing before that.
That’s right. I said “No.” It was in the Sunset Marquee Hotel. He said, “You’re gonna direct this.” “No, I’m f–king not!” And I didn’t, and wouldn’t, and couldn’t.
Are you glad you didn’t make it?
It would have been a very different film if I had done it. It would have been a very different film. Terry Gilliam is someone I admire tremendously, but I wouldn’t have done it like that. I’d have made it much dirtier and wouldn’t have tried to make it look like a Ralph Steadman. Terry made a great film, you know, and people love Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But there wasn’t enough time, when Johnny was talking to me there wasn’t enough time for me to have a look at the script. I can only do what I can do.
How did Johnny sell you on directing The Rum Diary?
He bullied the sh-t out of me. [Laughs] He bullied me, and he also wooed me. He bullied me in the sweetest imaginable way, and he bullied me with really good quality wine. And finally I just thought, well here’s the world’s number one film star, if he wants to take that kind of risk he can have who he wants. If he wants that kind of risk, f–k it — I’m 65-years-old, you know, I don’t give a f–k. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Did you enjoy returning to directing?
I loved it.
Because it was the right environment?
Because of him [Depp]. He’s a very powerful figure in this industry, and if Johnny is looking after you — if Johnny is saying, “Hey, stay off — he’s alright” — then you’re in the most protected and prestigious position you can be in as a film director, because you’ve got this major f–king star looking after you. If it hadn’t worked out very well, god knows it might have been a f–king bloodbath. [Laughs]
Are you happy with how the film turned out?
Have you seen it?
I have. I’m a fan of the book and I was unsure going in to it — the trailer gives it an uneasy sense of it being a “wacky” sort of bender.
Which it isn’t. It’s a serious film.
It must have been a hard book to adapt, especially streamlining Hunter’s characters as you did.
Yeah, we had to do that. We had to throw Yeamon overboard, because there were two leads in [the novel]. So I made a couple of changes. Johnny’s the reason the film’s being made, and you can’t have two people playing Hunter S. Thompson — and Hunter cut himself into two characters [Kemp and Yeamon, in the novel]. Did we want two Hunters for the film? No. And I shifted the girl [Chenault, played by Amber Heard] from Yeamon, who’s gone, onto Sanderson [Aaron Eckhart], which ups the dramatic ante of the film I think. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s funny. There are some very funny sequences.
It’s funny, but not in a way that the trailer leads you to expect it to be funny. It’s comedy that evolves not from jokes but from—
From the environment.
Right. I mean, Giovanni Ribisi was just in that world.
He’s fantastic. Giovanni was taking — in a sense we all were — incredible risks, ’cause he was right on the edge.
There seems to be a hint of Withnail in his performance.
Quite strongly, actually. I remember saying to [actor] Ralph Brown when we did Withnail — I knew this hairdresser, who was a hairdresser of a girlfriend that I was living with, and [affects Brown’s dopey geezer drawl] “she used to talk like that” and she’d say to me, “Do you understand? Do yoooooooou? ” She was the thickest f–king idiot I’ve ever met. When Ralph came along to play Danny the Dealer, I only said it to him once, that “Do you understand, maaaaan? Is it cool with you?” and he picked up on that instantly. It was the same with Giovanni. He’s kind of like that, you know — he got it, and made it his own.
Did you and Johnny discuss how Hunter’s “Paul Kemp” voice, or lack thereof, would evolve into hints of his “Raoul Duke” persona over the course of the film?
Well, I mean Johnny kind of did it organically, in that the only time he starts kind of getting into a Hunter voice is… I needed a catharsis in the film, so I cooked up that f–king acid scene, to say this was five, six years of Hunter coming through that religious lobster that was [saying] “god, now I’ve found the voice!” Of course it isn’t the f–king lobster talking, it’s Johnny/Hunter talking — when he talks about god and “Does the world belong to no one but you?” And then Johnny spontaneously, because he’s a f–king amazing actor, puts it into the typewriter: “I make a promise to the reader.” And if you see his fingers — in Fear and Loathing he’s typing like this [gesticulates with exaggerated fingers], which is insane, but nevertheless it’s a caricature — but here he kind of [moves fingers somewhat less wildly]. “I make a promise to the reader, it will be a voice made of ink and rage,” and Hunter’s starting to come out of his mouth. I thought it was f–king magic when he was doing that. That’s nothing to do with me, that’s him.
I don’t think it’s remarked upon enough, but Johnny Depp is one of the great finger actors of all time.
I know. I was constantly trying to shut that down. [Laughs]
You had to curb those fingers?
Only a tiny bit. I wanted him to be still and keep the faith of his power on screen. Why is he a film star? He sticks to the celluloid like f–king glue, Johnny Depp. You could stay there for 10 minutes, you know, just on his face, and people would watch it. We had this running joke and he actually used it in that Pirates film. I work in the middle of nowhere in England, this 16th-century house, and I came out of my writing room one night at about midnight when my family were away; and as I came out of the door I saw this huge black boot come down on the top step, and I went like that [flails hands in front of him], running up and down — I thought it was Jack the Ripper. I’m writing a book on Jack the Ripper, have been for 10 years. And I did that and it really amused Johnny, so he used it in Pirates. But there are a couple in [The Rum Diary]; he does one or two of those.
It does conjure that sense of what his “Hunter” would become.
Yeah. He moves through that film. I wanted him to become more… he becomes an active motor drive of the narrative in the third act, but he’s [initially] an observer in this film; I mean you get that, when you’re watching it. He’s observing this weird f–king life that he?s slowly becoming absorbed into. And that’s quite a tender thing; slowly making him into the power. “I smell ink,” he says. [Pauses] Am I talking bullsh-t?
No, of course not. You feel that he’s taking it all in.
And he becomes the power at the end of the film. When he says it’ll be a voice of ink and rage, he says you’ll smell it: “It’ll be the smell of bastards and the smell of truth.” For me, and for Johnny, there Hunter Thompson was now born.
Originally published on Rotten Tomatoes, October 2011