Johnny Depp sighs. Hell. Maybe none of this can be explained.
He puts down his pool cue and reaches for his drink. It is now four weeks since he finished playing Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke, in the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but many of Thompson’s mannerisms and behavioral tics are still with Depp, and they show no signs of letting go. Inside his head, it may be even worse. Depp considers how this splendidly terrible state of affairs ever came to be. When all other excuses have dribbled dry, try geography. “I think the whole thing stems from being from Kentucky,” he says. “The dark and bloody ground of Kentucky.”
Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18th, 1939. Johnny Depp was born nearly twenty-four years later in Owensboro, Kentucky, on June 9th, 1963. They both subsequently left their homeland and traveled around, each enjoying great adventures, many of which are well documented. They would not meet until the Christmas of 1995.
Depp had gone to Aspen, Colorado, with a party that included Kate Moss and her mother. One friend suggested they go to Thompson’s local hangout, the Woody Creek Tavern. “In walks Hunter, wielding two cattle prods,” Depp recalls. “With serious voltage going up and down. A wand of electricity. You could see it, crackling up.” Depp laughs. “He’s not a disappointment at all.”
Thompson knew little about Depp. He had seen only one of Depp’s movies, Cry-Baby. “I never saw the end, of course,” Thompson apologizes, “because I had a little acid. It seemed like watching Oklahoma go on for three years.”
The writer and the actor hit it off. “I remember laughing constantly,” says Depp. “He zeroes in on faults and good points immediately. I was with Kate, and I think he went straight for the romance jugular, shit like whether I beat her enough. I probably told him, ‘Yeah, she gets a severe beating.'” As the evening wound on, Depp’s party was invited up to the home that’s referred to, on the back flap of Thompson’s most recent book, as “a fortified compound.” Safely inside, Depp admired a beautiful nickel-plated shotgun on the wall. “I’d grown up around guns,” he says. “My father was a real gun fanatic; I shot guns when I was eight years old.”
It was now two in the morning. “Hunter said, ‘Come with me,'” Depp says. “The fatal words.” Leading Depp into the kitchen, Thompson suggested they put the gun to use: “He hands me a propane tank – I’ve got a cigarette hanging out of my mouth – and he hands me this thing about the size of a matchbox and says, ‘Tape these on the propane canister.’ I was, ‘What are these things?’ and he says, ‘Oh, that’s nitroglycerin.’ The cigarette immediately went in the sink.”
They took the completed bomb into the back yard. “He knew what he was going to do,” Depp says. “And, fuck, I trusted him. You know he was not going to get you killed, somehow. He’s survived all these years.”
Depp hit the target first time. “I shoot this fucker,” he says. “A seventy-five-foot explosion, an enormous, huge burst of fire.” Though Depp was having fun, this violent late-night behavior made others in his party a little edgy. Moss’ mother, for instance. “She just thought Hunter was a madman and horribly dangerous, and that we should escape as soon as possible,” says Depp. “Hunter, being a Southern gentleman, went out of his way to try to make her comfortable. By the time we left, after the explosion, and no one had been badly burned and lost any limbs, she was Ok.”
ME: [to Thompson] What did you think of him, that first meeting?
THOMPSON: I felt sorry for him.
THOMPSON: Well, he was a homeboy from Kentucky who had been spurned by his own people.
DEPP: [Laughing] He said, “You mean you’re not in the Kentucky Hall of Fame?” I said, “Fuck no. And I’m sure they would choose Florence Henderson over me.”
THOMPSON: I’m very conscious of the blood.
2. “Hunter wrote that as if he was a war correspondent. It just happened that the bombardment was a self-bombardment, with drugs, and his brain was the battleground. And rather than going where real guns were being fired and real people were dying, he goes to the heart of America: Vegas. But he’s reporting as if he’s a front-line war correspondent.”
-Director Terry Gilliam, March 1998, in the matter of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
In 1971, while reporting a story for Rolling Stone about the murder of an East Los Angeles journalist and radio producer named Ruben Salazar, Hunter S. Thompson befriended a Chicano lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta. As it was proving hard to get time alone with Acosta, Thompson suggested that the lawyer join him on a weekend car trip to Las Vegas, where Thompson would be covering a motorcycle race. They could get out of L.A., talk on the way, relax a little. Afterward, in hiding and paranoid that his life was in danger because of the Salazar case, Thompson began to write up their escapades for fun.
His current predicament and the drug-crazed circumstances of his trip both set the tone of and folded into his writing. “Pressure. That’s what it was,” Thompson says. “Extreme pressure. It’s like the heat that creates diamonds.” Later, he and Acosta (who appeared in Thompson’s writings as Dr. Gonzo) returned to Vegas for a district attorneys’ conference on drugs; on paper, Thompson would eventually slide the two trips into one.
The first part of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was published in the November 11th, 1971, issue of Rolling Stone. The author’s name – and that of the narrator within the story – was Raoul Duke. Thompson had just agreed to cover the 1972 presidential election. “I was concerned about going to Washington, changing my image,” he says. “And I thought this was maybe a bad way to introduce myself again to the Secret Service.” (The disguise was, however, a fairly flimsy one. In Jann Wenner’s editor’s letter, Raoul Duke was introduced to readers as a former “weapons consultant to our Sports Editor, Hunter S. Thompson.” And when the material was gathered the following year into a book, Thompson decided he wanted to grab any glory going: “Fuck the Secret Service.”)
In 1971, Johnny Depp wasn’t particularly worried about the weird escapades and brutal disappointments that await you when you load up a convertible with too many drugs and search in vain for the remnants of the American dream. He was eight. His family had just moved to Florida. In those days, Depp’s big obsessions were Evel Kneivel and World War II. He couldn’t read enough about Nazi Germany. In the Depp back yard, inspired by Hogan’s Heroes, he dug a tunnel; he would climb underground and sit there. He was very much a boy in his own world. He used to emit strange noises, which worried his family. He dreamed of being the first white member of the Harlem Globetrotters.
In his late teens, after Depp had dropped out of high school and was playing in a band, he read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His older brother, Dan, had turned him on to it. “It was the most outrageous thing I’d ever read,” Depp says. “Fuck, those guys were heroes, man. I mean, they had to be, out there, living that.”
Thompson had always wanted Fear and Loathing to be a movie. “I wrote the book as an experiment,” he recalls, “trying to teach myself how to write cinematically, but I forgot the interior monologues and the hallucinations.”
Nonetheless, there was interest from the start. Jack Nicholson was intrigued. Larry McMurtry wrote a script. There was a filmmaker named Clive Arrowsmith who had ideas. When Thompson wondered how Arrowsmith would portray the nightmarish hallucination in which the drinking sports reporters turn into alligators, Arrowsmith told him, “It’ll be easy – we’ll just get live alligators, we’ll give them some quaaludes, and we’ll nail their fucking paws to the bar. And then when they wake up, we’ll kill them.” “That was the mood of the Seventies,” says Thompson. “Anything was possible.” But the Seventies passed, and the film wasn’t made. In 1980 a strange, messed-up film about Thompson, Where the Buffalo Roam, was released, with Thompson played by Bill Murray. Its failure didn’t help. “[The idea] fell out of favor for a while,” says Thompson, “because drugs became uncool.”
By 1996 a new effort was under way. At about seven o’clock one New York morning in March, during the filming of Donnie Brasco, Depp’s phone rang. “‘Listen,'” Depp remembers Thompson saying, “‘they’re talking of making a movie of Vegas – what do you think about playing me?’ And I remember saying, ‘Absolutely.’ “For a while, Depp heard nothing. A few months later, he suggested that the Viper Room – the Los Angeles club that Depp co-owns – book an appearance by Thompson. “I remember him stabbing a blow-up doll with a fork onstage,” says Depp. But the movie wasn’t mentioned.
Later that year, Depp got the call from his agent: Alex Cox was going to direct Fear and Loathing, and he wanted Depp as Raoul Duke. Depp wanted to make sure that he still had Thompson’s blessing: “I said to him, ‘If I even remotely do an accurate portrayal, you’ll probably hate me for the rest of your life.’ He said, ‘No, no, no – I’m still friends with Murray.'” (Thompson, reminded of this conversation, says, “Actors take themselves too seriously. Is he saying I’m a monster? Does he mean I’m going to see myself stripped naked? He worries too much . . . . He couldn’t possibly do an accurate job. He’s too short.”)
In December, Depp went to Louisville, Kentucky, to read at a Hunter S. Thompson tribute. He chose what he calls “the wave speech” from Fear and Loathing – Thompson’s reverie about the time in the mid-Sixties when it seemed as though youth culture and its new sense of what was right in the world was triumphant, and how that moment receded – “which,” says Depp, “is the profound section of the book.” Scared, Depp loaded up on red wine. He forgot that he was chewing gum until he started reading. It didn’t affect the words, but in etiquette terms, it was a blunder. “And,” he says, “Hunter has never let me forget it.” It was during this trip that Thompson made good on his promise to rectify Depp’s lack of recognition from his birth state. Onstage, Depp was handed the appropriate proclamation: He was now a Kentucky Colonel in the Kentucky Colonels Association. From then on, Thompson would refer to Depp as the Colonel. “We went back champions,” Thompson would reflect, “and danced on the graves of those who dared not salute.”
Alex Cox and his script-writing partner, Tod Davies, paid Thompson a visit at home on January 12th, 1997, a Sunday. “It didn’t go very well,” says Depp. “I think that it could have got much uglier than it did. As far as I understand it, Alex went up to Woody Creek, and, like a person could easily do – when you spend time with Hunter and you know his day-to-day routines or intake – a person could think that he’s a madman and try to overtake him in a condescending way. They were very precious about their script, whereas Hunter had written one of the greatest pieces of twentieth-century literature, and I would say that’s something to be precious with, not a screenplay.”
“It’s bad karma to draw too much attention to things like that,” says Thompson. But he remembers Cox’s visit clearly. “Wayne [Ewing, a filmmaker who has been recording Thompson’s life for years] and I set up a sex doll covered with blood out in a snowdrift on the side of the road as a marker. Theatrical blood – I keep all these things around. Good humored. And I cooked my special sausage, and the ballgame was on. And, Jesus Christ, it’s a classic example of how not to work, as a director, with writers. First, he hated football – he refused to watch football. And then I cooked really good sausage, which I prize, and he disdained that: vegetarian. Here in my house comes this adder, this asp. And he just persisted to insult and soil the best parts of the book. It’s a miracle I didn’t fucking stab him with a fork.”
Cox was off the project, and Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) was suggested as the director. Depp and Gilliam were keen to work with each other. Before writing any of the script with his partner, Tony Grisoni, Gilliam went to L.A. to meet Depp, Thompson and Benicio Del Toro, who would play the Gonzo/Acosta character. “I met Hunter in the Chateau Marmont at about one in the morning,” Gilliam says. “The night before, he’d been busted by the cops and dragged out of his hotel.” Something to do with a fire extinguisher. “He said, ‘You’ve got to remember: We were serious people. I was a serious journalist, he was a serious lawyer. And this book was only one weekend.'”
The deal was done, and Gilliam got to work. So did the Colonel. It was time to start visiting Thompson in Colorado. If Depp was going to play Thompson (or, rather, Raoul Duke, though Depp estimates that Raoul Duke is “ninety-seven percent Hunter”), he wanted to do it right: “I said, ‘I need to spend time with you, and when you get sick of me being there, just tell me and I’ll fucking leave,'” Depp remembers. “I told him that I’d probably become a fucking pain in the ass, because I’d be asking him a lot of questions and taping the conversations and writing things down, and it’d be like I was a fucking parole officer. But he never kicked me out, which was good.”
“I saw him as another worker,” says Thompson. Depp was put to work, helping to classify and edit the letters in The Proud Highway, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence. “I was aware of what he was doing. If I hadn’t liked him . . .” says Thompson, who often doesn’t finish sentences that don’t need finishing.
Depp would stay in the basement. “In the dungeon,” Depp says. “It’s a little room with makeshift bookshelves and a lot of spiders, and a small, little sofa thing that folds out into a bed, and this enormous keg of gunpowder, which they let me know about when I’d probably been there, smoking in bed, about five days.”
Depp learned the routine: “A normal day is actually waking up at about eight, nine at night, watching ESPN, watching sports or CNN. Deborah [Fuller, Thompson’s primary aide and assistant for many years] would cook breakfast and give us vitamins. She’s a saint. Not much dialogue for the first few hours – Hunter’s waking up. And then we’d sit and talk for hours and hours, and then maybe drive down to a nearby town and have a drink or two, and then come back and talk until three, four, five in the afternoon.” All the time, Depp was studying: “Watching his mannerisms, the way he rocked back and forth, the way he talked, his expressions. It’s weird with Hunter – it’s more sort of watching the way he thinks. You can see the wheels turning, and you can see an idea coming. That was really the key for me – ’cause he’s thinking constantly. He’s very, very quick, and there are no lulls.”
Depp knew that downstairs, next to where he was sleeping, was the Hunter S. Thompson archive – the War Room. Everything was there. But Depp didn’t want to ask: “I didn’t want to be horrible actor-boy who says, ‘OK, let’s have everything now.’ I wanted it to happen more naturally.” Thompson would ask Depp to read old pieces of Thompson’s writing, and then he’d critique Depp’s reading – “Punctuate that! You’ve really got to hit that!” The three 1971 boxes, simply marked “the Vegas book,” appeared in the kitchen one afternoon before Thompson had risen. It had all been saved: the literature from the drug convention, napkins with notes on them, the purloined bars of Neutrogena soap – “no one had touched them since 1971,” Depp says – and the three beat-up, stained spiral notebooks in which Thompson had scribbled his observations.
“It’s all true, and there’s more,” says Depp. “There’s much more. The notebooks and the actual manuscript, it’s more insane than the book.”
So you’re saying he actually . . . toned it down?
“Yeah. It’s toned down. It was probably more outrageous, and more insane, than he can write. I think the book is a calmer version of what actually happened.”
Slowly, Depp would find himself becoming more like Thompson. “Kind of a sponge,” Depp says, “which is a horrible way to approach a human being.” (“He’s not like a Method actor,” says Gilliam, approvingly. “Osmosis is what he uses.”) Depp visited several times, for up to two weeks at a time, and also spent time with Thompson in New York and San Francisco while he was on a book tour. (Depp acted as Thompson’s roadie and bodyguard, under the alias Ray.)
Depp copied notebooks, taped conversations and even dug out much of Thompson’s 1971 wardrobe. Finally, Thompson let him take the Red Shark, the Chevy convertible that features in the film, back to Los Angeles. Depp left Woody Creek at 3 a.m. in the freezing cold. The car’s top was stuck down, its motor broken. Thompson – “he was really being very paternal at this point,” says Depp – gave him some flashlights and a cooler packed with essential supplies. He listened to a portable tape recorder – as Thompson and Acosta had on the original trip – playing songs that Thompson mentions in the book. In Las Vegas, Depp, wearing Thompson’s clothes, had dinner with Terry Gilliam. “The clothes hadn’t been washed,” Deborah Fuller says, “in thirty years.”
The final time Depp visited, the top of his head had been roughly shaved before hand in Los Angeles to resemble Thompson’s. This freaked Thompson out a little. When they met at the Aspen airport, Depp was wearing a hat, and Thompson asked that he not remove it. But when Thompson relented, and did inspect the baldness, they both agreed that the L.A. haircut hadn’t gone far enough: “Hunter looked at my head,” Depp says, “and decided, ‘I can fix this.'” Depp took a seat, and the shaving foam appeared.
“I trusted him, I really did,” says Depp. “He was very gentle. No cuts. No weirdness. He wore a mining light, so he could see. He’s prepared for fucking everything.”
There were disagreements, of course. In July, shortly before filming began, Depp faxed to Colorado wardrobe test photographs of himself as Thompson. Thompson faxed them back defaced with comments bluntly criticizing the clothing (“clothes all wrong – ugly, screwy, flashy”), the hair (“mange?”) and the body language (“Jesus! Stance is too exaggerated”). Thompson likens the faxes to a Ping-Pong game: “Any formal, polite correspondence would be false,” he says. “It’s in keeping with the nature of the rapport we had founded. A little beating here and there is good for you.” That correspondence – which is worth studying both for the pleasure of its frank dialogue and as an insight into the unusual ways in which they negotiated a deep respect for one another – continued as follows:
Too late . . . Fuck you!
Okay – go ahead and make an ass of me on the screen – your turn will come + history will not absolve you. Beware.
Please know that I am not, in any way, 1) trying to make an ass of you in the film, 2) turn you into some over-the-top caricature, 3) fuck you over in some kind of cartoony way, 4) treat this material like an episode of The Red Skelton Show, 5) disappoint you, or anything close to any of those things. I am doing my best to combine pieces of you (the you of today that I’ve gotten to know), the you that I’ve studied from some of the older video material and the character from the book, Raoul Duke.
We are at the beginning of this hideous ride, and things are just starting to take shape, only starting! So don’t freak out. Give it, and me, a chance. The wardrobe is not where it needs to be yet, and I want your help with it. Fuckin’ A! Understand that I am not a scumbag and that all I want out of this thing is for you to be proud of the work, and the film. Nobody’s getting fucking rich here, believe me. I am an actor and can only do what I can do. I am Not and Cannot be you. But I can come pretty fucking close, and will. This is my work!!! If you remember back about a year or so ago, I asked you if you were sure that I should be the actor to play you in the film. Your reply was “yes.” Well, it was at that point that I told you that if I was able to do it properly, and did even a remotely good job or accurate portrayal, that you would most likely hate me for the rest of your life. That is the risk I run here, and Okay fine I’ll deal with that. But don’t ever think that you can throw a bunch of shit at me and expect that I’ll eat it. You’ve got the wrong boy in this case. I respect and admire you greatly and hold our friendship in very high regard, but don’t treat me as if I were a weaker animal, because I will surprise you. Your work is yours. My work is mine. We need to remember that. Call or write or not.
Yours in love and war,
[Thompson’s second reply – unsigned]
Cheer up. I was just answering yr. question(s) about the wardrobe. Yr. real fears are still to come.
Just before the filming began, Terry Gilliam recorded the Depp voice-overs that would punctuate and guide the film. In the studio, listening to Depp speak, Gilliam was reminded of an earlier, famous voice-over: Martin Sheen’s in Apocalypse Now. “It was like going upriver,” says Gilliam. “We were off to war.”
“I think he’s right,” Depp nods. “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. The American dream is ugly. It’s hideous, a fucking monstrous nightmare. It’s just a sack of blood. It’s awful.”
3. The hair. The clothes. The voice. The walk. The actions. And the ears. Depp never discussed the ear issue with Thompson, but throughout the filming, he wore earpieces behind his ears to make them stick out at the required angle. “It fucking hurt like a bastard, too,” Depp says. “It hurt. Don’t put anything behind your ears. Don’t try this at home, kids.”
For the first scene of Fear and Loathing to be filmed, outside a Las Vegas hotel front, Raoul Duke – Depp – is shown enthusiastically snorting ether.
“I did it straight,” Depp says. “Well, I remember Hunter telling me that ether was the equivalent of twenty-three bottles of wine in a quick sitting, so I might have had some wine.”
This is a book, of course, whose central characters start out with a stash of grass, mescaline, acid, cocaine, tequila, Budweiser, ether, amyls and assorted other uppers and downers, then start searching for kinds of chemical strangeness that will really get them going.
ME: [A careful question] People will be eternally curious as to how necessary or appropriate it was to duplicate various parts of the documented, famous consumption, both simply as being Hunter and as living up to aspects of the book.
DEPP: [A careful answer] I can say honestly that I was very responsible as a human being in my approach to the preparation and the work on the character Raoul Duke. Very responsible.
ME: [A clarification requested] So you managed to bridge your responsibility to everyday life and to the character?
DEPP: [A clarification given] Yes. I was not irresponsible in any way to either the material or to Hunter or to myself, or to anyone that might care about me. I did nothing horribly wrong.
They filmed for eleven weeks, in and around Las Vegas and in Los Angeles. Thompson stayed in Colorado. “I thought that for him, and for me, a comfortable distance would suffice,” says Depp. “It’s hard enough to take that book and translate it into film without having the author of the book around, screeching, ‘That’s not right! Goddamned! You think I worked all my life to do this thing, and you assholes . . . !'”
Depp and Thompson were nonetheless in constant telephone contact. Depp would call, requesting clarifications: “How would he react to a certain thing? What would he think? Where would he sit in a bar?”
“I despise those prick actors who say, ‘I was in character,’ and ‘I became the character,’ and all that stuff,” Depp says. “It’s hideous. It’s just masturbation at the highest level.” But nonetheless: “There was something that was stronger than me on this film. It was my experience of Hunter. Clearly I’d spent too much time with him, and it had taken over.”
Did people worry you were losing yourself in this?
He answers, quietly and slowly, “Um, yeah. Yeah.”
4. Whenever Depp meets people who find out what he’s been doing, they always ask two questions. “The first,” he says, “which is really amazing, is ‘Did you meet him?’ ‘Um, yeah . . . .’ Then they say, ‘Is he still . . . ?’ That’s all they have to say. ‘Yes. Yes, he is.’ They have to know. They don’t want to be let down. He’s living for a lot of people.”
Los Angeles, October 8th, 1997: Hunter S. Thompson is in town to make a cameo appearance in the film. They have asked him to be on set by 11 a.m.; his scene is to be shot soon afterward.
Outside the Chateau Marmont, an ice-filled glass of Chivas Regal in one hand, Thompson steps into the waiting limousine. There are four of us: Thompson, Deborah, myself and Wayne, video camera in hand. Thompson tells me that he has had me barred from the set – “I did it out of meanness,” he grins – then fiddles with the poorly indicated switch to open the limo roof. “The Japs’ revenge for Hiroshima,” he mutters.
We chat amiably about ways to crack coconuts and how his bad leg always plays up in limos (“maybe it’s the communist in me”), then he spills some of his drink onto his trousers. “Ahhh!” he shouts at himself. “Shit on you, you goddamned brainless drunk!”
After that we discuss enemas. Enemas have been on Thompson’s mind ever since he read Gilliam saying, in Time magazine, that this film would be “a cinematic enema.” He has been trying to work out exactly what Gilliam meant. “Terry,” Thompson announces, “is a great friend of enemas.”
Filming takes place on one of those anonymous studio lots that litter Los Angeles. Gilliam and Thompson discuss Thompson’s forthcoming acting, which occurs during a flashback to a scene of deranged LSD consumption inside San Francisco’s Matrix club during the mid-Sixties. The idea is that the young Thompson and the old Thompson will be seen in the same frame.
“I like the idea of you and Johnny passing,” says Gilliam.
Thompson disagrees. “I’d like to be pictured as I was in those days,” he says. “As an observer.” His point is that he wants to be seen as a writer, not a participant. “I use words,” he reminds Gilliam.
“I just point and grunt,” says Gilliam. “More or less.”
They adjourn to Depp’s trailer. Thompson doesn’t settle until a seat is found on which he can put down his drink. “I should have a rolling table, tied to my waist,” he says. Depp shows an uncanny still of himself as Thompson. “It looks like me,” Thompson agrees, “but I guess that’s you. It’s spooky.”
Thompson fills Depp in on our enema debate. He complains once more about Gilliam’s description.
“I think what he meant by ‘cinematic enema’,” pacifies Depp, “is that it’ll be like a Roto-Rooter into the ass of Hollywood. So it’s like cleansing Hollywood.”
“Oh,” Thompson says, taken aback. “You’re the first one who’s said that. The New Wave enema!” The idea is growing on him. “First Hollywood, then the world.”
They both sit smoking Dunhills through the plastic filters Thompson is known for. Later, Thompson kicks the chair in front of him hard, straight into Depp’s CD player. “Don’t do that,” Deborah says. Depp just laughs. “I’m edgy today,” says Thompson.
“I was in San Francisco with you,” Depp laughs. “This is not edgy.”
A few minutes later . . .
“OoooOOOOWARRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!!” Hunter S. Thompson lets out a scream that is truly primal. He must, I assume, be undergoing some unimaginable torment. Whatever it is that could quell such anguish, I’m sure it is beyond the knowledge of ordinary humans.
Fortunately, I am with experts. Deborah looks around, spots and hands to Thompson his missing packet of cigarettes.
“Thank you,” he says matter-of-factly. Perfectly calm. He smiles naughtily. “Oh,” he says, “the Alzheimer’s will get you every time.”
“Inexpensive, too,” says Depp.
Thompson is encouraged to visit the wardrobe department. “What do you mean, ‘Try some things on’?” he roars. He points to the residue of the limo drink accident on his trousers: “Do you think these semen stains on my pants are wrong?”
He hits the chair again. “There used to be arms on chairs,” he fumes. “The old days. Instead of . . . crap like that!”
Thompson gets some lunch, then makes ancillary demands: ketchup, ice, a newspaper. Depp has gone to sleep in the other half of the trailer: He is feeling terrible. He has the flu. Perhaps this is contributing to Thompson’s changing mood.
There is baseball on TV. Thompson bets with Del Toro and applies red lipstick without looking in a mirror. “Want some?” he asks Del Toro.
“What’s that, Chap Stick?” Del Toro asks. He knows full well.
Thompson nods and hands it over. Del Toro smears lipstick over his own mouth.
“Whiskey?” he asks Del Toro. Thompson swigs. “It burns my throat. Whiskey was the drink of the Nazis.”
One of the crew asks Thompson to sign a copy of the book. “Good work,” he writes, “and good luck in jail.” He hands back the book. “I haven’t learned anything in forty years,” he says. “I’m still the same as I was when I was fifteen: drunken juvenile delinquent.”
“It doesn’t make you all bad,” says the crew member, uncertainly.
“I never looked upon myself as bad,” says Thompson. “I look at myself as innocent.”
Thompson is getting bored. The previous scene is dragging on. He wonders whether it is a trick: whether they want him to do the scene when he is drunk. He says that he’s not going to stay here into the evening. “I’m not getting paid for it,” he says. He begins hurling objects at great velocity into the rubbish bin on the other side of the trailer. He grabs a thick black pen.
“Hunter, don’t!” shouts Deborah. It is, alas, too late. He is applying a crooked black felt-pen mustache to his upper lip. Del Toro creases with laughter. “When Terry asks about your mustache,” he suggests, “tell him you’re a Method actor.”
“What mustache?” says Thompson with a beautifully feigned light innocence. This time, we all laugh.
Still, a certain tension is building. It is now evening. Deborah clears the trailer. Thompson needs some privacy. Depp worries about their scene: “What if Hunter freaks out, rips my wig off, starts boring into me, calling me names?” Thompson sits in the trailer, listening over and over to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” apparently deciding that it is the key to everything. There are bad vibes in the air. “He was pissed,” Depp surmises, “that I went to sleep.”
They are, finally, called onto the set. Thompson has been dressed, and his pen mustache has been removed. “It took the woman twenty minutes to get it off,” he tells me proudly.
Depp approaches Thompson: “Are you going to yell at me?”
Thompson nods and growls: “Yeah.” Naturally, soon they are joking and laughing. Thompson looks at Gilliam, who can be seen preparing the shot on the monitor. “We’ll give him a fucking enema,” he says.
As Gilliam sets up Thompson’s scene, Thompson bombards him with loose grapes from a distance. (“What I began to appreciate,” Gilliam says later, “is the kind of shyness there, and the nervousness and the gentleness, that he deals with by all this bluster and noise.”) The plan now is for Depp (the young Thompson) to walk past the seated Hunter (the old Thompson), who is at a table with a young girl. They will make eye contact, and then Depp will move on. (“A glimpse of Marlow,” says Thompson, approvingly.)
“Just acknowledge greatness,” Gilliam directs him, “and Johnny will acknowledge greatness back.”
Thompson tells Gilliam he wants to see the shot before he does it. “It’s the wrong cinematography,” he announces.
“What do you fancy?” asks Gilliam patiently.
“This is my legacy,” Thompson explains. “I do not want to be seen as a gigolo dancer. I’m looking for glory here, too – just the right kind.”
They film the scene three times. The first time, Depp walks by the table at which Thompson is sitting, sees him, turns, goes on and then turns back for a second look. Gilliam pronounces himself very happy – “the quizzical look!” he says with delight – but instructs Depp to look at Thompson only once. The second take is nothing much; Thompson doesn’t really manage to return Depp’s stare. On the third take, Depp leans in toward Thompson, over the table. Thompson grabs hold of him. (Depp will tell me that he was trying to provoke some kind of response because Thompson wasn’t looking at him. Thompson will be more prosaic: “I’m not sure what the lurch implied. Was it a striking out? Or a yearning for my previous self? All lives are the same. . . . The living and the dead are one. Am I trying to make some metaphor there, or am I trying to smack him out of the way? It’s like . . . the blind, lashing out at a dumb animal!”)
“Well,” says Gilliam, wryly, the day’s shoot over, “we’ve got three different versions.”
We retire once more to the trailer. “Let’s ring the Japanese Embassy,” Thompson says, “and make a prank call. I’m going to ask for refuge. I called the Viper Room about an hour ago and made a bomb threat.” (This, it will turn out, is true. Depp’s assistant had to grab the phone and tell the alarmed staff that they shouldn’t evacuate.)
Depp reaches into the shirt he is wearing and hands me a translucent oval capsule full of white powder.
“Have some fake acid for the road,” he kindly says.
5. “I spoke to Bill Murray, who did Where the Buffalo Roam. I wanted to know how long this was going to stay with me. And he told me, basically, it took him five years. He found himself just doing it. It was involuntary. And he told me he saw a piece of his last film, and there’s a moment where he went, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Hunter.’ It’s like a Tourette’s syndrome or something – I’m still in the throes of it. You find yourself thinking like him, and everything just comes out of that.” – Johnny Depp, October 1997
I meet Depp in a Hollywood Bar two days after shooting finishes. His hair has been growing back for a week (during the last few days, he was wearing a hat), and he looks like a young, rather sweet skinhead. Depp says that playing this part has left him more outgoing: “It’s a curse for a part of me, which is kind of comfortable being slightly shy and away from people. But on the other side, it’s nice to have that sort of thrust. It’s like a drug, I guess, like some horrible addictive drug – once you’ve felt it in the bone marrow, you don’t want to let it go, because it’s a great tool. Dealing with people.” Another beer. “I just hope he doesn’t see the film and hate me. That’s my biggest fear: that I’ll do something that’s close to him, that’s proper, that’s right, and he’ll hate it. It’s completely out of my hands, but, fuck, he deserves a good film, and I’ve tried to do that.”
The next night, we sit at Depp’s house, listening to the Verve and Big Star. Earlier, he had spoken to Thompson, who told him: “I ride the water spout – I land wherever I land! I want you to ride the water spout with me.” Depp laughs. “It’s so beautiful. Man, he’s a sickness. He’s a fucking disease that has penetrated my fucking skin. I can’t shake it.” When Depp goes to pee, I look around the room at the framed Jack Kerouac letters, the Wanted poster from Dead Man and, in a glass cabinet, Edward Scissorhands’ bladed limbs.
The next month, Depp and I meet in San Francisco. We were to have flown together to Aspen to see Thompson, but he has canceled at the last moment. Instead, he is coming here in four days. (He needs to buy a redwood tree.) We have time to kill. The Rolling Stones are also in town, so tonight we go to their concert and spend the rest of the evening at Depp’s favorite San Francisco drinking haunt, where we play pool. Freakishly, every shot I try comes off. Depp concedes gracefully. “You pig fucker,” he grins. “I’ll never play you again.”
The following night, we go for dinner. The world goes suitably strange when you are stuck in San Francisco, Waiting for Hunter. If other things happen later that night, they are things I can only imagine: Was Depp, for instance – in a careless phrase I would later overhear – “hijacked into Ron Wood’s room”? Did he stay there all night, sharing deranged stories and watching a magician do tricks? Did a man known only as Red Dog say, as the sun was coming up, “on the third time round, everything changed – everybody got real primitive”? And, if so, would this have seemed at the time to the three people on the sofa – and I visualize it, somehow, as Depp and an utterly cheerful and friendly Eddie Vedder to my right – as just about the funniest thing they had ever heard? And would Depp, crawling into his waiting car at 7:55 a.m., have said to the driver, “The hotel. Unless you’ve got a revolver”?
Obviously, I can only guess. Days pass. Thompson comes to town. One evening, at around 6 p.m., he calls, suggesting that we meet. Soon. But not too soon. “I’m just getting up,” he explains. “I just need to slap my head.”
I head over, mid-evening, to his corner suite high up in the Fairmont Hotel, looking out over San Francisco. Thompson is relaxing, watching basketball with his new associate, Heidi. As he talks, Thompson coughs often, and it is a terrible, body-wrenching sound, but he carries on, regardless. Every few minutes he throws his lighter against the ceiling and tries to catch it. Again and again, to his evident frustration, he fails.
Thompson muses about Depp, who has yet to make an entrance. “I don’t know where Johnny is,” he says. “Terrible little fucking hillbilly bastard.”
Depp appears and apologizes for being late. Thompson searches for cigarettes. He holds up his filter. “Are you actually using these?” he asks Depp.
“I’m weaning myself off,” says Depp.
“I don’t see how anybody could possibly smoke without them, when you see the scum that piles up in there,” says Thompson. He demonstrates the entirely gross buildup of liquid tar that has gathered from eight or ten cigarettes. “Three packs since I woke up,” says Thompson. “Look at it this way: That’s four times this that is not in my lungs.”
“Wouldn’t it be amazing,” says Depp of the plastic filter, “if that’s the one thing that’s kept you alive?”
We head downstairs. Thompson, who has an appointment with Keith Richards, says he’ll handle the transport. “Johnny can’t get cabs,” he says, gesturing derisively at Depp. “Cabs come to me like pigeons.”
Again, it would be near impossible to speculate how such an evening might continue. Did day break once more before Depp left a Rolling Stone’s hotel room? Did first Eddie Vedder, then Thompson, prance around for comic effect wearing a cheap Bob Dole mask? Did Thompson, before he slipped away in the middle of the night, throw a tin can hard against Richards’ ceiling and triumphantly catch the vicious ricochet? Did Depp show Richards his prized photo of himself as Thompson, and did Richards simply, charmingly, announce that he was keeping it and then position it in pride of place on his piano’s music rest?
If so, what a wonderful night it would have been.
In February 1998, I visit Thompson at home. He is sitting at the kitchen workstation where he writes. One leg is lifted up onto the work surface, supported by a cushion. “The past week has been a haze of fever blisters and raving and being carried back and forth to the hospital,” he says. I ask him how the leg got infected. “The bite of a spider?” he suggests.
Eventually, sometime after 2 a.m., the conversation turns toward the film. Though Thompson has seen and liked the trailers, he has still not seen the film. I say that I don’t understand how the experience couldn’t be weird for him. “I’m prepared for weird,” he says, “but I’m not prepared for hideous shock.”
“Maybe,” he says, “I should wait till it comes around to the drive-in.”
As Rolling Stone goes to press, he has yet to see it.
After I see a delightfully crazy early version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I call Depp.
I saw your film, I tell him. You are a very, very, very sick man.
There is a sweet pause. “That,” he says, “is so nice . . . that’s maybe the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
The film is accepted into competition at the May Cannes Film Festival. Thompson writes to Depp, explaining that he won’t be going to Cannes but that they’ll get together at the New York premiere.
Depp replies. I quote, in part:
“No Cannes??? Does this mean that you can actually live comfortably and guilt free, knowing that you’ve abandoned me to the pimps and hairdressers of the Côte d’Azur? You can actually sit back and rest easy while I am there . . . swallowing my tongue, trying to sell Your movie??? Whoring myself to make you money!!! Do I need to remind you that We are Colonels of the dark and bloody ground?
“Well . . . Okay then, so be it. I’ll do the P.T. Barnum dog and pony show . . . Alone!!! You won’t hear a peep out of me, Pal. Nope . . . I’ll not whine and whimper. This is the perfect opportunity to tell the world the truth. . . . ‘Well, in fact, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve never actually read that weirdo’s book or any of his other evil publications, for that matter! The only reason I did the film was to spread the word of our Lord Jesus and to warn the world of the dangers of drug use. . . . And I never ever met that bully Thompson. I’m just so relieved that the whole stinking nightmare is over!!!'”
At the end of April, Depp calls me. He is on holiday, beside a pool, somewhere on the other side of the world. As we talk, he Polaroids what he thinks, in the dark, is a snake. When he examines the picture, he discovers that it is an alarmingly large exotic snail. I ask him how the Thompson detox is going.
“I’m doing better,” he says. “I did test it out the other day.” Before he left L.A., Depp picked up one of Thompson’s cigarette filters. “As soon as I put it into my mouth, my posture changed, and everything” – he breaks into Thompson’s pronounced drawl – “started going . . .”
For many months through the second half of 1997 and early 1998, Johnny Depp has had the same phone message. The portentously pronounced recorded dialogue you hear when you call an absent Depp is actually taken from the film, but the words will be familiar to anyone who knows Thompson’s book:
Know your Dope Fiend! Your life may depend on it! You will not be able to see his eyes because of Tea-Shades, but his knuckles will be white from inner tension and his pants will be crusted with semen from constantly jacking off when he can’t find a rape victim. He will stagger and babble when questioned. He will not respect your badge. The Dope Fiend fears nothing.
“Hunter phones up,” Depp tells me, “and says, ‘What is that beautiful prose?'”
“I was impressed,” Thompson tells me. “It’s really something.”
This story is from the June 11th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.