The Rum Diary was a novel written by future Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, inspired by his time in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960, but it remained unpublished for decades until actor and close friend, Johnny Depp, accidentally discovered the manuscript while visiting Thompson’s house. That same night, they decided to publish it and adapt it into a film, turning the project into a labor of love for both Depp and filmmaker Bruce Robinson, who came out of retirement to make the movie.
During a press conference for the film’s release, Johnny Depp and Bruce Robinson talked about bringing a character to life that is loosely based on Hunter S. Thompson as a young man, prior to the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas character, the challenges of adapting the novel for the big screen, how impossible it is to get Hunter out of your blood stream once you play him, and that Hunter’s ability to voice his opinions is something that every generation should be exposed to. Depp also talked about how he’s looking forward to getting started on The Lone Ranger, now that the budget has been worked out, and that The Thin Man is in the early stages, but is coming along. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Tiring of the noise and madness of New York and the crushing conventions of late Eisenhower-era America, journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) travels to the pristine island of Puerto Rico to write for a local newspaper, The San Juan Star, run by downtrodden editor Mr. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Settling into his job, Kemp meets Sala (Michael Rispoli), a talented but gone-to-seed photographer, and the two become drinking buddies and roommates, along with the eccentric Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), while working on modest assignments for the paper. Adopting the rum-soaked life of the island, Paul soon becomes obsessed with Chenault (Amber Heard), the wildly attractive Connecticut-born fiancé of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a businessman involved in shady property development deals, determined to convert Puerto Rico into a capitalist paradise in service of wealthy Americans. When Kemp is recruited by Sanderson to write favorably about his latest unsavory scheme, the journalist is presented with a choice – to use his words for the corrupt businessmen’s financial benefit, or use them to take the bastards down.
Bruce, since there has been a significant gap of time since your prior efforts and this film, what was it like to return to directing?
BRUCE ROBINSON: Well, I was a little bit wobbly and all over the place, but I was protected by my wonderful associates that I made the film with. It was like getting back on a bicycle, but there was a great ease in there because I was working with such great people. And, I don’t say that in a silly, facetious way. I really mean that.
What about filmmaking and the industry had changed, since your last film?
ROBINSON: I don’t know anything about any of that, in the first place. No, we had as good technicians that were available on earth, and I did what I always did when I did it before, which was to work with the actors, and then technicians would photograph what we wanted to do.
Obviously, Hunter S. Thompson wrote himself into the lead character, in most of his novels. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when you played Raoul Duke, you interpreted some of Hunter into the role. At the same time, it’s a different character that you’re playing with Paul Kemp. How did you decide how much to pull back Hunter and how much to inject into this role?
JOHNNY DEPP: Well, it was a discussion that Bruce and I had, early on, with regard to the character. Having played Hunter, in the form of Raoul Duke, circa 1971 or 1972, that was a full-blown Hunter. That was the Hunter that existed, up until the day he turned to smoke. The ‘59 and ‘60 Hunter was this kid who was teetering on the verge of finding his voice, of finding that outlet or that avenue for the rage, the passion, the anger, and all the injustices that he railed against. So, Bruce and I talked about it not going into the over-the-top Hunter – and Hunter was quite over-the-top – but let him be this pre-Gonzo Hunter.
Johnny, as a friend of Hunter’s, who knew him more deeply than the public persona, what were the things about him that you wanted to communicate through this movie, that people might not necessarily appreciate or know about?
DEPP: The main thing that no one really understood about Hunter, or realized about Hunter, was that he had a very strong, very thick moral fiber. He was, first and foremost, a southern gentleman. He was chivalrous. And, no one ever sort of dared to look at that side of him, or was ever exposed to that side of him. He was a very hyper-sensitive man, hence the self-medication.
ROBINSON: He was a totally moral man.
DEPP: So, that’s a side that no one ever saw. What everyone expected from Hunter Thompson was that the circus had come to town. It was like, “What’s he gonna do now?” I witnessed it, the first time I met him. He walked into a bar and cleared a path with a giant cattle prod and a taser gun. He did that for about 10 minutes, and it worked. So, there was that side to him, that people expected, but the other side, when you spent time with him, was this very intelligent, highly intelligent, hyper-sensitive, beautiful man.
DEPP: If they swat you around for long enough, there is a persona that’s cultivate by someone other than yourself. They’re put me in all kinds of situations, over the past 25 years. I’ve had a love affair with the Pope. They just create all these things to sell a magazine. It’s got nothing to do with me.
What were the flaws that you saw in the book for The Rum Diary and how did you go about deciding what you would change?
DEPP: It was really beyond my area of expertise, for sure. I knew the book, backwards and forwards, certainly. When I coaxed Bruce into coming onboard, after living in the jungles for 17 years, he read the book a few times, and then finally came to what the real essence of the dilemma was, in terms of translating literature into cinema. First and foremost, it was that Hunter had split himself in two. There was Kemp and there was Yeoman, in the book, and that was never going to work, cinematically. So, when he closed that gap and he amalgamated those two characters, that was the beginning. Even Hunter and I, when we were talking about making it into a film, over the years, Hunter thought, “Well, we should take it out of Puerto Rico. Let’s make it Cuba.” Hunter was really raring to go, in some other form than the book. He was really very ready to escape what he had put down on paper because he knew that there were certain flaws.
ROBINSON: When I first got ahold of this book, after Johnny first sent it to me and I read it, and I didn’t know how to make the motor drive of the narrative work, for about six weeks. And, the reason I didn’t know how to make it work was because it took me six weeks to realize that Hunter had split himself into two characters, in the book. It seems retrospectively obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me, at the time. I really sweated over it and thought about it, day and night. This movie was about Johnny being Hunter again, but there were two Hunters in the book. As soon as I realized that I could jump one of them I knew I could write the story down.
DEPP: Well, primarily because Hunter and I were sitting in what he called the War Room, back in about 1997, going through all the manuscripts and bits and bobs from Fear and Loathing, which included cherry stems and cocktail napkins and weird photographs, and things like that. I happened upon a cardboard box that unearthed The Rum Diary, and we started to read it cross-legged on the floor. I said, “Hunter this is very good, man. You’re out of your mind. Why don’t you publish this thing?” He said, “Yes, I will. However, I think we should produce this. We should become partners on this.” And so, of course, with Hunter, you always agreed, “Absolutely, man, let’s do it.” So, that was the moment that it started. That’s why The Rum Diary, as opposed to The Curse of Lono, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, or Hell’s Angels, or whatever else.
If you didn’t have his blessing on The Rum Diary, what else might you have chosen to make?
DEPP: With Hunter’s stuff, there’s always a project. If I was allowed to, I’d keep going. I’d just keep playing Hunter. There’s a great comfort in it for me because I get a great visit with my old friend, who I miss dearly. So, what would it be, if it weren’t this? Maybe The Curse of Lono. I don’t know.
Bill Murray said that once you play Hunter, it’s impossible to get him out of your blood stream. Is that true?
DEPP: He never leaves, yeah. My first day of shooting on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I got this call from Bill Murray, half-way through the day. I had sponged off of Hunter for a long time, and I thought I had him down pretty good. Bill Murray called me and said, “I just want to warn you about something. Be careful when you play Hunter because he never leaves. He’ll never go away.” And, nothing has ever been more true. Hunter never goes away. He’s still with me, every day.
DEPP: Individuality, originality, poetic rage, beauty, anger, understanding, and also this incredible gift of identification. Hunter would pick a person and describe them to a T, within seconds. I’d see Hunter meet people and be very sweet and gentlemanly, and then I’d see him meet people who had the wrong approach and he would turn them into a fine mist, within seconds. They’d just be gone. That’s what was really amazing about Hunter. He had this bullshit detector that was a built-in barometer for horseshit. He did not suffer fools gladly.
Given your creative input on this project, being a producer on the film, what made you want Bruce Robinson for the adaptation and also as the director, given the fact that he hadn’t made a film in nearly 20 years?
DEPP: Back when Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came up, my first choice was Bruce Robinson, and I turned Hunter onto Bruce’s films, and he loved the films. But, Bruce was unavailable, by choice. So, we went forward, and luckily we got the great Terry Gilliam involved, and he killed it. He did a wonderful job. And then, when The Rum Diary came up, Hunter and I talked and our dream, from the first second, was Bruce Robinson. I did have to remind him that he was stuck somewhere in the country, out in south of England, and not remotely interested in anything that pertains to Hollywood. But, Bruce was the dream. Unfortunately, after all that Hunter and I went through, having these ridiculous meetings with vague financiers, and guzzling Chivas, trying to drum up somebody’s wallet for the financing for the thing, before Hunter made his exit, I was just getting close to Bruce.
DEPP: Probably two or three years.
ROBINSON: Yeah, I didn’t want to do it.
DEPP: He didn’t want to do anything.
ROBINSON: I didn’t want to do anything with films, that’s for sure.
What was it that about Bruce’s earlier films that made you think he was the guy for the job?
DEPP: If there’s any cinema that can be deemed as perfect, Withnail & I is there. It’s poetic with incredible gravity, huge humor, absurdity, irreverence, and all of the elements and ingredients that I find fascinating, not only in cinema, but life. And then, you go onto How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and that was like a ball-peen hammer to the middle of my forehead. I thought, “This guy is, for real, a genius.” Those two films destroyed me, and I knew that I had to work with him one way or another, by hook or crook, so I hooked him.
ROBINSON: He hooked me. He got me with wine, by the way. He plied me with wine and had his way with me.
DEPP: Yeah, I got him drunk and took advantage.
What was it like to play this young man who was uncynical and idealistic?
DEPP: Luckily for me, I had spent so much time with Hunter. I knew him so well. And, we had talked about those days. We talked about everything – his youth and his upbringing, going from juvenile delinquent into the Air Force, and then from the Air Force into journalism, and typing and retyping The Great Gatsby, over and over, to see what it felt like to write a masterpiece. I mean I knew Hunter so well, and having had the opportunity to play him in Fear and Loathing, with the character of Raoul Duke, I basically only had to make a few trims, here and there, in terms of personality. Hunter was really, truly who he was always, from birth. It’s just that that was the moment prior to him finding his voice and finding Gonzo.
DEPP: I don’t know that I’ll ever have a voice, as an actor. At this point, I’ve got too many voices in my head. There are a lot of characters in there. Maybe my voice is through them. I don’t know. Maybe I’m schizophrenic.
Was there any trepidation over the fact that this material is so clearly based on the experiences, foibles and perspectives of a 23-year-old, when you’re not that age anymore?
DEPP: Oh, yeah. Initially, my idea was to not play any of the characters. I didn’t want to play anything in the film. It was Bruce that talked me into playing Kemp. I said, “I may be a little long in the tooth for that.” But, he figured there was a way he could write it, to make it work.
ROBINSON: There was actually a scene that is cut from the film, that was an expositional scene to explain why Johnny, who is 38-years-old, in the context of the film, should have been 20. It was a scene that I quite liked, but it wasn’t necessary. You pay for your ticket to see the movie and go for the ride, and it was perfectly clear that the reason that Johnny’s Kemp was older than the character in the book was because he’d been drinking his life away. We start the film with him looking for vodka. There was no necessity to explain that. It’s got nothing to do with the spirit of The Rum Diary. Hunter didn’t know, when he wrote the book, that he was going to be played in a film, 35 years later. So, we shot the scene and put it in the film, but it was an unnecessary piece of exposition.
Did you show that scene to people, at all?
ROBINSON: Yeah, a couple of people saw it. Everyone concluded that this is Johnny playing Hunter, in this film.
DEPP: I do, in a sense, just because I’m coming from the perceptive of Hunter. Everything Hunter did, to me, was absolute brilliance. Where the Buffalo Roam is another animal, altogether. It’s a different version and approach. Fear and Loathing was a pure take on the book. The Rum Diary is a pure take on the book, but we also branched out in the screenplay and story. It’s just pure Hunter.
ROBINSON: Hunter was truly there, every day.
DEPP: He was most definitely there, every day.
ROBINSON: We had this ritual, every day. We had Hunter’s chair with a script and the Dunhill cigarettes and a bottle of Chivas Regal, on the rocks. Every morning, before we started work, Johnny and I would stick our fingers in the Chivas and put the perfume of whiskey behind our ears, to celebrate Hunter. This was for him.
DEPP: Most definitely. Initially, it was the idea of keeping Hunter’s spirit alive for us, on the set. But, I knew that I had Hunter with me. When I put my pillow on the bed at night, I had him with me. He was there. That became addictive for everyone. The actors would go and dab. The crew would go and dab. It was all for Hunter.
DEPP: Yes, I did the fire-breathing. That was one of those things where I was excited because Michael [Rispoli] had a chicken sitting on top of his head, and then there was the possibility of actually spewing fire.
Had you ever done that before?
DEPP: I had done that. I did spew a little fire, when I was a youth. In my youth, I very, very dumbly chugged gasoline and blew it into a torch, and then my head was on fire. That’s true. And, it’s a weird thing, when your head is on fire. You tend to panic. And then, when panic sets in and you can’t get your face out, you run, which is the worst thing you can do. A friend of mine came over and put my face out. That saved my life.
When your kids are the right age, why will you be excited to introduce them to Hunter’s literary works?
DEPP: Because of Hunter’s voice, his brain, his mind, and his incredible, revolutionary outlook.
Why is it good for every new generation to get Hunter into their head?
DEPP: First of all, there’s the idea that someone could voice his opinions, to that degree, in the way that he did. Nobody was more ripe, at the time. Over the years, he knew who was full of shit and who wasn’t, and he knew it, instantly. So, I think that’s a great thing for the younger generation to learn.
What made you want to cast Amber Heard?
DEPP: Bruce had met with her, and when I saw Amber, I thought, “She’s everything that Hunter would adore, in terms of the character.” I also thought that she was absolutely just like seeing an old movie star. She’s like Lauren Bacall.
Are you eager to get started on The Lone Ranger now?
DEPP: Yeah. It’s all worked out. It’s all good. I’m looking forward to it.
How’s The Thin Man coming?
DEPP: It’s getting there. It’s in the early days, but it’s getting there.