After more than twenty years of failed attempts and missed opportunities, Terry Gilliam did what many thought impossible — he transformed Hunter S. Thompson's classic novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, into the cinematic equivalent of a having sledgehammer whacked across your frontal lobes. The book had finally been fully realized and brought to the big screen in all of its demented glory. The film crashed and burned in theaters, infamously debuting at the Cannes Film Festival where it was roasted by critics, but it has aged very well, attracting a devoted cult film following that quote from its numerous memorable scenes.
Gilliam's film faithfully adapts journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo's (Benicio Del Toro) trip to Las Vegas to cover the 1971 Mint 400 motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated magazine. The competition, however, is merely an excuse for the duo to abuse their expense account and indulge in a galaxy of drugs. What was initially a simple journey to cover a motorcycle race mutates into a bizarre search for the American Dream.
"As true gonzo journalism, this doesn't work at all, and even if it did, I couldn't possibly admit it. Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and claim it was true." – Hunter S. Thompson
Originally, Thompson was assigned to write captions for a photo-essay on the Mint 400 off-road motorcycle race in Las Vegas for Sports Illustrated magazine. Along for the ride was his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta whom he had met through a mutual friend. Thompson remembers, "I dragged Oscar away while he was working on the 'Biltmore Seven' trial because we couldn't talk in that war zone. So I said, 'Let's get the hell out of town!'" At some point, the editor for Rolling Stone magazine heard that Thompson was in Vegas and asked him to also cover the National District Attorneys Association's Third Annual Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which was being held at Caesar's Palace.
When Sports Illustrated rejected his work Thompson took the Rolling Stone gig. It was at this point that he began to put his weird journey on paper. Truth was truly stranger than fiction as he remembers one incident with his wild attorney: "He would do things like drop me off at the airport in my rental car, and then two months later I'd get a bill for three weeks that he used the car. He'd forget to take it back." Acosta had inspired Thompson to take his writing to a new level: "gonzo journalism," where the journalist participates in the story he is writing about. Taking refuge in a Ramada Inn in Arcadia, California, Thompson wrote relentlessly, frequenting a 24-hour coffee shop and breaking only for the odd swim in the pool. By the time he had returned home to Aspen, Colorado, the writer had a first draft done. In his basement, Thompson blasted the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" while he "anguished over five or six drafts until I got it right."
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Thompson invented the Raoul Duke moniker because he was worried that his debauched misadventures depicted in the book might ruin his chances of acquiring press credentials from the White House so that he could cover the 1972 Presidential campaign. He got his credentials and allowed the book publishers to use his real name when the story was released in book form in 1972.
The newsreel footage that plays at the very beginning of the film sets the time period – a turbulent time in American history with the war raging over in Vietnam while anti-war protests raged in the United States. Duke and Gonzo reflect this anti-authoritarian stance as they wage their own war on the establishment armed with a trunk full of alcohol and drugs. They are introduced already drunk and high with Duke feeling acutely paranoid, talking to himself about imaginary bats in the sky. “Our vibrations were getting nasty but why? Was their no communication in this car? Had we deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts?” This foreshadows the “savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” (the subtitle of the book) these two men will take as they debase themselves to the level of animals as a way of dealing with how dark and ugly America has gotten.
Early on, Duke lays out their mission statement: “Our trip was different. It was to be a classic affirmation of everything right and true in the national character. A gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Las Vegas epitomizes everything that is grotesque about the American Dream. It is even weirder under the influence of LSD as upon arrival at his hotel Duke sees people’s faces distort hideously and the lobby carpet moving ominously. He and Gonzo go into a bar filled with grotesque caricatures that, on acid, are transformed into slimy, human-sized lizards. Gilliam warps the scene with garish colors and echoey audio where it is impossible to understand what is being said.
Gilliam presents Vegas as an intentionally artificial place, intentionally using rear projection with vintage footage of the town as Duke and Gonzo cruise around in their rental car. This technique enhances the surreal aspect of ‘60s era Vegas when the likes of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra ruled. By the time, Duke and Gonzo arrive the town is in a state of flux as it was being transformed into a family friendly place. This is evident in the circus-themed casino they eventually visit as Duke hilariously observes via voiceover: “Bazooko Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This was the 6th Reich.” This scene shows Duke and Gonzo in a less than flattering light as the latter has a bad drug trip, insulting a waitress and making a scene while Duke, the slightly straighter of the two, gets increasingly paranoid.
Some of their worst behavior comes when they get back to their hotel room where they take more drugs and completely trash it. Gonzo gets increasingly upset, threatening violence. Benicio del Toro excels at these scenes with his scary, intimidating presence as evident in a brief scene where he and Duke share an elevator with people covering the motorcycle race. When one of them questions Gonzo’s assertion that he’s a rider in the race, he pulls a knife and threatens them with it in an unsettling moment. This results in Duke musing via voiceover, “One of the things you learn after years of dealing with drug people is that you can turn your back on a person but never turn your back on a drug, especially when it’s waving a razor sharp hunting knife in your eye.”
What saves Fear and Loathing from being nothing more than an exercise in excess are the moments where Duke takes a break from the alcohol and drugs and thinks about what he is doing and what is going on – not just where he is at the moment but in the world:
“Who are these people? These faces. Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used car dealers from Dallas and sweet Jesus there are a helluva lot of them at 4:30 on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream. That vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the last minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.”
This is spoken over footage of Duke walking through a casino populated by several older white men by themselves sullenly gambling. It ties in rather well with a later scene (and the best part of the film) where he ruminates on the idealism of the ‘60s in San Francisco:
“But no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world…There was madness in any direction, at any hour you could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, we were winning…That sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense. We didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum. We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”
These poignant words play over vintage footage of ‘60s counterculture. This scene and its speech perfectly captures the idealism of that era and a lament for its failure as ushered in by a darker more selfish attitude that came in the 1970s – a paranoid time spawned by political assassinations of important leaders and the Watergate scandal.
If the beginning of Fear and Loathing is akin to 1967 and the Summer of Love with everything groovy, funny and we’re laughing along with these guys, then the last third is the Rolling Stones at Altamont. The film goes to a dark place as the drugs get worse, much like the mood of the country over the years. Duke and Gonzo are products of the ‘60s, taking no responsibility for their actions and not paying for anything. These aren’t likable guys and the film doesn’t make any excuses for them.
This is particularly evident when Duke and Gonzo trash another hotel with the former taking a drug called adrenochrome. It conjures up all kinds of nightmarish imagery as he hallucinates the latter as some kind of demonic beast. As horrific as this scene gets, it is a warm-up for the next one – a flashback where Duke and Gonzo take late night refuge at the North Star Coffee Lounge, located in a rough Vegas neighborhood where we see three cops beating an unarmed man. The joint is grimy and imbued with a sickly yellowish green hue. They are served by a disheveled waitress (Ellen Barkin) that Duke describes as a “burned out caricature of Jane Russell.” Gonzo insults her and she gets angry at him. She threatens to call the cops and he replies by pulling out a knife and threatening her with it. There is no actual violence in this scene, only the implication of it that hangs thick as does the palpable tension between Gonzo and the waitress as he intimidates and humiliates her. Del Toro is a revelation in this scene, unafraid to portray a repulsive person that goes over the line.
Duke does nothing but watch and at the end of the scene Depp gives a brief, subtle look that conveys shame as he did nothing to stop Gonzo. This is the duo at their worst – one was the instigator of bad behavior while the other condoned it in his silence. This is truly the apex of their “savage journey” and while the rest of the film allows the characters go out on a high note, matching the gleeful tone of the beginning, it does little to diminish the ugly truth on display in the North Star scene.
Many attempts to get a Fear and Loathing Las Vegas film going were launched by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson but nothing ever materialized. It took actor Johnny Depp and his friendship with Thompson to get any kind of serious attempt at an adaptation even possible.
Depp first met Thompson in Aspen, Colorado just before New Year's Eve, 1995. Depp left that initial meeting wondering why Fear and Loathing had not been made into a film. The actor subsequently invited Thompson to do a one-night gig at Depp's nightclub, The Viper Room on September 29, 1996 with the intention of asking the writer about doing a film version of his book. The opportunity never materialized but the two began corresponding via faxes. Early one day, Thompson called Depp on the phone and asked him if he would consider playing Raoul Duke if a film was ever made of Fear and Loathing. "Without hesitation, I said, 'You bet!'" Depp recalls. By the Spring of 1997, Depp had moved into the basement of Owl Farm, Thompson's home in Aspen in order to do proper research for the role.
"I've been dealing with these yo-yos buying options on things for years. Options have been essentially paying the rent." – Hunter S. Thompson
Rhino Films was the latest in a long line of people trying to bring Thompson's vision to the big screen. Head of Production (and one of the film's producers) Stephen Nemeth originally wanted Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) to direct. However, Tamahori wasn't going to be available until after the January 1997 start date. Rhino asked Thompson for an extension on the movie rights but the author and his lawyers said no. As Thompson later remarked in an interview, "They just kept asking for more [time]. I got kind of agitated about it, because I thought they were trying to put off doing it. So I began to charge them more...I wanted to see the movie done, once it got started."
Rhino countered by green-lighting the film and hiring Alex Cox to direct. According to Nemeth, Cox could "do it for a price, could do it quickly, and could get this movie going in four months." Judging by his past efforts, films like Repo Man (1983) and Straight to Hell (1987), Cox was no stranger to the same kind of Gonzo sensibilities evident in Thompson's books. He started writing the screenplay with Tod Davies, a UCLA Hunter S. Thompson scholar. Depp and Del Toro committed to the film at this point. However, during pre-production Cox and another of the film's producers, Laila Nabulsi (and an ex-flame of Thompson's) had "creative differences" and she forced Rhino to choose between her and the filmmaker. Despite having no background in movies, Nabulsi did have an arrangement with Thompson to produce the movie.
The fatal blow came when Cox encountered Thompson with his own ideas of adapting the Fear and Loathing into a film. Johnny Depp remembers that "Alex had some dream that he could make Thompson's work better. He was wrong. He had this idea about animation in the film.” Cox and Davies, met Thompson at his home and it was at this point that Cox expressed his desire to incorporate animation into the movie. Thompson took offense to his book being reduced to a cartoon and promptly kicked Cox and Davies out of his home. When all the dust settled, Rhino sided with Nabulsi, fired Cox, and paid him $60,000 in script fees.
"I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time." – Terry Gilliam
The studio approached Terry Gilliam's agent. There was an air of desperation because the option on the book was about to expire and Rhino had another project they wanted to start in 1998. Hunter S. Thompson granted the studio an extension for the rights but they didn't have a definite deal with Gilliam. Thompson would only grant another extension if Gilliam was given a concrete deal. Rhino did not want to commit to Gilliam in case he didn't work out (like Cox). They threatened to make the film with Cox and without Depp or Del Toro if the two actors didn't like the possibility of Gilliam being ousted. Nabulsi told them about Rhino's plans and Gilliam and Depp were furious. Universal stepped in to distribute the movie and Depp and Gilliam were paid half a million dollars each. Ironically, Gilliam ended up making Fear and Loathing without a firm deal in place.
Gilliam was the perfect choice to direct an adaptation of Fear and Loathing. The theme of insanity and altered states of reality had always figured into his films but had since taken a more prominent role with his previous couple of projects. Fear and Loathing completes an informal trilogy based on madness that included The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995).
When Gilliam had first read Fear and Loathing back in 1971, he "immediately identified with what Hunter was saying. I'd left the States to move here for the very same reasons that Fear and Loathing was written—that feeling the ideals of the '60s had died and that it was all fucked. I was so angry I was going to start throwing bombs. So when I read the book it was like, 'Jesus! He's got it! That's exactly how the fuck I feel!'" Gilliam enjoyed the book but didn't think about it for years afterwards.
Ralph Steadman, who illustrated the book, was a good friend of Gilliam and began to bug him over the years to do a film version of Fear and Loathing. In 1989, Gilliam remembers a "script turned up which briefly got me excited about the book again, but I was busy with another project and I ultimately decided that the script didn't capture the story properly."
Gilliam and his friend, Toni Grisoni, were originally working on a project about Theseus and the Minotaur. Grisoni read in a magazine that Alex Cox was set to direct Fear and Loathing. Grisoni called up Cox (they knew each other) and expressed an interest in adapting the book into a film. Cox said that he was doing it himself and that was that. In April 1997, Cox was out and Gilliam got the call from Laila Nabulsi to direct. Gilliam said in an interview, "she sent me a script, and it reminded me of how funny and good the book was. I didn't really care for the script, but it inspired me to go back and read the book again.” Gilliam scrapped Cox and Davies' screenplay and asked Grisoni to help him write their own. Together they hammered out a screenplay in only ten days at Gilliam's home in London, England in May of 1997. As Grisoni remembers, "I'd sit at the keyboard, and we'd talk and talk and I'd keep typing.” Gilliam felt that the structure of the film should be organized much in the same way as the book:
“We start out at full speed and it's WOOOO! The drug kicks in and you're on speed! Whoah! You get the buzz—it's crazy, it's outrageous, the carpet's moving and everybody's laughing and having a great time. But then, ever so slowly, the walls start closing in and it's like you're never going to get out of this fucking place. It's an ugly nightmare and there's no escape. And then they get out into the desert and it's light again. But it's a really rough ride for a lot of people to climb inside that head.”
Gilliam also felt that the more surreal parts of the book could be transferred onto film if done right. For example, the imaginary bats that Duke sees on the highway at the beginning of the book was one such passage the director felt could be translated into visual terms.
“Right at the start I thought, 'Well, we can't show them in the sky, we can only show them inside Duke's eyeball. So in the film we push in really tight on one of his eyes, where you can see these reflections of bats flapping around. We then cut to a wide shot that shows Duke waving his arms at nothing. I wanted to some how convey that this was an internal problem.”
When Gilliam first joined the production there wasn't even a set budget. "I went out there and said all right, to start with just double it, whatever the budget is, seven and a half? I want $15-million, whatever it is just double it. And at the same time we're running around doing location scouts, discovering we can't use this, which we thought we could use, and we're trying to invent everything at the same time. I've never done a film like that, but on the other hand that was part of the fun of this one." From there, the pace never slackened as Gilliam and company shot Fear and Loathing on location in a fast 56 days on a lean budget (by Hollywood standards) of $18.5 million. "One of the reasons I made this film,” Gilliam remembers, “was to push myself and see if I could still work the way I used to: fast, furiously and cheaply."
Visually, Fear and Loathing is a masterpiece with an inspired kaleidoscope of colors and insanely inventive camera angles and perspectives that make you feel like you're actually on drugs. Each drug consumed by Duke and Dr. Gonzo had its corresponding cinematic look to simulate its effects on the characters' perception. As the film's cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini points out, the effect of ether was done with "loose depth of field; everything becomes non-defined,” while the effects of amyl nitrate were done so that the "perception of light gets very uneven, light levels increase and decrease during the shots."
The look of Fear and Loathing was not inspired by Ralph Steadman's famous artwork that accompanied Thompson's words. Robert Yarber, an artist who paints pictures of people inside hotel rooms using fluorescent colors, influenced the look of the film. His paintings captured the hallucinatory feel that the filmmakers were looking for: "the paintings use all kinds of neon colors, and the light sources don't necessarily make sense," Pecorini said in an interview. As Gilliam remembers, "people inside hotel rooms in really fluorescent colors. His work is very strange and extraordinary and the colors he uses are extremely vibrant. We used him as a guide while mixing our palette of deeply disturbing fluorescent colors." This is evident in the scenes set in hotel rooms that each has their own garish Las Vegas decor that Duke and Dr. Gonzo subsequently transform into a twisted disaster area.
Depp was given complete access to every memento the writer saved from his 1971 trip to Las Vegas. "We went through the manuscript and the notes. There's notes on napkins and everything. He saved it all." The actor read through the writer's notebooks (which included an unpublished chapter entitled, "The Coconut Scene," which Gilliam placed in the film) only to realize that "the freakiest thing was that it was all real, that the reality was as insane as the book."
Thompson was disappointed that the film's costume designer wanted Depp to wear "bizarre Hawaiian zoot suits, and shit like that." The writer let Depp rummage through his wardrobe at the time of the book: Hawaiian shirts, a patchwork jacket, a safari hat, and a silver medallion given to him by Acosta. Thompson graciously allowed Depp to wear it all in the film. Gilliam remembers that the actor would "come back from Hunter's house with shirts and bags that Hunter had taken on the trip. In fact, Johnny drove the original Red Shark—the 1971 Chevrolet convertible in the film—down to Vegas from Hunter's house in Colorado."
All of these items only enhance Depp's performance. In the film, he has literally transformed into Duke/Thompson, complete with the man's unusual bow-legged walk, sweeping arm movements, mumbling speech pattern, and the trademark Dunhill cigarettes in a holder between clenched teeth. It's an incredible performance that transcends simple mimicry. Depp's research culminated after a week when Thompson shaved almost all of the actor's hair for the film and entrusted him with the very car he used in the trip. The actor soon became Thompson's roadie and in charge of security for The Proud Highway (a collection of Thompson's letters) book tour.
If anything, the concern was that Depp would get too into the role and never emerge intact afterwards. While making the film, the actor received a phone call from Bill Murray who had also spent a lot of time with Thompson while researching for his role in Where the Buffalo Roam. Murray had had a very hard time shaking Thompson's distinctive persona after filming ended. Murray warned Depp to "be careful or you'll find yourself ten years from now still doing him...Make sure you're next role is some drastically different guy." Depp seemed to heed Murray's advice and went off to do The Astronaut's Wife (1999), a lackluster rip-off of Rosemary's Baby (1968), where he played an astronaut who is possessed by an alien entity.
"I don't think it was a well-organized film. Its birth was not easy. Certain people didn't...I'm not going to name names but it was a strange film, like one leg was shorter than the other. There was all sorts of chaos." – Terry Gilliam
One of the biggest obstacles Gilliam faced while shooting Fear and Loathing was working in the casinos in Las Vegas. He was only give six tables to put extras around and "the only time they'd give us was between two and six in the morning. And they insisted that the extras did real gambling!" In order to alleviate this problem, Gilliam decided to shoot the exterior shots of the Bazooko Casino in front of the Stardust hotel/casino with the interiors built and filmed on a Warner-Hollywood soundstage. That way, the director could exert more control over his surroundings instead of relying on the casinos that weren't always that co-operative.
To make matters worse, Gilliam faced another battle after Fear and Loathing was made. The Writer's Guild of America wanted to give sole writing credit to Alex Cox and Tod Davies even though Gilliam and Toni Grisoni had written their own script. According to WGA rules, if you're a writer-director, you have to produce more than 50% of the script, while other writers involved only have to produce 30%. However, as Gilliam pointed out, "there have been at least five previous attempts at adapting the book, and they all come from the book. They all use the same scenes." The WGA determined that Gilliam and Grisoni had not written the film. To add insult to injury, Gilliam wasn't even allowed to know who the arbiters were that made the decision or see their reports.
Universal brought in their lawyers and Gilliam and Grisoni had to write a 25-page document to prove that they had written more than 60% of the film. By early May 1998, the WGA revised its decision and gave writing credit to Gilliam and Grisoni first and then Cox and Davies second. This hardly satisfied Gilliam who burned his WGA card in protest.
"I always get very tense in those (test screenings), because I'm ready to fight. I know the pressure from the studios is, 'somebody didn't like that, change it!'" – Terry Gilliam
Fear and Loathing debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and Gilliam said, "I'm curious about the reaction...If I'm going to be disappointed, it's because it doesn't make any waves, that people are not outraged."
To say that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas received a mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike is a gross understatement. In The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, "Even the most precise cinematic realizations of Mr. Thompson's images (and of Ralph Steadman's cartoon drawings for the book) don't begin to match the surreal ferocity of the author's language." Stephen Hunter, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, "It tells no story at all. Little episodes of no particular import come and go...But the movie is too grotesque to be entered emotionally." Mike Clark, of USA Today, found the film, "simply unwatchable." Perhaps Gilliam and company made too faithful an adaptation that only really appeals to devotees of the book. Or, as Gilliam suggests, people were scared off because they had to think about what they were watching. "You've got to work out what it's told you, and that's not what America's about. They want their morality clear.”
Gilliam found that the American press refused to "even talk about Fear and Loathing. They won't say, 'Ban the film'—they're too liberal for that—so instead they seem to have adopted this attitude of, Oh, maybe if we don't talk about it, it'll go away. That's modern America all over.” And judging by Fear and Loathing's quick demise at the box office and subsequent disappearance from theaters, this strategy worked. While most critics praised Depp and Del Toro's performance, most found Gilliam's film to be a muddled mess with no coherent structure: just one long debauched road trip.
Regardless of what the critics thought, Gilliam hoped that one person would at least appreciate his efforts: Hunter S. Thompson. "Yeah, I liked it. It's not my show, but I appreciated it. Depp did a hell of a job. His narration is what really held the film together, I think. If you hadn't had that, it would have just been a series of wild scenes,” Thompson said in an interview. Gilliam remembers Hunter's reaction to the film when he saw at the premiere: "He was making all this fucking noise! Apparently it all came flooding back to him, he was reliving the whole trip! He was yelling out and jumping on his seat like it was a rollercoaster, ducking and diving, shouting "SHIT! LOOK OUT! GODDAM BATS!”
Fear and Loathing is a genius film, but in a really demented way — a 128-minute acid trip from beginning to end with no respite, no rest stops, and no objective distance from which to view the whole insane picture safely. You are plunged headlong into this weird, wild world along with the characters. It contains many funny moments, bits of dialogue, and visual zingers as Duke and Dr. Gonzo make their way through the surreal landscape that is Las Vegas. The humor in this film is simultaneously disturbing and hilarious — a pitch-black satire of American culture and excess.
The film starts off as a kind of period piece snobs vs. slobs comedy as Duke and Gonzo thumb their noses at authority figures wherever they go. Whereas in most of these types of comedies there is something likable about the slobs this is really not the case with Duke and Gonzo who are violent, vulgar human beings. Gradually, Gilliam introduces the darker, unseemly aspects of these characters. What saves the film from being nothing more than just another stoner comedy is the emotional and socio-political depth to it. Like the book, the film provides a snapshot of 1971 and what it was like to be alive then. Late in the film, Duke says via voiceover narration, “We’re all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the ‘60s.” Prescient words indeed and ones that still apply today. We are all trying to survive as the world continues to get darker and weirder.
Fear and Loathing became an instant cult item. It endured the critical brickbats of the day and has been reappraised as one of Gilliam’s best films. As Thompson put it in the book, "There he goes, one of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, too rare to die." Fear and Loathing is pure Gonzo filmmaking for people who like weird, challenging films.
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