Fear & Loathing: Welcome to Bat Country
Dreams Retrospective by J. D. Lafrance
After more than 20 years of failed attempts and missed opportunities, Terry Gilliam has done what many thought impossible -- he has transformed Hunter S. Thompson's classic novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, into the cinematic equivalent of a sledgehammer whacked across your frontal lobes. Thompson's book has been fully realized and brought to the big screen in all of its demented glory.
Journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), drive to Las Vegas to cover the 1971 Mint 400 motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated magazine. However, the race 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.
Many filmmakers over the years had tried to make films out of Hunter S. Thompson's books but the first completed effort didn't surface until 1980 with Where The Buffalo Roam. Art Linson's film liberally mixed Thompson's real life with his books and starred Bill Murray and Peter Boyle as Thompson and Oscar Acosta (a.k.a. Dr. Gonzo), respectively. Thompson even served as a consultant on the film but this did little to translate the author's warped vision to the big screen. While watching Buffalo Roam, it becomes readily apparent that, despite Murray's inspired performance, director Linson had no idea what Thompson's books were trying to say. The film seems more like a collection of rather tame highlights from the man's work.
After the film's dismal critical and commercial reception, no other adaptations were completed. 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.
Actor Johnny Depp first met Hunter S. 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 the 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.
Depp was given complete access to every memento the writer saved from his 1971 trip to Las Vegas. 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." He rummaged through Thompson's wardrobe at the time: 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. Thompson even let Depp borrow the red shark: the giant fire engine red convertible that the author took to Vegas, which was also used in the film.
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.
Filmmaker Alex Cox was hired to direct the film on January 1997. 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. However, Cox's idea of the film seemed to differ from everyone else involved. 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 his writing partner, Tod Davies, met Thompson at his home and it was at this point that Cox expressed his desire to incorporate animation in the film. Thompson took offense to his book being reduced to a cartoon and promptly kicked Cox and Davies out of his home.
After Cox was fired, the film's producers approached Terry Gilliam's agent. There was an air of desperation because, as Patrick Cassavetti, one of the film's producers, put it, "the option on the book was about to expire. Johnny Depp had been waiting around overlong and we had another project going that we had to launch in 1998."
Terry Gilliam seemed like the perfect choice to direct this film. The theme of insanity had always figured into his films but has since taken a more prominent role with his last couple of projects. As a result, Fear and Loathing completes an informal trilogy based on madness that includes The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995).
When Gilliam had first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 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."
However, in 1997, when Gilliam got the call from Laila Nabulsi, one of the film's producers, to direct, the time seemed to be right. 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."
And so, Gilliam scrapped Cox and Tod Davies' screenplay and had only ten days to write another. Gilliam enlisted the help of Tony Grisoni (Queen of Hearts) and together they hammered out a screenplay 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."
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 a whacked out kaleidoscope of colours 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."
Robert Yarber, an artist who paints pictures of people inside hotel rooms using fluorescent colours, influenced the look of Fear and Loathing. As Gilliam remembers, "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 have their own garish Las Vegas decor that Duke and Dr. Gonzo subsequently transform into a twisted disaster area.
Fear and Loathing 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 humour in this film is simultaneously disturbing and hilarious -- a pitch-black satire of American culture and excess.
Around the 3/4-way mark, Fear and Loathing veers off into some really dark territory as the horror that accompanies chemical dependency rears its ugly head. I was worried that this element would be lost in the transfer from book to film and that it was going to be simply a "straight" comedy. Thankfully, the darker edge of the book has been retained and reinforced in spades.
The heart of darkness in Fear and Loathing is a scene that takes place in the North Star Coffee Lounge between Duke, Dr. Gonzo and a waitress whom the attorney threatens. As Gilliam observes, "this is two guys who have gone beyond the pale, this is unforgivable -- that scene, it's ugly. My approach, rather than to throw it out, was to make that scene the low point."
To say that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas received a mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike is a gross understatement. Perhaps Terry Gilliam and Co. did too faithful an adaptation and it's a film 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 theatres, 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 remarked 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!"
I think that this is indeed some kind of genius film, but in a really demented way that I would have a hard time verbalizing to someone who didn't tap into what Gilliam is trying to do. I can see why Fear and Loathing received a critical shellacking from all the usual pundits (Ebert et al.). It's a very odd film -- 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.
This is the kind of film that people will either really love or hate -- there is no middle ground. Gilliam's film is going to be one of those movies that's destined to become an instant cult item. As Hunter S. Thompson puts 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 in Las Vegas is pure Gonzo filmmaking for people who like weird, challenging films.
J.D. Lafrance is a freelance writer who hopes to one day get paid to watch and write about movies. He counts David Lynch, Michael Mann, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, and, of course, Terry Gilliam as some of his favourite filmmakers.