Dreams: Fear and Loathing Production Notes
Laila Nabulsi had more than once, through the years, imagined Terry Gilliam to be the right person to convert Thompson's book into a viable motion picture, and while he had expressed interest, the director was always busy on other projects. That is, until fate finally persevered and insured a rare period of availability for Gilliam.
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been hunting me down for some years," confirms Terry Gilliam. "About 10 years ago a script turned up and I thought, 'Oh, this would be an interesting film to start the '90s off,' but at the time I was busy doing something else and let it go. Also, Ralph Steadman, who illustrated the original book and article for Rolling Stone, is coincidentally a good friend of mine."
"But then," Gilliam continues, "the project turned up again, and I was reminded how funny and outrageous the book is. The world of political correctness didn't exist when Hunter wrote the book, and hopefully won't exist after this film comes out. I've been feeling, since the '80s, that we've gone through such a constricted time when everything has kind of tightened up. Everybody is frightened to say what they feel, frightened to live in an extraordinary, outrageous way, and it's time to take off those chains. The book has already spoken its mind. Now it's our turn."
Joining Gilliam on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was the distinguished British producer Patrick Cassavetti, who had already worked with the filmmaker on both Time Bandits and Brazil, understanding both his methods and his vision. "Fear and Loathing is a greatly expressionistic story, and that's why Terry, who is a decidedly expressionistic director, is a great choice," Cassavetti notes.
"The project is sort of a mine field," the producer continues, "because it's such a difficult book to adapt as a piece of cinema. And therefore, it needs someone who can take it one step further and turn it into pure cinema, in the same way that the book is pure literature. It's the literature of energy, really, which is why it's so attractive to the English, myself included. Reading the book for the first time as a young art student, it struck me as being about pushing and testing the perceived boundaries of freedom. "To have made this film then would have been very interesting," continues Cassavetti. "But to make the film now is, perhaps, even more so. This seems like an apt moment to do it. We're reaching the end of the millennium, and where are we in terms of our personal and moral freedoms? Have we really progressed?"
There was another reason why Gilliam was excited about the possibilities of filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas...and his name is Johnny Depp. The actor had already committed to portraying Hunter Thompson's alter-ego Raoul Duke, which more than intrigued the director. "I think Johnny is the best actor of his generation," states Gilliam emphatically. "It was really a combination of the subject matter and Johnny that drove me into it. I don't think there's anything that Johnny can't do. He's very inventive, fast on his feet, funny and incredibly hard-working." Adds Cassavetti, "Johnny is remarkable in terms of his application, his concentration and his presence."
Producer Laila Nabulsi, a longtime friend and associate of Hunter Thompson, is perhaps the best observer of what Johnny Depp brought to his role. "I felt like Johnny understood the sensitivity of Hunter that a lot of people can't or don't want to see. The basic image of Hunter -- all of the craziness and madness and macho stuff -- is just part of the story. Hunter is also a very sensitive, deep, thoughtful person, and Johnny has all of those qualities. "Johnny has those same eyes," notes Nabulsi, "that same deep soul." In the latter part of the shoot, the producer noted that "sometimes when I see Johnny on set, I momentarily flash 'Oh, Hunter's here.' It fools me sometimes, because it's just the look, not just an imitation...it's a thought process that Johnny was able to pick up on."
As for Depp, his commitment to the project and to Hunter Thompson was steadfast from the beginning. "Fear and Loathing has been screaming to be made into a film since it was published 26 years ago," states the actor. "The book came out of the beginning of the death of the American Dream. But Hunter was still out there searching for it, searching madly, hoping that the Dream still existed, and all he found was madness in every direction, and tragedy and greed. This book represented a great search for Hunter, and a kind of exorcism at the same time. Fear and Loathing is about hope, it's about insanity, it's about trying to find something out there to believe in.
Continues Depp, "I think it's a great story that will make people laugh, that will make people think, that will also scare and appall them. Some people will see Duke and Dr. Gonzo as just a couple of nutcases filling their bodies with heinous chemicals. But it's not about recreation. It's about need." As Depp indicates, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not a one-man show. Raoul Duke without Dr. Gonzo is unthinkable, so Gilliam and his collaborators needed to find an actor who could equal Depp in passion, creativity and fearlessness. It soon became clear that Benicio Del Toro was their man. The Puerto Rico-born, New York-trained actor had made an explosive mark in The Usual Suspects, projecting charisma and taking risks that made him the perfect choice to inhabit the wild, unkempt, brilliant man-child that is Dr. Gonzo. "There's a lot going on with Benicio, says Gilliam. "He has a great presence on the screen and comes up with things that are dark, brooding, dangerous and sexy."
"Having Johnny and Benicio are a dream come true for me," adds Nabulsi. "Raoul Duke is like the great straight man to Dr. Gonzo, sometimes trying to hold the pin in the grenade. Benicio is a very interesting and exciting actor, and I've never seen anybody work so hard in my life. He's obsessed with his work, and gives us a kind of wild energy that's terrifically unpredictable."
"The relationship between Duke and Gonzo is almost like an early '70s, post-hippie version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza," comments Cassavetti. "They seem to be two completely mismatched human beings, but they're also stalwart companions who play off of each other."
Depp continues the analysis of this famous odd pairing. "There's obviously a very deep love between these two guys, who are set apart from the rest of the world. They're not afraid to get out there, push the boundaries and test the limits. At the same time, there's also a kind of brotherly hatred between them, pushing each other further and further. I think they need one another, really, to survive." Del Toro has his own take on the friendship between Duke and Gonzo. "They're two romantics, with no melody left to dance to," he says. "So they're quite afraid, lonely and full of anger.
"If you don't read between the lines, in both the book and the movie," Del Toro continues, "Duke and Dr. Gonzo just seem like a couple of hoodlums. I think it's much deeper than that. They're lost. They are, as the title indicates, full of fear and loathing, which is a bad combination. They're disappointed with the 'silent majority,' disappointed with America's leaders of the time, disappointed with the war, and filled with fear of the future. "So they push themselves to weirdness and extravagance and outlandishness in order to force the people around them to realize that there's something wrong with the country."
There was only one problem with Del Toro. As described by Thompson, Gonzo is impressively overweight, his physical bulk an essential aspect of his intimidating countenance. Del Toro, however, is svelte, handsome and impeccably put together. But not for long... "Well, I gained some weight for the role," notes Del Toro with considerable understatement. "Every time I was bored, I ate." In fact, he gained some 35 to 40 pounds to inhabit Dr. Gonzo's physical being, growing long, disheveled hair and an impressive mustache as well. "Benicio's physical transformation was incredible," says Depp. "He really committed himself and focused and got in there and did it. Finally, he was very proud of his belly, like a Puerto Rican Buddha."
As for Depp, he was preparing for his role by spending great amounts of time with Hunter Thompson at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, and on the road. "First of all," recalls Depp, "I read pretty much everything of Hunter's writing that's been published, and also lots of stuff that hasn't. I spent a number of months with Hunter, studying him, spending time with him, staying up at his home. I even became his road manager for a while. "Luckily, we had already been friends before the film was set to go," continues the actor. "I think one of the things that helped with the initial meeting between us that was we're both from Kentucky. Hunter is, beneath it all, a real Southern gentleman."
Depp's complex challenge was to somehow find a way of merging the real Hunter Thompson with alter-ego Raoul Duke, just as the writer had done in the book. "I wanted to make Hunter proud," the actor admits, "because his story deserved all attention and all focus. So I just tried to make myself look as much like him as possible. I shaved my head on top, and just left a kind of shorthaired chinchilla around the sides. Hunter's ears are larger than mine, so I wore small devices to make mine poke out a little more. And there's a unique body language that Hunter has, and I could feel myself clicking into it once we started."
This body language allowed Depp -- whose great gifts as a physical performer have been well demonstrated in such films as Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon -- to develop an extraordinary physical vocabulary which in some sense brought the genius of great silent comedians into the early 1970s. Constantly in motion, bobbing and weaving, his ever-present cigarette holder functioning almost like an antenna, Depp's Raoul Duke is like a graceful (if highly offbeat) dancer who's constantly in danger of falling off the stage.
Click here for more from Dreams on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas