"I don't make films just as films; I mean, they're there to hopefully stir things up, to try to get people to think again and then react," said director Terry Gilliam recently in Chicago. "You put them through an experience and they come out, and something's changed there; or they've been made to think about something, or get angry, I don't care. Just react. Don't just sit there and have all the work done for you by the guys that made the movie."
Gilliam's visceral approach to filmmaking makes him the ideal director to tackle Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a counterculture classic and a lament for the failed ambitions of the '60s.
Ostensibly, "Fear and Loathing" was to be a chronicle of journalist Thompson's 1971 visit to Las Vegas, accompanied by his friend, attorney Oscar Acosta, to cover the Mint 500, a desert motorcycle race, and later the National Conference of District Attorneys on narcotics and dangerous drugs. What Thompson eventually published in Rolling Stone is a fictionalized, surreal and wickedly funny examination of two disillusioned 30-somethings who ingest massive quantities of illegal substances (including such mind-bending exotica as ether and adrenochrome) and fall into a neon-lit rabbit hole in their search for the elusive American dream.
Gilliam, once a member of the fabled comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus and the inspired animator of the British television show, is no stranger to the potent mix of high-low humor and social commentary Thompson employs so effectively in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." After getting his filmmaking start co-directing the Python feature films, Gilliam made his idiosyncratic solo directing debut with "Jabberwocky" (1977). Audience reactions to that film helped cement his personal philosophy about filmmaking.
"People felt like they wanted to take a bath after they'd seen the film," Gilliam said with a satisfied smile. "There's something about trying to break through this celluloid barrier and get people right in the thick of the stuff," he continued, "and I keep pushing as far as I can." In Gilliam's view, the biggest compliment that "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" has received is that it makes viewers feel like they're actually on a drug trip.
You'd better take care of me, Lord ... because if you don't you're going to have me on your hands. -- Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
Johnny Depp, who embodies Thompson in "Fear and Loathing" by portraying his thinly disguised alter-ego Raoul Duke, described his first encounter in 1995 with the notoriously manic writer at a bar near Thompson's home base, a fortified compound near Aspen, Colo.
"The door burst open, and there was this huge, hulking figure -- because Hunter's a pretty big guy -- lumbering across the room," Depp described, "with a tazer gun in one hand and a three-foot cattle prod, fully electrified, in his other hand, waving them around, and people were scattering, kind of clamoring to get out of the way. And I just thought, 'Oh my God, there he is.'
"He came over and plopped down and we had a drink, and I didn't stop laughing from the time we sat down until the time we left. We went to his house and, within 45 minutes, I ended up in his kitchen and we were building a bomb. We took it outside to his backyard and I shot it with a 12-gauge. It was this 80-foot fireball. That all happened within the course of three hours.
"Their quick bonding -- based on shared sensibilities and the fact that both are Kentucky natives -- didn't lessen Depp's apprehension when he was offered the role in "Fear and Loathing," and he didn't accept it until he got Thompson's wholehearted approval.
"I even told him when he gave me his blessing," he explained, "I said, 'You know, if I do anywhere near a good job, you'll probably hate me for the rest of your life.'"
The 34-year-old Depp, who first read "Fear and Loathing" when he was 17, spent an intense four months with Thompson, "just trying to steal everything I could, basically. He has such a specific pattern, rhythm, thought process, body language, and so I just spent a lot of time with him and watched him like a hawk."
Although the waifish Depp ("Edward Scissorhands," "Dead Man," "Ed Wood") couldn't be further from Thompson physically, he captures the writer's larger-than-life qualities.
"I think it could be easy for people to sort of just look on the surface and say, 'Well, this guy's completely, obviously, totally, utterly out of his mind. There's no sort of rational thinking; there's nothing left; he's burned himself out.' I mean, people could think that," Depp explains.
"I've witnessed where people have sort of approached Hunter in that way," he continues, "and he slices them up so fast that they're left sort of holding their own tongue, watching their tongue throb in their hand. They've been eviscerated.
"Buy the ticket, take the ride ... and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well ... maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten. -- "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
Director Gilliam ("Time Bandits," "The Fisher King," "12 Monkeys") is a survivor of one of the most lunatic and over-the-top (financially and psychically) film shoots in recent history for "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1989).
"This one, the pain was short and sharp," Gilliam, 58, said about "Fear and Loathing"; the shoot came to mirror the grab-bag nature of Thompson's own journey. "We had our road map; we knew where our destination was," he explained, "but very quickly we got lost in the forest. It's scary, but it's also exhilarating at the same time."
A brief shooting schedule and small budget (both by Hollywood standards) necessitated that they keep moving, even when weather conspired against them. "Fear and Loathing" was filmed in Las Vegas (where 1971 is ancient history and parts of exteriors had to be computer generated) and Los Angeles during a chaotic 50 days.
"It was also a chance to see if I could work like that again," Gilliam continued, "because as you go on, you get more successful, you get bigger budgets and all that, you have more time to get it wrong, basically. I didn't have enough time to get it really wrong this time."
In an ironic twist, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is being released by Universal Pictures, the same company with which Gilliam engaged in a very public battle when it refused to release his glorious nightmare, "Brazil," in 1985. The "pig-headed and difficult to deal with" Gilliam won.
I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger ... a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident. -- "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas "
What those characters in the film are, these are people reacting to the world around them and they're angry and they're trying to deal with it," Gilliam explained when asked what his film about 1971 has to say to audiences 27 years later. "I think we've got to break through the caution of the last few years," he continued. "People have just gone very numb and stopped questioning, stopped making noise, stopped behaving badly in a sense." Added Depp: "I think Hunter really was kind of a war correspondent when he was in Vegas. It was a war against the mundane."