"Arriving half-drunk in a foreign place is hard on the nerves. You have a feeling that something is wrong, that you can't get a grip."
-- Hunter S. Thompson, 'The Rum Diary'
Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson are sitting in a tiki hut on Depp's property in Los Angeles; a fire is burning in the pit and a bottle of Jack Daniels rests on the table. It's 1999. The movie star and the good doctor have gathered to solicit potential financiers for an adaptation of Thompson's recently published book, 'The Rum Diary.' Holly Sorensen, head of the now defunct studio The Shooting Gallery, approaches. Pleasantries are exchanged and Depp begins reading an excerpt from the novel.
"...I lay back on the cot with a bottle of rum resting on my navel, and plotted how to defend myself. If I had a luger, I thought, I could drill the bastards. I lean on one elbow and pointed a finger at the window, seeing what kind of shot I could get. Perfect... "
The three of them sit there, talking, laughing, imbibing, and strategizing, with no way of knowing that it will be another 12 years before the movie finally opens. In that time, A-listers will be cast and then drop out; financing will be moved from studio to studio; and one writer-director, who had been sober for six-and-a-half years, will begin drinking again -- all in an effort to bring this boozy pre-Gonzo tale of an American journalist in Puerto Rico to the big screen. It's hardly the path Thompson imagined when he first decided to make the movie. Hell, it's hardly the path he saw when he first began writing 'The Rum Diary,' almost four decades earlier, while living in Puerto Rico.
Yes, it's been a long, twisted journey for Hunter S. Thompson's first novel. Thompson, who was in his early 20s when he wrote the book, would say that he wanted 'The Rum Diary' to be the "Great American Novel" -- on par with F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Great Gatsby.' Years later, he admitted that it instead became "the Great Puerto Rican novel," not that there's anything wrong with that.
How the 'Rum Diary' book came to be is a story in itself (one that gets a fascinating telling in a recent 'GQ' article), but let's pick up the story in 1999, one year after the book's release. That's when Thompson and his friend Johnny Depp began exploring the idea of turning it into a film.
The original plan had been for 'The Rum Diary' to be published before 'Hell's Angels,' Thompson's gripping true-life tale of the renegade California bike gang. But after Thompson moved to the West Coast, in the mid-'60s, friends began pushing him to finish 'Hell's Angels' instead of 'The Rum Diary.' It was raw, emotional and fit inside the New Journalism genre that people had been raving about. 'The Rum Diary' was, comparatively, old-fashioned -- composed in the Hemingway or Fitzgerald vernacular of yesteryear. Eventually, the novel ended up in Thompson's basement, collecting dust. It would be many years later before someone stumbled upon it -- though who that someone was remains a matter of debate.
No matter who "rediscovered" the book, there was soon a general consensus that Thompson should publish it, then perhaps turn it into a film, with Johnny Depp starring as the young journalist Paul Kemp. Depp was an obvious choice for the role -- he had already played Hunter (under the alias of Raoul Duke) in 1998's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' a movie based on a series of articles Thompson had written for 'Rolling Stone' magazine in the 1970s. To research the part, Johnny had moved in to Hunter's basement in Colorado, where he stumbled across the 'Rum Diary' manuscript.
With heavy interest in the book and one of the biggest stars on the planet in his corner, Thompson decided to forge ahead with the film. To find the right person to make it, he and Depp began holding court at the actor's house in California. Eventually, they settled on Holly Sorensen.
Things would soon take a turn for the surreal, as they often did when Thompson was involved. Holly had agreed to help finance the movie, but the slow pace of progress began to irritate the author. Then, in January 2001, Holly received a now infamous fax from Thompson:
Was Thompson about to bolt? Was the film in serious danger of not being made? On first (and second, and third) reads, the letter sounds almost fatally threatening. But Anita Thompson and Sorensen herself recall it as a minor bump in the road.
"Okay, you lazy bitch. I'm getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround that you're doing with 'The Rum Diary.' We are not even spinning our wheels aggressively. It's like the whole project got turned over to zombies who live in cardboard boxes under the Hollywood Freeway. I seem to be the only person who's doing anything about getting this movie made. I have rounded up Depp, Benecio del Toro, Brad Pitt, Nick Nolte, and a fine screenwriter from England named Michael Thomas ... And if you don't do something QUICK [sic], you're going to destroy a very good idea. I'm in a mood to chop yr. [sic] fucking hands off."
"That's, in a way, a hug from Hunter. He was serious, and at the same time, he cared enough to take the time to write a letter, which is a sign that it was important to him," says Anita, who will look to further her late husband's legacy with the soon-to-be-launched Gonzo Foundation. "But he wanted this process to be fun. So when it stopped being fun and came to a grinding halt, he [did] things like that to kick it into action.
Sorensen, speaking with filmmaker Wayne Ewing, also chose to accentuate the positive.
"[Hunter] was never rude, lectureous -- he was a chivalrous romantic guy ... [We] had a difference of opinion whether Michael Thomas was the right screenwriter for 'the Rum Diary,' that was a big part of the problem. But ... I had a lot of fun with Hunter."
If the fax's purpose was to right the ship, however, it failed. Eventually, Benecio del Toro, Nick Nolte and Josh Hartnett all dropped off the project, as did Sorensen and the Shooting Gallery.
Then, in 2005, Hunter S. Thompson put a gun to his head and committed suicide. He was 67 years old and plagued by health problems. In a suicide note subsequently published in 'Rolling Stone,' he wrote, "Relax -- This won't hurt." Friends and family gathered at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado to send him off with a proper salute.
Thompson's death only strengthened Depp's resolve to honor his late friend by getting the movie made. Soon after the funeral, producer Graham King obtained the rights to the book, and things began moving again. Then, in 2007, Johnny recruited Bruce Robinson, writer-director of the alcohol-drenched cult classic 'Withnail & I,' to write and, ultimately, direct the film.
"[Johnny] sent me the book, and I read it, called him up and said, 'Yeah, I'll write the script,'" Robinson tells Moviefone. "Four or five months later, he was back on the line saying, 'Are you going to direct it?' I had determined and promised myself I wasn't going to ever try and be a film director ever again. Period. To be a bullied by a superstar into directing something was a really rare and unusual experience. But Johnny can have whoever the hell he likes, and the fact that he was so confident that I would be the right director for it -- ultimately you acquiesce to that."
It's easy to see why Depp was so insistent. Though he'd been sober for six and a half years, Robinson had written and directed one of the great alcohol-fueled adventure tales of all time: 1987's 'Withnail & I,' whose title character, played by Richard E. Grant, scandalizes the patrons of a quiet café by standing and announcing, "We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!"
Try as he might, however, Robinson couldn't seem to find a way into the script. Then he had what can only be described as a Gonzo epiphany: This rum-soaked story needed a jolt of electricity, and the only way it was going to get it was through alcohol.
"I was walking around in my writing room for about a month before I could get a hook on [the story], and I realized that I had to go there. I had to go back into that place in my head. I needed to feel the madness again a bit," Robinson says. "[And while] my head is saying, 'Don't go there, don't go there,' the creative side of me is saying, 'If you don't go there, you can't write this.' There's no words in bottles, but it softens it up a bit."
Robinson was able to drink, finish the script and then quit. It's as if Thompson's spirit was presiding over the writing process, withholding inspiration until Robinson was willing to risk his sanity -- and even his life.
Soon, the script was finished. Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard and Giovanni Ribisi joined the cast, and the film began production in Puerto Rico in 2009.
Two years later, Thompson's vision has again been captured on celluloid, his rabid curiosity showing itself off to a new generation of fans. But make no mistake: 'The Rum Diary' is no 'Fear and Loathing Part 2.' There are no lizards crawling up Depp's leg or imaginary bats beating their wings in his face. The novel, after all, was written before Hunter's Gonzo days, when he was still trying to figure out who he was and what he wanted in life. It's a portrait of a man on the verge of something profound, and potentially damaging to the establishment. What precisely it is, he -- or, more specifically, Paul Kemp -- can't quite be sure. But every bottle of rum, glass of wine and vicious, cursing tirade seems to hint at the answer.
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