Film Scouts Interviews

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" Press Conference
at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival

by Henri Bιhar

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Friday, May 15, 1998
Attending : Terry Gilliam, director; Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, actors; Laila Nabulsi, Patrick Cassaveti, producers

The surprise was in the hair. Johnny Depp's in back – after months of being bald for playing Hunter Thompson, the man who experienced, then survived to tell the drug-filled tale of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Terry Gilliam's was gathered in some sort of poney tail, and Benicio del Toro's was, well, short and clean. Del Toro was back to his Usual Suspects shape - i.e. tall, dark, strong, and handsome, and Depp sported a tiny moustache and the prefiguration of a goatee that made him look twelve.


JOHNNY DEPP: For me, Frank Sinatra was a great, uncompromising artist. He made an incredible contribution to music. It's an unbelievable loss. I didn't know him personally. I've been in the same room with him and he was an awesome figure. He was an incredible man.

TERRY GILLIAM: I think there's an extraordinary range of things he did, from film to women. The man had no boundaries. That's what was so impressive about him. And he didn't seem to be particularly concerned about how people thought of him. He lived life as he chose to. Or as Paul Anka wrote it.


QUESTION (to Johnny Depp) : What are some of the endearing qualities of Cannes to you?

JOHNNY DEPP: Endearing ? What a word (Laughs). The press reaction to films is the most endearing. Let's see... what was the most endearing quality of Cannes? There's a beautiful sky here. (Laughs) The festival itself is a great opportunity for young filmmakers to show their work in this giant arena and get their films screened, whatever the consequences. So I think it's a very cool festival. Beautiful city. It's just a shame that Hollywood invades it. That's actually endearing. Hollywood invasion.


QUESTION (to Terry Gilliam): There has been some controversy as to who wrote the film, so much so that it had to go through arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild. What happened exactly ?

TERRY GILLIAM: It's a rather long and tedious nightmare. This particular incarnation of this film was started with Alex Cox directing and writing the screenplay. John [Johnny Depp] and Benny [Benicio del Toro] came on board and Alex fell overboard somehow. This was before my time. I don't know the ugly details. But Leila sent me a script that Alex had written when he was directing it and got me interested in the project. I had to read the book again to realize how much of the book was not in that script.

I went out to LA, met John, Benicio, Leila and Hunter and decided, "Yes, let's do this project." I came back to London and got a good friend of mine, Tony Grisoni, to sit down and write this thing. So we basically started from scratch, dived into the book, underlined all the good bits, ignored all the bad bits, tried to assemble this thing. We did it in record time like we've done the entire film. The whole thing was to be done as fast and furiously and energetically and crazed as one could, and we managed to write it in 8 days.

And then we read it.

It was a piece of crap.

So we rewrote in 2 days and were quite pleased with what we had done. We had to make very quick and definite decisions about what to do and what not to do. The book is so dense. There's so much great stuff in it. There's so much great stuff in it that whatever you do, when you're given enough time, you start realizing how much you left out of the book or out of the screenplay. It was very depressing when you realize that you're not able to incorporate all of that book on screen. So we made some very definite decisions and went forward.

We then went about making this film. Now everybody in the course of making this film has added to that script. Added to what's on that screen. Everybody - the actors, the sound guys.... everybody contributes. It's one of the things that I like about making films : it's a collaborative effort. Everybody works. We rehearse, we talk, we argue and the thing eventually becomes the film.

But somebody has got to take the credit – or the blame – for writing it. And Tony and I got that. Universal Pictures submitted it to the Writers Guild, with screenplay by Gilliam and Grisoni.

Now there's a very complicated procedure that takes place. It's really long and boring. But here goes. Let's get down to basics here. The Writers Guild of America has a problem with directors who go off and write. If you're a director who writes, you become known in their terms as a "production executive" and you're thrown immediately into arbitration.

It's a very complex process. But basically, if you happen to be directing a film, you and your co-writer who wasn't a director have to produce significantly more than 50% of the script while any other writers involved only have to produce 30% of the script. So the Writers Guild determined, much to our chagrin, surprise, horror, shock, that we had not written the film. We'd spent a year on this and this was indeed a surprise. That all of us - the actors, the crew had been working on the wrong script. So, on one of the original posters, you'll see screenplay by Alex Cox.

Well, we then spent the next couple of months involving lawyers. Universal brought more scripts in to the mix. And at the end of this long, tedious procedure, we had to write a 25 page document – which actually took longer to write than the script -- to prove that we had written substantially more than 60% of the film. And in their wisdom or terror or shame, the Writers' Guild reversed their decision and gave us credit.

Now, the surprise was we didn't get put in the second position of the credit, we were put in the first position which apparently has never happened before. So that's the story. And here we are. And I think a lot of other people need to be credited.


JOHNNY DEPP: The first book I read of Hunter's was, I believe, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and I read it when I was roughly 17 years old. I found it such an amazing book that I went on and read his other stuff. Hunter Thompson is one of the only authors that has ever made me laugh out loud while I was reading a book. The other was Terry Southern. When I read Candy, I was doubled over. You know, cackling. I thought I was going to die.

My first meeting was Hunter was a pretty interesting one. I was up in Aspen around the Christmas of '95 with my girl and wanted to see snow. We were in this bar called the Woody Creek Tavern and this friend of ours said, "Oh, I've just spoken to Hunter. He's on his way down." And I said, "Oh great! I finally get to meet Hunter Thompson. One of my all time heroes!"

About 10 minutes later, the front door burst open and there was this hulking brute standing there wielding... In one hand he had a stun gun, an electrified stun gun. In the other hand, he had a 3' cattle prod which was fully electrified, sending all kinds of currents through it. Blue lightening all over. He was swinging it around and people were jumping out of the way running for cover.

He came over and sat down. He hit me on the head with the cattle prod and we had a couple of drinks. Within an hour and a half, we were at his house which is not far away from there, and we built a bomb in his kitchen. I gingerly took it outside and I fired at it with a 12 gauge shotgun. There was about an 80' fireball. It was a dramatic explosion.

And that was my first meeting with Hunter Thompson. And it doesn't change. It's still the same.


JOHNNY DEPP: I was blessed enough, or cursed enough, to spend a good 3 or 4 months with Hunter Thompson prior to filming. So he was just a wealth of information. He was an incredible source of information. He was generous with his time and his private life. He even let me move into his basement. Become a termite. It was due to Hunter's generosity allowing me to absorb just watching him as I could....
I was living in the basement 5 days, 6 days... You know, I have a tendency to smoke cigarettes. It wasn't until 5 or 6 days passed that I discovered he had a keg of gunpowder about 5 feet away from me. So I stopped smoking in the basement after that.

QUESTION : How did you feel about the decision to have the real Hunter Thompson in the film?

JOHNNY DEPP: Hunter's cameo was something we all wanted. We wanted Hunter to make an appearance in the film. Kind of historical moment, finding that he's made it to film. He wasn't going to do it, then he was going to do it, and then he said, "No, I'm not going to do it," then he decided again that he would do it. It was great fun. It was a little scary around there. It was the only day he was on the set so it was going to be the first time he would see me as him. It was pretty frightening because he's an excellent marksman and he has access to a lot of weapons.

QUESTION : When and why did you get to shave your head ?

JOHNNY DEPP : I believe the decision to shave my head, you know, and keep this little horseshoe of fuzz around the edge was... I knew I was going to have to do that right away as soon as we started to dive in. Benicio and I, in one of our early meetings, we sort of looked at each other and said, "Here we go... " Benicio was going to start eating a lot of pizza and pasta and potatoes and all that stuff. I was just going to shave the top of my skull. I looked ridiculous. I mean, I looked very strange. It was important for me to absorb as much of Hunter as I possibly could. Physically. And become him, if that was at all possible.

BENICIO DEL TORO: I never washed my hair...

JOHNNY DEPP: He's washed it now...

BENICIO DEL TORO: Twice. Terry was looking at me going, "You're losing weight. You're losing weight." Yeah.

TERRY GILLIAM: As a filmmaker, it's very important for me to get young, really good looking sexy guys and make them look like shit.

BENICIO DEL TORO: Johnny was doing this character and they were all going like, "He's doing this character really weird." The day Hunter showed up, it was like, "Oh my God! Hunter's doing Johnny Depp!" So he did a great job.

JOHNNY DEPP: Clearly, I spent way too much time with Hunter. It has gone too deep. It really has. Hunter is an incredible animal. He really is something to watch because on one hand, he's this great Southern gentleman - very sensitive, very caring, very sharp. He's the great observer. His thoughts and his emotions manifest into these physical movements. You can see him thinking his movements. You can see the wheels spinning in his head. And he's an incredible case study. So I admire him. I was lucky to spend as much time.

TERRY GILLIAM: Benicio's belly, it was created by a whole team of special effects operators. Benny had about 30 tubes running down his back. That belly was not him. He's the great Puerto Rican Buddha.


TERRY GILLIAM: I mean, Phillip Dick is a great hero of mine. Everything he's done has always interested me. A lot of other filmmakers have stolen his work and not given him credit. But in this particular instance, what you see on the screen is the work of Hunter Thompson. We didn't change much. It is what Hunter wrote. The fact that he and Phillip Dick share certain things in common and their perception of the world... They're men of the same time. Similar time. I think we all, at a certain age, saw the world in a different way. The ability to look at things probably in a more freer, exciting way. There was a pretty extraordinary world out there. People allowed themselves to fly. That's part of what we're doing in this film. That's what was happening in the book, and that was really happening in the 60's. That is a very long time ago for a lot of people.


TERRY GILLIAM: I've seen about 10 minutes of that Hunter-Thompson-based film and that's it. Bill Murray was very funny. He was doing a great impersonation of Hunter. Then I decided I really didn't want to see it anymore because there really is a difference. I mean, Bill is brilliant, truly brilliant, but I think he was doing an impersonation. The thing with Johnny is the real thing. And there's a difference. It's very important to me.

JOHNNY DEPP: I've seen the film years before because I've been a Hunter Thompson fan since I was a kid. I read all of his works. Almost all. So yeah, I'd seen the film just based on my interest in Hunter. I think Bill did a fantastic job as him. Hilarious. In fact, when we were doing [Tim Burton's] Ed Wood together, I used to make him do that character again. He'd make me laugh. I think that was a strange attempt at incorporating a lot of lives into one film.

I did speak to Bill. We were probably about 3/4 of the way through shooting ":Fear and Loathing", I got a call from Bill – and it was a warning call. He called me to warn me. He said, "Listen. I'm going on a little more than 10 years, 15 years or something since I've done 'Buffalo,' and I want you to know there's a great danger in playing Hunter S. Thompson. He never leaves. It stays in you" And he found himself doing a scene in another movie, he delivered a line and suddenly realized that, "Wow... that was Hunter." And it took a good 2 months to shake that personality, the character, which I've never experienced before. And really, when I said "Fear and Loathing" was cursed, it does stay with you. It could come out at any second. That's frightening.


JOHNNY DEPP: Will I direct again? Definitely. I'll definitely direct again. One of the unfortunate things of the time of The Brave was having to be in it as well. First time director, first time writer and acting as well. It's a whole lot of stuff to take on. Yeah, I'll do it again. I'd do it again just to piss the critics off and to steal 2 1/2 hours of their lives. I'm forever grateful for that. Yeah, I'll do it again.

Since last year's Cannes Film Festival, I wanted to have some time to let my backside recover. Being violated so viciously in the rear end. And I wanted to let the smoke clear. I've kept the film sitting in my house. I'll probably do a little work to it and get it distributed this year.


TERRY GILLIAM: I think the book is astonishingly funny. It's about serious people being driven to excess. It's about the times in society, and I think it has wonderful hallucinatory moments. It combines most of my interest. I often find it funny that people are surprised by this because I thought I've been warning people for a long time that I'm capable of this kind of stuff.

For me, it was a very simple and direct expression about the way I felt about things without any desire or need to apologize or soften, because the book doesn't do it. The main thing was for me to try and capture the book on film which is the thing people said was impossible.

It's odd to say, but I wasn't really thinking about what kind of film it was. The goal was to try and be true to that book and get it up there honestly without any apologies, because we seem to live in a world where there is nothing but apologies. People do not want to get into serious conflict that we're not ready for yet. So that was me. I think the anger of it, the frustration of it, the despair of it, the nostalgic in it, the madness in it, it's all things I have to live with any time I go home. So I need to stay away from home a bit. That's no criticism of my wife or children. This is me.


TERRY GILLIAM: First of all, I don't understand most of the drugs described. When we started, we tried to do it. With the director of photography and the cameraman, we talked about different ways of doing it. We talked about different filters and speeds of film. We also talked to people who've had direct firsthand experience.

And then in a sense, we kind of threw it all out. We did a lot of research and worked in very instinctive ways. In a sense, I wasn't overly interested in a specific drug condition. It was more the idea that the world had gone crazy in trying to interpret the inherent experience of these people. Paranoia, fear, madness, driving themselves through these things. I know it wasn't done in a specific way. However, it was very true to a lot of drug experiences. And that intrigued me, because obviously we touched on some kind of truth and honesty about the whole thing.

QUESTION (to Johnny Depp) : You were very convincing. Is it from research or real experience?

JOHNNY DEPP: We're responsible people. Certainly being an altar boy, having dabbled a bit in my youth, experimenting with various heinous substances, I know what some of those things feel like. But you know, most of the drugs in that book are invented. Adrenochrome, for instance. The idea of chewing on a human pineal gland is a little bit strange... although you never know.

I think what it mostly boils down to is this sort of collaborative effort and putting your imagination in sort of a hyper-guessing. Things like ether. You can go to the source and ask a doctor what might it feel like. He said it would be the equivalent of drinking 20 bottles of wine in 1.5 minutes. Imagination. Just using my imagination. That's what I did.


TERRY GILLIAM: This is the problem with films now : everybody is making it for a specific group rather than make a film for itself. You don't write a book for a specific audience. You write a book because you have something to say and you believe it. That's how we made this film. I find it quite extraordinary that everybody wants to know about who it's for. To me, the point of making this film is to find how many people are out there as will respond to it. It touches a nerve.

You make films, I feel, most of the time by sitting out in this dark sea at night with no moon and you don't know who or what is out there, and then you send up a flare with a movie like this. You just see all sorts of people out there. There's also a lot of gunboats out there. There are any number of things out there. Until you try, you don't know.

And I think we're living in a time when it's all so very carefully orchestrated. Committees get together, marketing people get together and find what works and what doesn't. And I find that it's absolute death to the cinema and you've got a big lizard marching this way which I find is the absolute in corporate thinking. You've got ads that look like spearmint mouthwash. You're not selling any kind of product. We're interested in quantity, not quality. How long is this thing? How big is this thing? Not, How good is this thing ?.

We're living in a terrible time. I think it's the saddest thing about the Cannes Film Festival this year. We're ending with the ultimate corporate movie. It could be a wonderful movie, but I think we could do better than that. (Pause) It's probably great and I apologize for everything I've said.

LEILA NABULSI, PRODUCER: Actually, Terry said everything that I would have said. I have been trying to make this movie for ten years. I never thought about who was it for and who the audience was. I just thought about that it would make a great movie and I wanted everybody to see it. I know that it's probably not everybody's cup of tea, but I don't really care about that. Love it or hate it, that's fine. Indifference - and/or deference - is the thing I wouldn't want.

When we did the test screening, the focus group said something funny. The question was, " Who might see this movie?" And they said Smart people, old hippies, college kids and surfers. So, maybe we've got a chance.


TERRY GILLIAM: Number One, Fear and Loathing... is not a pro-drug film. Anybody who sees this film isn't going to rush out and start to do drugs. This is showing both good and bad, but it keeps on pushing.

The problem is there is such hypocrisy about drugs in what we decide is a good drug and a bad drug. If you say drugs, everybody draws a sigh of horror. As a world now, we're totally dependant on drugs. Everybody sits there and takes drugs in one form or another. I drink very strong coffee. It was a very dangerous drug in the 17th century, and it's pretty dangerous now. And there's a difference in the kind of drugs we seem to consume now. What is acceptable now is things like Prozac and Ritalin, which are suppressive drugs.


TERRY GILLIAM: Viagra. But the drugs of the 60's and 70's were expansive drugs. For better or for worse, yes, they're dangerous. I think it's dangerous in excess. Climbing a mountain is dangerous. Driving a car is dangerous. Danger is with us, and we see it. We're so concerned about living forever that instead of danger, we're avoiding life. And I find that all that's happening now is we have this nice suppressing drug to keep us content, quiet and good shoppers. It's very important for a healthy economy : good shoppers. So I hope no one stops taking drugs because it might stop them from the Gap or The Body Shop or any of those fine corporations that provide us with fine, wonderful things. That would be a terrible thing.

Anyway, I think it's nonsense the way people talk about drugs. People have to talk about drugs openly, good and bad. Like everything, there is good and bad. It depends on how you use it. These two characters in the film push themselves to the limit. They're pushing themselves. They're testing themselves. Testing each other. Testing the world around them.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a painful thing, but not necessarily a bad thing. It's better to be questioning, arguing, struggling than just taking it and sitting quietly. That's an old hippie speak. But I was never a young hippie.

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