Marking the 20th anniversary of the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Aspen is toasting the late and legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson.
His iconic tale of journalist Raoul Duke and attorney Dr. Gonzo’s darkly comic journey to the ugly heart of Nixon-era America was first published in 1971. The contemporary classic film adaptation by director Terry Gilliam, with Johnny Depp as Duke and Benicio Del Toro as his attorney — alongside a cavalcade of inspired cameo appearances, including Thompson himself — arrived in theaters in May 1998.
Aspen Film is hosting an anniversary screening at the Wheeler Opera House tonight, followed by a Q&A with Thompson’s wife, Anita.
“This story is a journey that is about the ‘we,'” she said in a New Year’s Day interview at Owl Farm in Woody Creek. “About not trying to do everything on their own. That’s such an important message right now.”
On a bookshelf behind her in the living room sat a commemorative clapper board from the film shoot, signed to Hunter Thompson from Depp (who writes “Why have you cursed me?”), Del Toro (“…and we have Magnums!”) and Gilliam (“We are all going down together — no survivors!”). A photo of the marquee at the film’s premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, inscribed by the author, is on a nearby shelf. Both are on view in a preserved Owl Farm compound that was the writer’s home for some four decades and that Anita Thompson now operates as a private museum, and where she is working to establish a residency program for writers and musicians.
Proceeds from the anniversary screening will benefit Aspen Film and The Gonzo Foundation, also run by Anita Thompson, which funds scholarships for military veterans to attend Columbia University (the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author attended Columbia after his service in the U.S. Air Force).
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Depp, in preparation for his role as the fictionalized Hunter, lived in the basement at Owl Farm in the spring of 1997. He stayed across the hall from what Thompson called “the war room,” the study where he’d meticulously polished “Vegas” — based on an actual trip to Sin City with attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta — after writing an initial draft in a Los Angeles hotel. The tales of Depp’s time embedded at Owl Farm have become the stuff of local lore in the two decades since. (Former Pitkin County Sheriff and “Kitchen Readings” co-author Bob Braudis will join Anita Thompson onstage at the Wheeler today to share some of his memories.)
The actor studied Thompson’s speech and mannerisms and received personal lessons in Thompson’s driving style — which was notoriously skilled but decidedly nontraditional — by whipping around Aspen in Thompson’s “Red Shark” convertible. Preparing his cinematic doppelganger, Thompson, a diligent self-archivist, also dug up hotel receipts and menus and unpublished notes from the actual Vegas trip for Depp to study. He loaned Depp the Red Shark for the film along with the clothes he wore in Vegas — his signature patchwork jacket and safari hat, Hawaiian shirts and a batch of TarGard cigarette holders. And Thompson, in the kitchen at Owl Farm, himself shaved Depp’s head down to a bald pate to match his own from the “Fear and Loathing” era to complete the actor’s transformation.
Depp first made contact two years earlier during a 1995 visit to Aspen with then-girlfriend Kate Moss. The pair were drinking at the Woody Creek Tavern, the story goes, and asked — through a mutual Woody Creek friend — if they could meet Depp’s favorite living writer. Thompson made his way to the Tavern and greeted Depp by ceremoniously bopping him on the head with a cattle prod. The group then headed back to Owl Farm, where Depp detonated a Thompson-constructed bomb in the yard by firing a pistol at it. Thus, the pair’s enduring friendship and creative partnership was sealed.
Months later, the pair of Kentucky natives attended a Louisville event honoring Thompson. The author was ceremoniously bequeathed a key to the city. Both he and Depp were made official Kentucky colonels. (Thompson thereafter referred to the actor as “Colonel Depp.”)
“No one has enough money to pay for the experience I’ve had on this movie,” Depp said in 1998 production notes for the film. “To be able to spend the amount of time I did with Hunter, and then to work with Terry, Benicio and the incredible company of actors and crew.”
Though not a box office hit, in the two decades since its premiere the film has attained cult classic status and has received a prestigious Criterion Collection release. Thompson’s literary legacy, meanwhile, has grown in stature in the 14 years since his death by suicide. Anita Thompson noted that recent years have brought a steady stream of dissertations, books and attention from academia. While his role as a political activist — both here in Pitkin County from the 1970 “Freak Power” campaign onward and nationally against authoritarianism from the Nixon years through the Bush eras — has been increasingly recognized.
The film has provided a pop culture entry point to that work for young people.
“After a writer dies, there’s no guarantee that their work will continue to live,” Anita Thompson said. “Anything to get a new generation or a new person introduced to Hunter’s work will make the world a better place. Once they read a page of Hunter’s work, they gain confidence — I’ve seen that over and over and over again. … Having this movie celebrated is an indication of that and it will introduce someone to Hunter that’s never been introduced before.”
The wild drug-fueled ride of the film version and its generous doses of booze and cocaine and acid (and amyls and ether and “uppers, downers, screamers, laughers,” etc.) may overshadow some of the incisive Nixon-era political messages from the book.
“The movie is more about the lifestyle, but if you pay attention you’ll see that it’s about the activism and staying on your own path,” Anita Thompson said.
The often-quoted “wave speech” from the book, for example, gets reverent treatment in Gilliam’s film. This poignant elegy for ’60s idealism is narrated in voiceover by Depp’s Duke as he works on his typewriter in a dim-lit hotel room with The Youngbloods’ “Let’s Get Together” playing in the background, with flashes of Flower Power-era San Francisco onscreen.
How to handle the speech was among the last straws for Thompson before the dismissal of director Alex Cox from the film. Cox had been attached to “Fear and Loathing” before Gilliam signed on. After some rough-and-tumble creative battles with studios and producers — and a long, tortured development process that extended back to the 1970s with a revolving door of directors and actors — Cox and Thompson split over the treatment of the wave speech.
“Alex Cox had a drug-addled view of the wave speech, which was not the point at all,” Anita Thompson recalled. “Hunter always called it ‘the crown jewel.’ Cox didn’t get it. But Terry Gilliam did and Johnny did. It comes through.”
Gilliam, the visionary Monty Python alum whose pre-“Vegas” work included “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys,” brought the book’s hallucinatory visions to the big screen — miraculously capturing “Vegas” iconography from the bats overhead in the desert to the lizard people in a Vegas casino. The original New York Times review described the visual aesthetic as “splendiferous funhouse terror” and called the film “the closest sensory approximation of an acid trip ever achieved by a mainstream movie.”
“My guess is that today’s audience wants this film desperately,” Gilliam said upon the movie’s release. “I think they need it. That’s why I’ve been referring to ‘Fear and Loathing’ as a cinematic enema for the ’90s — just clean out the system.”
Thompson famously balked at attending the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, writing to Depp to try to stop Gilliam and Universal from marketing it as a “drug movie” (“Airports are hard enough for me now,” Thompson wrote at the time).
Depp’s portrayal of Raoul Duke is an exaggerated caricature of Thompson, like artist Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for the book. Some of the added flourishes in the film — like lashing out at wait staff — bothered the author, Anita Thompson recalled.
“Hunter loved Johnny but he was insulted by the way that Johnny depicted him,” she said, recalling with a chuckle: “Hunter said, ‘If somebody acted that way in my presence I’d hit them over the head with a chair.'”
The author’s misgivings about the portrayal didn’t dull their friendship, however. It continued through Thompson’s death, when Depp funded Thompson’s funeral and fulfilled his wish to have his ashes fired out of a massive canon behind Owl Farm, and since then as Depp has purchased and preserved Thompson’s papers and personal archive (along with reprising his role as a fictionalized Thompson in the 2011 film version of Thompson’s novel “The Rum Diary”).
The author also appreciated the power of the film medium in popular culture, and the influence of having a generational talent like Depp bringing the fictionalized Thompson to life on the big screen.
“He recognized Johnny’s influence on an entire generation and on people who wouldn’t have otherwise read Hunter’s work,” Anita Thompson recalled.
This weekend she’ll be celebrating that influence, this one-of-a-kind film and the rare opportunity for the gonzo faithful to gather in Aspen to see it on a big screen.
“It’s great that they’re putting it on the silver screen again,” Anita said, “so that we can all watch it together as a community at the Wheeler.”
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ 20th Anniversary Benefit, presented by Aspen Film
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Jan. 4, 5:30 p.m. reception & 7 p.m. screening
How much: $30/screening; $75/reception and screening; proceeds benefit Aspen Film and the Gonzo Foundation (limited tickets also available for a VIP 4 p.m. reception at Owl Farm; $300)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Anita Thompson and fomer Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis; aspenfilm.org