‘I woke up after the election and thought: what the f***!’
Terry Gilliam tells Dan Carrier that Fear and Loathing quite literally sums up today’s political climate
19 December, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Terry Gilliam. Photo: Vegafi
IT has been 20 years since the book Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, featuring the adventures of journalist Hunter S Thompson and his sidekick attorney, was committed to celluloid by Highgate-based director Terry Gilliam.
And to mark the anniversary, the ground-breaking film – based on Thompson’s memoir – is being re-released.
Fear and Loathing tells the story of mysterious reporter Duke Raoul, based on Thompson, and his attorney, Mr Gonzo. They head to Las Vegas with an assignment to cover a gruelling motorbike endurance race – but instead spend most of their time wonky on hallucinogenic drugs, and causing chaos through their inebriated behaviour.
Since its release in 1999, the film has become a cult classic: and Terry, known for being part of the Monty Python team and for films such as Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys and Brazil, looks back with fondness at how he adapted the work of a writer whose prose made up the rules as he went along.
Thompson’s work reflects a 1960s era he recognises. “I am of that period and I always loved the book,” he says.
Thompson’s popularity meant studios had lined up to buy the rights to his works – but his unique style of storytelling meant tackling a film was a daunting task. Terry recalls: “For years people were coming forward asking me if I’d make it, sending me scripts and I always said no.”
But this changed when he received a pitch with Thompson’s blessing.
“Hunter had given the rights to his girlfriend and from that, a script turned up. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro were attached to it and it felt ready to go. I wanted to work with Johnny and I didn’t have to go through years of development.”
But Terry still felt the concept needed work.
“I read the script, thought it was shit, and said: ‘let’s not shoot this’, so we started again. We did it quickly. We shot it in eight days – that seemed to be in the spirit of Gonzo, in the spirit of Hunter’s work. It was an editorial job – all we had to do was make sense of the book.”
Directing Depp was straightforward, adds Terry, partly because the actor had become something of a Gonzo disciple. “Depp is a vampire, he stole Hunter’s soul,” jokes Terry.
Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“He lived with him for a while, and all you see on screen is Depp doing Hunter. Depp was criticised for his cranky and quirky portrayal but if you knew Hunter, this was a personal reality for him. He knew exactly what he was doing and he was just like Thompson. Depp was out of control and that was right for the character. We laughed the whole time.”
With the film complete, they now faced Hunter’s reaction. The famously spiky recluse was known for taking umbrage at perceived slights. Terry was understandably nervous. “I felt a large sense of responsibility,” he admits. “We arranged a screening. He never showed up. I think he was as frightened as we were.”
A few months later Terry was sent a film – and it was of Hunter watching the movie at a friend’s house.
“Thankfully HST was regularly captured doing things – and a film was made of him watching Fear and Loathing,” he recalls. “He howled with laughter.”
Fear and Loathing has relevance today, says Terry. The film, he says, is overtly political, referencing the collective insanity Americans felt during the late 60s, with the Vietnam war escalating, the civil rights movement at a crucial juncture, and violence erupting in inner cities and campuses as the Boomer generation rebelled against their parents’ perceived conservatism.
So how would Thompson, the slayer of inflated political egos with his rasping pen, react to the state of the world now?
“I woke up in Los Angeles on Friday after the election and thought: what the f***! I had hoped that there would be enough support for Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems to split the power and hold off the Tories,” says Terry. “I thought: ‘What country is this? This is not the place I moved to years ago. You can be a despicable, serial liar and still become prime minister?’ Well, I suppose that’s encouraging – we can all be the PM.”
Thompson wrote regularly on politics, followed Presidential campaigns and covered elections and Terry believes his friend, who saw from close quarters how power corrupts, would scarcely believe the state of Britain and America now.
“The problem is so bad, it is beyond satire,” says Terry. “He wrote about America, saying he felt it had become a nation of panicky sheep. Now he would think they were blind, panicky, startled sheep running about this way and that.
“The hardest thing for me is the fact Trump pulled off what he did. I thought by living in London I had escaped such things. Now, with Boris Johnson, I am so pi**ed off. How can this wonderful country fall for bulls**t like this? I came here all those years ago because I saw a pragmatic people, a liberal-minded people, who did not take themselves too seriously when they shouldn’t and did when it was needed. What have you become?
“Where is the sense of humour and the charm I knew? This country was great. Its culture was brilliant. The sons and daughters of those who won the war, and were born into a nation with a welfare state and a political settlement were given the stage to produce the arts that took over the world. These were people who had grown up rough, and had something to say. It became gold. I came to a country from the USA that was so breathtakingly exciting. I now go: ‘What has happened?’”
• Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is released on Arrow Films.