Johnny Depp Talks 'The Rum Diary'

Friday, 28 October 2011 10:17 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Johnny Depp Talks 'The Rum Diary'

Before 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl provided the perfect vessel for his slightly askew charisma, Johnny Depp was generally viewed as a weird actor.  He toplined many a movie and was certainly a household name, but his predilection for strange, often daring material marked him as alienating off kilter for mainstream American audiences.  In fact, the Edward Scissorhands, Dead Man, and Ed Wood actor was fond of joking that he would never make a profitable movie.  Now, though, he's undoubtedly one of the biggest movie stars on the planet; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides grossed more than a billion dollars over the summer, a fear it most assuredly wouldn't have accomplished without Depp's face on every billboard.

One of the very weirdest roles of Depp's pre-Jack Sparrow career was his pitch-perfect take on Raoul Duke, the somewhat-fictionalized narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Terry Gilliam-directed adaption of Gonzo journalist and American firebrand Hunter S. Thompson's book.  Thompson was a real-life friend and mentor to Depp, an avowed reader said to own a formidable literary collection.  For literally years, Depp has been trying will into existence The Rum Diary, based on the first novel Thompson ever wrote. 

The film finally hits theaters today, six years after the author's death.  Dep, who actually paid to have Thompson's ashes blasted from a cannon in accordance with his will, discussed the film during the official press conference, attended by IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick.  At a panel with The Rum Diary writer-director Bruce Robinson, Depp discussed once again playing a Thompson surrogate, how he and Robinson tackled the material, and living with Hunter inside him.

The actor has long endeavored to make The Rum Diary, which it turns out he actually had an indirect hand in eventually getting published.  Asked at the press conference why it was this material and not one of Thompson's other famous tomes to be adapted, the actor and producer replied, "Well, primarily because Hunter and I were sitting in what he called the War Room, back in about 1997, going through all the manuscripts and bits and bobs from Fear and Loathing, which included cherry stems and cocktail napkins and weird photographs, and things like that. I happened upon a cardboard box that unearthed The Rum Diary, and we started to read it cross-legged on the floor. I said, 'Hunter this is very good, man. You’re out of your mind. Why don’t you publish this thing?' He said, 'Yes, I will. However, I think we should produce this. We should become partners on this.' And so, of course, with Hunter, you always agreed, 'Absolutely, man, let’s do it.' So, that was the moment that it started. That’s why The Rum Diary, as opposed to The Curse of Lono, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, or Hell’s Angels, or whatever else."

Depp, one of Thompson's closest friends up until his 2005 suicide, thought he knew how his literary buddy would react to the film that finally got made.  "I know what Hunter would make of the film," he said.  "The first thing he would've done was come up with some horrendous sarcastic remark that would kind of take me off my legs a little bit and then he would have come up with something incredibly poetic about the work itself and what Bruce [Robinson] did with his material. Because Hunter was well aware that the book, as great books are, there are flaws you know? Bruce was able to dissect the thing and work out some of these flaws that Hunter didn't really have the mind to do back in 1959."

Naturally, Thompson was a subject of much discussion, and Depp obliged with insight onto the journalist's character, aside from his debauched public persona, saying, "The main thing that no one really understood about Hunter or ever realized about Hunter was that he was a very strong, very thick, sort of moral fiber. He was first and foremost a southern gentleman, chivalrous, and no one ever dared to sort of look at that side of him or were exposed to that side of him. He was a very hypersensitive man, hence the self-medication."

"So, that’s a side that no one ever saw," he said.  "What everyone expected from Hunter Thompson was that the circus had come to town. It was like, 'What’s he gonna do now?' I witnessed it, the first time I met him. He walked into a bar and cleared a path with a giant cattle prod and a taser gun. He did that for about 10 minutes, and it worked. So, there was that side to him, that people expected, but the other side, when you spent time with him, was this very intelligent, highly intelligent, hyper-sensitive, beautiful man."

In The Rum Diary, Depp plays Paul Kemp, a freelance reporter who winds up in Puerto Rico, working for a local magazine and getting himself thoroughly mixed up in local boozing, drug-imbibing, and the pursuit of righteous justice through journalism.  The character is based on a young Thompson, whereas Raoul Duke was a version of Thompson in the 1970's, when his public persona was well-established.

Asked about the difference between these two characters, both reflecting one real man at different points in his evolution, Depp explained, "There was a discussion that Bruce and I had had early on with regard to the character because having played Hunter or you know in the form of Raoul Duke circa 1971, '72, that was a full blown Hunter. That was the Hunter that existed up until the day he turned to smoke. The '59, '60 Hunter was this kid who was teetering on the verge of finding his voice you know? Finding that outlet or avenue for the rage, for that passion, for that anger, for all the injustices that he railed against. Bruce and I talked early on about it not being a kind of you know let's not go into this sort of over the top Hunterish, Hunter was quite over the top, but let him be this pre-Gonzo Hunter"

At first glance, Bruce Robinson might not seem quite like the obvious choice to write and direct the film.  Robinson is was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 1984 for his The Killing Fields script, which he followed up his wonderful, still widely-appreciated feature directorial debut Withnail and I.  Though he wrote two screenplays in the late 90's, Robinson has not directed a film since Jennifer 8 in 1992.  Depp has long been a fan, however, and his desire to set the filmmaker loose on Thompson's material extends back to the actor's first Thompson-based performance.

"Back when Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came up, my first choice was Bruce Robinson," he said.  "And I turned Hunter on to Bruce’s films, and he loved the films. But, Bruce was unavailable, by choice. So, we went forward, and luckily we got the great Terry Gilliam involved, and he killed it. He did a wonderful job. And then, when The Rum Diary came up, Hunter and I talked and our dream, from the first second, was Bruce Robinson. I did have to remind him that he was stuck somewhere in the country, out in south of England, and not remotely interested in anything that pertains to Hollywood. But, Bruce was the dream. Unfortunately, after all that Hunter and I went through, having these ridiculous meetings with vague financiers, and guzzling Chivas, trying to drum up somebody’s wallet for the financing for the thing, before Hunter made his exit, I was just getting close to Bruce."

It was Robinson who finally figured out just how to translate the difficult-to-adapt novel to the screen, Depp said.  "When I coaxed Bruce into coming on board after living in the jungles for 17 years, he read the book a few times, more than a few times, and then finally came to it with the real essence of the dilemma was in terms of translating literature into cinema and first and foremost it was, you know, Hunter had split himself in two."

"It was Kemp and it was Yeoman in the book," he explained.  "And that was never gonna sort of work cinematically. And so when he closed that gap and he put those two, amalgamated those two characters, there was this sort of beginning, but also even Hunter I mean, I think Bruce should answer this question, but I will say that even Hunter and I when we were talking about doing this over the years and making it into a film, Hunter thought 'well we should take it out in Puerto Rico, let's make it Cuba!' Hunter was really raring to go in some other form than the book."

Though Depp is inextricably associated with his literary idol thanks to his performance as transcendently unhinged work as Raoul Duke, he was not the first actor to tackle Thompson.  In 1980's semi-biographical Where the Buffalo Roam, none other than Bill Murray played Thompson, and he offered Depp some advice thirteen years ago.  "My first day of shooting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I get this call from Bill Murray," Depp said.  "We're half way through the day, and you know, I had sponged off of Hunter for many years, for a long time, and I think I had him down pretty good and Bill Murray calls me half way through the day and he says 'I just want to warn you about something.' And I go what? What's the warning Bill? And he says, 'Be careful when you're playing Hunter because he never leaves.' Like he'll never go away. And nothing has ever been more true. He never goes away. He's still with me every day."

With three separate takes of Hunter S. Thompson now floating about in the cinematic ether, Depp was asked if The Rum Diary is a companion piece to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the actor replied,  "I mean I do in a sense just because I mean I'm coming from the perspective of Hunter and everything Hunter did to me was absolute brilliance. Where the Buffalo Roam is another animal all together. It's a different, it's a kind of a different version, it's a different kind of approach. Fear and Loathing was a pure take on the book. Rum Diary is a pure take on the book in the sense that we also branched out you know in the screen play and the story. But do I see it as a companion piece? Yeah. Why not? It's Hunter! It's pure Hunter. He was most definitely there every day. Initially it was the idea of keeping Hunter's spirit alive on the set for us just, but I knew that I had Hunter with me. And I had put my pillow on the bed at night like he was there."

As of today, October 28th, The Rum Diary is now playing at theaters nationwide.

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