The age of New Journalism: Alex Gibney's "Gonzo" reflects on American politics, American character and the life and works of Hunter S. Thompson. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Gibney Going "Gonzo," Part Two

Cathleen Rountree May 7, 2008

Editor’s note: This is the second of two installments of Cathleen Rountree’s interview with Alex Gibney about Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which closes the San Francisco International Film Festival Thursday. Do you think Thompson has a lasting legacy? I mean in the sense that there aren’t many people practicing his art form now.

Gibney: The thing for any writer is that you have to find your own voice. So people imitate Hunter Thompson at their peril, because that was Hunter’s voice, not Writer X’s voice. You know, there’s a little bit of Hunter Thompson in someone like Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone. But there’s a legacy to Hunter Thompson, or to me the legacy should be: what’s wrong with breaking the rules? We need a few more people who break the rules, but to break them carefully. What did Bob Dylan say: "To live outside the law you must be honest." Because sometimes the people in power don’t play within the rules and, worse, they manipulate the rules against those who are trying to speak truth to power.

So, when the Administration is erasing water-boarding videotapes, you have to figure out ways to fight back, besides reporting the fact that they erased water-boarding videotapes. Also, I think the other legacy is, what’s wrong with writing with a little humor? You know, we’re having some fun, while at the same time being an assiduous, aggressive reporter, right? I mean, why not? So there’s all sorts of legacies that Hunter leaves us with for that reason. But they shouldn’t be: ‘Let’s imitate Hunter.’ They should be: Let’s look at Hunter and figure out effectively how some people might do that as well. There are lots of film clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam’s film, and Where the Buffalo Roam. Why did you decide to use so many?

Gibney: One of the things I liked about Loathing was that it really got the hallucinatory aspect of his book right, I think. So it was a natural inclination to use some of that. We actually had even more clips in the film, but we cut it back. But what I think Terry missed was the real life stuff, which is balanced nicely in that book. And so you see the film version, but then we morph in and out of the film version and some of the real material in a way that I think is effective. But at the same time, probably there’s so much in there from that film because the hallucinations seemed pretty funny and he captured the sense of humor of Hunter’s material. We didn’t use so much from Where the Buffalo Roam. And the other feature film we used was When We Were Kings, which was always a personal favorite of mine, but also helped get us inside that moment in Zaire.

And also, I think, it became organic, too, with Johnny [Depp] doing the narration. There was a kind of organic quality to having him read Hunter’s writing and then, suddenly, he’s playing Hunter. So there’s something playful and organic about that, too. And, with Johnny reading, it was more than a celebrity reading. This was a great actor who happened to have really inhabited Hunter’s character. Out of that film experience he had gone to live with Hunter. There’s a room in the bottom of Hunter’s house called "Johnny’s Room." It’s a small garret-like room with a tiny little window and a cot-like bed. And that’s where Johnny Depp stayed for, I think, a month or so, while he was shadowing Hunter on a daily basis. So out of that grew a deep affection for Hunter, and he now writes a lot of the forewords to the collected works and stuff like that. So I felt that was very organic and it was really important that he do it. And how was it working with Johnny Depp?

Gibney: Great! I mean, it was very difficult to arrange it, but once it happened, he pretty much directed himself. The scenes of him are at his house in L.A. So, tell me a little bit about your working style, because, as I understand it, you were concurrently cutting Taxi…

Gibney: …and cutting Hunter, too. Gonzo was supposed to be ready much earlier, but there were a lot of logistical challenges we faced, and some budgetary challenges we faced. So we had to shut down for a while, then we got back up. But during that period it was useful for me to be able to go back and forth between the two cutting rooms, because, you know, Taxi was so dark. And also, probably useful for Gonzo in the sense that sometimes it’s a good thing when you put a film aside for a while and then come back to it. Practically, it’s hard to do that, because people have invested money and everyone wants to get the movie out as quickly as possible. But in the best of all possible worlds, it should be standard practice: you do the film and then you set it aside and then you come back to it and suddenly you see: ‘Oh, my god, this doesn’t work, this does, you know, let’s amplify that.’ What are you working on now?

Gibney: I’m working on a film about Jack Abramoff. There are aspects of it which are actually quite sympathetic to him, I think. It looks at him and the rise of conservatism and the enormous role money has come to play in politics now. It’s called Casino Jack and the United States of Money. What’s the release date on that?

Gibney: Well, it may role into theaters right after Gonzo. We’d like to have it out before the election. I hope it helps! … What do you think is going on with the Democrats? They seem to be imploding.

Gibney: Well, it’s too early to say that they’re imploding, but they’re now in a desperate fight to see who’s going to win. What I did find interesting was a recent release by Hillary about the economy, which is a big, big step for a Democrat—considering where Bill Clinton had taken the Democrats—she came out publicly, I think it was on A-1 of the New York Times, saying, ‘The Market is not enough. The government has to play a role in the Market or you can’t create a good society.’ That’s pretty impressive and it shows the degree to which the economy is about to crater, if it hasn’t already. But everyone’s telling me that we’ve got a lot further to fall. So it’s interesting to see that. I mean, it was like Franklin Roosevelt talking, not Bill Clinton. Have you seen I.O.U.S.A. here at Sundance?

Gibney: Not yet. It’s pretty terrifying. And it’s been fascinating to see the parallel between so many of the docs here and daily news items in the New York Times. As I mentioned in one of my questions during my last interview with you for Taxi, documentarians are really at the forefront of investigative journalism. Yes, of course there are many important print journalist, obviously, but what documentarians are doing—in all areas, including exposés on the environment and politics….

Gibney: Well, here’s what I think: documentarians are able (you know, everyone has their own voice, like I was saying), in cinematic terms, to take a page out of Hunter Thompson’s book. In other words, we can do things that daily journalists can’t do. And I think that sometimes gives us an advantage in being able to speak truth to power. And we’re not afraid to use different kinds of rules, because we’re making movies. But I think that’s a good thing, I’m not making an excuse for it. So we can achieve a kind of power that print journalism can’t. Now, we’ll never achieve the kind of depth that print journalism can approach, or books, indeed, but I think we can achieve a sort of power that simply can’t be matched by print journalists. Imagistically, emotionally…?

Gibney: Yeah, both. And also present an argument—and when I say present an argument, I don’t mean an agitprop argument, I mean a reasonably considered argument that looks at things and tells a story about the way things really are so that people go "Oh, my god, things are really bad." You know, people tell me about the Enron film that they didn’t really understand white-collar crime or financial chicanery until they saw that film. And yet there’s nothing in that film that has to do with a dry academic argument. It’s full of all sorts of play and whimsy and humor, but at the end of the day…what was it someone said…I have an Australian cartoon framed in my office that has a box office of a theater—and Enron is playing—and someone comes up and says, "What’s this film about?" and someone else replies: "It’s a comedy that starts as farce and ends as horror." [Laughs.] I think that’s pretty good.

So I think films and documentarians—and particularly if they use the medium well (and every documentarian is different in how they do it)—have the opportunity to present something with a tremendous amount of emotional—_and_ intellectual—power that can be approached by people from all over and it works as a kind of agent provocateur. I’m also not the kind of guy who thinks that films are like a slot machine, or a vending machine, I should say. That you put in a quarter and out comes your policy recommendations. They have to tackle something deeper than that, deeper human issues that transcend immediate policy issues. But, having said that, I think films can have a deeper impact on people. They resonate with people, because people remember those images and they have a kind of searing power that people constantly refer back to, as they’re thinking about the world at large. That to me is a success.

And I think with Gonzo, bringing Hunter back, and how he was able to do that, in a certain moment in time…Gary Trudeau was telling me that he was reading some of Hunter’s stuff in Rolling Stone with his girlfriend, and he would read a page and rip it off and give it to her, you know. It was so important that you had to read it right away. And then he’d read the next page and rip it off and give it to her and she’d be reading it. Um, things didn’t end so well with them (ha-ha), but… He told me that he tried to make nice at one point and sent to Hunter a note saying "this is the world of parody," blah, blah, blah, sent him a long note… And Hunter sent him back a manila envelope full of used toilet paper. Oh, jeez…

Gibney: That reminded me of a story about Lillian Hellman—I used to work for Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. Lillian Hellman had been the pet of Samuel Goldwyn, Sr., but they had broken off very badly. You mean when she was writing screenplays in Hollywood?

Gibney: Yeah, Little Foxes and stuff like that. But then, they broke off. They had a huge disagreement over her allegiance to the Soviet Union, and other things. In any case, they didn’t talk to each other for many years. But William Wyler called her many years later, when Sam, Sr., was very sick and said, ‘Lillian, I know Sam would love to hear from you, please call him. She thinks about it and then finally calls him and Sam’s wife answered the phone and said [Gibney speaks in a lilting falsetto tone], ‘Oh, Lillian, it’s so lovely of you to call. I’m sure Sam would love to talk to you.’ Then she said, ‘Sam, guess what, Lillian’s on the phone!’ And she heard in the distance Sam roll over and say [Gibney fakes a mock gravelly voice], ‘Tell her to go fuck herself!’ Hellman later said that was the last time she ever gave into that type of ‘cheap sentimentality.’ So I think Gary probably felt the same way. No doubt….A few years ago, when it played at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I took my adult son, who is an investment banker, to see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and he loved it. He’s very politically aware and involved and a fundraiser for Obama. I emailed him to say that I would be interviewing you about Gonzo. *He’s read all of Hunter’s work, and was excited to hear about your film. *

Gibney: So far kids really seem to like the Hunter film. You know, I was a little nervous about that. All of us who had been through the 60s come to the film with a sense of nostalgia, but would it have a present-day impact, especially for kids? And it seems to. Well, it’s funny about my son’s generation: they’re so connected to the ’60s. Maybe it’s because we’re from the Berkeley, it’s almost a process of osmosis.

Gibney: Well, I think one of the interesting things about the film, too, is that the ’60s seem to come right out into the present. It doesn’t seem like a time-capsule presentation of the ’60s. You know, you see McGovern trying to resist sending young men to war. And there was some argument in the cutting room about whether we should make the connection explicit and have side-by-side images. But the images were so similar of the soldiers going off to Vietnam and the soldiers going off to Iraq, and people making reckless decisions on the basis of lies. I know. It’s despicable, just horrible….I have one more question and then I’ll let you go. After spending so much time with this individual, how did it affect you? How did you come away feeling about Hunter S. Thompson and his work?

Gibney: I came away feeling a tremendous amount of respect for Hunter, the writer. I know a lot of people who are madly in love with Hunter, still. And I’m sure he was a very charming man. My thing is not so much about the wild and crazy character—and I know there’s a lot of fun stuff and I’m okay with it; I’m amused by it. But I came away with a tremendous respect for Hunter, the writer, both how funny he was and what a tremendous moral voice we was. And also, I think there’s something else about Hunter that makes him special: a lot of writers on the Left don’t have an appreciation for the deep contradictions in the American character. But I think Hunter did. And he understood that at the same time that we’re idealistic and we have a sense of a grander and better possibility, we’re also haunted by fear and loathing. You know, this is a society that wants to build a better life for everyone and has more guns per capita than any nation in the world. So, he got that. And I think a lot of people celebrate him for that reason, because in some ways he also embraced it. This is a guy who liked to be out shooting guns, you know. Personally, he embodied the contradiction of the American character. And I think he appeals to a lot of people for that reason. You know that’s why Pat Buchanan is in the film, along with George McGovern. Hunter had a lot of fun with liberals. He didn’t spare Muskie and Humphrey. He wasn’t holding back. That’s what I mean about not being political. It’s not like he decided, ‘Okay, I’m a Democrat, so I’m not going to criticize Democrats." He went after those guys. So what do you think is going to happen to this country?

Gibney: [He laughs.] I have no idea. I’m not the Delphic oracle. But I do think the economy is about to crater, and that should bring about some interesting changes.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.