Journalists on journalists: 'Gonzo' director Alex Gibney (left) and producer Graydon Carter (right) take their seats at the Castro for closing night of the San Francisco International Film Festival. (Photo by Pamela Gentile/courtesy SFFS)

Alex Gibney on Going 'Gonzo'

Cathleen Rountree June 30, 2008

[Editor’s note: This interview first appeared in during the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson played on closing night.]

It’s a good time to be Alex Gibney.

We met this year over egg rolls at a small upstairs bistro on Main Street in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, where Gibney’s bio-doc Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson premiered. It was Tuesday, in late-January. That morning Gibney, whose Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (SFIFF 2005) earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary in 2006, had learned that Taxi to the Darkside, his documentary murder mystery that examines the death of an Afghan taxi driver at Bagram Air Base, had been nominated for an Academy Award. (It eventually won.) Another documentary he’d executive produced, No End in Sight, directed by Charles Ferguson, had also been nominated for Best Doc.

isn’t his first bio-doc. Eugene Jarecki’s The Trials of Henry Kissinger (produced and written by Gibney) analyzed the dark side of the former Secretary of State. And his TV series David Halberstam’s the ’50s on A&E told the story of an age through mini-portraits of contemporary individuals. But Gonzo, which focuses on the decade from 1965 to 1975 is, if not definitive, a substantial entrée into the personal life and writings of the legendary proponent of the "new journalism" style of reporting, whose literary feats were often overshadowed by his outrageous antics fueled by excessive drug and alcohol use.

Alex Gibney’s slightly rumpled attire and serious demeanor could easily define him as a Harvard Poli-Sci professor or a no-nonsense educator at Berkeley’s School of Journalism. His responses to my questions represented an erudite, deeply concerned, ironic sensibility. We discussed Thompson’s legacy, Johnny Depp’s participation in Gonzo, how documentarians are at the forefront of investigative journalism, the state of the United States and the imperative of speaking truth to power. How did this project get started?

Alex Gibney: Graydon Carter, Jason Kliot, and Joana Vicente—the three of them came to me and asked if I was interested in doing the project. And I said I was. It was one of those peculiar things—the same thing happened with Taxi—when all sorts of things seemed to happen at the same time. I’d just finished reading a piece by Frank Rich [New York Times op-ed columnist] in which he looked at three people: Dan Rather, who had just been cashiered by CBS; this sometime male prostitute named Jeff Gannon, who had been hired by the White House, so he could pose as a newscaster and ask soft-ball questions; and Hunter. The idea of Rich’s piece was, you know, in a time when the press has become hired actors we need someone like Hunter Thompson, who doesn’t play by the rules. So that solidified it for you.

Gibney: Yeah, I thought that was an interesting take. Because, just to do a film about the wild and wacky Hunter . . . I mean, it’s amusing and we get into that in the movie, but I wanted to . . . I figured no one would care about his wild and wacky side if he hadn’t been a good writer. And had you previously been a Thompson fan?

Gibney: Yeah, I’d read him in college, both the Fear and Loathing books [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72], but I hadn’t been a fanatic. I mean, we hired on a musician and researcher who was a true fanatic—he knew everything! About Thompson and the times?

Gibney: About Thompson and Thompson’s writing. And I thought, the only reason you care about him, or that people got interested in him, is because he was a great writer. So that was a motivator for me. And I sort of thought, too, that, even though it’s very difficult to make a film about a writer—because, by and large, they’re very private people, they express themselves on the page. But Hunter of course is a little bit different. The thing that Graydon provided was access to the estate. And when we got into the estate, we discovered things that were just magnificent, so that was good news—from a filmmaking standpoint. How is Anita, his second wife, responding to the film?

Fine. She was here opening night. And so was Laila Nabulsi, a producer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, who had been a long-term friend of Hunter’s. I think it was emotional for both of them. They had issues with some parts of the film, but by and large, I think they thought it was great. I mean, you’ll have to ask them [laughs], but at least that’s what they said to me. And I guess Anita participated fully.

Gibney: She did, and so did Hunter’s son name Juan. There seemed to be more inclusion of Hunter’s first wife, Sandy. But I guess you were dealing more with that period of his life.

Gibney: Yes, but I think if we were dealing more with the later Hunter, or if I was looking for a different angle on the material, maybe Anita would have been more prominent. But I think because we were dealing predominantly with the period from ’65 to ’75 . . . that’s when Sandy was there. Hunter was hugely political, as are you, so I’m assuming that was a major point of connection for you with Hunter and the project. His political awareness, concern, and involvement anchors the film’s narrative through-line, which adds to its richness.

Gibney: I guess so, although sometimes I don’t even think of myself as political, in the sort of Republicans versus Democrats way, but political in the larger sense of the politics of the day. Yeah, definitely . . . and what are the moral issues of the day, and he was very involved in that. Which brings me to the point of Thompson’s suicide. Was that an act of nihilism? I know he had health issues, but I wonder why you chose not to further investigate that in the film.

Gibney: In part because I think . . . [He sighs and there is a long hesitation.] Um, you know, as you say, I was dealing so much more with the political stuff and I didn’t . . . someone making a different film could have spent more time with the suicide and why he did it. I’m not sure if any of us knows why someone commits suicide. But I think there were personal reasons. I think it was the act of a narcissist, and Hunter was a narcissist. But I think he was truly depressed when Bush won again in 2004. And you can kind of see it in the past, when his lowest moment as a writer was during the time of the Rumble in the Jungle. And I think it was his lowest moment for two reasons: he felt he’d been burned backing the underdog, and when he went to Zaire he said, ‘Screw that, he’s gonna lose, I’m not gonna get hurt again.’ This time, the underdog won! But he must have felt terrible about not having the faith that something special might have happened. And I think that might have sent him into something of a tailspin. So, you know, that lose of faith may have contributed something to it. And he was also very much a caretaker of his image. I think that probably went into it, too. In the sense that?

Gibney: Well, even his son talks about that. That’s the way he wanted to go out: with a gun. So I think it was probably a confluence of a number of issues. But, because I didn’t come to any definitive conclusion about why—and I’m not sure . . . you know, I never knew the guy, and I’m not sure I felt comfortable coming to any definitive conclusion about why he did it—and I steered away. Do you see Thompson as more of a literary or a cultural figure? I mean, obviously he’s both . . .

Gibney: He is both. But I don’t think we’d care about him as a cultural figure if he hadn’t been a great writer. And there were moments of brilliance later in his life, too. It’s not like he never did anything good after ’75, he did some good things—and we put some of that in, actually. But, for a period, he was an awesome writer, and a very original writer in a way that you have to celebrate. So, yeah, he’s a cultural figure and he’s a unique figure in the sense that the anarchic quality of his writing became part of who he was as a human being—and as a cultural figure. You know, we tend to like to celebrate outlaws. That’s part of what makes American culture vital. Hunter was an outlaw, and we like to live vicariously through him. What did you find out about the legend of all the drug-taking? Is that mythologizing or the power of magical realism?

Gibney: No, the only thing I would say: he took a lot of drugs, particularly speed and alcohol, but also acid and mescaline and dope. So he took a lot of drugs. It may be that after his first acid trip or two, that it loosened him up a bit—as has happened to other people. Yeah, they do tend to do that.

Gibney: But I also think that he didn’t write well because of the drugs, you know? I mean you can’t say that Charlie Parker was a great saxophone player because of the heroin. It was despite the heroin, really. And I think Hunter used drugs sometimes to go on wild binges of writing in order to make deadlines, but I don’t think the drugs were responsible for the greatness of his writing. Why do you think the quality of his writing really diminished over time?

Gibney: I think it’s a combination of factors. One is: he found a peculiar kind of writing that he was great at, which was being a literary journalist. He was one of the first practitioners of so-called "new journalism." But he went in a different direction, and I think that what happened is that his fame began to make it impossible for him to cover things. He’d become such a celebrity that it was difficult for him to cover things as a reporter. The same thing with Sacha Baron Cohen: He can’t be Ali G anymore.

Gibney: Right, he can’t be Ali G anymore. That was one thing. Another thing is that, over time, when you begin to be a public figure like that—and, again, I’m just speculating on that, I have no idea, honestly, but, when you become a public figure like that, you begin to look at yourself from the outside, as well as from the inside, and you don’t write with that single-minded determination, you run the risk of starting to imitate yourself. Instead of doing things because you think they’re smart, or you think they’re wild, or because they feel deeply original and they’re just coming out of you, you begin to write things because, "Oh, this is the kind of thing that I would do." That’s dangerous. He begins to see himself in the third person. 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: 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. 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.

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