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Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky and is best known as the godfather of Gonzo Journalism. Taking the New Journalism of the 60s one step further, Thompson went to the heart of the action by becoming the star of his own reporting — whether by cycling with America’s toughest motorcycle gang, the Hell’s Angels, or downing a frightening collection of psychedelics in the name of the American Dream.
He contributed articles to Rolling Stone for many years, and ran a weekly sports column for ESPN Online before eventually taking his own life in 2005. The Rum Diary had lain forgotten in Thompson’s basement for many years and if not for a fateful visit by Johnny Depp to Thompson’s house, the novel may have never been published.
“I came across The Rum Diary with Hunter, almost accidentally,” Depp relates. “We were in his house in Woody Creek downstairs in what was called The War Room, and there were just these endless boxes of stuff. I didn’t know what they were, so I started just pulling things out.
I stumbled upon what was called ‘The Rum Diary’ and he goes, ‘Oh Jesus, yeah, I wrote that in 1959,’ and I said, ‘Jesus Christ, let’s read this, let’s see what it’s about.’ So we get it out, started reading it. He said, ‘Maybe I should finally publish it.’ I was like, ‘Yeah you should publish it, it’s great.’’’
By that time, however, Thompson’s style had considerably developed from his early writing and returning to his young voice was a challenge. Deborah Fuller, who was Thompson’s secretary for 23 years, recalls, “When it came time to publish The Rum Diary, an editor from Simon and Schuster worked with Hunter, but they really had to control him.
He had evolved into a whole new writer, and he was embarrassed about some of it and wanted to change it. We all told him that was crazy. He wrote it when he was about twenty. To change it and make this young man’s novel more like his later Gonzo-style would have ruined the flavor.”
Before Thompson had even begun prepping the book to finally see the light of day, a movie adaptation was already cooking in his and Depp’s minds. “From that [first] conversation,” Depp says, “within about 20 minutes we were already talking about the movie rights and how we should produce this film together.”
Thompson’s suicide in 2005 kept him from seeing The Rum Diary brought to the big screen. Producer Graham King wanted to make sure that his legacy would be preserved with the film. “The film is a tribute to Hunter. It was amazing to have the opportunity to get involved in one of his stories, and who better to work with than Johnny Depp?”
Depp had been a long-time fan of director Bruce Robinson and initially approached him to direct another Hunter S. Thompson adaptation. “I met Johnny Depp about twenty years ago because of my first film, Withnail and I,” recalls Robinson “We got together in London. He asked me if I would direct Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
At the time I had decided that I didn’t really want to direct again. However, if I did, it would only be from a script I had written. By that time, it was too late; the screenplay had already been written.” Depp was determined to have Robinson and Thompson’s creative spirits eventually cross. As he puts it, “Bruce was always somehow in the back of my mind, and when The Rum Diary came up I said, ‘what about Bruce Robinson?’ Hunter said, ‘That’s the ticket, man.’
Hunter was truly into it, especially the fact that we had to get Bruce out of retirement!” “Then later, Johnny sent me a copy of ‘The Rum Diary’ and asked if I would be interested in adapting it into a screenplay,” says Robinson. “It was a nightmare at first. I couldn’t see how it could be adapted as a film as it has two lead characters, Yeamon and Kemp.
It was a long time before I realized what Hunter had actually done, which was to split himself down the middle into two characters. When I realized Yeamon was just a facet of Kemp, one of them had to go. Once I had solved that problem, I could see a way to write it, and decided to have a go.”
Depp recalls Robinson’s epiphany with equal enthusiasm. “Finally it came to him, which none of us ever recognized. Weirdly, Hunter said something to me years before that I hadn’t remembered. Early on, Hunter had said, ‘I should have you know I should have made these guys one, I should have made them me—but I made them both me.’ That’s what Bruce did. He had the instinct to make that happen.”
“The way I approached the adaptation of ‘The Rum Diary’ was to absorb what the book was, and then rewrite it,” Robinson says. “There are only three lines that Hunter wrote in the whole script. I wasn’t trying to copy him. You can’t because he was so unique, but hopefully, I was writing in his vernacular.”
Depp says that is exactly what Thompson wanted all along. “Bruce definitely went off page in terms of the book, but Hunter wanted to. He always wanted to. Hunter even talked to me about maybe taking this story to Cuba!” In addition to combining the characters of Kemp and Yeamon into one, the screenplay departs from the book in the way it deals with the representation of Puerto Rico.
“That’s a fundamental change in the movie, because the whole film is in support of the underdog side of Puerto Rico,” says Robinson. “It’s critical of the people who have come there to make a fast buck. Sanderson’s approach is almost like the old-time British imperialists, who pillaged a country for what they could get and then moved on.”
It took Robinson about five to six months to write the screenplay. “When I got the word back that they were going to make it, I was thrilled,” says Robinson. “However, when they asked me to direct it, I wasn’t, because I didn’t want to,” he laughs. “After the last unmentionable film I directed, I was really determined that I would never do it again.
I don’t like being in the public eye. I much prefer being locked in a room with a typewriter doing what I do, which is to write. So it wouldn’t have been difficult to say no, but because I liked the script myself, and because it was for Johnny, whom I like enormously, I thought I would give it a shot.”
King couldn’t have been more pleased with Robinson’s return to the director’s chair. “He’s got such an easygoing, come-what-may attitude behind the monitor. The DP was actually saying, ‘Maybe you should try this,’ and Bruce said ‘No, I’ve got it. I’ve got what I need. The movie’s in my head, so I know in the edit room I’m not going to be using this scene; why are we going to shoot it?’
That’s music to a producer’s ears! He commanded that crew so well. He’s such a soft spoken, gentle guy. Everyone loved and respected him.”
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