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The film adaptation of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s second novel ‘The Rum Diary’ is set to premier in US cinemas on October 28. With Academy Award nominated screenwriter Bruce Robinson penning the script, the question is how the often wild and manic characters of the Thompson universe were translated onto the screen.
In the production notes, the team behind The Rum Diary explain their casting choices. “When I set to cast the role of Chenault, I was looking for someone with a lascivious edge,” says Robinson. Chenault is the fiance of Aaron Eckhart’s character Sanderson, a charming but unsavory businessman. “In the book Chenault is Yeamon’s girlfriend, but [...] the Yeamon character is gone [in the movie].
I made her Sanderson’s girlfriend to heighten the dramatic tension. You immediately get some heat and drama out of the fact that the girl is utterly unobtainable. The whole book is about the American dream, and Hunter’s obsession with lifting the lid on the dream. Chenault is attached to the man who is exploiting the dream. Kemp is crazy in love with her because she is as unobtainable as the dream.”
That unobtainable quality is what attracted Johnny Depp, who plays the journalist Paul Kemp to the role’s eventual taker, Amber Heard. “She was like this incredible 1950s movie star, but with a deep rooted poetry to her. There was a mystery there; you couldn’t quite understand what had gone on in her life, but it made you want to ask questions that you wouldn’t normally ask.”
The character of Moberg was interesting to cast. “In the book, he is described as being Swedish, but I decided to make him an American,” says Robinson. “Giovanni Ribisi is such a fine actor. On the set he looked like a derelict,” he laughs. “I think Giovanni brings comic relief to the driving force of the movie.”
Depp was adamant about Ribisi’s involvement from the outset. “We worked together on Public Enemies and I just thoroughly fell in love with him. I knew then that I wanted this guy on The Rum Diary somewhere. ‘I don’t care what he does, I just want him there. I want to work with him again.’ What a pleasure, what a gift. I salute the guy endlessly; he’s just wonderful.”
“As an actor, I really appreciated the details that Giovanni added to his character,” says Robinson admiringly. “He came up with something, which was a complete invention. It was absolutely ridiculous, but beautiful. He picked up an ashtray and emptied the entire thing into the shopping bag, which he always carries. It was just in case there are a few butts in there that may come in handy. It was a piece of pure on-the-spot comic invention.”
“Moberg is the crime and religious correspondent at the newspaper,” Ribisi says of his character. “I think he was really angry with capitalism in America, what they were doing. He started seeing the results of that on the Puerto Rican culture. Although he despises Lotterman [San Juan Star’s editor], he feels that being with the newspaper does give him a chance to have a voice as a journalist.”
“I think when Moberg first meets Kemp,” says Ribisi, “he thinks Kemp is someone he can possibly take advantage of. There is some degree of skepticism that Kemp is just another guy coming in. However, when he begins to talk about revolting and putting out the newspaper themselves, it electrifies Moberg. He starts to wake up, and become really passionate about it. That was my own little arc that I was trying to add in.”
Moberg is responsible for encouraging the alcohol and drug abuse in his amigos, Kemp and Sala. “There was this new concept of altering your mind with certain substances. I think Moberg had been doing that for a long time,” says Ribisi. “He also scavenges filters from the rum distillery and produces the moonshine that they drink, which is about four hundred and seventy proof, if that’s possible!” he laughs.
For the role of San Juan Star editor Lotterman, Robinson chose character actor Richard Jenkins. “He played the role brilliantly,” says Robinson. “Lotterman is a hysterical old-style journo, who was probably a sub at The Baltimore Sun for 40 years. Now he is a seething nervous wreck, trying to run his own newspaper, and trying to hold it all together.
There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie, which I hope will be amusing, when Lotterman explains to Kemp that he is looking for some fresh blood to make the thing work, and he believes Kemp is the man that can do it. However, the whole place is awash with rum! It’s not by accident that it is called The Rum Diary. Everyone’s completely smashed all the way through the movie!” laughs Robinson.
Depp remembers the initial struggle to find the right actor to play Lotterman. “‘Who in the world can we get to play this part?’” he recalls saying. “We went through a few names here and there—‘Nah, nah, nah, they don’t seem right; he’s too pushy, he’s too this, he’s too that.’ And then bang, suddenly Richard Jenkins came to mind and we were like, ‘We’ll never get him.’ Boom, got him! We just offered him the part and got him! It was miraculous. He came in and kicked it straight in the ass.
He’s the most solid rock that everything revolves around. It’s because of him that everyone works in terms of character, how far you go and how far you don’t go, what you hold back and what you give out. It’s because of Richard Jenkins’s gravitas that a character like Giovanni Ribisi’s coming in there works.”
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