Happy New Year Everybody,
All rumours surrounding my absence of late are probably more interesting and entertaining than the real deal – a rotten run of bad luck and stupidity and acts of God and other worthless crap that I can do without right now. It involves water and my house being pretty much wrecked – yet I am alive, nobody is dead and things can be fixed. I need to feed on some Gonzo before I go completely mad and thanks to Mr. Charles Thomson Esq. I have just that – an exclusive interview with Alex Gibney.
Our Gonzo loving friend Mr. Thomson, a student of journalism, managed to ambush Gibney at the Trafalgar Hotel recently and here are the results:
CT: When did you first start reading Hunter Thompson’s work?
AG: College. I read the two big books, both the Fear and Loathing books, Campaign Trail and Vegas. And maybe Kentucky Derby. I loved it but I also wasn’t one of those people who had read everything, until after he committed suicide and I was encouraged to make a film about him. Then I thought ‘OK, time to do some serious reading.’
CT: And how did Thompson’s work impact on you when you first started reading it?
AG: It was electric for me because I found it so well observed but also so funny. That’s what I really got off on. I mean, it dug at key social problems and gored all sorts of sacred cows, but did so with such humour. The anger was all channelled through the humour – it just made you laugh out loud. So you felt like you were following somebody who was kind of a whacked out tour guide that was able to get you to see things about every day surroundings that you just hadn’t noticed before.
CT: You say you started filming after Thompson’s suicide, but you filmed the funeral, so how long afterwards did you start?
AG: Well, keep in mind that there were two funerals. One funeral was something that happened not very long after his suicide at the Jerome Hotel, where a bunch of people convened and they read or talked extemporaneously about memories of Hunter. But what Johnny Depp wanted to do was to honour a vision that Hunter had for his own funeral that he outlined in a BBC documentary, which was to do this big monument and to fire his ashes out over the valley. That wasn’t done until the August after his suicide, his second one. Most people only have one funeral – he had two. So I was there for that.
CT: So how long after the suicide were you contacted about making the film?
AG: Couple of weeks.
CT: And that was Graydon Carter?
CT: Was he a friend of Hunter’s?
AG: Hunter had written for him and Graydon was in touch with the estate.
CT: And once you know you’re going to make the film, what do you do first? What’s the process?
AG: You dig into the material. That’s what I do, anyway. I didn’t want to do the film unless we had total carte blanche with the estate. The estate gave us that so we went out to Aspen and also to Denver, Colorado and began searching through boxes and cataloguing stuff. That was the first step. Then, slowly but surely, we thought about what interviews we’d like to do – and which ones we decided to do were related to what we thought the focus of the film should be, which was on a certain period of time. So those are the two key steps. Then along the way we begin to build up a sense of a narrative and I begin to think of certain visual beds that might make sense within the context of the story like the motorcycle bed for the reading of Hell’s Angels, the edge speech.
CT: Once you’d started digging into all that material did you become more of a fan? Or did you get sick of him after a while?
AG: I became more of a fan. I mean, I was fascinated with how much he’d written because I dug deep into all his letters and sometimes his unpublished manuscripts, which his estate gave us access to. So it was pretty exciting – I was impressed at the volume he cranked out and the material was at a pretty high level.
CT: What were the unpublished manuscripts?
AG: Well there’s a book that will be released soon about the NRA. It’s a great book. He wrote it, I believe, in-between Vegas and Campaign Trail.
CT: Hunter was a member of the NRA, so was it a book of his own experiences? Or was it more in the vein of Hell’s Angels where he immersed himself in the subculture of gun nuts?
AG: Well, there was a little bit of both. In other words, he starts with the part that’s in the film, where he’s talking in a very confessional way;’ The day after Robert Kennedy died I received my Walther – I can’t remember the model number – pistol in the mail, you know… I went out, tried it, didn’t like it and sent it back. But it began to get me thinking about my own gun problem.’ Then he goes to the NRA and finds that these NRA guys are scaredy cats, not big tough guys, and Hunter terrified them.
CT: Did you come across his other unpublished book, Polo Is My Life?
AG: I think they’re going to publish it as a book. As you know, Polo Is My Life started off as a story, but I think he wrote enough about it that they’re going to try to spin it off as a book.
CT: What about the tapes? What was it like digging though those?
AG: It was fantastic because they’re very intimate so you hear stuff that really gives you a sense and an understanding of who he was – and who other people were, depending on what tapes you were listening to. Like the tape that we found of him and Oscar at the taco stand, that was fantastic because you know how Hunter wrote their relationship but you really want to hear what it was like and that gives you some sense.
CT: How involved were you in the compilation of The Gonzo Tapes?
AG: I wasn’t in charge but I oversaw it.
CT: How did you decide what to include?
AG: I think the idea was to start narrowing it down and to find certain tapes that didn’t need to be edited but that could be played with some integrity just by rolling forward. We looked at certain key periods in his life like the Zaire failure, the Saigon failure… But also wonderful tapes of Hunter in his heyday recording stuff on the campaign trail in 1972 and then going home to Woody Creek and pouring over it, recording kind of a second track on top of the other one giving a commentary on what it is that he’s recorded. It was great.
CT: Is that stuff on there? Hunter giving commentary on his own recordings?
AG: Yea, some of that stuff is on there.
CT: Wow, that must be confusing.
AG: It’s pretty clear actually, you know, you hear the forefront sound and then you hear Hunter comment on top; ‘This is the sound of bla bla bla…’
CT: Making the film retrospectively, did you have any problems tracking down and acquiring the rights to all the archive footage?
AG: Yea, we did. We had heard a rumour, for example, that Hunter had been on the TV show ‘To Tell The Truth’, but we searched the logs to that show and we couldn’t find it anywhere. We had to go back three or four times to finally find it in an annex. We knew about the two BBC shows so we ordered those right away and we had to make a deal on the footage. There were a lot of photographs, many of which were of uncertain providence. We didn’t know who took them. Some of them were great so there was a lot of work involved in terms of working out exactly where each one of these things came from.
CT: In the film there seemed to be a real turning point after the Zaire failure where Hunter’s work went into steady decline. How did you feel about documenting it? As a fan, were you tempted to skip over it?
AG: I felt like I had to deal with it. I didn’t deal with it at great length and some have criticised me for not dealing with it at even greater length, but I felt like I had to deal with it because his life didn’t end well, he committed suicide, and I also talked to a lot of people over time who were very pissed off about how they were treated by Hunter during that period, so I thought it was important to include something about that period. Also, it was a period that ended his marriage and I felt I had to include a little bit of that too. So all of that together made me certain I had to say something about that period of decline, even though I tried to show enough covers and suggest that, you know, there were certainly exceptions to the rule. But by and large he didn’t have that white heat of productivity that he had from ’65 to ’75.
CT: So what do you make of his later books like Kingdom of Fear and Hey Rube?
AG: Some of it is good. I included the 9/11 passage from Hey Rube. I just think it was far more uneven. It wasn’t like he totally lost it. There was some good stuff still. It just wasn’t as consistent. Also, to some extent, you couldn’t expect it to be. Fitzgerald only wrote one Great Gatsby. I also think Hunter’s excesses began to catch up with him and you can feel it in the prose, I think, where it feels somewhat forced. It doesn’t have that kind of fiery elegance that some of the earlier writing always did.
CT: You can see the physical deterioration as well.
AG: Yes, you certainly can.
CT: Especially when he speaks and you have to put subtitles over the bottom.
AG: Right, he’s slurring his words.
CT: Was there a lot of that footage around?
AG: Well that footage actually comes from his very last interview. Some kids went up to interview him about McGovern and he was very nice and straightforward when they first got there. Then he said ‘Excuse me for a second, I’ll be back’, and he came back about two hours later and he’d gone to the bar and just gotten absolutely shitfaced. Now he could barely talk, as you could see there.
CT: So he didn’t slur that much day to day?
AG: As I understand it, he was like that a lot day to day but not every part of the day. It’s like that alcoholic where you have a little bit and you get over your hangover, you’re feeling great and you’re really lucid. Then you have a little bit more and you go over the other side.
CT: You’ve mentioned Hunter’s suicide a few times, but what do you make of the conspiracy theories surrounding his death?
AG: I’m aware of some of them. I don’t put much stock in them, to be honest with you. I think he did commit suicide. I think all the signals point to it. He talked about it for a long time. He was a narcissist. He was very depressed. He was in really poor physical condition and probably an increasingly poor mental condition. So I think one day he just felt sorry for himself and pulled the trigger.
CT: Can you remember where you were when you heard that he’d killed himself?
AG: I was in New York. I don’t remember exactly where I was but I remember being shocked. There was just that little… It wasn’t like I was following Hunter’s career every day but it was just like a little bit of, ‘Oh, he’s gone now.’
CT: So between becoming a fan in college and hearing about Hunter’s death, had you remained a reader or forgotten about him a little bit?
AG: I wasn’t a hardcore fan. Every once in a while I would read something that he’d written, but I wasn’t that kind of hardcore fan. From time to time I remember picking up Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and reading bits and pieces but I kind of put him to the side, to be honest, for a while. But that’s part of what made it fun to pick him back up again.
CT: The other thing I noticed was that you skipped over Hunter’s earlier life quite a bit.
AG: We did. We felt the heart of the film was going to be this particular period – it’s called the life and work of Hunter S Thompson. So we focused on the work and, particularly, the work that I felt was in the zone. We included certain parts of his earlier life and frankly we did have a longer section on it but it felt more conventional in cinematic terms both to use lots of photographs and have explanations by Sandy or by Doug Brinkley, but also to pare it down to Hunter’s main motivation, which was anger. He had this anger about being one of the have-nots, not poor but not rich, and being left out. He didn’t have his hand in the cookie jar. That pissed him off and it gave him a motive for being the kind of wickedly angry and funny journalist that he became. So we have that kind of rosebud moment where he spends the night in jail but we didn’t go much past that. It would have been interesting to have done but I just felt like in terms of condensing it, we really just wanted to get to the part where we were going to dig in.
CT: Do you think that once Hunter found fame and success, he lost his anger and his writing suffered as a consequence?
AG: I don’t think he lost his anger. I think you can see it there at the end; ‘Goddamn your stupid ass! Just reach under there and get me some medicine!’ So I don’t think he lost his anger. But I think he lost his ability to be as deft about it. To channel it in ways that were as artful as they were when he was a younger man.
CT: So at his peak, how would you characterise firstly Hunter’s style, and secondly his impact?
AG: Hunter is a novelist in a journalist’s body. He mixes fact and fiction, pathos and comedy. He embraces contradictions and that gives his prose a kind of power. He inserts himself into his own story and becomes a character in his own narratives, either as Raoul Duke or as Hunter. In terms of his impact I think again there was a period where he was so much of his time that he was sort of the poet laureate of the American character. He was riveting in that period from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s because he really expressed the central contradictions of the American character at a moment in time when people were really looking to him to demystify the bullshit that was all around them. But I think the other great thing about Hunter is that out of that time, you know, we can return to that book – whether it be Vegas or Campaign Trail – and see them in a kind of universal power that has been undimmed by time so he was both of his time and apart from it – and that’s a pretty great thing to be.
CT: Where do you think his influence can be seen now?
AG: In peculiar ways. I don’t see it in writing so much. I tell people I see a lot of his influence in these two shows on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Those guys have a righteous anger that they express through comedy but they also do so by showing politicians to be liars and being rather direct about it. That’s something I think Hunter would have loved.
CT: And what would Hunter have made of the current political climate?
AG: I think he’d see this election as another struggle between fear and loathing in the sense of idealism that McGovern represented and now Obama represents. I think he saw those things as fundamental struggles and he’d be very much on the side of Obama but reckoning with the fact that McCain and Palin and the forces of fear and loathing could still triumph.
Many many thanks to Charles Thomson for the interview – I was just about to do a dance on my laptop in anger when I received your email!
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