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JULY 4, 2008

Fun and Loathing

in Colorado

Director Alex Gibney discusses the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, the subject of his new documentary

By Mark Jenkins

On the road before: Hunter S. Thompson heads for trouble. (Magnolia)

Also opening this week: KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL, which I reviewed for National Public Radio's website. Clicking on the title of that film will take you to my review at

ALEX GIBNEY HAS IN QUICK SUCCESSION DIRECTED three documentaries, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. He's now working on films about felonious Washington influence peddler Jack Abramoff and novelist and psychedelic scenemaker Ken Kesey. In the first part of this interview, he discusses Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which opens today in Washington. The making of his latest film, he reveals, overlapped with Taxi.

They were in adjoining cutting rooms. I was cutting them at the same time.

Does that involve a certain amount of mental adjustment?

It involves a certain amount of lunacy. They're very different subjects. Yet in a peculiar way, they balanced. I desperately needed relief from the grimness of Taxi, and Hunter provided a lot of laughs. Gonzo also benefited from having been so close to Taxi.

You mean Taxi affected you psychologically?

No, I just mean it helped to inform Hunter. You begin to see things that you might not have noticed otherwise. The darker stuff in what had been presented for a long time as a lighter story: Oh, wasn't he amusing? Hunter was amusing, but there was also a dark side, not only to him but to the stuff he covered.

How long had you been interested in Hunter Thompson?

I read him in college. I loved him then. I wasn't one of those people who read everything. Now I have. That was part of the fun, exploring and getting to know somebody, through the people who knew him, and through his writing and audio tapes and everything else. Exploring his character.

You had a lot of raw material.

Yeah, and that's rare for a writer. It's rare you get a writer who's so dynamic that he's constantly being photographed.

And you have clips from two Hollywood films, Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Right. And you have a superstar who was willing to read the narration. It's more than a narration, really. He inhabits Hunter.

How involved was Johnny Deep in making the movie?

He wasn't that involved, but time finally came for him to do his bit, he did it really well.

What brought you to the project in the first place?

Graydon Carter [Vanity Fair editor and the film's producer] asked me to do it. I just thought it was a great idea, because this was a time where we could use a Hunter. It was worth thinking about how Hunter broke all the rules. At a time when journalists are being hemmed into the "official" rules. Like the need to present both sides, even if one side is dead wrong. Never point out that somebody is lying, never use humor. It's instructive to see how many people now get their news from Colbert and John Stewart. I think they are carrying on Hunter's tradition.

Do you think Thompson had a long-term effect on journalism?

Yes and no. I think he allows people to go there. But it's dangerous territory, because you have to be pretty good, to put yourself in the story without losing your ability to observe, and also to have a strong point of view and sense of humor without so controlling everything that you obliterate the voices of the people you're writing about.

I knew before watching your film that Tom Wolfe was a bigger supporter of Thompson, which seems a little odd....

Why do you think it seems odd?

Because Wolfe is basically a conservative.

But he was also the guy, even in his Saville Row cream suit, who hung out with the Merry Pranksters. He imbues his reporting with a sensibility and a literary style. Take The Right Stuff. It's tremendously infused with Wolfe's personality.

I think Wolfe's reporting has a strong personality, but it's not his personality. He tries to capture the character of the people he's writing about, whereas Thompson is always very first-person.

That's true. But Wolfe can't help but inject his own personality into his reporting. His exclamation points, his repetition — style sometimes can betray personality every bit as much as saying, "Then I walked down the street with George McGovern."

Well, I was interested to find the connection between the two of them. That for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Wolfe used audio tapes of the Hell's Angels that Thompson recorded.

Hunter gave him those tapes, and they knew each other that way. But I think Wolfe admires Hunter tremendously on a literary level. He's been quoted as saying that Thompson may be the best comic writer of the 20th century.

But the person who really surprised me....

Pat Buchanan?

Yes. Where did he come from?

Hunter used to have these screaming fights with them over bottles of Wild Turkey in 1968, when Hunter was covering Nixon and the campaign. But I think they enjoyed the combat. And they came to enjoy each other's intellect. I came away from my interview with Pat, liking him a lot. And I don't share any, or many, or his political views. I think Buchanan saw Hunter as a true free lance; he was going after everybody. When Buchanan saw how Hunter would take down Humphrey, or Muskie, he just howled with laughter. I think he appreciates Hunter's understanding of the absurdity of politics. And he liked just shooting the shit with him.

There aren't really any detractors in the film. Could you not find any, or where you not really looking for them?

I probably wasn't really looking for them. But there are some people in the film, and there's some footage on the film, that doesn't always show Hunter in the best light. This is a film that's narrated by the undependable narrator; it's narrated by Hunter. I didn't go out to try to find that balance, three critics of Hunter for three who were pro-Hunter. That didn't make sense to me. At the same time, I think the careful viewer will see plenty in there that's critical of Hunter, without any finger wagging.

I ask this as someone who liked Hunter's stuff, but hasn't gone back and read it recently. Do you think his writing holds up?

Yeah. Particularly the campaign book. I think it's riveting. I think everyone should read it this summer, in preparation for the conventions. There's a lot that's changed since 1972, in terms of how carefully these things are stage managed. Nevertheless, his understanding of the broad themes of American politics, and also the absurdity of American politics, hold up pretty well.

Coming soon: In the second part of this interview, Alex Gibney discusses Taxi to the Dark Side.