Head Time for Gonzo

Terry Gilliam plays a long shot in loopy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas filmization

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson's staggering, semifictional account of "a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream," has proved difficult to translate to the screen. After more than a quarter century--and 20 scripts--since the book's 1971 publication, Thompson's countercultural touchstone has finally assumed filmic proportions.

Fear and Loathing chronicles a journey made by Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), and his rotund Samoan lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), to Las Vegas to cover a road race for a fashionable sporting magazine. The tale--which spirals into drug-addled oblivion and random escapades--would be perilous enough to script even without Thompson's "gonzo" literary style, roughly a stream-of-consciousness attempt to maintain journalistic objectivity within the frame of the reporter's seemingly deranged and/or drug-addled point of view.

In an earlier attempt, the camera was about to roll with British director Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy, Repo Man). "But he managed to alienate everyone involved by deciding he could improve upon Hunter's work," says Terry Gilliam, Cox's replacement, who in person exudes an open, friendly presence, with occasional flashes of a devious sense of humor and a strangely booming laugh.

Responsible for such otherworldly films as Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and 12 Monkeys, Gilliam, a member of the Monty Python cast, was not intimidated by the idea of bringing Thompson's work to life. He and co-writer Tony Grisoni hunkered down over the espresso-maker for 10 days.

"We started chopping up the book and sticking it together, and we came up with a script," he says. "The only way to make this work was to stay as true to the book as possible." Aside from a few structural changes and flashbacks to create a sense of progression, the film is quite a literal adaptation. Dialogue is extracted verbatim, passages are transformed into voice-overs, and Thompson's cutthroat, hallucinatory scenarios become 30 feet tall.

Though true to Thompson, there's no doubt it's Gilliam's work. "It was really hard because we all felt this terrible responsibility to Hunter," he says. "We did our homework, we imbued ourselves with him and the times, but eventually we had to throw it aside and just work."

Most Gilliam films feature a valiant struggle between one man and the world--whether that world is a labyrinthine government bureaucracy or an evil corporate structure. This time, it's a man struggling with the American Dream, or at least Vegas' surreal version of it. Though before shooting, Gilliam had only been through Las Vegas briefly while driving cross-country in 1967, the green-felt jungle is a perfect victim for the director. "It's like Lourdes," Gilliam muses. "Except I don't think anyone gets healed there." More than any other filmmaker, he manages to convey the eye-popping vulgarity of modern Western life with the grotesque and excessive visual humor one can trace all the way back to his Monty Python days. "They're forces beyond my control. I can't stop myself from portraying what I see and what I think. I don't know why other people can't see it."

Cartoonish chaos abounds, from the carny booths at the circus-themed hotel to the ridiculously un-hep speaker at the Narcotics Convention. But it's when the characters are caught in the throes of massive drug consumption that Gilliam's imagination is really unleashed. "The drugs gave me an excuse to do these, like, moray eels and lizard lounges and all these fantastic things. If it wasn't drugs, you would say I was doing a fantasy film."

Stars have sought out Gilliam in the last decade. "Which is ironic, because I always wanted to make movies without stars," he says. Bruce Willis was so desperate to prove himself with 12 Monkeys, for instance, that he worked for scale.

Johnny Depp, teen heartthrob turned quirky thespian, spent a prodigious amount of time with Thompson in preparation for his role as Raoul Duke. "I was very keen to work with Johnny," says Gilliam. "He's spectacular. He became Hunter. He came back with his clothes, driving the Red Shark, which we used in the film. He's wonderfully inventive, brilliant--really funny and always truthful."

And some would say campy. His wild gesticulating, obscene bowleggedness, bizarre facial contortions and clipped, bulldog-huff of a voice make Thompson seem like more of a caricature than the professional, soft-spoken Southern journalist he was at the time he wrote the book. Depp's affectations would seem out of place in almost any other director's film--but had he not exaggerated the character, he could've been upstaged by his surroundings.

"He brings a remarkable amount of humanism to the role--he's Hunter, but taken one step above reality," continues Gilliam. "But it works perfectly with my stuff because my images are pushed to the limits and Johnny's there--I think the film works for most of it, the fact that you care about the two characters, you're with them through their nightmare. And they're enjoyable to be with and they're funny; even though it's getting really dark and ugly, they're still there."

It gets dark, but not violent. The book's violent passages--in the diner, with the maid--revealed the on-the-edge psychosis of the characters to the readers, but they're not transposed to the film. These episodes of waving knives, threats, and anxiety are twisted instead into humorous skits where a little stark violence would've been a good contrast to the general wackiness.

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