Johnny Depp appeared at Columbia University’s Miller Theater for a panel celebrating the legacy of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson tied to the release of the The Rum Diary on Friday, October 28th. The actor, who plays Thompson alter-ego Paul Kemp, arrived dressed like Indiana Jones approaching the Temple of Doom in felt hat, jeans, blue bandana and boots.
When a low-key Depp took the stage for a bit of academic paneling prior to a School of Journalism screening, Thompson may well have shouted “bastards” on seeing the audience of wonky tweed gray-hairs mixed with the wild ‘fros of youth, but youth wielding parent-bought cameras worth more than the writer’s first journalism paycheck. The Kentuckian was, as became clear over the course of the hour, always a gun for hire, even if that gun spewed ink and bile.
The rollicking movie is a testament to Depp’s enduring loyalty to the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas scribe. In the movie, Depp again plays an alkie journalist, a Don Quixote who finds his literary voice fighting corporate greed and publishing dishonesty – and drinking demon rum – in Puerto Rico, circa 1960.
Sure, there’s a hot chick, a bromance, and an acid trip,but the episodic movie entertains with that combination of deadpan humor and psychedelic absurdity that defined Thompson as a writer. And, to the movie’s credit, it neither worships nor judges the central anti-hero Kemp. Depp does the movie justice by reining in the craziness until it’s demanded, spending a good part of the movie in a hung-over stillness, as if it hurts too much to move his head or see the light.
“Hi, everybody,” sallied the dean of the journalism school, Nicholas Lemann, to launch the panel, “[we have] a few people talking about the movie.” He tried to button up his barely contained enthusiasm for sharing the stage with ultimate hipster turned monster movie star Depp, as well as documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, writer-director Bruce Robinson, ex-Rolling Stone publisher Porter Bibb and Thompson’s literary executor Douglas Brinkley. Thompson’s son Juan sat in the audience.
Dean Lemann emphasized the “local angle,” as a teaching lesson for the auditorium packed with journalism students facing bleak prospects: Thompson had moved from Kentucky to New York City and even attended the Columbia School of General Studies. But the local angle was the least interesting. Oh, Depp!
Asked how the book got published, Depp – called “The Colonel” by fellow Kentuckian Thompson –said while he was living in Thompson’s basement during the shooting of Fear & Loathing, the pair would “sit like teenagers listening to records cross-legged on the floor” of Thompson’s basement war-room, sifting through boxes of letters, manuscripts, and gum-encrusted cocktail napkins. Depp pulled out a box marked The Rum Diary. “We should make it into a film,” Depp recalled Thompson saying, to which he answered, “Maybe you should publish it first.”
“It was the proverbial novel left in a drawer,” said literary executor Brinkley. “He would have loved this film.”
Brinkley explained that Hunter, like the character played by Depp, always wanted to be a novelist. He typed books by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to learn how they were constructed, to uncover their rhythms. There remain a number of rarely read, unpublished or out-of-print Thonmpson manuscripts, including Prince Jellyfish, 15 – 20 short stories and The Night Manager, a novel about the O’Farrell Theater, which the author called the Carnegie Hall of Sex.
Regarding The Rum Diary, Depp said it was about “the ultimate despoliation of paradise.” As for making the movie thirty-five years later, “It’s done in support of Hunter. It’s for Hunter.”
Depp recalled his first encounter with Thompson at Colorado’s Woody Creek Tavern. They were meant to meet at 12:30 AM but Thompson rolled in at about 1:30 AM. “The door burst open,” Depp told the audience, “I saw sparks. Literally sparks. Out of my way, you bastards, Thompson said.” The crowd parted. It didn’t hurt that the writer had “a three-foot cattle prod in his left hand and a Taser in his right.”
Like Depp, Thompson knew how to make an entrance. Depp continued: “How do you do. My name is Hunter. From that moment on we were almost inseparable….The thing about Hunter was….there was a great rage because he cared all too much. He was the perfect Southern gentleman. I do have some semblance of the rage. It’s only because I care.”
How did Depp react to Hunter’s suicide in 2005 at 67? “Devastated – but surprised? No. You always knew he was not going to be the guy who melted into a bowl of clam chowder.”
Would the actor play Thompson again? “Oh, yeah, he stays in your brain,” said Depp. “I wake up with the bastard. He arrives during the day to save me during certain ridiculous moments. I’d like to see Hunter burst through the fiery gates of hell and come up and spew.” He’s not alone.