Contact high

Fear and Loathing is the latest in Terry Gilliam's cinematic revolution

Could it have been all the drugs that kept Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from being made into a movie? Whatever the cause, journalist Hunter S. Thompson's staggering, semi-fictional account of "a savage journey to the heart of the American dream" has proven to be one of the most difficult to translate to the big screen. It's taken more than a quarter century--and 20 versions of the script--since the book's 1972 publication for Thompson's countercultural touchstone to earn its own film.

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 that desert oasis to cover a road race for a fashionable sporting magazine. The tale--which spirals into drug-addled oblivion and random escapades--would be impossible enough to script, even without Thompson's "gonzo" writing style, a style of journalism beyond stream-of-consciousness, and characterized by the reporter's deranged and/or drug-addled attempt at conveying objective reality.

Most recently, 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 was not intimidated by the idea of bringing Thompson's work to life. At home in London, the Minnesota native enlisted co-writer Tony Grisoni, and the two 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 from the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "The only way to make this work was to stay as true to the book as possible." Filmmakers often take wild liberties when adapting a book for the screen; the characters and even the plot can become unrecognizable. Aside from a few structural changes and flashbacks to create some sense of progression, the film is as literal an adaptation as possible. 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 prior to shooting, Gilliam had only been through Las Vegas briefly while driving cross-country to escape to London 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 to his Monty Python days. "There'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 Thompson's alter ego, 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 bow-legeddness, 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.

And the drugs. Oh, the drugs. Gilliam is no drug enthusiast; he claims never to have tried acid. Perhaps this is why the characters in the film seem to be having too much fun, even when loaded to the breaking point on chemicals. It's a farce; such exaggeration. In the book, a saltshaker half full of cocaine. In the movie--a wastebasket-full. Drugs enough to fell elephants in the book. Drugs enough to incapacitate the state of Idaho in the movie. Of course, overstatement is nothing new to Gilliam.

"I've never thought the book was about drugs," he insists. "It's a road movie. The drugs were a fuel, but that's not what it was about. It was a character piece, it's always been that. It's about people throwing themselves into the abyss to see what happens."

There are places in the film where Gilliam breaks away from the real story and surrenders dramatic power. If he's emphasized, for instance, that Duke was in Vegas on assignment, screwing up big-time--watching that thin thread connecting his incoherent self with legitimacy fray away--it would've given his excesses a larger, more desperate meaning. There's no sense that his Vegas degeneracy will affect his or his sidekick's futures. Instead they seem more like a couple run-o'-the-mill drug fiends, bingeing for the hell of it, instead of two lost, unhinged men trying to disassociate themselves from reality.

Still, Fear and Loathing is an incredible roller coaster, a visual feast, and enough to get you thinking about where this country started to go wrong in the '60s. It's apparent, too, that very few changes for the better have occurred since then. "The '80s sort of numbed everything down," Gilliam says. "Materialism has sort of blanketed everything. Everybody's got the goodies now--the CD players, the televisions--no one wants to make any noise. But the pendulum always does swing."

Gilliam has called the film a "cinematic enema." And since we're ensconced in the rabid climate of the "War on Drugs"--the drug use in Fear and Loathing seems lifetimes away--the rest of the story is just as relevant now as it was 27 years ago. "We're hoping it will cause a stir--touch a nerve," says Gilliam. "See, the beginning of the '70s was kind of interesting because the Hunters were still out there. They were angry and disillusioned but were still alive and kicking and fighting. But now, I don't know who's alive and kicking and fighting anymore.

"And at least at that time it was clear who the enemies were --you had Nixon, you had the war in Vietnam. Now it's harder to know what's wrong and why it's wrong and what needs fixing. I get a sense that people--not people, but people who are alive and thinking--realize that something is lacking here, and it must be dealt with. There are a lot of furry mammals coming out from under the rocks saying, 'Man, we've got to change something,' and I'm not even sure if people even know what it is that needs changing or what should be done."

Whatever the film's failings, you do leave the theater with a definite contact high. You may not be contemplating methods to overthrow the government, though the film gives you the sense that something is wrong, terribly wrong, with the world. You just can't put your finger on it. You'll have been too busy gorging yourself on Gilliam's visuals to walk away with a message. But you'll have absorbed something strangely revolutionary, and God knows what you'll be up to later.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, and Alex Cox; based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson. Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. Opens Friday.

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