This piece was first published in Icon magazine in 1998
“I wanted to keep him away from the film,” says Terry Gilliam, film-maker, of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist. “His chaotic behaviour would not work there.” This is curious. It’s true that Thompson, a known wildman, has acquired an impressive reputation for his mastery of drugs, booze and high-powered weaponry, but one might imagine that 57 year old ‘Monty Python’ founder member Terry Gilliam could match him shot for shot. The director of such anarchic and visually dense flights of fantasy as ‘Brazil’, ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’, Gilliam has come to be seen as a force of misrule both on and off the screen. Surely he would embrace Hunter Thompson’s flamboyant eccentricity with open arms.
The truth of the matter is that Gilliam is a man for whom a fine balance is all. In his films, in the making of his films and in the conduct of his life Gilliam constructs a relationship between order and disorder that often unnerves those around him. Sometimes he thrives in the chaos that he generates, sometimes his sallies into wildness have disastrous results that threaten to destroy his career.
The contradictions abound. Gilliam started his professional life in cartoon animation, a medium that demands a slow, painstaking precision quite at odds with the themes of abandonment that his work celebrates. His attitude to Hunter Thompson, whom one might imagine to be a soul mate, suggests that, for Gilliam, wildness is all very well as long as it’s kept firmly in its place.
The film that its director wished to protect is, of course, Gilliam’s version of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, starring Johnny Depp and currently scheduled for a Spring release. The movie is based on Thompson’s legendary account, first published in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine in 1971, of the hallucinated journey of Thompson alter ego Raoul Duke and his attorney, Oscar Acosta, to Las Vegas in order to cover the Mint 400 off-road race. ‘Fear and Loathing’, subtitled ‘A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’, was published as a book in 1972 and won the intense admiration of multitudes of those who Just Say Yes for its integration of Odyssean quest themes with the most scabrously lurid, no-holds-barred, no-substance-too-hair-raising chronicle of excess that did for psycho-tropic drugs what the Marquis de Sade did for animals and hand-maidens in ‘100 Days of Sodom’.
Despite Terry Gilliam’s circumspect approach to the erratic author of ‘Fear and Loathing’, the director’s latest project is, in terms of spirit, squarely aligned with the body of work he has produced over the last thirty years. The quality that links spirit to visual content is, in Gilliam’s case, effervescence. The frames of his movies are thick with detail, layered plane upon plane and receding into architectures that are both labyrinthine and cavernous. Costumes are elaborate and objects are exotic – qualities that can readily be applied to the characters that inhabit Gilliam’s narratives. The films typically foreground men distinguished by their unruly energies and vaulting imaginations. Although they are often pitted, like Sam Lowry in ‘Brazil’, against byzantine bureaucracies or, like Parry in ‘The Fisher King’, against oppressive convention, there is invariably a suggestion that those with a soaring spirit deserve to fly even though they are as likely to find degradation as redemption.
Gilliam first came to prominence with the cheerfully violent animated links that he produced for British TV’s ground-breaking comedy series ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. In the early seventies the show was phenomenally successful, its inspired daftness and absurdist anti-authoritarianism genuinely revolutionising the state of the nation’s humour. The word ‘Pythonesque’ was understood right across the Isles and Tuesday nights (or was it Wednesday?) became a stay-at-home fixture of crucial importance. Gilliam was the only American in the six-man team yet his humour was perfectly attuned to the British sense of the odd. The trademark Python peculiarity was not merely a variety of silliness, though. It had a dark and even troubling side that would surface in a less whimsical form in much of Gilliam’s later film work.
Invited to talk about his earliest years, Gilliam kicks off with gusto, holding forth so energetically that, several hours later, his voice will eventually grow hoarse and compel him to stop. “Yes, my father was a carpenter…” He pauses, grinning impishly. “And my mother was a Virgin!” He bellows with laughter, “I’m the Messiah!”
Born in 1940 in Minneapolis, Gilliam locked into his vocation at an early age. “As a kid, animation was the thing I loved,” he recalls. “I don’t know if ‘Snow White’ was the first movie I saw but it certainly feels like it. I was a huge Disney fan and I had all these books on ‘How to Draw Cartoons’, full of Betty Boop and all of those figures.”
Like the Surrealist painters, animators work in an imaginative world in which all things have the potential to turn into other things. Seen in these terms, animation has an affinity with chaos that belies its rigid technical nature. When this fascination with the fluidity of appearances is applied to a project like ‘Fear and Loathing’ it becomes clear that Hunter Thompson’s narcotised and shape-shifting vision of America will be well served.
“My mother,” Gilliam continues, “has early drawings of mine where I was taking Hoovers and common household appliances and turning them into Martians.” Why does he think he did this? “Why? Because I’m a mutant. It’s called mutation. I’m a freak!”
The freak also had a strong attachment to all things medieval. Much later on this obsession would inform the narratives of some of his films and also provide him with sublime models of conduct befitting a man who had come to see his life as a quest for the integration of the unfettered imagination with the unforgiving world.
When he was thirteen Gilliam’s family moved to suburban L.A. and Terry found further novel uses for household objects. “I’d take a five gallon ice cream carton, cut a slit and make a knight’s helmet out of it, using eucalyptus branches as a sword.” The boy wasn’t just transposing the Wild West to Arthurian Albion, however. His interest, initially kindled by movies like ‘Ivanhoe’ and an avid reading of knightly epics, also ran to matters of specific period detail. “I loved heraldry – right from the start I was designing my own shields. I loved chevrons! Dragons, mythic beasts – they just appealed to me from a very early age. It works on different levels – viscerally, archetypically and as a design focus.”
By his late teens Gilliam was starting to go public with his obsessions. “My dad used to bring home these four by eight boxes that had held these panels he’d installed in office buildings. When you spread them out you had eight by eight of corrugated cardboard!” Such bounty could not be left unprocessed. With minutes to go before the doors would open for the Senior Prom, a manically active Gilliam would be putting the final touches to the towering medieval castle facades that fronted the stage. “No one had access to cardboard that size! I made castles for years – you can get inside them and be safe from all of the dangers of the world.”
Almost as an afterthought Gilliam mentions another aspect of his late teen years. “I was going to be a missionary. I went through college on a Presbyterian fellowship. I was a right little zealot.” The need to reconcile the pull between freakish self-expression and zealous self-discipline seems admirably served by medieval legend, which delivers equal doses of derring-do and adherence to the purest principles.
Years later Gilliam’s skills in Higher Cardboard would resurface in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. “The National Trust, who owned all the castles we’d booked, threw us out with two weeks to go,” he says ruefully. “They said that comedians would not respect the dignity and fabric of the buildings. So half the castles you see are just cut-outs stuck up on hills. It’s like life is just one big circle that keeps going round and round.”
The youthful preoccupation with the Middle Ages never went away. In addition to ‘Holy Grail’ (1974) it can be seen at its most visually explicit in the early movies – floridly in ‘Jabberwocky’ (1977), intermittently in ‘Time Bandits’ (1980), updated to a 15th/16th century hybrid in ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) and glimpsed in ‘The Fisher King’ (1991).
But what on earth can an unrepentant medievalist bring to the deranged and wanton psychopharmacological fever dream that is ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’? Gilliam’s answer establishes that his key obsessions are very much alive in this context. “It’s about two crusading people whom the world has let down in some way. The spirit of the book is about excess. Right at the start there’s a Dr Johnson quote ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ This is all about the loss and failure of the Sixties and here we have two characters who go to excess in order to get to the heart of the American dream.”
It is not only Hunter Thompson’s fictional characters who are disillusioned by the sting in the tail of the Sixties. Gilliam himself was so upset by the turnabout in the national mood that he left America for England and has lived there ever since. Nicola Pecarini, Director of Photography on ‘Fear and Loathing’, has a keen appreciation of the film’s meaning for its director. “I discovered how important the movie is for America and especially how important it is for Terry,” he says. “It’s all about why he decided to leave: the start of the Vietnam war and the crushing of ideals – the same ideals that Hunter has.”
Medieval legend, with its epic tales of wounding and renewal, is clearly a more reliable source of ideals. Paradoxically, when the visual references to the period are at their most sparse, Gilliam’s real use for the medieval becomes clearer. In ‘The Fisher King’, two emotionally damaged men (played by Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges) in present day New York act out elements of a medieval fertility legend and regain their lost wholeness. The Robin Williams character sees himself enwrapped in the medieval story of the Fisher King who, as a boy, had a vision of the Holy Grail bathed in fire, only to wound himself badly when he reached out to take it. The King does not recover until a Fool gives him a cup of water. His wound is healed and he sees the Grail again.
Terry Gilliam implicates himself deeply in this mystical narrative of the healing quest. Within the movie itself, he admits to a very close involvement with both his protagonists – “I’m an actor-director, I identify with the characters to the point that I’m an actor: I am that character, so I see the film through their eyes. I got confused at certain points because I was both Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges.”
‘The Fisher King’ was made after the disastrous ‘Baron Munchausen’, a project that went dramatically over budget and well over length, was almost taken over by the studio and only returned on condition it be cut to two hours. The movie is a prime example of Gilliam-driven chaos untempered by control wherein the director got so caught up in constructing elaborate set pieces that the whole operation went into orbit. Gilliam reluctantly complied with the studio’s strictures but Columbia Pictures punished him by making only 117 prints for the entire American release. For a while it looked as the director would never work again. Gilliam’s confidence was shot. “So ‘Fisher King’ was a healing thing,” the director confesses. “The male characters are broken people, they’ve got to come back. That was a movie definitely done after a battering.” The medieval, for Gilliam, has become not only a source of imagery and inspirational deeds but a place in which to lick wounds and touch base.
Over the years nearly twenty attempts have been made to adapt ‘Fear and Loathing’ for the screen. Adaptations have been circulating since the 70s and Jack Nicholson was among the many who took options and hired writers to wrestle with the novel’s intractable shape and style. In 1980 Art Linson directed a Bill Murray vehicle called ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’, employing Hunter Thompson as ‘executive consultant’ and depicting the latter’s unique approach to self-medication. It didn’t do well.
British film-maker Alex Cox had the penultimate crack at the book. Viewed as a maverick for his eschewal of mainstream Hollywood values and tending to view himself somewhat as an auteur, it seems that Cox, according to parties closely involved with the project, had a vision for the film that was very much at odds with the essence of Hunter Thompson’s original. Adamant that he could successfully impose this view, Cox dug his heels in to such an extent that he alienated some of the key players.
The script went the rounds again, at one point turning up on the desk of Terry Gilliam’s agent. Gilliam had admired the book for years and, despite the fact that he rarely works with screenplays that he hasn’t written himself, eagerly took up the baton. Patrick Cassavetti, a producer on ‘Fear and Loathing’, takes up the story. “Philosophically and spiritually it felt right to Terry and he was the one director who could make it manageable. But the option on the book was about to expire, Johnny Depp had been waiting around overlong and we had another project going that we had to launch in 1998. We had to start straight away but we thought that was okay – gonzo journalism is done on the same basis.”
Gilliam rejected Cox’s screenplay and found he had ten days to come up with another one. He teamed up with Tony Grisoni, who had recently written ‘Queen of Hearts’. Initially Grisoni had problems with gonzo journalism, Hunter Thompson’s term for that branch of reportage which does not distinguish between the crazed mental state of the reporter and the objective reality to which the reporter is struggling to attune. “Gonzo works for a novel, it doesn’t really work for a movie script,” Grisoni explains, “You’ve got to try and shape it without destroying the spirit of that.”
In May ’97 the two writers assembled daily beside Gilliam’s espresso coffee machine in his London house. “We just laid into it,” says Grisoni, ‘I’d sit at the keyboard and we’d talk and talk and I’d keep typing. Terry insisted that if we needed a line, rather than invent one we’d find one from somewhere in the book and pull it in. Hunter Thompson’s writing is so particular…I can’t do better than that. Nor can Terry.”
Halfway through the novel, Grisoni felt, the narrative becomes unworkably shapeless. The writers had to have a clear strategy. “We decided to build up to this drug, adrenochrome, the drug to end all drugs. He takes it and boom! He goes out. When he comes to, time has passed and things have happened. All he has is his tape recorder, which he plays back, gradually piecing the missing time together.”
In order to impose an evolving rhythm on the screenplay the writers decided to heighten the counterpoint of relationships in the story. “There’s an interesting seesaw business going on between Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo (the attorney, renamed for the film). One is more in control than the other then the power switches. This goes on all the way through. Gonzo exhibits more and more dangerous signs of mental disorder and gives us a character progression.”
Grisoni is hard pressed to identify the specialities of each of the members of the screenwriting partnership. Both men, he asserts, are fundamentally concerned with structure and shape yet manage to construct a genuinely flexible working atmosphere. “The great thing is that you’re encouraged to come up with a thousand lousy ideas for the sake of the one good one. We were working at speed and this had a headlong energy that was right for the tale. It helped you not be too self-conscious. I learned a lot about trusting to instinct.”
Gilliam’s skill at setting up zones of creative chaos within orderly structures is not restricted to the making of screenplays. Like Grisoni, Alex McDowell, production designer on ‘Fear and Loathing’, found the director focused but elastic in the pre-production process. “Two weeks before anyone else started, Terry and Julie Weiss, the costume designer, and I went through the script in a meandering, lateral kind of way.” In the course of this protracted brainstorming session ideas for atmospheres and images began to emerge.
Gilliam had described the film as ‘Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno’ and proposed an organising vision for the character of Duke that was carried through all stages of the project. “Terry likened him to a war correspondent out there in a battlezone,” Tony Grisoni recalls. “And ‘out there’ is also inside him: the drugs are a sort of carpet bombing.” McDowell found these images crucial. “We talked and talked about where we came from politically,” he explains, “And this got us to all the layers that we were interested in: the Vietnam War, Beirut, they all came up as references.”
Those close to the director agree that he welcomes a genuine creative dialogue. Gilliam confirms this when he describes his working relationship with McDowell. “It’s a leapfrogging process,” he says. “I’ve got very strong ideas, he’s got very strong ideas. I do sketches, I get photographs, paintings, I gather research and reference material. Then I start designing the stuff. Then the designer comes on and says ‘What about this?’ and a dialogue starts. They come up with a good idea, and I come up with a better idea and they come up with a better idea than mine. And we do it.”
Once the director and designers had reached agreement in depth on the look of the thing, there was an abrupt change of gear. “Terry was off with the actors and I’m left,” says McDowell. “We didn’t see him much until the shoot.”
While Gilliam was talking visuals, his lead actor was getting to grips with the legend he had been hired to portray. Thompson has, in the past, been known to have suffered fools very reluctantly indeed. Callow journalists, for example, have had shotguns fired off (but not at them) in their proximity and rubbernecking visitors have been submitted to gruelling trials by intoxication. Depp, a Hollywood godling, was really going to have to pass muster. In fact it all went terribly well.
“Johnny and Hunter spent an enormous amount of time together at the beginning, up at Hunter’s place,” says Gilliam. For the director this was a vital hands-off period, but when it had to be wound up a certain delicacy was in order. “Then I came on board and suddenly I was stealing his creation. It’s like ‘Johnny is spending more time with Terry! Whoa!’ Suddenly jealousy is rearing its ugly head and it gets very strange.” This faintly petulant tug-of-war between the dukes of disorder is, however, only the interest paid on a shrewdly packaged loan, as Gilliam points out. “The more Johnny can absorb from Hunter the better because then I don’t have to do that research – Johnny will be the one to be truthful to what the character is.”
Although he won’t say as much, Gilliam seems not to have enjoyed the three weeks of location work that opened filming on ‘Fear & Loathing’. He refers to the fact that Las Vegas, with its mythic, monolithic public image well established, doesn’t really need film-makers or their money and consequently accommodates them rather begrudgingly. “We wanted to film in a casino, obviously, and the only time they’d give us was between two and six in the morning! And they insisted that the extras did real gambling! I just hope our people made some money!”
The movie was made in a hurry on a modest budget ($18.5m) and at times resources – human ones – were overstretched. Again, Gilliam will not commit himself in any detail – “It had to be a good shoot, we didn’t have a choice but I don’t think it was a well organised film. Its birth was not easy. It was always rough and things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. Certain people didn’t… I’m not going to name names but it was a strange film, like one leg was shorter than the other. There was all sorts of chaos.”
Nicola Pecarini is convinced that Gilliam is a master of chaos. “For example, in Bazooka Circus, you’ve got 400 extras in 70s hair dos and twenty seamstresses and costumiers on a three am call to get the first 200 ready by eight thirty. Terry walks in and asks for one little change and right there: Boom! Chaos! He’d deny it but it’s unconsciously deliberate. Chaos gives you adrenalin and speed and it awakes your senses. That’s how he likes it.” Designer Alex McDowell argues that Gilliam injects disorder when the constraints of shooting get on top of him. “He’s getting the most pressure from the most people and he gets round it by creating chaos to give himself space. There’s a lot more tension in the air when he’s on the set.”
“But Terry takes chaos very far,” says Nicola Pecarini. “And there is an amazing order in his chaos! He chooses the people next to him to handle the solutions to this and sometimes they can’t handle it. We had two of them just cracked up.”
Clearly there’s good chaos and bad chaos. Sometimes the most tiresome and inauspicious situations goad Gilliam into conjuring up the good stuff. “Somebody says ‘Hey, the sun is going!’ and I go ‘So why the fuck are we still on this shot? Come on! We gotta move! Go! Johnny, get in there, look there, say those words! Shoot, shoot! Do it again!’ If you’ve got good people, it works. And some of the best stuff comes out of that.”
The very best chaos, though, is born out of total control. This means sound stage. This means big crew, much hierarchy, lots of delegation. Take the Bazooka Circus setup. In the novel, Duke and his attorney experience serious madness in the venerable Circus Circus casino. Lawsuits being so terribly compromising these days, the producers change the name and the crew gets building. A three tier set is constructed on the stage and Gilliam braces himself for a big one.
“Ellen Patterson was the coordinator of that sequence. She had to just keep badgering me: ‘Answer this, Terry’, ‘What’s this?’, ‘What’s happening here?’, ‘What do you want there?’ – I told you – ‘No you didn’t!’ – Yes I did, that’s what I want. – ‘That’s all you get. Bye!’ So what I need is people who pester me, which is not the way most directors work.” The London-based American has severed his connections not just with his country of birth but the deferential ways of its most renowned industry. “In Hollywood the idea of pestering the director and treating him like this child who needs to come up with the goods, they find that hard to do.”
Ensconced in the set, the child director knows what he likes. “What I want is to have enough toys around, enough things: props, people, sets, anything. Toys! If somebody says ‘Oh, shit, that’s not working’, well ‘Fuck, that’ll do it, we’ll start out on that instead.'” This thing with things stems from the earliest days of Gilliam’s career. “It’s almost like doing animation again because it’s just me and these things – I’m in control. My mind is very good at juxtaposing, assembling things and that’s what the animation was all about. Suddenly – ooh, there’s an idea comes out of that. Those are the moments I really find exhilarating on a film.”
As soon as he has shot the movie, Gilliam can’t wait to get back to his family, back to the country steeped in the epic history that he finds so inspiring. In a suite in London’s Soho film district, ‘Fear and Loathing’s editors are cutting diligently for a screening at Cannes in May. Next door, in his office, Terry Gilliam is talking flat out. His arms are flailing, he breaks off every few minutes to cough convulsively and his voice is worn down to a croak. The interviewer starts to feel guilty, as if he were heedlessly exploiting this generous man. But the man keeps going. That question at the back of our minds, for instance…”Yeah – the strange thing is, I don’t take drugs. I’ve never had acid in my life. Never had peyote, never had mescaline. Marijuana makes me implode, I go numb. I never had acid because I thought I’d try to fly out the window. I don’t want to fly, I can fly. This is a thing I know.”
What the connoisseur of disorder knows very well is the border country. You don’t pitch camp on either side, you hover over the middle, taking the best of both worlds. Not like the young King who snatches at the Grail and is burned; not like the wounded monarch rigid with melancholy. Not even like the Fool, who does the right thing without realising it. Terry Gilliam knows he has to keep circulating, even when he’s with fellow wildmen. Especially then. “I wanted to keep Hunter at bay. That’s the only way I could treat him and the book with the disrespect they deserved.” He coughs alarmingly, loosening strands from his pony-tail, then looks across the desk. “You must have enough now.”