Commentary: 'Gonzo' could put Gibney back in Oscar race

Johnny Depp narrates Thompson documentary

Gibney's "Gonzo:" If you're tired of summer popcorn pictures and hungry for a movie for grown-ups, the good news is you're only a few days away from the July 4 launch of "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson."

Directed by Alex Gibney (the Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and the Tribeca and Chicago film festivals winner "Taxi to the Dark Side"), "Gonzo" is a must-see documentary about the legendary 1960s writer. Thompson is remembered especially for his freewheeling articles about politics and American pop culture in Rolling Stone, The Nation, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine and for his 1972 best-selling novel "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." He created a "gonzo" style of journalism where the reporter became a central figure in the story being reported. It's something we don't see in today's age of political spin and embedded journalists.

Johnny Depp, who played the Thompson-based lead role in the 1998 film version of "Fear," narrates "Gonzo," which focuses on Thompson's work from roughly 1965-75. It was Depp, by the way, who paid for Thompson's spectacular second funeral -- his ashes were fired from a rocket launcher -- about six months after the controversial author shot himself to death in February 2005.

The HDNET Films presentation opens Friday via Magnolia Pictures in New York, Los Angeles and some 20 other top markets and goes wider later in July and August. Its screen story is by Gibney, who produced it with Graydon Carter, Jason Kilo & Joanna Vicente and Alison Ellwood & Eva Ornery. It was executive produced by Todd Wagner & Mark Cuban. Among the film's interviews providing insights into Thompson's life and work are those with Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Jann Wenner and Tom Wolfe. Thompson's own words plays a key role in the film, reflected in the credit "Writing by Hunter S. Thompson."

After an early look at "Gonzo," which left me thinking it could resonate well with Academy voters and put Gibney back in Oscar's best documentary feature race, I was happy to be able to catch up with Gibney to talk about the making of the film.

"Sometimes you take movies on and sometimes they take you on," Gibney told me. "This one took me on. (Vanity Fair editor) Graydon Carter called me. He had worked with Hunter and knew the estate. After (Thompson) committed suicide, he asked me if I'd be interested in taking this on and I said I sure would be. I was a fan of Hunter's. I certainly read him when I was in college. When he committed suicide it struck me that it was a good time to talk about him because it seemed to me that people in power (today) were using the so-called rules of the journalistic game against (the media) -- demanding phony balance. And the press were becoming all too much like stenographers to the people in power rather than challenging them. Here was a guy who never played by the rules so wouldn't it be interesting to examine him? So it seemed like fun."

One of the first things Gibney did when he began working on the film was to attend Thompson's second funeral, the one Johnny Depp paid for, in Aspen on August 20, 2005. That was three or four months after Carter had called to ask if Gibney would come on board to direct the movie. Asked how he decided on his approach to making "Gonzo," Gibney explained, "Look, everybody knew about the wild and crazy Hunter and that's a fun subject. But nobody would care about the wild and crazy Hunter if he hadn't been a great writer. So I thought there's got to be a way to put his writing at the center of this and it seemed that (the way to do that was to) make him the narrator (so) that Hunter would be the main character unlike usual where the narration is supposed to be objective. (Instead) Hunter's writing would be the words that would carry us through."

Rather than trying to cover all of Thompson's spectacular life, he added, "I wanted to focus on the heyday of his writing from '65 to '75 and I particularly wanted to spend some time on the campaign trail book ('Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72,' a compilation of Thompson's Rolling Stone articles covering the presidential primary race waged by George McGovern, whom Thompson supported from the start), which I think is his best. Then we had to find people to talk to and also dig deep at the estate archive, which was voluminous but not very well catalogued, to see if we could find stuff that nobody had seen or heard before.

"We spread the word all over the world to try to get materials. It took us to Australia to find that piece of footage of him on 'To Tell the Truth' (the vintage TV show where panelists tried to guess which of three contestants actually was the person the other two were pretending to be). It was a deep archeological dig, but I think we turned up some pretty impressive film."

How did he manage to get people like Jimmy Carter and George McGovern to participate as interview subjects for the film? "Well, the interesting thing was it wasn't as difficult as I thought," he replied. "When they heard that I wanted to talk about Hunter, the door flew wide open. They loved this guy. Carter has a pretty busy schedule. It didn't take too long (to get his thoughts on camera). The two people that were initially difficult were (Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher) Jann Wenner and (political commentator) Pat Buchanan, but over time they agreed and they were great."

What accounted for their reluctance? "I think Jann was processing it," Gibney said. "He had spent so much time working with Hunter and it was difficult for him to decide to go over that territory. It took a while to persuade him, but once he sat down in the chair he was great. (With) Buchanan, I don't know what his initial reluctance was, but I wrote him a letter saying the great thing about Hunter was that he was a guy who would talk to anybody and that in this day and age when it seems like everybody's preaching to the converted only and you don't get the kind of cross-talk that you used to get, wouldn't it be fun to talk about Hunter as the guy who was able to go and talk to very different kinds of people? Buchanan loved that idea. I must say I greatly enjoyed talking to Pat. He's a very likeable guy. I don't share many of his political views, but he's a very bright guy and I really enjoyed talking to him."

All told, there was enough interview footage to make several movies about Thompson so cutting it all down to a film that runs just under two hours had to have posed some real challenges. "It really did. It was tough," he agreed. "Thank God we made an early decision to focus on that key period (from 1965-75) or else I think we would have been lost. But there were times late in the game when we were actually adding stuff back. We felt that he came across as such a full-bodied character we needed some additional details, just a little bit, about his childhood. So it was very hard cutting it down."

For the reader who may not know much or, perhaps, anything about Thompson, I asked Gibney to explain why he felt he was worthy of being the subject of a documentary like this: "He was one of America's greatest comic writers. He was just so funny. He was unique because he combined skills of a journalist with the writing style of a great novelist (and) that gives you something very special. Also, he put himself in the middle of his stories so rather than (being) the disinterested observer just trying to remark as the world is passing by and describing details, Hunter's giving you his perception, his opinion, so you're seeing things through his eyes. And that's a very important and interesting thing to do if you're a journalist. For all those reasons, I think Hunter is really important."

Toward the end of "Gonzo" Gibney suggests that if Thompson were alive and writing today he'd probably be a key figure in terms of covering and explaining on today's politically driven crisis in America. "I think a healthy Hunter could have done that," he observed. "I think one of the problems that I emphasized in the film is he was in very poor health and obviously alcohol was really taking its toll on him. But a healthy Hunter really could have made a difference in (reporting on today's problems)."

Is there anybody quite like Thompson writing today? "No (but) the time has changed," he replied. "Nobody has his pulpit anymore either. All the sources of information now are so much more fragmented. Hunter had a great anger about injustice and about problems in America, but he expressed that anger through a wicked comedy. And in that regard, I'd say that Jon Stewart (host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show") and to a greater extent Stephen Colbert (host of Comedy Central's 'The Colbert Report') are carriers of his tradition even though in a very different medium. They have the ability to turn wicked anger into great comedy and to embarrass the rich and the powerful by highlighting their lives."

Asked about Depp's work as the film's narrator, Gibney told me, "He always said he wanted to be involved, but it sure took a long time to get him into the chair. Once he was there he was fantastic. In a way, I don't even think of him as a narrator. I think of him more as a performer who is inhabiting the role of Hunter. He's reading, it's true, but he inhabits the character of Hunter better than just about anybody. He lived with Hunter for a period of time and walked in his shoes almost literally. There's a room down in the basement of Hunter's house called Johnny's Room. It's a very small room with a little cot. It's not very glamorous. I think Johnny can channel Hunter at a moment's notice. He can go there very easily in a way that actors can. So having him as the center of the film was absolutely critical."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel