The Hunter S. Thompson Films An Interview with Filmmaker Wayne Ewing about the Gonzo King
If the Grateful Dead came to town, I’d beat my way in with a fucking tire iron, if necessary. I think Workingman’s Dead is the heaviest thing since Highway 61 and “Mr. Tambourine Man”(with the possible exception of the Stones’ last two albums)
- Fear and Loathing in America, HST
Whenever anything notable happened, Hunter would give me a call and I’d grab a camera and head on out like a video fireman. – Wayne Ewing, director of two HST documentaries
Documentary filmmaker, Wayne Ewing, has had a long and solid career ranging from work on the PBS Frontline series to the television drama Homicide and commercial television documentaries with a list that includes Charles Kuralt, Ted Koppel and Maria Shriver. One venture, Gangs, Cops & Drugs with Tom Brokaw as the correspondent achieved one of the highest ratings ever for an American televised documentary. Recently, he has directed Benched-The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary and The Last Campaign, a sequel to his first film, If Elected. All three are politically charged time bombs that are direct, powerful and honest but without the smug aftertaste that lingers from the work of his peer, Michael Moore. The Last Campaign was nominated by the International Documentary Association for Best Documentary Feature of 2005.
However, all of this vital work arguably pales in comparison to two recent cultural landmarks directed by Ewing. When you live next door to a living legend and you’re a filmmaker AND that man next door happens to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th Centurywell thenget the camera and head out the front door. Breakfast with Hunter is a cinema veritocumentary based on the close relationship between the filmmaker and the legendary gonzo journalist that covers terrain from the mid-1990s to the early 21st century. The material is priceless first-hand footage with Thompson and a large variety of artistically talented friends including illustrator Ralph Steadman, writers P.J. O’Rourke and George Plimpton, Rolling Stone founder and publisher Jann Wenner, musician Warren Zevon, actors Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, John Cusack and Don Johnson and, perhaps, most importantly, the wonderful camera work of Ewing. Quite frankly, the film is essential viewing for anyone interested in the creative process. Thompson bleeds pure conviction and a formidable artistic talent that drips from the screen. There isn’t a wasted frame as Ewing captures an artist mastering his environment by sticking to what he feels is right in every circumstance. After Thompson’s passing last year, Ewing filmed the making of the massive 153-foot Gonzo Monument located on Thompson’s residence at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado. At the end of the quietly elegant documentary, When I Die, the late author’s ashes are shot into space in a long master shot that is amazing, euphoric, original, profound and, to the end, the essence of everything true about Hunter S. Thompson.
RR- How did you get involved with Hunter S. Thompson?
I became a friend of his in the early 1980s after I found myself living, virtually, next door to Hunter in Woody Creek, Colorado. He had always been a hero of mine and one of my favorite writers. I was working as an independent producer as I always have of documentaries. Back then, I had just done a couple of films for a series called Frontline, which is produced by WGBH in Boston for PBS and I was looking around for a new subject. Hunter, having always been one of my heroes, and living right next doorwell, I thought, you should make a point of getting to know him and, perhaps, make a film and, perhaps, interest Frontline about it and get support from them. Well, I did interest Frontline about it because I heard that Hunter was working as the night manager of the O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, which I’m sure you know, he referred to it as the “Carnegie Hall of Public Sex in America.”
RR- I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area so I was aware of its notoriety. (laughter)
You’re familiar with the O’Farrell? (laughter)
RR- Indirectly, of course.
Well, I thought the O’Farrell was a great hook for a story and I got a bit of a rise out of the Frontline producers and staff. Based on the hope that they might take it, I made contact with Hunter who was in San Francisco at that point. Ironically, although he was my neighbor, I met him in San Francisco. I traveled out after making contact with him and spent a weekend with him at the O’Farrell. It turned out to be everything I expected and morejust a fascinating character. By the time I got back to Colorado the next Monday, Frontline had totally chickened out. They were like, “How could we spend public money on the night manager of the O’Farrell Theatre? What would Congress say?” So, I thought, that if I was going to make a movie about Hunter, I was probably going to have to do it on my own.
RR- Was it the O’Farrell angle or was it that in the 1980s his writing was on the wane?
It could have been that because I went on to do a short pilot called “The Gonzo Pilot” and that’s where that footage of the visual bed during the credit sequence of Breakfast with Hunter comes fromthat’s from 1985. That sequence where he goes “Lights out boys, I’m going to Florida.” He’s almost ten or fifteen years younger than he is in the whole rest of the film. I went ahead and made that eight or ten minute piece trying to sell it to HBO. The idea was that we were going to do something called The Gonzo Tour. I could just never get anybody to buy it and that might have been part of the reason, what you just said, which was that in the mid-80snot so much that he was a writer on the wane; although, he hadn’t done a lot right then
RR- The times hadn’t caught back up with him again.
Exactly. That’s very well put, Randy. They had not and, also, right after that time, his writing did pick up again. He began to do the San Francisco Examiner column right about that time in 1985-86.
RR- He really excelled in that short format with the Examiner and his ESPN column, too.
He was very much a columnistvery similar to Mark Twain in many ways, I always thought. Twain was a columnist and a pundit.
RR- Mencken, too.
Exactly. H.L. Mencken. Huntersomewhat similar to Mark Twain, in factvirtually created his own genre with his Fear and Loathing books, and, earlier with _Hell’s Angels_and probably similar to Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, in that Twain was not able to repeat that so much but then he went on to do other things. He became a more upfront social commentator, columnist/pundit, a person who got quoted a lot and someone who could put in a nutshell what the truth of the situation was.
RR- What happened when the pilot fell through in the mid-80s?
I just began spending more time with Hunter and he would ask me to shoot things [film, not bullets, clever reader] that he was doing, that he thought was interesting. I did some of it in film early on but that became too expensive so I would shoot it in High 8 video. Hunter had written of the gonzo journalist as being a reporter with the “eye and mind of a camera.” I think in many ways I became a surrogate for that.
RR- What would he ask you to film?
He was always involved in local politics. One of his phrases was “politics is the art of controlling your environment.” He would go to Woody Creek caucus meetings, county commissioner meetings, things with local issues that he was concerned about and we would film it. We’d film things like me going to buy a gun to ward off coyotes at my cabin. (laughter) I filmed some really fun stuff with Keith Richards back in the early 90s that I actually did in part for Keith’s production company. He had a Friday night show that he was doing on ABC. You’ll see that sometimes on the Internet where people are selling the tape. I filmed all of the behind the scenes stuffgetting ready for Keith and then going to meet him and all of that stuff. Whenever anything notable happened, Hunter would give me a call and I’d grab a camera and head on out like a video fireman.
By the mid-90s when mini-digital video became a reality and affordable, I found that I finally had a way to make the movie because I could record a tremendous amount of stuff economically with a small camerado it on my own, not have to have a crew, not have to have a sound person and so I began to record everything I could in digital video and that’s when it really got full bore. As you’ve seen, much of Breakfast with Hunter comes from that periodthe mid-90s when he was on trial for a trumped up DUI charge, once again, because of a local political issue about the expansion of the Aspen airport and the issue of industrial tourism that he felt was going to happen here. He got really involved and the night before the election, the Aspen city police stalked him and busted him but denied that they stalked him and denied that they even knew who they were stopping and lied on the stand repeatedly. That is part of the story of Breakfast with Hunter.
People used to ask Hunter when the film came out, “Why did you let me do the film?” He would say, “Wayne makes himself useful around here.” (laughter) That was part of it, toonot only would I sit and watch football games and gamble with him, endlessly, but I volunteered to work as his road manager so I spent a number of years on the road with him. Whenever he would go anywhere, I would take him there and get him from point A to point B, safely. Then, I worked on the editing of a number of his booksstarting with The Proud Highway. For every one night that I filmed at Owl Farm, there were, perhaps, ten that I didn’t where we just watched football games and gambled or worked on books and columns. It was a real routine to go watch Sunday football with Hunter and then work on the columns until 1 or 2 in the morning until he really started to getting going on it and I would take off.
RR- How did you keep pace with Hunter? Did you have to go through an initiation period where you had towell, you know_parallel_ his process? (laughter)
Ohyou know, with Hunter you really had to be a professional. He demanded that of people that were around him. You couldn’t be drunk and fucked up with Hunteryou really couldn’t. He could sometimes (laughs) and he would allow himself that but, still, he was always there and as much as anybody could under the circumstances but he didn’t like people that were drunk around him. And for good reasonthey weren’t a lot of fun and they were stupid and he demanded that people be as smart as they possibly could. Sometimes, yeah, you might be in a somewhat inebriated or silly frame of mind and it would lead to good humor but it was serious and concentrated and you needed to have the ability to focus. I needed to have the ability, literally, to focus with a camera.
RR- You accumulated the footage over a long period of time and you weren’t sure what was going to happen so you just kept filming?
Oh, no, I fully intended that I was going to make a movie out of this. I just didn’t know when or how it was going to end. I never wanted it to end with his death. I knew that for sure; I wanted to finish the film before Hunter died or I did. People used to joke: who was going to kill the other one first? (laughs) I did want to have the sort of natural conclusion to it and it was really important to me that Hunter approved the film and that he see it and like it so he had to be alive for it. The funny thing was that starting with the digital video in the mid-90s, it was very hard to edit at that point. Computer editing didn’t exist; storage was a real problemcomputers have come a long way in the last ten years. I had no easy way to edit other than traditional linear video editing. The other thing was that I thought it could be a feature film and I thought there would be a way, eventually, to take digital video and transfer it to 35mm film for theatrical useeventually there was by the time I finished. We ended up making 35mm prints that qualified us for the Academy Awards.
RR- Breakfast with Hunter is an important document because the film shows Thompson in a daily pattern where the man is a serious, dedicated professional writer who is working with peers that also give him that respect. So many readers assume that because of the nature of his books that he wasn’t living that structured lifestyle. How did you get things like the great Rolling Stone political writer, P.J. O’Rourke standing in Hunter’s kitchen chatting about culture, politics and literature?
Some of those things I knew were going to happenfor example, P.J. O’Rourke was going to come out and interview him for Rolling Stone so I made a point of being here, then. I did a lot of other things at the same time. I shot a whole television series for ABC called Homicide in 1992 and made many other films along the way. I went out with the Eagles on tour and shot a film for them in 1994. When I knew something important was going to happen, I really made a point of being here for ittimes like P.J. O’Rourke coming, the time that Ralph Steadman comes to Owl Farm early on.
RR- That was a beautiful moment. I was hoping they had a relationship like that. [In an early scene in Breakfast with Hunter, upon entering his kitchen, Thompson walks up to the visiting Steadman and greets his old illustrator friend with a huge bear hug that lasts for several poignant seconds. They engage in warm and hilariously insightful banter, aided by some really expensive liquor brought over by Steadman.]
Thanks so much. It was early on in the process and right after we had gone digital. Ralph said: “Nobody would have even noticed your work except for my drawings.” (laughter) I was like, “Damn_that’s_ in the movie! I know that’s going to make the film!”
RR- The verbal confrontation with director Alex Cox in Hunter’s house is fairly riveting. Robert Altman’s The Player attempted to show that attitude in Hollywood in a fictional way. That scene between Thompson and Cox epitomizes the fragile relationship between an author, his work and Hollywood.
I think that scene should be shown in film schools.
RR- If Cox had been more tactful with Thompson, the tension could have been reduced.
Actually, in reality, it lasted more than two hours. [The confrontation between Coxwho originally was slated to direct Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before Terry Gilliam stepped inand Thompson centered upon a proposed animated sequence of the Raoul Duke character riding a wave during the book’s famous flashback passage.] It was the same thing over and over again.
RR- Were you thinking that something was going to happen?
I just thought [Cox] was going to get hurt before the afternoon was over. (laughter) That was the time when Hunter called me up and my brother Andrew was here who worked with me on the film and was very supportive of it and Hunter loved to gamble with him very much. Hunter said, “People that have written a screenplay of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are coming out for a story conferenceyou’ve got to come film it.” (laughs) Anyway, that’s how it was; the way I got those gems was the ultimate _cinema veritjust being there all of the time.
RR- You even got in the elevator with him at the Chateau Marmont on the strip in L.A.
Yeah, I only could have done that if I had another reason to do that, too. I was in L.A., then and I advanced the whole trip for him and picked him up with a limo at the airport and set it up so that the limo driver would let me get in front of him and then get the shot of the limo arriving. I had to be there to check him in the hotel so I could shoot the whole thing of him arriving. When he stayed at the Chateau, we had a real routine. I lived on my boat over in Marina del Rey when I was in L.A. I’d get up at 11 o’clock in the morning and get ready to go and by 11:30 when I was headed out, I’d call the Chateau and say, “Have a bucket of ice, four Heinekens and three Bloody Marys ready at the front desk when I got there.” [laughterfull disclosure: This writer had one tall Wild Turkey on ice, four cups of coffee, one cup of black tea and three bottles of water during the transcription of this interview. Hey, when writing about Rome]
Sometimes, I would have to get security to help me to take the door apart to get in but I was there for those reasonsworking as a road manager, working as an editor on his books made it possible to have that kind of access to film.
RR- You were at Johnny Depp’s house in Hollywood in the middle of the night while Hunter was teaching Johnny’s bird how to talka typical night at the Ray abode.
That was extraordinary. That was a great trip. Hunter went and conquered Hollywood in a way that William Faulkner was never able to do, that Fitzgerald was never able to do. He truly took control of his project [the filming of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That’s when he really replaced the director [Cox with Gilliam]. It was a lot of fun and I think the other reason I was able to do it was that Hunter trusted me and that I wasn’t going to abuse that access in the end and that I really loved him.
RR- Was he happy with Breakfast with Hunter?
I think he was. He showed it to people endlessly. (laughs) He loved it.
RR- Why couldn’t Hunter make it through the audio commentary on the DVDI think he only lasts for about half of the film?
He just hated the logistics of doing it. (laughter) Hunter liked to do things spontaneously and it’s anything but spontaneous when you have to setup three or four headsets, a stereo recorder and, you know, watch the movie at the same time and keep the soundtrack out of the voice track and (laughs) after half of it, he said, “that’s it.” I must have drug around all of that equipment I put together to do that commentary track for three or four weeks. I kept going out to the house night after night after night but, you know, we got some of it.
RR- There are many strong sequences but having the late Warren Zevon on film working on song lyrics with Hunter in his kitchen is fairly significant.
I was really lucky to get to know Warren in the last few years before he died. He was a great, great, great artist.
RR- Was that another situation where you were told in advance that this was happening?
I think that was because we were already with Warren down in Denver. He had come in for a rally that Hunter had staged for Lisl Auman who in our minds was wrongly convicted of murder and given a life sentence without parole [the reader can check out Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear for more on this case]. It was a huge rally on the steps of the Colorado capitol in Denver and Warren came and played and opened it up with “Lawyers, Guns & Money.” He followed us back up here from Denver and spent a few days here. He came a couple of times when he was touring, too. I took Hunter to see him and then it would be 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and everyone would be back at Owl Farm. Warren was a great guy and (laughs) truly, the same kind of temperament or tone to his writing of lyrics, I think, as Hunter’s writing. Don’t you agree?
RR- Definitely. Hunter was really the first rock n’ roll writer. He was also the first great writer who talked about writing to rock music within his work. After seeing the scene with Warren, I thought that Hunter could have knocked out a lot of lyrics.
That’s why Hunter loved to have his writing read to him. That was the other way that he found me useful. Hunter liked the way I read for him. He would direct some and it was always, “Slower. Slower. Slower.” He loved to have people read his writing for him because that way you could hear the rhythm of the poetry of the words.
RR- You helped read out loud the letters that were included in The Proud Highway and _Fear and Loathing in America_the two volumes, thus far, of Gonzo Letters?
Yes. I expect all of those letters got read out loud at least once, if not two or three times. It was a very laborious process in that regard.
RR- Going back to Warren Zevon in our freewheeling discussion, how did he decide to write a song with Hunter S. Thompson?
I think Warren proposed that. It was part of an album he did where he wrote with a couple of other writers, as well. It was sort of an experiment that Warren had in mind. He enlisted Hunter, in that case, for that album and I forget which album it wasit was the next to last Warren Zevon album. Warren always came out for big events for Hunter like the Lisl Auman rally and he’s also in the film in Louisville in 1996 when they had the tribute to Hunter.
RR- You shot the 25th Anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas party thrown by Rolling Stone magazine in New York. I love the morning after footage of Hunter in the hotel room looking at that horrible photo in the New York Times of Hunter, Johnny Depp and Matt Dillonsome crazed lunatic with two young crazed lunatics.
(Laughter) Exactly. That’s one of my favorite scenes, in a sense, because people have often asked, “Why did you call it Breakfast with Hunter?” (laughs) First of all, because Hunter suggested it; but, second of all, there are a lot of breakfasts in it.
RR- Well, if you read all of his books, he talks about his breakfasts quite a lot. He’d consume these massive meals.
Oh, yeah. Before I knew him that was one of the passages that stuck in his mindthat breakfast was the anchor of his day and then this long description of everything he eats.
RR- I’d be plowed out taking a five-hour nap after eating what he consumed.
(laughs) That’s right. Beyond that, we called it Breakfast with Hunter because it has that intimacy to itlike really having breakfast with him.
RR- Obviously, long ago, he had made up the plans for his remains after he died but most people didn’t believe that it was actually going to happen.
Right. I never believed it was going to happen.
RR- Johnny Depp foots the monument bill and the logistics were pretty complicated.
So you have seen When I Die?
RR- Definitely. I watched it three times and the film is very bittersweet because the whole time they are going through this process leading up to a final goodbye to Hunter. I never spent time with the man and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to people who were going through this grieving process and planning this event. His widow, Anita, comes off really well in the film. She’s very strong throughout.
It’s hard for me to watch with a dry eye. When it gets to one of my favorite parts with the bartender, Christie Palotsiwe were both in tears by the time we ended up shooting it and it’s hard for me to watch it without gettingbecause it goes straight from that to “Spirit in the Sky.” I think it’s a great moment.
RR- The music in When I Die was all of Hunter’s old favorites.
Three out of four of them were in Breakfast with Hunter. All of the tunes in both films came from an album Hunter did called Where Were You When the Fun Stopped? which was released by EMI in the UK only back in the late 90s. We used to work on that album just as release from the editing of the books. We’d pick songs that were going to go on and needed to be cleared.
RR- Dylan was a major influence on Hunter’s writing. When did they meet?
(Laughs) He only met him in the last two years of his life. I put them together. I got Hunter to write him a fax and I think what he said was essentially, “I’ve been stealing from you all my life, don’t you think it’s about time we met?”
RR- I have a photo of the two of them around here somewhere. I think it was in Hunter’s kitchen of the two of them.
Hunter went to Dylan’s venue. The photo was probably taken in his trailer.
RR- Oh, well. That explains it. [Yep. Sure enough. Page 274 of _Kingdom of Fear_HST and Dylan together for the first time in Dylan’s trailer at the Colorado venue. And to seal the deal, the future Mrs. Thompson, Anita Bejmuk took the photo.]
Yeah, that was what he said on film back in 1978the only song that they had to play at his funeral was “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
RR- When did you decide that you were going to film Thompson’s elaborate “burial”?
It was a natural progression but it was the oddest thing. I never really thought it was going to be a movie in the first place. When I Die just kind of happened and it seemed to be the most natural thing in the world to film whatever was involved with Hunterto put my camera in the car and head over to Woody Creek. Even though Hunter was gone, there was still much that he left for us to do. So I just started following that process.
RR- You just said it. That’s what’s so intriguing about the film. Hunter left so much to do to plan for his remains to be shot out of that monumental cannon and everyone has that energy, that look in their eyeshe isn’t in the film until the closing montage from the past film but his presence is all over the place in When I Die.
It is. It was really spooky. His presence was all over that field all of the time [at Owl Farm, Thompson’s residence, where the monument was built]. I tell this story when people got up and spoke and the eulogies at the actual funeralwhich I don’t include in When I Die because I didn’t think it was appropriatebut I told this story about getting up every morning around 7AM and feed my horses in Woody Creek and then go over and start to film. One morning, I got to Owl Farm and the security guards were all rattled and they had a strange mindset. I asked, “What’s going on?” They said they had “the weirdest nightabout 3 in the morning, there were these brilliant lights that lit up the whole valley. At first, it came up one side of the hill and then the other and then it went away and it came back from around the hill and it lit up the whole monument and then the security guard down by the road said, “Get in your car! There’s the biggest mountain lion you’ve ever seen in the world walking down the road!” (laughter) Hunter always talked about reincarnation so I thought, well, tonight he came back as a mountain lion.
RR- Never to be seen from again but he made his presence felt.
Yeah, but he did and few people could devise an elaborate funeral ritual like that and have it actually done and achieved. If more people could afford it, I recommend it highly (laughs) because it was a great sense of closure. Hopefully, people will get that from the movie, too, that when they see those ashes go offthat’s why when I shot it in 35mm at high speed at 150 frames a secondI really wanted people to see Hunter up there in the sky and you can and it was a tremendous sense of closure for me and, I think, everybody there and, hopefully, people that watch it will have that effect, too.
RR- What caught my attention about that sequence was that most filmmakers would have zoomed very close into the monument when it blew Hunter’s ashes into the night sky and panned and zoomed and edited the heck out of it. You did this one long master shot with the music playing and the scene is very movingyou could hear the cheers in the background and then, I believe, you hear Anita’s voice: “Goodbye, Hunter!”
That is Anita, actually. That got on a camera mike from hundreds of yards away. She just screamed that out. When the film premiered in November at the Denver Film FestivalI’ve never had a film so wildly accepted. People hooted, they hollered, they jumped up and down. When it got to the part where the song “Spirit in the Sky” starts, one guy got up and shouted: “COME ON!” “BRING IT ON!” Like bring on death! People were quite moved by it and we got a huge standing ovation. We sold out and we had to add two more screenings. It’s a funny thing that it just started out and turned out to have a life of its own. I thought it would just be a small supplement to a new addition of Breakfast with Hunter but, in the end, I think it holds up pretty well.
Author’s Parting Shot – In the jingle-jangle morning, I’ll come following you
The Vegas numberman, that did it for me. HST was Dylan, Rimbaud, Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and the weary world-traveler, Ulysses, all rolled into one. I was not hooked by the humorously intoxicated shenanigans, but by his powerful words haunted with sadness detailing the Dream circumvented by the tides of timethe wave of any movement is eventually cut from within. Why must every Rome fall? Why must every Napoleon be accompanied to the dance of destiny with Waterloo? Why did peace and love and hope for a diverse and challenging future that jerked Mankind out of its complacency lose to the evil armies of “How much for this?” “When can I get that?” “What’s in it for me?” and “Cash is the answer. The questions don’t matter.”
In 1997, Thompson put out a collection of his letters from 1955-1967 entitled The Proud Highway. The volume ends at the time of his first success, Hell’s Angels—a groundbreaking work of non-fiction that would pave the road for his twin Fear and Loathing masterpieces in the early seventies. After that, our nation drifted, Thompson’s writing retained its conviction, but both shared a lack of focus. One can only battle The Forces That Be for so long beforewell, I think Thompson attempted to shock the senses like any great artist. He wrote again and again in the volume of letters that he believed in the Dream but he wasn’t quite sure if it believed in him. Desires-ambitions-needs-wantscan a man have an agenda while trapped in prison? That is the tragedy. The Proud Highway? A car full of talent wedded with persistence can offer rewards.
Thompson became what he predicted: a searing spirit that wrote about his times with a unique style while provoking the reader to examine the environment of a drunk nation corrupted by tainted wine from a broken cup delivered by soulless men in thick suits which carefully hid their cowardice. More than any other writer in the late-twentieth century, Thompson accurately investigated the deterioration of the American soul and reported on it with flair and passion. Other writers attempted in artistic vain to consistently tap into what the public wanted to hear. Most modern authors held up streaked mirrors to society. These writers deepened the problems of American culture in order to expand their wallets, rather than exposing and cleansing our dreams. Meanwhile, Thompson laid bare the inadequacies of our society with intelligence and humorous candor. His personal involvement in the activities of his storiesso-called gonzo journalismgave a poignancy and brutal honesty to his prose. This courage coupled with joyfully precise wit while taking creative risks solidified his place near the top of the 20th Century literary mountain.
Goodbye, Hunter, indeed. See you further on up the road, my friend.