Written by: Russell Davidson, CC2K Sports Editor
Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney was nice enough to talk to me regarding his latest documentary Gonzo, his film about the late-great writer Hunter S. Thompson that merited TWO full reviews on CC2K.
Russell Davidson (for CC2K) – Before seeing your film, I didn’t know much more about Thompson other than “Fear and Loathing” the book and the movie and the caricature that went with that. How much did you know about Thompson before you started Gonzo?
Alex Gibney – I knew a little. I certainly had read Vegas. And I also read the Campaign Trail book and, you know, and I looked in on him from time to time, but he wasn’t I would say an obsession, but I was certainly aware, you know it made a big impression on me when he committed suicide. And I was aware a major figure had left the scene.
RD – You could almost see that coming, in a way. There were rumors before it happened….
AG – And maybe I wasn’t paying attention to the rumors, when it happened I just woke up and paid attention, but after having spent so much time doing this film I know that he had been talking about committing suicide for a long long time before he did it.
RD – I guess one of the best things about making a documentary is that you learn all kinds of stuff that you didn’t know beforehand. Is that what happened here?
AG – Totally, it’s one of the great reasons for doing them. You get paid to learn. How good is that?
RD – About the footage – I loved the home footage, I thought it was great. Especially the audiotapes of that bit at the taco stand. Where did that stuff come from?
AG – Incredible! We got total access to the estate. And Hunter was very much aware of his legacy, and that was good news for a documentarian. All this stuff was there. I won’t say that it was “archived” … or exactly well organized, it wasn’t. But we rummaged through all sorts of boxes and found tapes and listened to them and we heard that tape and it was great…I mean, if you look at the book carefully, it says that they are transcribing it verbatim, but there’s so much playfulness going on in Vegas that you don’t know whether he’s pulling your leg or not or whether its just there from hallucination or what. But then to discover that actually that whole chapter was just an audio tape recording of Hunter and Acosta and these women at a taco stand was just fantastic. What a discovery that was. So that was just riveting.
RD – Yeah, that was amazing. To hear Acosta’s (Hunter’s friend) voice too which is kind of – you’d think you’d never hear that. That was something else.
AG — You can see how kind of playful and charismatic he was too, the way he’s kind of seducing and playing with the women at the taco stand even as he’s having them on.
RD – I think that’s the thing about Thompson that maybe some people miss – how funny he is.
AG – I agree with you. I think that’s what he’s all about. And, look, he was an angry guy, but there are a lot of comics who are angry. The anger comes out in the humor, and he was just devastatingly funny. He was hilarious, and that’s what really makes him as great as he is.
RD – Right, bitterness and complaining can only take you so far. I mean, to be funny is a really good way to make your point. It sneaks it in. I see him almost as a satire – do people look at him as a satirist?
AG – I don’t know if he’s a satirist – he had a way of describing things in a way that was so angry that it turned out to be just hilariously funny. He was like a literary Don Rickles. He mastered the insult in a way that was really satisfying. You really felt like you along for this great kind of Punch and Judy ride. Just very very funny. Particularly when he ended up picking on people who were these boring sacred cows – going after politicians… the rich, the famous, the powerful – he was puncturing their balloons of pomposity and you always enjoy it when that happens. Just like you see today on The Colbert Report or the Daily Show.
RD – So Thompson, he was among the first to do that sort of thing?
AG – Well, I look at what he did as a 20th century version of what Mark Twain was doing.
RD – The Ralph Steadman (Hunter’s illustrator pal) stuff in the movie was also really great. He seemed like a really interesting character, you could almost do a movie just on him.
AG – I agree with that. And, I know somebody’s been working on that and I hope they – they’ve been shooting lots and lots of footage. And he and Hunter made this great team. You know, its hard to imaging Hunter now without seeing those drawings.
RD – Was there anyone who wouldn’t talk to you or who wouldn’t cooperate?
AG – Not really… there were a couple of people… I mean Gary Trudeau wouldn’t…. but I know him, and respect him actually a lot, but he doesn’t like to do interviews. But other than that, a couple of people turned me down the first time through, but then they finally said ok. So, I think, you know we didn’t cast our net as wide as maybe some might have, because I was focusing on people who knew Hunter extremely well and also knew him both personally and through his work. You know, John Leonard, both his wives, Tom Wolfe… So, and then of course the politicians, that was a stunner. I mean, … we didn’t think that Jimmy Carter would talk to us and were surprised when he agreed so readily to talk. It was fantastic.
RD – It seems the people who knew him the best liked him. Once you got to know the guy, maybe you warmed up to him?
AG – I think that’s right. Particularly, people who knew him in that early period. He was so charming. He was just this seducer. But he was very engaging and funny and he also had this funny rolling thunder mumble, you know, that drew people in. Because you had to listen carefully and get closer. You know that was a wonderfully seductive sound that he had. And then he was bouncing around — he was just so full of energy – its like he was on his toes all the time. He was just bouncing around, and that must have just been infectious.
RD – Yeah, and he was also well mannered, and people love that when you actually have manners.
AG – He was a bit of a southern gentleman. Even though in his writing he was full of all sorts of invective, insults and outrageous slander…. When you meet him personally he’s very sort of soft-spoken and gentlemanly so I think that was intriguing for people. They were looking for a 5-eyed, many-headed monster…he created this persona that became larger than life and that became a kind of work of art too, but as big as the persona got, then he’d start to pull these stunts where he’d try to take over a room like Tom Wolfe tells, that he went out to lunch with him and then he blew a big fog horn … in the middle of a quiet restaurant … so at a certain point you couldn’t miss the fact that Hunter was in the room.
RD – Right. Do you think he was sort of trapped by that, near the end, by that persona?
AG – I think he was, by the end.
RD – Do you think there’s any way he could have avoided that?
AG – It gets tricky. Everyone has a tendency to kind of repeat themselves unless they’re . very careful. But I also think too that part of his persona – this character, this wild outlaw character that he created was to do massive quantities of drugs and alcohol. Well, that’s a young man’s game. Over time, particularly the alcohol really gets to you. And, really got to Hunter.
RD – I saw Enron, which I really liked a lot. It seems you you’re interested in the other side of the American Dream – the American dream going bad in a way. Is that what drew you to Hunter – that you had that in common?
AG – I think so. I’m very interested in that. And, of course, Hunter spent a long period of time actually retyping The Great Gatsby. That told me a lot, because that’s, to me, the essential American novel. It’s all about the American dream. The American dream is a wonderful thing, it’s full of promise , but it’s also full of broken dreams. Many people don’t reach that American dream, so there’s this illusion that anyone can have it, but that’s not really true. That’s why Vegas was such a great thing for Hunter… because he saw in Vegas the death of the American dream. Anybody can go there theoretically and hit the jackpot, and walk out of there a rich man but really it’s a game that rigged in favor of the house – always – and that’s a pretty good metaphor for some of the problems. And, then you can see what happens, like when you want to taste that dream, like the guys in Enron. You know, they had this vision of these larger possibilities, but when that vision wasn’t materializing, they didn’t accept it, they just pretended that it was, and everybody believed them.
RD – The subject matter of a documentary must make it more fun, or less fun to work on. Is that true, or is it sort of all hard work from beginning to end? I figure the Hunter one might have been more fun for you, just because of the topic, as opposed to some of the others you’ve done? Does it work that way?
AG – It does and it doesn’t. I mean Hunter… every film has its own challenges. Hunter was a blast because he’s so funny. But, at the same time, getting those materials and getting people to talk, and getting the permission and getting the rights to use the photographs and the music… you know, that was very hard. It was hell. And some of that stuff was a lot easier on Taxi even though I was getting secret stuff that the government had. So, it was peculiar in that way. So, Hunter was harder to produce, but maybe easier to direct than Taxi. And Enron was kind of a blast because…we were just making it up as we went along. Nobody thought you could make a movie about that story.
RD – Plus, you must have loved to go get those guys.
AG – Yeah, there was a sort of thrill in that.
RD – Did you have any difficulty in getting any of the songs for Gonzo? Like “Spirit in the Sky” or “Walk on the Wild Side?”
AG — We had difficulty, but everybody at the end of the day wanted to come on board and be a part of the project. I think we got all our music because of Hunter. They wanted to part of that story. And, we paid everybody exactly the same. It wasn’t a large amount of money, but if the film does well, they’ll do well. The only song we weren’t able to get that we really wanted to was one of Hunters favorite songs, which was “American Pie.” No matter how much we tried with Don McLean, he just refused to give it to us. It was really a concern, and we had cut together a beautiful sequence with it, but we had to take it out.
RD – Does he have something against Hunter that we don’t know about?
AG – I think he has something against Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone founder/publisher, who printed Hunter’s stuff). There were some reviews that ridiculed some of his later albums in Rolling Stone but I didn’t understand why he had to hold it against us.
RD – I know you mentioned Trudeau. The whole Doonesbury/Uncle Duke thing, it seemed like it bothered Thompson. There was nothing he could do about that?
AG – There was nothing he could do about that. You know, he’s a public figure, and Gary Trudeau is creating a kind of legitimate satire of a public figure, so there’s nothing he could’ve done about it. Jann Wenner says he could have, or should have, but I don’t think he could have. But I think Hunter was bothered by it, because he suddenly became this cartoon character…. At the same time, I think he was flattered by it ,,, you can’t pretend that that it didn’t give him a thrill in some way. He became famous.
RD – He got a boost out of that, then?
AG – I saw in his study, after he died (because I never met the guy), you know there was still a Doonesbury comic strip tacked to his bulletin board. He may have used it as a dart board – he was very angry about it – but at the same time I think, secretly, he was flattered by it too.
RD – What documentaries have been influential to you?
AG – Of course, a big influence on me was always Thin Blue Line. And Gimme Shelter was a big one for me. And one of the ones that was really influential on me was Sorrow and the Pity…. Its done from another era when you could be a lot slower in your attack – its very long – but its very very very powerful. It’s very good.
RD – You sort of have to gear up for that though, right, the subject matter….
AG – Right, but it’s tremendous.
RD – Have you seen the Maysles brothers stuff like Salesman and Grey Gardens?
AG – I mentioned Gimme Shelter…that’s my favorite, because they go in wanting to do one thing and you know the process is a journey and they find out something else. And, its just a vivisection of that turning point that Hunter describes with The Wave, you know, that moment when the wave breaks and rolls back … I love Gimme Shelter.
RD – Are you a Rolling Stones fan as well?
AG – Sure. I was lucky enough to get one of their songs in the movie, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
RD – Last question – what’s coming up for you? Has this Oscar allowed you to more freedom financially and creatively?
AG – Yes and no. It’s always good, but it was a thrill, it was an honor, and it has given me a little bit more freedom. At the same time, you know, these films are tough to make. They’re long, they tend to be expensive …. I’m working on a few of them now. I’m working on one about Ken Kesey and the Pranksters and I’m very deep into a film about political corruption about Jack Abramoff and that scandal of Jack and the United States of Money.
RD – On the one side, you have the financial scandals, and on the other side you have the counter-culture stuff. That’s a nice back and forth kind of thing.
AG – It is. And every once in awhile, … I do one of these music projects that I really enjoy and I think I’m going to do a sports thing for ESPN. Its fun, but at the same time now I’m also looking to fiction projects. That’s how I started, was as a fiction film editor. And, I’ve produced a bunch of fiction, but its not like its because I don’t love the documentaries. I love the documentaries. I see some of the work that’s come out this year already, like the Polanski film, which I loved and I had nothing to do with that, and Man on a Wire, which I loved and Bigger, Faster, Stronger. There’s been a lot of good ones.
RD – This seems like a Golden Age for documentaries – Do you think it’s because of the Michael Moore stuff that more are coming out?
AG – I think in part, but I think also people loosened up. One of the great things about the doc is that the form has loosened up so they’ve all become a little bit more gonzo. They don’t have to obey these rather prissy rules about the way things are supposed to be. So you reckon with the real world, but you use your own perceptions and your own character, and your own style and some of the fiction film techniques to be able to tell a really riveting story. So, yeah, I agree, I think it’s a golden age.
RD – Thanks Mr. Gibney, I appreciate your time. Thanks for talking.
AG – It’s been a pleasure.