Five Favorite Films

Five Favorite Films with Bruce Robinson

Plus, The Rum Diary director on adapting Hunter S. Thompson, returning to Hollywood, and how Johnny Depp lured him out of retirement.

by | October 24, 2011 | Comments

If British writer-director Bruce Robinson had only made one film — 1987’s inimitable comedy Withnail & I — he would have been assured a place in the annals of cult movie history. And it very nearly became the case, too. Having finished his follow-up, 1989’s overlooked but frequently brilliant satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising (again starring Withnail‘s Richard E. Grant), Robinson took his talent to Hollywood and had such a wretched experience on his first studio picture, Jennifer 8 (1992), that he vowed never to direct a film again.

When the combined forces of Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp came calling, however, Robinson found himself being made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The result is The Rum Diary, a long-gestating passion project for Depp instigated when he and Thompson unearthed an unpublished manuscript from the late gonzo icon’s early years as a writer. Functioning as a companion piece — and a prequel, of sorts — to Terry Gilliam’s (screw the critics) classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary explores Thompson (via his proxy, journalist Paul Kemp) in his formative period as a journalist, as he begins to find his authorial voice in a haze of barmy booziness.

We sat down with Robinson to talk about the challenge of bringing Thompson’s novel to the screen, the weirdness of being back in Hollywood, and how Depp — who previously tried to bait Robinson to direct Fear and Loathing — finally lured him into taking on this job. But first, kick back with some lighter fluid and enjoy Robinson’s five favorite films.

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925; 100% Tomatometer)


The first one is The Gold Rush, by Charlie Chaplin. It’s the apogee of his genius. I saw that film when I was 11 or 12 years old in a cinema in Ramsgate, Kensington, and there were three people in there with me. Nothing has ever made me laugh as much as that. I remember, literally — in those days they used to have a velvet kind of cover over the balcony — and I remember hanging over and laughing at the sheer f–king brilliance of the comedy in that film. The one I saw was just black-and-white, too; this was before Chaplin put a voice-over on it, which I don’t enjoy — I don’t think it serves the film well. There are certain things in there, you know — around cooking and survival and stuff — that kind of are in my soul now, as someone who tries to tell stories too.

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Seca, 1948; 96% Tomatometer)



The second one is Bicycle Thieves, by De Sica. That was the most moving film I’ve ever seen. The scene in there where the dad has lost his bicycle and he takes his kid out for a pizza in 1948 Rome, and the kid is eating it but he’s not ’cause he can’t afford to pay for it, is one of the all-time most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a cinema. It’s an amazing film.

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960; 99% Tomatometer)



The third is Psycho. The reason that Psycho is the most extraordinary film to me is the mood in that movie and the fact — and it’s kind of a cliché to say it — that we’re following this woman’s story and suddenly it’s ruptured and she’s dead: What the f–k have we got left? I don’t know a moodier or better kind of horror film. It’s the darkest movie ever made, for me. It’s quite remarkable.

Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975; 97% Tomatometer)



The fourth one, which is kind of a weird one, is Dog Day Afternoon. Because of Al Pacino’s performance. He has a line in there — maybe it’s his line, maybe it’s the screenwriter’s line — he says “Kiss me, kiss me,” to the cops, “I liked to be kissed when I’m getting f–ked.” It’s one of the all-time great lines in cinema.

All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976; 100% Tomatometer)



All the President’s Men, because of my hero, William Goldman, who wrote that film. Here we’re sitting in the dark watching a movie and we all know what the denouement is — we all know how this film’s going to end up; they’re going to bust Nixon’s ass — and yet we’re on the edge of our seats all the way through that movie. Of course, it’s Pakula’s fantastic direction and these fabulous actors at the height of their career — Hoffman and Redford — but primarily it’s William Goldman, who managed to write a film where we all know what’s gonna happen, and yet we’re compelled to watch this process. Imagine if, in Psycho, the title sequence was Perkins putting on his wig and robe, so we all know it’s him — that’s the problem Goldman had to deal with. We all knew it was Nixon. And yet he managed to pull it off. Blew me away, that film. The performances, and the writing… who was that actor who played the editor? Jason Robards. He tells them to go after it. I wish the press would behave like that today, you know: “Go after these f–kwits, and nail them.”

Next, we have a wide-ranging chat with Robinson about The Rum Diary, adapting Thompson’s book, his return to directing and working with star-producer Depp.

 

Bruce Robinson: Would you like a beer?

RT: I would but this could get swiftly out of hand. But please, by all means enjoy yourself.

Well I will. And I don’t care if they f–king carry me down [to the press conference], frankly. I’m so jet-lagged. It’s such a weird process [doing interviews] but I know you’ve gotta do it. It’s just, you know, if someone asks you to describe your movie you only know so many things, and I’m gonna start speaking Korean very soon to explain this movie. [Laughs.]

Fair enough. [Laughs] You talked about your love for All the President’s Men and those journalists going after the “bastards” — was that a theme that drove you in writing and shooting The Rum Diary?

Well, not entirely. When Hunter wrote The Rum Diary he had no idea he was going to become “Hunter Thompson” and gonzo and all the rest of the stuff, but subsequent to that one’s able to read all of Hunter’s stuff and the way he did go after them. He was a rageful man. He didn’t use bullets, he used words, which is a fantastic thing to be able to do — and he had the talent to do it. So there’s a line at the back of the film where Johnny has essentially found his voice, and he says, “I make a promise to the reader… I’m going after them, and it’ll be a voice made of ink and rage.” And when he loses, which he does at the end of the film — they f–k him up — he says “I smell ink.” That, to me, was something to do with Hunter, in the best way I could do it, anyway, with all faults.

Hunter and Johnny apparently took delight in hauling you out of retirement. So once they’d gotten you to write the script, how did they lure you into the director’s chair? Was Hunter still alive at this point — did you meet him?

I met him once around 20 years ago, and we didn’t have anything to say to each other.

Why was that?

I don’t know. I went into the [Chateau] Marmont hotel and he was there and we sat in a room, like you and me, for two hours and we never said a word to each other. He had a wet towel on his head.

Were you daunted?

Pretty much. I was a fan and he was an icon. He had all of his equipment — the coke, the grass, the Chivas Regal, the smokes and stuff. And anyway, I sat there for two hours, as close as I am to you, and we never said a word to each other. And then I said, “Okay Hunter, I’m off.” “Okay.” And I left. So that was the end of that. But Johnny has told me that Hunter was a big fan of Withnail & I and he liked watching that, which is the reason that he and Johnny chose me as the writer for this film. I don’t write like Hunter but I do write in the same kind of vernacular, you know, no jokes, but hopefully comedic rage — which is one of my motors, ’cause I’m f–king angry about so many things but I like comedy. That was the reason Johnny said, “Will you write it?” I wrote it, and then he said, to my astonishment, “Will you direct it?” My answer was “No.” And then he sort of went after me. [Laughs]

Because at the time you were still very—

Tender.

And Johnny had been after you to do Fear and Loathing before that.

That’s right. I said “No.” It was in the Sunset Marquee Hotel. He said, “You’re gonna direct this.” “No, I’m f–king not!” And I didn’t, and wouldn’t, and couldn’t.

Are you glad you didn’t make it?

It would have been a very different film if I had done it. It would have been a very different film. Terry Gilliam is someone I admire tremendously, but I wouldn’t have done it like that. I’d have made it much dirtier and wouldn’t have tried to make it look like a Ralph Steadman. Terry made a great film, you know, and people love Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But there wasn’t enough time, when Johnny was talking to me there wasn’t enough time for me to have a look at the script. I can only do what I can do.

How did Johnny sell you on directing The Rum Diary?

He bullied the sh-t out of me. [Laughs] He bullied me, and he also wooed me. He bullied me in the sweetest imaginable way, and he bullied me with really good quality wine. And finally I just thought, well here’s the world’s number one film star, if he wants to take that kind of risk he can have who he wants. If he wants that kind of risk, f–k it — I’m 65-years-old, you know, I don’t give a f–k. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

Did you enjoy returning to directing?

I loved it.

Because it was the right environment?

Because of him [Depp]. He’s a very powerful figure in this industry, and if Johnny is looking after you — if Johnny is saying, “Hey, stay off — he’s alright” — then you’re in the most protected and prestigious position you can be in as a film director, because you’ve got this major f–king star looking after you. If it hadn’t worked out very well, god knows it might have been a f–king bloodbath. [Laughs]

 

Are you happy with how the film turned out?

Have you seen it?

I have. I’m a fan of the book and I was unsure going in to it — the trailer gives it an uneasy sense of it being a “wacky” sort of bender.

Which it isn’t. It’s a serious film.

It must have been a hard book to adapt, especially streamlining Hunter’s characters as you did.

Yeah, we had to do that. We had to throw Yeamon overboard, because there were two leads in [the novel]. So I made a couple of changes. Johnny’s the reason the film’s being made, and you can’t have two people playing Hunter S. Thompson — and Hunter cut himself into two characters [Kemp and Yeamon, in the novel]. Did we want two Hunters for the film? No. And I shifted the girl [Chenault, played by Amber Heard] from Yeamon, who’s gone, onto Sanderson [Aaron Eckhart], which ups the dramatic ante of the film I think. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s funny. There are some very funny sequences.

It’s funny, but not in a way that the trailer leads you to expect it to be funny. It’s comedy that evolves not from jokes but from—

From the environment.

Right. I mean, Giovanni Ribisi was just in that world.

He’s fantastic. Giovanni was taking — in a sense we all were — incredible risks, ’cause he was right on the edge.

There seems to be a hint of Withnail in his performance.

Quite strongly, actually. I remember saying to [actor] Ralph Brown when we did Withnail — I knew this hairdresser, who was a hairdresser of a girlfriend that I was living with, and [affects Brown’s dopey geezer drawl] “she used to talk like that” and she’d say to me, “Do you understand? Do yoooooooou? ” She was the thickest f–king idiot I’ve ever met. When Ralph came along to play Danny the Dealer, I only said it to him once, that “Do you understand, maaaaan? Is it cool with you?” and he picked up on that instantly. It was the same with Giovanni. He’s kind of like that, you know — he got it, and made it his own.

Did you and Johnny discuss how Hunter’s “Paul Kemp” voice, or lack thereof, would evolve into hints of his “Raoul Duke” persona over the course of the film?

Well, I mean Johnny kind of did it organically, in that the only time he starts kind of getting into a Hunter voice is… I needed a catharsis in the film, so I cooked up that f–king acid scene, to say this was five, six years of Hunter coming through that religious lobster that was [saying] “god, now I’ve found the voice!” Of course it isn’t the f–king lobster talking, it’s Johnny/Hunter talking — when he talks about god and “Does the world belong to no one but you?” And then Johnny spontaneously, because he’s a f–king amazing actor, puts it into the typewriter: “I make a promise to the reader.” And if you see his fingers — in Fear and Loathing he’s typing like this [gesticulates with exaggerated fingers], which is insane, but nevertheless it’s a caricature — but here he kind of [moves fingers somewhat less wildly]. “I make a promise to the reader, it will be a voice made of ink and rage,” and Hunter’s starting to come out of his mouth. I thought it was f–king magic when he was doing that. That’s nothing to do with me, that’s him.

I don’t think it’s remarked upon enough, but Johnny Depp is one of the great finger actors of all time.

I know. I was constantly trying to shut that down. [Laughs]

You had to curb those fingers?

Only a tiny bit. I wanted him to be still and keep the faith of his power on screen. Why is he a film star? He sticks to the celluloid like f–king glue, Johnny Depp. You could stay there for 10 minutes, you know, just on his face, and people would watch it. We had this running joke and he actually used it in that Pirates film. I work in the middle of nowhere in England, this 16th-century house, and I came out of my writing room one night at about midnight when my family were away; and as I came out of the door I saw this huge black boot come down on the top step, and I went like that [flails hands in front of him], running up and down — I thought it was Jack the Ripper. I’m writing a book on Jack the Ripper, have been for 10 years. And I did that and it really amused Johnny, so he used it in Pirates. But there are a couple in [The Rum Diary]; he does one or two of those.

It does conjure that sense of what his “Hunter” would become.

Yeah. He moves through that film. I wanted him to become more… he becomes an active motor drive of the narrative in the third act, but he’s [initially] an observer in this film; I mean you get that, when you’re watching it. He’s observing this weird f–king life that he?s slowly becoming absorbed into. And that’s quite a tender thing; slowly making him into the power. “I smell ink,” he says. [Pauses] Am I talking bullsh-t?

No, of course not. You feel that he’s taking it all in.

And he becomes the power at the end of the film. When he says it’ll be a voice of ink and rage, he says you’ll smell it: “It’ll be the smell of bastards and the smell of truth.” For me, and for Johnny, there Hunter Thompson was now born.


The Rum Diary is in theaters this week.

Tag Cloud

mutant superhero TV Land movie NBA Cartoon Network X-Men SDCC slashers indie RT21 Rocky high school PlayStation blockbusters Wes Anderson satire streaming movies sequels IFC Films Mystery talk show best wonder woman Polls and Games hidden camera mockumentary revenge Film Festival Starz space See It Skip It halloween tv 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards FOX Opinion superman Binge Guide USA Network kong classics BBC transformers halloween LGBTQ Captain marvel Marathons Cannes biography TV One New York Comic Con crime thriller Disney streaming service independent hollywood Rocketman MSNBC women CW Seed Biopics Best and Worst Women's History Month black 1990s telelvision Quiz CMT basketball sag awards El Rey Peacock parents zombie cartoon Ellie Kemper Showtime Super Bowl trailers new star wars movies spy thriller award winner TCA Winter 2020 heist movie 24 frames suspense saw PaleyFest concert First Reviews james bond zombies nfl toy story boxoffice cancelled TV shows Interview Teen documentaries political drama Set visit Universal Sundance DC Universe technology Schedule fresh 2021 canceled jamie lee curtis cancelled TV series japan crossover Fall TV italian elevated horror lord of the rings streaming football Reality cancelled Amazon Studios Comedy adaptation comedies Music Baby Yoda DirecTV video VH1 Awards Tour First Look Adult Swim Toys Watching Series Musical nbcuniversal foreign 2020 adenture Winners scary movies NBC films TV movies YouTube Red thriller Box Office finale TLC police drama boxing ViacomCBS reviews hist Emmys new york HBO nature Television Academy Academy Awards Lifetime Christmas movies aapi obituary Ghostbusters Marvel Studios rom-coms LGBT Warner Bros. justice league laika movies universal monsters sitcom discovery Legendary MTV ratings doctor who rt archives archives Star Wars indiana jones ABC Signature Marvel Television Netflix Christmas movies Disney Plus Britbox Tomatazos dramedy Sundance Now FX on Hulu know your critic The Walking Dead Acorn TV Holidays fast and furious Masterpiece Ovation Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Disney+ Disney Plus Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Action Pride Month Walt Disney Pictures australia DC streaming service Photos free movies razzies Horror casting romance joker venice OneApp Chernobyl YouTube Stephen King twilight screenings Valentine's Day BBC One Holiday cars Black Mirror Classic Film 21st Century Fox name the review Extras documentary ABC Family strong female leads 2018 theme song canceled TV shows series video on demand Mary Tyler Moore Spring TV dogs what to watch rotten movies we love Bravo FXX TruTV Disney Channel PBS Hallmark cancelled television A24 die hard Logo Food Network Amazon Prime Mudbound anime Vudu HBO Go latino Animation Hallmark Christmas movies stop motion Superheroes olympics sequel Anna Paquin cults dark richard e. Grant APB The Academy werewolf Pirates Trivia Travel Channel spain critics criterion ghosts green book TV franchise Mary Poppins Returns TBS Musicals TIFF Television Critics Association 4/20 cinemax worst Trailer crime drama Thanksgiving ABC ITV disaster Apple SundanceTV IFC Fox Searchlight golden globe awards Emmy Nominations animated Creative Arts Emmys sports Nominations adventure unscripted RT History Heroines toronto kaiju The Arrangement teaser blockbuster Exclusive Video Esquire medical drama robots book Spectrum Originals Fantasy The CW Reality Competition Sci-Fi Song of Ice and Fire festivals Year in Review scene in color National Geographic worst movies Tarantino period drama TCA international 007 anthology Shudder Comic-Con@Home 2021 Sneak Peek YA Grammys blaxploitation Summer OWN VOD Pacific Islander stand-up comedy Freeform Tumblr rotten WGN Pet Sematary Elton John DC Comics Avengers children's TV TCM VICE Nickelodeon french 93rd Oscars Character Guide Amazon Certified Fresh live action 90s TCA 2017 ID The Purge History dragons Writers Guild of America Election Crackle FX Image Comics based on movie dceu popular quibi japanese Turner comiccon Christmas Epix war Endgame GIFs Hulu 71st Emmy Awards TNT Comic Book 45 child's play Hear Us Out a nightmare on elm street Columbia Pictures CNN 99% Star Trek directors Netflix target Lifetime Western south america The Walt Disney Company E3 Arrowverse BET Comics on TV E! science fiction game show travel monster movies deadpool screen actors guild vampires Drama Cosplay Black History Month new zealand Superheroe MCU politics Sundance TV tv talk Amazon Prime Video aliens Tokyo Olympics GoT HBO Max NYCC 20th Century Fox TCA Awards Video Games composers zero dark thirty chucky game of thrones Premiere Dates Turner Classic Movies Nat Geo social media king arthur Apple TV+ 2015 Pop book adaptation Winter TV Country Paramount Network remakes breaking bad cats spider-man CBS All Access supernatural Sony Pictures spanish language BBC America stoner Podcast 72 Emmy Awards serial killer binge Tubi christmas movies harry potter cops Marvel Awards spinoff kids pirates of the caribbean docudrama golden globes Pixar Martial Arts spanish Mindy Kaling Apple TV Plus docuseries Brie Larson Fox News legend Infographic king kong Comedy Central Disney singing competition ESPN Trophy Talk GLAAD psychological thriller marvel cinematic universe TV renewals dc true crime crime 2016 The Witch Red Carpet President mission: impossible SXSW San Diego Comic-Con reboot Discovery Channel comic witnail jurassic park Lucasfilm 2019 A&E news godzilla psycho Film WarnerMedia AMC miniseries television renewed TV shows Family hispanic American Society of Cinematographers Calendar cooking scorecard Rom-Com 2017 asian-american Lionsgate Dark Horse Comics Pop TV historical drama Countdown Spike emmy awards festival batman DGA Kids & Family versus Broadway USA facebook Alien Crunchyroll Shondaland YouTube Premium comic books Rock prank diversity Paramount Plus Syfy Oscars BAFTA romantic comedy Funimation BET Awards CBS comics Paramount all-time natural history Mary poppins