RT Interview: Director Alex Gibney on Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

The helmer on piecing together a crazy life.

by | December 19, 2008 | Comments

Documentarian Alex Gibney, whose last film Taxi to the Dark Side was an Oscar winner about US army torture practices in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, returns to screens this week with a new feature about the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson. The noted but controversial journalist, who pioneered the Gonzo movement, died in 2005. He wrote the book that became the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the movie’s star, Johnny Depp, narrates passages from Thompson’s writing in the documentary. RT caught up with Gibney to learn more about the movie.

Was there any hesitation from you about trying to explore the mind of a guy like this?

Alex Gibney: Not really. One of the things I thought I could do that hadn’t been done — or at least hadn’t been done in a long time — is explore the work. That’s why I put Hunter at the center — he narrates the film himself. We put together a number of his words so that they would form a kind of narrative. That was important because he was this wild and crazy guy who was a drug-taking action hero, but I think we wouldn’t really care about him unless he’d been a really great writer.

How much did you know of him beforehand? Did you have a chance to meet him?

AG: I never met Hunter but I certainly knew of him and knew a lot of people who knew him. And I certainly knew the legend. What’s that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance? “When you have the truth and the legend, print the legend.” I had fun printing the truth and the legend, I think. I came from the outside so I had an advantage in some ways. I wasn’t allied with anybody, or part of any clique, so I could come in and ask a lot of questions and just say, “Tell me about him.” I found out a lot of stuff that I didn’t know.

Gonzo

Is that part of the joy of being a documentarian; that you have the opportunity to explore?

AG: Yeah, you get paid to learn — how good is that? I feel lucky in that sense — you wade into someone’s life and you get to learn a lot of stuff that you didn’t know before; that’s exciting. There’s something wonderful about the contradictions of everyday life that’s impossible to resist. I started out as a fiction filmmaker and may do some fiction films yet in the future, but I also see a lot of fiction films which look beautiful but seem dead. They don’t have that weird, quirky vitality that the best documentaries have. There’s something about that which I really like.

Do you ever worry that you won’t be able to come out of the other side though? That the story you’re discovering doesn’t have an end?

AG: I do, I always worry about structure and the end point. I haven’t a clue what the structure is going to be when I go in and it’s a terrible feeling. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over time it’s that it will come. I think there’s always enough interesting about almost any subject that if you get stuck you can just take a turn into a different direction. There’s always something there, it just takes time to find it and then come back and structure it in a way so that it becomes a story. Even though I love documentaries, there are a lot whose structure is just too aimless for me — I like to construct documentaries in the cutting room so that they feel like movies and they have that sense of momentum.

Presumably you can be a little less conventional when you’re working on a documentary about someone like Hunter.

AG: I think the whole life of Hunter S. Thompson, and his art, is “don’t be afraid to mess around.” Gonzo journalism is gonzo. The name comes from a Hammond organ tune from James Booker and it’s just got a weird, funky vibe that’s wacky. You never know quite what to expect from the song. That’s the way Hunter’s writing was and that’s what I hope comes across in the film, too.

Gonzo

As familiar as Fear and Loathing is, the film is the most interesting when it’s sharing the lesser known details of Hunter’s life.

AG: Right, it was fun to really dig at the stuff that I didn’t know much about. The letters are fantastic and we included some bits and pieces from manuscripts that are yet to be published, including a full book he wrote on the NRA. In the book, Hunter ends up being too intense for the National Rifle Association. He terrified them because he walked into the offices with a gun and started shooting things and they were like, “No! Anything but guns!”

What surprised you most about him?

AG: I think what surprised me most was learning from people who knew him that he had very high highs and very low lows. He had a manic side but he also had a cruel and vicious side. That’s, I think, one of the reasons he was so good at championing and chronicling the American character, which is so deeply contradictory between this great sense of idealism and possibility and this dark, brooding violent streak — what Hunter called fear and loathing. That was interesting to me, there was something in his personality that may have allowed him to channel the larger character of the American character.

Tag Cloud

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