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

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